Hollywood's Phantom Menace

Thirty summers after Jaws attacked intelligent filmmaking, the question remains: Why are the movies so bad? A search for answers with David Thomson


CP: In the sense that you wrote The Whole Equation as a polemic, what impact do you hope for it to have? Political dissent now is seen as "unpatriotic" and so, in a way, is cinematic dissent: A critic finds fault with the hot new blockbuster and he gets eviscerated on the letters page--if not in editorial meetings. But I think a lot of critics, yourself included, are still talking tough about Hollywood out of love.

Thomson: That was exactly what I felt writing The Whole Equation. If you're asking what I would want, I would want people to come away from the book prepared to see the whole arc of the history of film--the hundred years, let's say, as a whole: to see directions, to have a better understanding of what has produced them, and to have a more interested sense of the relationship between the state of an audience and the state of a country. Because I think these two are related. I would hope it's a book that would send some people back--through DVD or whatever--to discover films and directors they've never come face to face with. That extraordinary period of filmmaking in the middle of the [20th] century obviously had a lot to do with the fact that there was an audience that wanted to have stories told to them--and told to them well. And that doesn't quite exist anymore. But maybe we're headed for hard times again: Hard times can often change the nature of the audience. Maybe we're headed for changes in the nature of the medium--electronic changes--and that could help. I'm pretty certain that what we call "movies" now is going to become something rather different.


CP: Finally, on the subject of love: Just as great film criticism requires great films, great films--films to love, if you will--would seem to require some love in the larger culture. I'm thinking of that quote near the end of The Whole Equation where your wife wonders aloud when the movies are going to get back to being foreplay: "When are today's movies going to regain that old habit they had, of getting us to the point of fucking?" It seems to me that if there's not much joy and love in the movies at present, it's because there's not much joy and love in the world.


Thomson: Isn't that the truth? I agree with you entirely. And I think that's exactly what [my wife] meant. For many of us, going to the movies was part of the whole romantic, growing up thing--a very important part of it. Going to movies taught you--maybe taught you ways of kissing and that kind of thing. But yeah: There was an excitement to it. Foreplay is exactly what it was. I don't know. I can't really believe that people have fallen out of love with sex. But there are some things out there that could lead you to believe that.

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