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

A lot of people I know who know movies--or say they know movies--have said they don't know the work of David Thomson. And a lot of those who didn't know his work until I introduced them to it have said they think he's the best writer about movies they know. So assuming that a lot of you may not know of Thomson, I'll introduce you to him.

For starters, just think of David Thomson as the star of Movie Man--his 1967 volume, now out of print but well worth finding wherever you can. Published in the year that Hollywood movies such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were just beginning to reflect the coming cultural revolution, Movie Man begins by suggesting that, like "Renaissance Man," the titular term refers to one who plays a variety of roles--one who has "so assimilated the methods and effects of moving film that they are determining his understanding of the present and his discovery of the future."

Are we not all Movie Men by now? Nearly two dozen years after a movie star-turned-president seemed to recast the entire world in Hollywood's black-and-white terms, Thomson published The Whole Equation (Knopf), a prismatic view of movies as culture and politics and history. Alluding to the period when Ronald Reagan appropriated the name of a George Lucas blockbuster for his new strategic defense initiative, Thomson writes: "There were forces in America, business and political, that felt the danger of too many open, critical movies. We have not yet reversed that trend."

On the eve of War of the Worlds, which the Movie Man thought somewhat capable of reflecting our wars at home and abroad, I talked to the London-born Thomson by phone from his longtime home in San Francisco. The subject of our one-hour conversation was whether what seems to a lot of Movie Men like the End of Hollywood is...not the end of the world.

City Pages:Any summer movies you're looking forward to seeing?

 

David Thomson: Well, there's nothing that makes me wildly excited. But I am interested in seeing Spielberg's [War of the Worlds]. It's a story that has a lot of resonance in film history. My feelings about Spielberg are mixed, but I do have a lot of admiration for him. Sometimes he can be terrific. There's not a great deal else that fills me with wonder. But I'm sure there will be one or two films that are better than they seem.

 

CP:Our lack of enthusiasm is hardly surprising, is it?

 

Thomson: Well, no. I mean, I think what we're talking about here is a much bigger, much sadder problem, which is that the mainstream of American movies has been terribly disappointing in recent years. The question that faces anyone who loves the medium is whether this is a cyclical thing--a passing dip, so to speak--or whether there might be something much more worrying. I notice that the business itself is beginning to get quite anxious about declining attendance: There has been a big drop-off [in ticket sales] this year. And God knows how much bigger it would have been but for the final Star Wars film. If we didn't have that film--which I think gives a sort of artificial boost to the figures--the first six months of this year would be pretty gloomy. There's a lot of evidence to suggest two things--which could, in fact, be working [in tandem]: that films don't mean as much to audiences anymore, and that they don't mean as much to filmmakers anymore, either.

 

CP:Is there a potential bright side to that gloom? Might the decline in attendance be a sign that we as audiences are finally voting with our pocketbooks against the kind of dismal product that's being put in front of us?

 

Thomson: Undoubtedly, yeah. Take a concrete example: While a lot of people think that Revenge of the Sith is a quite distinct improvement on [the two previous Star Wars episodes], it's still not very good. It has been going on for too long that these films--which we know are costing the earth, and which we're having to pay a portion of the earth to see--get hyped and reviewed and talked about and yet we know they're not very good. You talk to people time and again and you find that they're coming away from movies disappointed. Now, there are a lot of good things to come out of that. People are spending more time looking at old movies on DVD--and I think that's good because it leads to a sense of the wonders in our [film] library. On the other hand, the more you acquaint yourself with older films, the more shocking the decline appears.

 

CP:It stands to reason that some filmmakers would benefit from the decline of Hollywood, doesn't it?

 

Thomson: I think [the decline] has certainly helped independent film. And I hope that sooner or later it will produce a revival of interest in foreign language films. Because there was a time in this country when there was a much bigger and more enthusiastic audience for subtitled films. So yeah--there are certainly compensating factors. But the thing that upsets me is that I retain a belief in and a hope for the films that are made for everybody: the big films that are also good films. And I do think that we are showing a lot of signs of losing the knack of how to make them.

 

 

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ART

CP:Back to Spielberg for a moment. His last few summer movies--A.I. andMinority Report andThe Terminal--have been somewhat more overt in addressing what we might call the "real world." I know your feelings about Spielberg are mixed. But do you think there's something at least ironic in the story of a guy who invents the summer blockbuster as a thrill machine withJaws and then, around 9/11, reinvents it as a less successful alternative to what his own work has spawned?

 

Thomson: Sure. And I would also say that I do have some faith in Spielberg--in the possibility that there's still a brain in him that's thinking about all these things, that's prepared to see the truth and to do something different and new. I like The Terminal--much more than a lot of people do. I think it's a very interesting and affecting picture--with its use of the airport as a great metaphor. And I agree with you that in a lot of ways it was trying to address the sort of changed state of being that we find ourselves in. Whereas with [George] Lucas, it's as if he has gone away: The part of him that once made some very entertaining films is no longer to be found. I could conceive that War of the Worlds might be a very good film--even though it's certainly possible that [its star] Tom Cruise will have influenced it in profound ways. I think that if Spielberg had been in charge of...oh, God, what was it called? The weather film?

 

CP: The Day After Tomorrow?

 

Thomson:The Day After Tomorrow. I think that would have been a better film if it had been directed by Spielberg. I think that film had great potential, too. Because it's dealing with something that we know is not just a game anymore.

 

CP:InThe Whole Equation, apropos of the blacklist, you say: "By 1947, the history of Hollywood cannot be judged properly without considering the malaise of the United States itself." Couldn't the same be said of 2005?

 

Thomson: Oh, you bet [laughs]. As I was writing The Whole Equation, I came to believe that the brightest days of the movies coincide with a moment where a rather naive but very energetic and well intentioned, idealistic country had its finest hour. The history of movies is so short that we're not accustomed to relating the films to the world around them--in the way that perhaps we are with buildings. We can look at architecture now and see how history was changing. But I think there may be just the same kind of relationship between changing times and the expression of popular culture. And this, I think, is a time of mounting dismay and disappointment for America. It's certainly not the case that everybody in the country feels the dismay. But I think that people who are conscious of American history and understand what the country is about--which is a hell of a lot of people, by the way--are increasingly disturbed by the things America is doing, by the specious justifications for them, and by the degree to which a large part of the population is buying those justifications.

 

CP:Movies used to play a key role in the national conversation--but not so much anymore. Could we at least identify some of the forces that are preventing what we'd call acritical cinema from existing now where it used to exist in the late '60s and early '70s--roughly the period between, say,Bonnie and Clyde in '67 andChinatown in '74? You'd say that's a golden age of Hollywood, wouldn't you?

 

Thomson: Very much so, yeah.

 

CP:Those were tumultuous times, obviously--and they gave rise to a lot of great American films. You certainly don't want to have a bad political situation in order to have better movies, you know? But we have the bad political situation now and not, by and large, the better movies--not the movies that speak truth to that situation. Why not?

 

Thomson: Here's the example that works best for me: The burning issue in the early '70s was Watergate. The "system," if you will, had produced terrible flaws--and Nixon and the people around him were not the kind of people you could hope to see running a country. However, the country found ways within the system, within the constitution, to correct that problem. And that was a tremendous source of optimism. What I mean by critical conversation or critical discourse is that while you love your country, while you believe in your country, it is your duty to remain observant, watchful, critical of things that may go wrong--simply because that vigilance is the beginning of the corrective impulse.

 

CP:The films of that time, by and large, were nothing if not observant of the larger culture.

Thomson: Exactly. They were also tremendous entertainments--and you'd almost have to be an idiot not to see the deeper meaning. It needs to be said that these were popular films--Chinatown, Shampoo, The Godfather, plenty of others I could name. These were not "limited audience" films. But they were made with the understanding that the audience was prepared, for example, to follow complicated plots--where you didn't have everything revealed to you straight away. The characters were complicated, too: The heroes were highly flawed; the villains were fascinating in that you could see how their wickedness grew out of the culture. These films said that living together is difficult, that "happily ever after" is something you have to work at every day. The endings were often dark--so that you walked out of the theater with an awful lot to think about. Why should intelligent people feel that they can only walk out of a theater happy-happy-happy?

 

 

WHERE THE "B"S ARE

CP:You're not saying that all popular movies need to be despairing in order to be good, are you?

 

Thomson: Oh, no. I'm more than happy to see a dark, despairing film one week and to see an absolute farce the next. The trouble these days is that the kind of film we used to be proudest of--the film that met a general standard of seriousness, intelligence, and sociopolitical awareness--has been all but lost. And anyone in Hollywood today will tell you that. You take Chinatown to a studio today and they're probably not going to make it. And I know that people like [Jack] Nicholson and [Robert] Towne, who were the architects of that film, are as distressed by that fact as anyone.

 

CP:Should we blame Lucas and Spielberg? Should we blame ourselves?

 

Thomson: What we've allowed to happen is the domination of the market by audiences of a certain age range. It's certainly true that Lucas and Spielberg together helped bring that younger audience into being. Now that audience determines not just most of the films that are made, but their general nature, their tone. I do think that a lot of people my age--I'm 64--have given up on the movies. The truth is that television, if you pick and choose, is a lot more grown-up and satisfying these days: HBO, for instance.

 

CP:If series television is addressing the important subject matter more directly than studio movies, is that because TV isn't yet designed, like movies, to reach a global audience? Certainly the movies of that '60s and '70s golden age weren't being engineered to reach literally everyone on the planet.

 

Thomson: I think you're right. With the inevitable breakdown of network monopoly in television, with the coming of cable and the huge explosion in the number of channels, it became inevitable that at least some of those channels would make do with a modest audience. Executives at those networks would say, "We don't have to reach everybody. We can do some things that we know are going to be offensive or difficult for some people, and we don't mind if we get a reputation for it." A very interesting example, I think, is the show 24. Now, 24 has had its ups and downs in my opinion: I think that's inevitable when you're working as fast as you are in television. But it has also been a pretty smart thriller that has really thrilled; it has hooked people. And as a viewer, you've had to work hard with it: The show doesn't make concessions to those who haven't seen the past episodes. It's shot in a way that's a great deal more interesting than the way most movies are shot today.

 

CP:Yes.

 

Thomson: And early in the second season, something quite special happened: Without any announcement of it, 24 started representing torture situations--almost taking them for granted, as if to say, "Well, come on, we all know that after 9/11--and maybe before 9/11--these things happen. Whether they should happen is an interesting argument--but they're happening and here it is." And this was way in advance of what we have begun to discover about our prisons overseas. Here was a popular series that was breaking ground in an absolutely fascinating way--showing not only the very dark reality of torture, but showing the hero of the series as responsible for it. I think that's exactly the kind of thing our movies should be doing [laughs].

 

CP:Hollywood dramas of the Vietnam era were brutal.

 

Thomson: I would love to think that someone has got a movie set in Guantánamo at the moment. Because, my God, that must be a hellhole--and also a place where so many American ideas and ideals come into conflict. But I don't think that film is going to get made. And I don't think it's because there's direct censorship involved; I think it's because the business simply says we daren't do that. Well, what the hell tells them they daren't do that? It's their own greed and it's their own cowardice.

 

CP:It seems odd that something like24 is allowed to exist at all, much less on the Fox network. Even by big media standards, Fox has a political identity that would seem to run counter to this kind of social criticism.

 

Thomson: Yes, except I think that Rupert Murdoch is probably very much like the old movie tycoons who would've said, "Well, if it makes money, it's okay." I mean, there's a lot of political stuff on the Fox network that I find either silly or offensive. But you've got to give them credit for 24. And I think the fundamental reason why the producers of that show got away with it is that the show found an audience. If you find an audience, you can generally do anything you can think of.

 

CP:So even though the downfall of American movies can be traced to the rise of corporations, the problem isn't principally one of corporate control?

 

Thomson: I don't think it is. If you look at television, you see that it has some advantages over film--in that television production is ridiculously fast compared with movies. And if you've got a hit show, you really do turn it over to the people responsible--the writers, the directors, the producers, the actors. And their ingenuity has a kind of freedom that I think once existed in B pictures. A producer in the '40s and '50s would've said to an Edgar Ulmer [Detour] or someone directing a B picture, "Well, look, if you can do it in 12 days for $120,000, go do it." And that operation wouldn't have gotten nearly as much scrutiny or interference as a big picture. The idea was that a B picture is a thing unto its own, a race against time that requires a terrific degree of expertise and inventiveness--so it's better to just let the guys do it.

 

CP:The most interesting "B movies" now go straight to video and TV, while Hollywood makes only "A pictures" with B content--or C content. It used to be that the summer blockbuster epitomized Hollywood and now that season has stretched to 12 months.

 

Thomson: The "A movies" are childish in content. A lot of the best writers these days are drawn to television rather than to the movies. Because if you write for the movies, you are, more than ever, in this dreadful committee structure where you get rewritten and rewritten and rewritten. Certainly there are corporate structures in television. But the volume of production is the distinguishing factor. Television has to produce a great deal just to fill the air, whereas the movies are always going for the smash hit. There was a time when the studios were very happy with a film if it made a modest profit. Now no one ever dreams of making a modest profit. They may end up making a loss, but what they're aiming at is a huge profit. It's a version of gambling, in other words.

 

CP:And it's not unique to Hollywood, either.

 

Thomson: It's there all through the culture.

 

 

CONTROL ROOMS

CP:Are there other exceptions to the rule? Do you hold faith in the rise of documentary cinema?

 

Thomson: Documentary, at the moment, is more fashionable than it is deeply understood. I don't think there's a strong documentary tradition in this country; I think we tend to measure our documentaries by the gimmickry of the subject. I think the interest is just part of the notion that real life is stranger than fiction. But I still think it's a good thing that people are spending more time watching documentaries. And while the recent documentaries have been highly variable in quality, I'd still rather go and watch documentaries than any of the fiction films playing.

 

CP:How about fiction? Anything stand out in the last few years?

 

Thomson: The last few years? I think it's grim.

 

CP:Is [Michael Mann's]Collateral a film you find interesting?

 

Thomson: Not nearly as interesting as [his film] Heat. I think Collateral is pretty artificial. But Mann is a real figure--a talent. I certainly look at his films with interest. I thought Collateral was almost a remake of Heat without all the supporting characters that made it rather like an Altman film. Collateral tends to just home in on the central characters, and it's extremely farfetched and fanciful. But Mann shoots things beautifully: He shoots Los Angeles at night as well as it has ever been done. I don't know that there are too many narrative films recently that I think were important. I think Mulholland Dr. was a nearly great film. That's more than a few years ago, though.

 

CP:David Lynch and Michael Mann have a certain celebrity attached to them as auteurs; they've been able to retain artistic control relative to producers and studio executives.

Thomson: Absolutely. Whereas for instance--and we may differ on this--it seems to me that [Martin] Scorsese has forsaken a great deal of his authorial independence. It seems to me that he now makes films that are almost pastiche Scorsese films--not films that have the originality that his films once had. I think he was a great director at one time. But I think there has been a decline since Raging Bull. Altman can still do it, you know? And maybe one or two others. But not very many. There aren't that many directors anymore who have a personal style.

 

CP:Fans of some younger directors--Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson--would say that their styles are personal.

 

Thomson: I like Paul Thomas Anderson very much. I have great hope for him. I like Magnolia very much.

 

CP:What about David Fincher?

 

Thomson: Fincher, too, could be great. I think he's a very cold director; something has to happen there, I think. But he's certainly interesting. I'm not trying to say that we don't have talent around. We do have some talent. But last year there were some very disappointing films from some of these younger directors. Like I*Huckabees, I thought, was a forlorn picture from someone I'd had high hopes for.

 

CP:Forlorn?

 

Thomson: Yeah. And I think what's happened with [Steven] Soderbergh is pretty distressing. The danger is when these young talents come along and make a breakthrough on their own, but then buy into the system--or get co-opted into the system.

 

CP:How do we define that system? I'm thinking of Pauline Kael's article from the summer of 1980 called "Why Are Movies So Bad?" It's always amazing to reread that piece: It was so prescient and spot-on about the downward trajectory of Hollywood--no doubt informed at least in part by [Kael's] brief experience as an executive at Paramount. Kael probably would have said in 1980 that things couldn't possibly get any worse for American movies--but of course they have, in just the ways she noticed then: Hollywood power being in the hands of people who are not only uncreative and basically unintelligent, but who seem to want to debase the medium--people who don't even like movies. Is that where we're at?

 

Thomson: I think it is. It has taken a long time for this to shake out, but I think it's the result of the studio system breaking down [in the '60s]. Back when a studio was making, say, 50 films a year, a lot of those films got made in a fairly routine way: They were vehicles for one star or another. And the hope was that they were being made by people who knew their job very well. Everybody said at the time, "Well, you've got to keep on schedule, keep on budget." But you look back at it now and you see that if people did [keep on budget], there was room for producing very interesting things. The trouble now in many ways is that every film is a one-off venture, made with intense examination, intense monetary ambition. Because there are a lot of people making every film now for whom it is the thing--the one thing they're doing--and it's got to be a huge success.

 

CP:It's counterintuitive to think that Hollywood was better off with more product to manage rather than less.

 

Thomson: In the old days of the studio system, people could say, "Well, it looks to me this year that A, B, and C are going to be the big movies. And we're obviously going to be taking a great deal of care with them. But S, T, and R--they can sort of look after themselves. And it's the S, T, and R's, if you know what I mean, that in hindsight stand up as the fascinating Hollywood films because they were not under such a microscope. Their makers were free to do interesting things: They changed the scripts, they put in more adventurous camera movements--things like that. I think that was a very healthy system.

 

 

FLICKERS OF HOPE

CP:Would you say that filmcriticism has followed a similar downward trajectory? Have critics been told, essentially, "Forget it, Jake--it's Hollywood"?

 

Thomson: Well, I think they have. Critics are as vain as anyone: They like to be read and they like to matter. I think critics these days feel that their say-so is pretty trivial. Because when films are opening in the way they open now, with this extraordinary surge of promotion, the reviews are pretty peripheral. I don't think many American films, apart from the real independent films, get a lift or [a slump] from reviews. And critics know that, they feel that. And they don't like to feel unimportant. Most of them can remember that age in the '60s and the '70s when people like Kael and [Andrew] Sarris and a few others really made the film critic quite an important figure in the culture. And I think that improved the writing. Because if you feel you're being read with interest by a lot of people, then it sharpens you.

 

CP:Certainly.

 

Thomson: And another thing--to go back to those films of the 1970s we were talking about earlier. Even if you were the kind of [critic] who didn't really write about films per se--if you just wrote about their stories, their ideas--there was a hell of a lot to write about! Really interesting things were happening [onscreen]. These days--with a few exceptions--that's just not the case. An awful lot of films are so trivial, so flimsy, that they really don't deserve reviewing: The studios can just run the ads--and that's where the papers are really making their money. Do we need to read a review of the new Longest Yard? I don't think so. And film critics feel that: They feel driven sometimes to be smart-asses, making jokes at the expense of the whole medium--because there's so little to be said about a lot of these films.

 

CP:What do you think can or should be the role of criticism in this polluted context?

 

Thomson: Well, I think it's a great moment for critics to talk about the medium as a whole rather than individual films. I think there's a lot going on in the world of screens--which is a much larger world than just movies per se and it's very interesting. I mean, at the moment I would almost rather review some video games than movies--not only because more people are looking at them and because my children are looking at them, which are good reasons, but because I think they're almost more interesting.

 

CP:They're interactive, at least. Most films these days don't really invite one's active participation.

 

Thomson: Well, yeah. As far as film writing is concerned, I think there's a lot of room for writing about ideas, current trends, about the business of movies. You notice there are more and more pieces in the New York Times about how Hollywood comes to its decisions. And those pieces are often more interesting than the films that emerge from the decisions. But I don't think you're going to get great film writing again until you have a feeling of enough people being intensely moved by some really great films. Now we're back to where we started [this conversation].

 

CP:In the sense that you wroteThe 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 oflove.

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 tolove, if you will--would seem to require some love in the larger culture. I'm thinking of that quote near the end ofThe Whole Equation where your wife wonders aloud when the movies are going to get back to beingforeplay: "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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