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Shining a light on imperfect (but highly enjoyable) films
Film critic David Thomson’s PFA series tackles ‘the art and awfulness’ of Hollywood

12 January 2005


David Thomson
David Thomson is a London-born film critic with an abiding fascination for American movies. His many books on the subject include The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts, and, most recently, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (Knopf). In the latter, Thomson tackles the entirety of American moviemaking, from its early days until the recent present. It is, by his own admission, less a proper history than an “informal, discursive” one — “both a celebration and a rueful realization of what those pictures have done to us.”

To celebrate the publication of The Whole Equation, the Pacific Film Archive invited Thomson to curate a series of films that reflect on Hollywood itself and the conflict there between making money and art. The series begins on Thursday, Jan. 13, with Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon (U.S., 1976) and concludes on Sunday, Jan. 30, with Michael Mann’s Heat (U.S., 1995). For full series information, visit www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/pfa_programs/hollywood/.

Thomson recently spoke with the Berkeleyan’s Wendy Edelstein about the upcoming PFA series, the evolution of film, and the future of the movie-going experience.

You’ve made clear that the films you’ve selected for “The Whole Equation” series are not your all-time favorites; rather, they shed a certain light on Hollywood and the business of filmmaking itself.

Several of them I like very much, but they are certainly not my all-time favorites. The Last Tycoon is not a great picture, but it is more interesting and valuable for me because it’s a portrait of a big movie studio in the golden age of Hollywood.

Others in the series are very good examples of what Hollywood did well: The Shop Around the Corner, Shanghai Express, Sullivan’s Travels, The Crowd, Sunrise. Even Eric von Stroheim’s Greed is a unique film in a way, an example of some of the glories achieved in silent cinema.

Can you talk about what you call “the war in Hollywood” that The Last Tycoon exemplifies?

The Last Tycoon is a model for the notion that film is [both] entertainment and art. The picture shows the factory system operating and a man who is really the creative head of the factory. He has two jobs that are not really in parallel: One is to turn out 50 films a year to keep the factory going, so that the studio has product to sell. In addition to that, he feels bound to make the films better than they might have been. Although it’s a factory, he wants every product to be unique. He becomes a surrogate filmmaker: He looks at the scripts, he looks at the cuts, and tries to improve them.

What is the significance of ending the series with Heat?

Heat is a puzzle. It asks a very big question: On the one hand, I think Heatis extraordinarily well- made. Michael Mann makes movies as well as anyone in America. Heat is very exciting in a plastic, sensual way, but on the other hand, I think it’s ridiculous. The basic premise that we live in a society where the cops and criminals are alike is nonsense. Anyone who has had their house broken into or has been robbed on the street knows what criminal violence is and that it’s loathsome. The danger here is that movies can be so compelling and entrancing that they can lead you to believe in things that you don’t believe and that are really not so.

You write that the impetus behind your new book is to explore “the whole equation,” or “the secret” behind how Hollywood pictures worked. You use the past tense here, even though you do include such recent films as Heat and Magnolia in the series. Do you feel great movies are a thing of the past?

Many people feel that the American movie has moved away from trying to reach the whole audience and is focusing on reaching a young audience. Some middle-aged and older people feel that Hollywood has let them down. I don’t know how fair that is. I think there are still good films being made. A film like Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby is a throwback and a film you could take anyone to. Lord of the Rings’ viewers spanned the generations. That said, it’s harder than perhaps it once was to make films with this kind of appeal.

Your new book includes a chapter titled “By a Nose” in which you discuss how we fall in love with certain actors and actresses — illustrated by your own inclination toward Nicole Kidman. It helped me understand why I’m willing to see Edward Norton or Cate Blanchett in just about anything.

Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times had a bit of fun at my expense, saying what a ridiculous crush the author has on Nicole Kidman. I think most people have gone to the movies because they like looking at certain people. It doesn’t mean you’re stalking Edward Norton and have plans to make him yours. You find him attractive or appealing. We’ve always gone to the movies to see attractive people.

Well, maybe Kakutani was having a bad day when she reviewed your book.

Being a critic is a tough job. I don’t think it’s natural to put yourself in a position to be a judge of things everyone makes up their own mind on. The longer you do it, the more overly seriously you take it. I think there’s a great danger of becoming shrill and over-intellectual about it and really believing you are right. You’ve got to know that in the end it’s not that important. Pleasure’s a little restricted these days. If someone comes up to me and says they liked a film I’ve loathed, I don’t like to get into it and spoil their pleasure.

What do you think is the charge of movies beyond making a profit? What are the essential ways that they can or should engage the audience?

I don’t think you can beat telling a story or getting people hooked so they want to see what happens next. A lot of films have given up on telling stories. I love story. I love character. I like to see people I find interesting and complicated, and have trouble making up my mind about them. I like to be moved, not just in a sentimental way. I like to see people where their response to a situation is plausible and thoughtful.

There’s a tendency [today] to show more special effects, to show more and more things you wouldn’t see in real life. I think the human face changing its mind is about as special a thing as you can see. Film has enough in common with theater or drama and literature to hold onto a lot of the virtues of character development, narrative unfolding, and dramatic payoff. I know film is another medium, and I’m very responsive to it, but it doesn’t mean it’s not often telling a story. And when it tries to tell a story, I think it should tell the story as well as it can.”

A couple of times in The Whole Equation you mention that in 1947 the U.S. population was 150 million and American movie theaters sold 100 million tickets per week. With today’s population of about 300 million, just 25 million movie tickets are sold.

The battle of screen size has been fought and lost. The business that films do as DVDs is already in many cases greater than what they do in theaters. It’s not going to be too long before theater closures occur on a bigger scale. In return we’ll perhaps be able to watch at home on a bigger screen or a higher-quality screen.

I think theaters themselves are archaic and feel like sad places much of the time. People prefer to watch at home. I remember when they were merry and fulfilled a function in the community. Today there are an awful lot of films you see with just a few people.

What are the consequences, if any, of the fact that fewer people share the filmgoing experience today than was true of the generation that was watching in the late ’40s?

That’s very much something I’m trying to address in the book. The sheer size of image is very important. When the image is a lot bigger than you are, there’s something profound in that. I find that seeing a film with a mass of strangers around me and feeling their response is very exciting. I will be really sad if that goes.