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Conversation with David Thomson - Things of the Past

Late last month, I climbed the steep staircase of David Thomson's home in San Francisco to ask him a few questions about the movies. We chatted for over two hours, one thought or reverie fading into another, pursuing an old-timey notion that out of a torrent of images and words may come new life. 

July 18, 2017  |  by Alec Mouhibian

The grand churches of cinema are shutting down. Worship has returned to its primitive roots in the nickelodeon, as we hunch into private screens to look at little clips. We know this already. But David Thomson watched it happen. Nobody has written about the movie experience with more depth, range, or flair. Our greatest living film critic, Thomson is the author of two dozen books, including The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, a vast chronicle and commentary on over 1,300 figures who have made pictures or appeared in them. His three recent books – Why Acting MattersHow To Watch a Film, and Television: A Biography – zoom in on how watching has changed, and also hasn't. Entering his prime as the pictures got small has seemed to turn mortality into one of his brightest themes.

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"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore." Network (1976)

AM: Let us in on your work routine. How do you organize the writing with all the watching?


DT: I do not sleep very well. I tend to be up by four and, as a rule, I'm working by 4:30. I do that because I don't sleep but also because I love that time of day. I wake up quickly and I'm able to start functioning. I've normally written what I wanted to write in a day by 10 o'clock, say. The rest of the day is business of one kind or another, and looking at stuff. Which is either going out to the movies – I believe in going out to the movies and seeing a new picture with an audience, although an audience of any size is hard to achieve these days in the daytime – or video. I don't very much like looking at anything smaller than a good TV screen. I just don't get the kick from it. I have a son who is 22; he watches nearly everything on that [points to my laptop] or a smaller screen.


AM: Many smaller indie films are even reviewed now on laptops.


DT: I know, I know. Emotionally it's just a different thing. Looking back, I'm more clear than I ever was that the overwhelming nature of the medium was crucial to me. That's very hard to reproduce on these little things. Sometimes it'll work. I must say there are wonderful films being made. But I dread the possibility of not being able to go out to a movie theater and look at a big, big screen.


AM: We'll return to dread. It's unavoidable when discussing technology. It can hit one from anywhere. Like there is no American over 30 and under 100 who hasn't seen a ton of I Love Lucy. That's a bond. But I've met 20-year olds, born here, who never heard of the show.


DT: That tide is washing out so fast. So fast. It's extraordinary. And you know there really was – there was a time, starting in the 60s, when young people in America wanted to know the history of the movies. And there was a vast operation, which was principally people going to college to study film, which they really hadn't done before – and there were books and repertory theaters – there was a pretty good general level of knowledge about old movies. So that if you were in a party anywhere and you mentioned Sullivan's Travels [Preston Sturges, 1941], some of the people in the group would've seen it. That's gone.

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From the church scene in Sullivan's Travels (1941)

AM: It's not like you can't be a good citizen or lover without seeing Sullivan's Travels or I Love Lucy. But still, that connection with the past…


DT: People my age, we tell each other how lucky we were that our youth coincided with this. It gave us a living, apart from everything else. If that hadn't happened then, I don't know what the hell I would've done to make a living. I was very lucky. It was a very exciting time.


AM: Of course your life at the movies began not in the 60s but in the 40s, when you were a child. And you were terrified by the overwhelming reality that you weren't sure was real. At what point did that terror blossom into the love that made you want to write about movies?


DT: In the early days, when I was taken to the movies, I had to be carried out screaming quite often, which was an embarrassment. My parents and relatives realized that you could cope with me by taking me to the movies. I started going a lot and I lived in suburban London. There were three cinemas that ran new films, and they changed the film every week. So there were three things I could see each week. I started going more and more and my mother got worried about it. She thought I was neglecting my studies. So she said, “If you're going to go see all these movies, I want you write something about them, I want you to write something about the experience.” And I did. I probably wrote about a couple hundred films for her over a few years – ages 14-17. I don't think she read them. [laughter] I think it was a sort of test, you know.


AM: That's some good mothering.


DT: I began to get more and more interested, and also I began to realize there was a whole world of films beyond what was playing at the local theater. And I discovered a couple of arthouse theaters in London. And I discovered Ingmar Bergman. Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, which came out about the same year. I joined the National Film Theatre to see what was the first retrospective of Bergman in London. That was a great event, big event culturally. I became a member and saw that they were programming stuff I'd never heard of. And I started reading Sight & Sound, as a member of the NT, and they had articles about films I never heard of. And that sort of opened my eyes.


In Sight and Sound, every issue, there was an advertisement for the London School of Film Technique. In those days, that was the only higher educational forum for studying film. No universities or colleges in Britain taught film. So I decided that instead of going to Oxford, I would go there. Which was a big shock to my school – because I was supposed to go to Oxford and read history and so on – and they thought I was making a terrible mistake. Some days I thought I was, too.  And my parents were bewildered and perplexed by it. But I did it, and I've never been to university. But I went to the LSFT, which was basically what became the London Film School. It was then really a place to learn how to make films. (They had a course on film history, but it wasn't very good.) It was the first time I had my hands on cameras, editing equipment, so on. It was a group of us who entered at the same time and we made a lot of little films, silly little films. I found it absolutely fascinating. Because I'd never really considered how films were made. And I wasn't very good at it technically.


But the one thing I could do for that group – there was a group from all over the world, which was very exciting for me; first American I'd ever really talked to was in that group – and the one thing I could do was to say, “Well, why don't you make a film about so and so?” I had ideas for films. They were fiction but they were nonfiction. And those ideas didn't really have rivals in the group. I had people who could take beautiful pictures, who could do wonderful sound recording – which I couldn't dream of doing – but I had ideas for what you could make.

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Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1958)

AM: Do you remember any of the ideas?       


DT: One film I was really quite proud of. Near the film school in Brixton was a big prison. It's still there. I had the idea of making a film about a man who comes out of prison, and he sort of walks into the main area of the city, and he's oppressed and frightened by the noise and the activity. It was a sort of experiencial thing, you know. And the American I was talking about was the actor in the film. We did it as a sort of sound exercise, principally. There was no dialogue in it, there's a lot of sound effects. I haven't got the film anymore but I was proud of it.


We did a lot of little things. Three to five minute sort of things.


AM: Very similar to the aim of our Creative Challenges. This idea of a prisoner coming out into the world and being imprisoned by the noise of life, it's a great way to capture a very specific power of the medium.


DT: We shot that on 16mm, but I remember we shot some things on 35. I remember shooting a love story on 35. That was a big thrill. I loved celluloid. I love the smell of it.


AM: How did you go from there to, “I'm going to write about movies”?


DT: At that time, I wanted to make films. I discovered that I had some writing talent, more than was usual, but I was still hoping to make films. I had a little team going with Kieran Hickey, an Irish friend from the film school, and a very good filmmaker. He was making a documentary about James Joyce's Dublin – it's called A Child's Voice – and I helped him on that. You know, we had a few projects…


I think this happened. I would have an idea for a film that I would love to direct. This was the moment of the French New Wave when you have the feeling of well, if you got the idea, you go do it. It was very hard practically to get that down, but I discovered that if I had an idea for a film so pressing, so persuasive, but I couldn't get together the wherewithal to make it, I could write it. So I started writing stories. And that began to satisfy me a lot. And I was thinking more about writing. And what I'd learned about the film business – being on the very outskirts of it – was that if you wanted to do something in the art, learn the business. I had to get a job, just to survive, and I got a job in publishing. And someone I knew in another publishing house one day said to me, “We've had this book submitted to us, an introduction to watching movies. Would you look at it and report on it?” So I did. I was not very impressed with the book but I gave him the report. And a few weeks later he came back and said, “We were talking about your report – would you like to write the book?” Which was not in my mind. That was the first book, a book called Movie Man, came out in '67.


And then I really began to think I could write books. I wrote a couple of novels quite quickly in the next few years. And then I started to do what would become The Biographical Dictionary of Film, although it was not clear that's what it would be. But by then I had a family I needed to support. I was writing. I was working in publishing. And I started teaching film. So that led my career in that way. Although I've remained interested in filmmaking – I’ve done some scripts and things like that.


I think what I discovered also was that I was happier sitting in a room on my own writing than being with a team. I like the team part of it. But something about my nature was suited and encouraged by working on my own. As I told you just now, I tend now to get up and work when no one else is up. I like being alone in that act of creation.

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Michael Mann directs Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in their first ever film scene together. Heat (1995)

AM: I think it's a blessing that you went to a school that was technical, and not infected by theory.


DT: I know, I know!


AM: So hard for a film critic to write in a way that resembles an actual movie. Not just being literary about movies, but in terms of actually being cinematic in the way you present and discuss them. And I don't mean in the gimmicky sense of employing screenplay terms like “cut to.” The way you connect things, the way you bring images and memories together, resembles the act of watching a movie.


DT: I'm happy you feel that, because that was always vital to me. I thought from the very outset that there was something so astonishing about the circumstances of watching film, that it was not getting enough attention. I was genuinely disturbed about the uncertainty of what was real and unreal. I still am. I still think that's essential to movies. There we are looking at something that is overwhelmingly real, but it's not real. In my opinion you can't spend too much time exploring that dilemma. And that's always been with me.


And I think that the technology of the media we are talking about is enormously important to the messages of the media. I'm less interested in some ways in what the story says, about the meaning of the films, than the meaning of a society that is obsessed with the lifelike but is sometimes losing touch with life because of it. And that's inherent – in photography, in film, in television. And in all the other media that have come along. And I think that interests me now more than, oh let's say, “What is Tarantino or Fritz Lang about?” What is happening to us in the audience is so important.


I was very much affected by an English teacher I had in school who taught poetry. He insisted that we write about what the particular words did to us. And I thought it was very important to try to describe what is happening while you're watching a film, as opposed to another film. How the imagery and the sound works. That is just so rich for me. I know Walter Murch a bit. [Editor and sound designer, Apocalypse Now et al.] I have sat with Walter and Anthony Minghella [director, The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley] in fact as they were editing a film and playing with sounds. And that is heady stuff, you know: the tiny changes that make such a big effect when you're watching it. I love that part of it. And it interests me more and more.

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Edward Hopper, New York Movie (1939)

AM: It's a theme song in your recent writings. Especially in Television: A Biography, how the circumstances of watching have changed – and keep changing.


DT: Keep changing.


AM: And no one knows what's going on.


DT: Absolutely. And you know these changes, they've probably not really begun yet. The digital revolution – I think it's very complacent to think it has happened. It's got a lot, lot further to go. And I think the change is going to be constant and faster.


AM: And dread returns. The way we talk about this stuff is so revealing. I think you can gauge the vitality of an art form by how much interest it excites for the past. You remind us how crucial that was to the cultural conversation about movies in the 60s: people cared so much about old movies, old directors, old stars. Right now, I detect some level of that only in the video game world, where you can find a lot of passion for those early games.


Even our TV talk is very different from movie talk. The way we talk about our favorite series of the moment – there's a certain nervy anxiety about predicting what will happen next and deciding whether or not we accept the finale…it's just not the same as watching movies several times and comparing them. I wonder how much of the misgiving in your writing about TV has to do specifically with how we talk about it.      


DT: I'm not sure misgiving is the right word. Because I think that when it comes to the technology, in a way the most alarming aspect of it is that we don't know enough to make the important decisions at the time. So the technology takes its own forms, which have to do with its inventors, the mechanism that's available, the commerce that will back it and fund it. It's a huge mistake to look back at the history of these media and to think that we were making decisions. The decisions were being made for us. And that's what's going to happen all the time.


Once you've done a thing, once you've got a thing, you can't put it back in the bottle. It's like nuclear weapons. You achieve nuclear weapons and you suddenly realize what you've done, but you can't put it back. And you can't put any of these things back. And in a way that rules out misgivings – because that's introducing some kind of historical, moral relativism, which sort of says, “Well, things are getting worse,” when in so many ways things are getting better.


In terms of nostalgia and being too old for your time – which I am – you can easily look at what has happened and say: I'm very sorry my kids (22 and 27) don't go to see movies on big screens. But they don't. And they actually have a ball watching what they watch, and get a great deal out of it. And I think it's really up to me to watch them watching, to try to work out what is happening to them, than to say, “Ohh, you should go to see Metropolis or Citizen Kane or The Seventh Seal.” Films are made for the moment, for that weekend when they open. And it passes. And lots of them just get trashed, lots of them have been thrown away, lost. That's regrettable, but I really don't feel the energy to vest too much regret in it. I think you gotta just keep going.


I remember the first time I really watched young people using a remote with the television. It was a situation where the elders were saying, “Don't do that, concentrate. Watch one thing, follow it through. You're destroying your mind!” And I looked at it and I thought well – I know why the parents are saying that – but they're also making their mind. And what they're doing – they don't know this, they'd be surprised if you said it – but what they’re doing is self-editing. And they're discovering that there is a beauty, a mad beauty in going from one thing to another when there is no connection. That's always been there in film. It's a natural part of it. And I like it. And that’s leading to a way of editing that is departing from narrative. Now I might regret that because I love narrative, because I'm 76, you know. But I like a lot of the stuff that's coming along.

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Club Silencio in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001)

AM: I don't think we can ever divorce ourselves from narrative.


DT: Well you can't lose sequence. One thing has to come after another. That may not always be so, but for the moment it is.


AM: One thing does come after another. But is it going to connect somehow into a greater thing, or just go on?


DT: I'll tell you a story. In film school one day, I was in the cutting room and there was a huge bin of ends from a lot of the films being made in the school. I pulled out one end, pulled out another – they were all 16mm – and I put them together. I didn't look at the film, I didn't look at the imagery. I simply amassed shots from I don't know how many films. I had a 30 minute film quite quickly. I went down to the theater in the school where people were watching some film, and I said, “Can I show you something?” and we put this on. And the splices held – in those days, splices holding was a big issue – and it went through.


I had no idea what the film was. I was at the projector just coaxing it through. I went into the theater and people were full of ideas of what the film was about. Because you cannot show one thing after another without the mind saying, “Oh, I see the link.” You know? “Or I see possible links.” Yes, you're absolutely right: with sequence, the possibility of narrative and meaning is always going to arise. But a lot of the narrative forms film has used became very hackneyed and very stale and very dead, and they needed to be broken apart. So a man like David Lynch – he's not the only one, but an example – sometimes, I think, puts things together when he doesn't know why they're together. But he's got great faith in your ability and my ability to work out why they go together. And I love that aspect of film.


AM: It's basically like transposing the role of creator to the audience. It becomes the audience creating the story.


DT: Of course! For instance, when I saw the Olivier Henry V (1944) – it was the first film I had to be taken out of screaming! It was because I thought I saw the faces of page boys on fire. What I actually saw was a suspended dissolve: an image of flames and an image of the faces. And I didn't understand what a dissolve was so I thought I was seeing the poetry – which of course was exactly what Olivier intended. And that goes on all the time. It's an inherent part of film altogether.

Click here for Part 2, where the conversation turns to Virtual Reality, live TV, sports, politics, director’s cuts, the future of editing, and Lassie’s antagonist. Click here for Part 3.


Alec Mouhibian is the co-writer/director of 1915 The Movie, and Creative Armenia's VP of Programs and Productions.

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