Conversation with David Thomson II - Becoming a Critic
In Part 2 the conversation turns to virtual reality, live TV, sports, politics, director’s cuts, the future of editing, and Lassie’s antagonist. (Click to read Part 1 and Part 3.)
July 25, 2017 | by Alec Mouhibian
Part 2: Becoming a Critic
AM: I was going to ask what movies made you run out screaming as a child. You mentioned Olivier's Henry V.
DT: Well that was a big one. And then a Lassie film where Lassie was pursued by the Gestapo. Broke my heart.
AM: THERE WAS A FILM OF LASSIE BEING PURSUED BY THE GESTAPO?
DT: They didn't catch him, of course, but yeah. It was in some European country. The Gestapo were after him. For reasons – it doesn’t matter why, you know, but that got to me. I was terrified. I didn't know enough about how films worked to know that if I were being shown the film as a kid, the Gestapo weren't gonna get him. There were other films where the Gestapo do get people, but that's another genre.
Generally, fear was for me a big early response to film. And it had to do with the nature of the place. The movie theaters I went to as a kid were relatively big – and packed. It was the great age of filmgoing just after the end of the Second World War. So you very often had to stand in line to get in, and when you were there, you were in these big long rows and every seat was taken. So there was a feeling of being trapped and caught there. And I found the cinema a frightening place, but a deliciously frightening place, so that I would come out in tears – and feel I had to go back and see it again.
I think there is always, still, a sort of wonderful apprehension about what's going to happen. Obviously certain genres like horror and thrillers play to that more than others, but the power of the image to go from A to Z quicker than you can close your eyes is a fantastic thing. And that's a power held over our heads, I think.
Lassie, safe at last.
AM: The way you describe this experience of packed movie theaters…
DT: AND everyone smoked.
AM: So you had clouds rising, obscuring the screen.
DT: You know what I used to love doing? I used to love looking at the projector beam, which was alive with smoke! It was a very different kind of place. But it was packed time and time again.
AM: I’m not sure it's appreciated how much of a difference it makes to watch a film with a packed audience. Especially if it's horror or comedy.
DT: Big difference. A comedy seen alone, and a comedy seen with 1500 people – they're different films.
AM: I'm with those who call the last 25 years of television a golden age of comedy.
DT: Oh yeah, there's fantastic stuff on television. Fantastic stuff.
AM: Comedy's reaching further now – because it has to make you laugh alone.
DT: And of course the other thing about it that I think is so fascinating: the generality of television, the kind of things you’re talking about, it’s a return to the factory studio system. They're made by intense groups of people, working very hard, long hours, but in a real spirit of comradeship. Any of these long form series that really work, they have their team. And that’s like the community at a studio where the same actors would work with the same cameraman maybe 20 times. And what you learn from doing that is a fantastic amount.
AM: That sort of on-set teamwork is the most romantic part of the process. It makes me think of ships. Medieval ships, sailing at a time when to get from point A to point B was a major gamble.
DT: Totally. I agree. I would say the happiest creative experience I've ever had is directing plays, with that team, rehearsing and putting it on. And films are like that too. They're broken up, fragmented in different ways, but there's no question that in the old studio days, the team spirit – they all felt they were exploited (and they were) – but they knew they were doing something they loved doing. And they were making films that changed the world. For good and ill, those films were the embodiment of what entertainment was in those days. And in those days movie entertainment – I'm talking the years during depression and the war – did a lot to hold the world together. And you're aware of what's missing now. We don’t have those big communal experiences, and we're suffering a bit.
AM: The closest we get now is probably sports. And you've analyzed how TV has turned players, such as Christiano Ronaldo (named, you note, after his father's favorite actor, Reagan), into dramatic performers.
DT: Absolutely. Big thing in my life was coming from England to America, where I had to learn three new sports. I'm like a five-sport person: cricket, soccer, American football, basketball, baseball.
AM: I'm four out of the five. I’ve been liberated from cricket by the political events of 1776.
DT: Yes [laughter]. Fair enough. It's an obsessive thing. It takes so long. But if you're born into the culture of cricket, it becomes a very important part of your life.
AM: I definitely see the romance of a game that stretches out over several days. It's like one of those weekend murder mystery cruises. (I don't know why my mind is so much at sea.) But even sports aren't safe from fragmentation. Just a few years ago live sports broadcasting was thought to be the last golden ticket for networks. ESPN dished out all this money for rights even last year [$24 billion to the NBA for nine years, $2.64 billion to the Big Ten Conference for six], and now their subscriber base is tanking. All of a sudden that sense of live TV as the one last thing of certain value is gone.
DT: It's amazing. It's what we talked about earlier: the technological-commercial interaction can take you suddenly in directions you never dreamed of. And that's going to keep happening.
AM: Sports and news (when O.J.'s driving) are the only things live. We think there are only two ways to watch a game: live in person or live on TV. But maybe there is a waning of interest in what’s live.
DT: Well now, there you're touching on a fantastic thing. Because I think for a century, the feeling of time passing like real time, that you're seeing real people in real places – absolutely vital to the experience we're dedicated to – and I agree with you, I think it's waning. I think people are losing that rapture with the live event. They really are. And I can’t account for it because I don’t feel it. But I think it's happening.
AM: At the end of Television: A Biography you show a haunting photo of a guy wearing an Oculus Rift headset, which is like a mask. You have to be careful when writing about technology, because the tone is either witless enthusiasm on one end…or DREAD. Nothing in between!
DT: That's what our politics has become, too. It's an exciting time but a very frightening time. And a tough time for young people, I think. It's really important to watch how children deal with all these things. What a five year old or less is making of what comes into their home on screens now – we should be studying that hard, because it's going to have enormous impact.
I only realized it later, but I was really taught what love was by movies. Because people were falling in love in movies all the time. And therefore you had this sense that love must be very important and valuable. And you know, it's what makes the world go on. I think love like that has sort of vanished – not vanished, but it's been pushed aside. And it's not like that anymore.
The expectations for life that are set up by all these media are hugely important and I don’t think they get studied enough. I think Trump…Trump is a bad man. Which I don't like, I would like to end it: that's the moral interpretation. But much more important than that, Trump is chaos. And I think if you're five, you don't know enough to know he's bad, but you know enough to feel the chaos – the spasm-like way in which he'll go from one thing to its opposite. And he'll say something in a way that makes you think oh this is true, and then you'll say no that wasn't true. That kind of chaos and his instinct for it in terms of television, and tweeting, and one thing and another, is profound. I think a lot of kids think Trump is fun. That's the most dangerous thing about Trump. That he's a kind of cartoon character, and I think he half knows it.
AM: I wonder how much of the grown-up world 5-year olds even deal with anymore. They don't have to watch Trump or much else their parents do. They’ve got their own machines to live in.
DT: Before your time, there was a magazine called TV Guide, which every household had. TV Guide told you what was playing, when, on like 50 channels, which is all we had in the 70s and 80s. TV Guide got blown away because the choice was so huge – and nobody knew how people watch what they watch. A lot of people watch at random. They start with something on the Internet and then they follow links. They're beyond prediction, they’re beyond reason – they can lead you in the most extraordinary ways. In the process you can gather a great deal of knowledge about a vast array of things. So people are being educated without knowing it.
But it's kind of chaotic again. In terms of politics, if we live in chaos then really we can't do much about it. It’s the erasure of political motivation. This is a generalization, but I think that compared with say 30 years ago, young people are much less politically committed now. And it has to do with technology and the way in which they are watching reality.
Covers of TV Guide
AM: What's the nature of political commitment right now, anyway? A set of received bigotries about everyone who disagrees with you.
DT: I agree. It's one correctness against another.
AM: Then again, I wonder if all the hysteria is just us acting out prospectively against the instinct that after the real digital revolution happens, the familiar political conflicts – socialism versus capitalism, nationalism versus globalism – will cease to matter so much, will give way to something more severe, more fundamental yet unknowable.
Which brings us to Virtual Reality. In Television, you describe VR as potentially the death of memory. Can you elaborate?
DT: I think there are a lot of things going on in the culture and in the technology that are subtly aids to Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's is one of the things most people are most afraid of. But if you could do something to overcome memory itself, then memory failure will not be the same. There is a lot of stuff going on – some of it intended and deliberate and almost wicked, some of it absolutely incidental and beyond control – that says, "You don't need to use THAT [points to head] to remember things. You can look them up." You have a dinner party scene where everyone’s checking their phones to look something up, and that's a tremendous service. But it sort of says to you: "Don't remember it, because it'll be there."
Underlying all of this is what seems to me potentially the greatest terrorist thrust: which is to kill the net, to kill the whole system, to crash the whole thing. Because I think if that happens there will be terror such as you can’t imagine. I think it'll come quite quickly. Because people are so umbilically connected now to these machines.
Amazing fact I read – I can't remember it, because I don't need to remember anymore – but someone did a survey of how often people check their iPhones. If you ask people how many times an hour they check their phones, they'll say, "Three or four, maybe." It's like 34. It's incredible. It's a total addictive process.
AM: Our phones are essentially little chips inside of us. They are learning to tell us what and when to eat, how much to walk and stop walking and sit down…
DT: And if that technology could marry into genetic theory, then human beings become a different species. It could happen far more quickly than you know.
AM: We step right into the themes of your book How to Watch a Film, which is really quite personal. You explain that the title isn't any kind of instruction, it's not actually a "how-to." It's more of an alert. Your premise is: The way you watch affects who you are, whether you know it or not, so might as well know it.
DT: It's still the case that you send your children to school and more or less the focus of that educational process is to teach them what words are. How to use the words, how to spell them, how to write grammatically – and that's all wonderful. But we still don't take our little ones, from the age of four or five, and say to them: "Let's think about what happens when you're watching moving imagery." Because actually most people spend far more time doing that than reading, and we really don't get into it educationally. And it's just enormous. Enormous.
AM: For years now you've been studying the movies in light of how the audience knows too much. We know how they work; we've absorbed their tropes and structures; we find it harder to be moved by the moments that used to matter on screen. But I wonder if the erasure of memory and history, that parallel phenomenon we spoke of, might be correcting for this. Maybe it's a kind of cleansing, one that will allow traditional forms and narratives to find renewal.
DT: I think it's still clear that human beings have a tremendous weakness for story. I mean we all know that moment of watching a movie or TV show where you get hooked, where you say What's gonna happen? I gotta find out. That still works. Although a great many of the movies made in theaters seem to have no sense of story. Every now and then something comes along that does have story and it works still, which is very encouraging. And I think that the human capacity to tell someone a story so that they get lost in it, caught up in it, is wonderful. I don't think that's dead or dying. But the generality of experience is leading towards a kind of situation where people think, Oh, okay, I'll plug in and I'll get it. As opposed to: I'm living my life, cultivating my mind and my memory to keep the thing I call experience there. I know that as I grow older it may begin to break down and that can be tragic, and the end of life. But still…it's there. And I love the moment when my grandfather tells me a story about a time long before I was born and I feel I was there. And the fact that he has that memory is precious.
Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (1982)
AM: It's a very fine line between this and the creative autonomy of self-editing (rooted in channel-surfing) we spoke of earlier.
DT: It is. Last weekend, my wife and I got the DVD of Blade Runner. And there are now four official versions of Blade Runner. And we looked at the original theatrical release with Ridley Scott's latest cut. There are big differences, and it's really interesting to look at them closely and argue about the fine points. I keep waiting for this sort of occasion approximately…you've made films, you know the possibility…there is an extraordinary moment on a movie in the editing.
DT: Let's call it the editing, even though it's more complicated now. There is a moment in the editing that can happen – and it's happened on some films that are great and famous – where the people making it look at each other and say, "You know, it's not working as a version of the script we filmed. We've gotta start to do something else."
AM: Sounds familiar.
DT: Now that leads you to this moment: Every movie there ever was accumulates a lot of film of which 10% will be used. Suppose you gave to the public everything – which technically now would be easy – and you say: "OK, you edit." That kind of process…for the moment I think only a few mad film people would jump at it – they would jump at it – and there is a big art now of people re-editing films anyway, which can be very interesting. And there's a way in which television presents you with a mass of material and says: OK, sort it out. Suppose people shot a lot of material and said: "OK, sort it out."
I don't know whether it would work, but it might. I feel that that possibility is there waiting, if you know what I mean.
AM: At first I'm thinking, who would have the stamina and desire to do the editing themselves, when they can hardly concentrate on watching to begin with? But if there is a slick app that makes it easy for you, makes the process fun and customized, that's no longer so daunting.
DT: And maybe the films get to be much shorter, because it's a big challenge to do the whole thing. So maybe the films get to be 10-minute films because it's more manageable.
AM: If we're in tech enthusiasm mode, maybe this is a way of the crowd creating the best possible version of the movie, deciding on the perfect mean length – say 38 minutes.
DT: That's right.
AM: What do you feel about director's cuts in general?
DT: I think in general when directors get a chance to go back, they lose the discipline that they had when the film came out. I mean you've been there, you've been through the last stages of the cut when you're desperate and all the time pressures are coming down on you. And you hate those pressures, but the truth is deadlines are pretty good. I think very often people pick the right way under that absurd pressure. And when they go back and try to have second thoughts, they tend to resurrect the babies that they had killed in the first instance. I find working to a deadline very, very stimulating, always. And I think that discipline puts you in touch with the way an audience feels.
I'm talking to a director about a film now that's not come out yet. And we've been arguing about the ending of it and that kind of thing. I can imagine that later on down the line there will be a director's cut where he deals with several different endings. But I think it's very important that he feels compelled to pick one. It's a big part of the creative process that you know how to finish a thing.
AM: Many dramatists seem so good at beginnings – blasting off with a really great premise – but they never know how to end it. And it's evident in all their work. It's like endings require a separate talent.
DT: That's very interesting. It takes us to these long form television series where in a way they set up an extraordinary and compelling situation, but they don't want to end it. They want it to go on forever. I suppose it's a metaphor for life. We have a situation in life – we kind of sense it'll come to a terminus, but not yet. NOT YET!
Click here for Part 3, where we discuss acting, binge-watching, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Twin Peaks, The Night of, Casino, meeting movie stars, how opinions change, and belief. Click here for Part 1.
David Thomson is the author of several books, including The Biographical Dictionary of Film, Have You Seen…?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, and, most recently, Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio.
Alec Mouhibian is the co-writer/director of 1915 The Movie, and Creative Armenia's VP of Programs and Productions.