Conversation with David Thomson III - Believe the Believer
The conversation comes to a close on 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 and here for Part 2.)
August 1, 2017 | by Alec Mouhibian
David Lynch in a Twin Peaks episode
PART 3: Believe the Believer
AM: We look at the history of movies in terms of almost sudden eras. I'll relay your general verdicts on each one. First the coming of sound: good. Then the fall of the studio system: not good. Then the rebirth of the 60s-70s, with its French New Wave, apotheosis of the director, and revival of old movies: good, but more mixed perhaps than we admit. Then Jaws and Star Wars marking Hollywood's transition from storytelling to special effects: very bad. Finally, the withdrawal of indie cinema from trying to reach a mass audience in the new century: sad.
We are now living in the era of "Peak TV"– but that's a phrase you never use.
DT: No, I have not used that phrase.
AM: Do you have a sense that the current flowering of ambitious long-form TV might just be a mirage?
DT: My feeling about it is this: I think now there is too much stuff. I've been at parties where people will say, "Haven't you seen so and so?" And even if you've been doing quite well to keep up, you discover a show and say well, what season is that in? The fourth season? I've gotta go back and do four seasons? I think most people pick a few series they love and go with them. Life is terribly crowded now.
A friend of mine, Stephen Schiff, works on The Americans, so I've always wanted to see the whole thing. I've seen bits of it, I've been impressed, and yet I've never quite found the time to go back and do the whole thing, which I'm sure would be rewarding. Because anytime I've binged a series like that I've had a great time. There are weird reasons why people get into one series rather than another. It's very hard to rationalize.
AM: I'm going to ask you to identify why you're not watching The Americans. I think our reasons for sticking to or passing on a show can be personal and revealing, as much as whom we choose to invite into our homes.
DT: Once I understood what the show was doing, I thought it was a very clever idea. And I liked the people – didn't like them, I thought they were well drawn. And yet it didn't… you're pushing me to think about it…it was partly because these people were under great pressure to be secret. Therefore they were not giving full expression to their needs. They were hiding. And in drama, people who hide become very enclosed and imprisoned. Which is fascinating, but I think in drama I like explosion, you know what I mean?
So if I think about Breaking Bad, which is a show I really loved, the sense that Walter was going to explode, that it was all going to come down in ruin and that I was waiting for it – that was a big part of the allure for me. As you say, you discover who you are in watching these shows sometimes.
Sometimes a person can get you. I remember for instance watching The Affair. It began with a very strict formal arrangement. In one episode you had 30 minutes from one character's point-of-view, and 30 minutes from another’s. It was set up in a very formal way and it was very interesting. You saw the same events done differently. I like that. And I found the woman in it, Ruth Wilson, very compelling. And then after about a season and a half, it seemed to me that it wasn't doing anything with those ideas. In fact it was withdrawing from that A-B device, it was simplifying. So I gave up on it.
I gave up on Homeland, which I thought started wonderfully. The central character, she was bipolar, and you really felt she was seriously bipolar, which interests me a lot because I am. And her crises were very real – and then they just became repetitive, and I gave up. One of the great issues in all of these long-form series is: Are we telling a story, in which case we have a dramatic conclusion we're headed towards? Or are we just going on and on and on, which is what we want to do because that will make our fortune? So it's a very interesting dilemma.
Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)
AM: Since David Lynch has entered the conversation, what do you think of the new Twin Peaks? I've only seen the first four episodes, but clearly he's been given full liberty.
DT: I'm in the same position. It's very strange. I'm pleased you ask, because I haven't really thought it through. I started and…I loved it. I really had a great time. And then I went on, and I guess after four episodes I sort of said to myself, I don't think I want to watch anymore. And I don't know why I said it. I just don't know. It may have been that I had too much else on in my life, and I couldn't give it the attention – because Lynch needs attention, Lynch is not casual. What happened with you?
AM: I've had to pace myself. I love it so far. But it's not a show one can watch when tired. Emotionally it's pretty absorbing – in a good way.
DT: Oh yeah, it's very dense. You have to work, and you have to remember the original and go back even. And maybe I was just too tired, or too down, or something. I get an awful lot of stuff coming into the house which I have to see, and then I have to go out to the movies to see stuff that you know on the way they're gonna be awful. And you go, and…ugh. I'll have to pick up from episode four.
AM: Either way, it's promising that after ten years of no Lynch, Peak TV has given us 18 hours of uncensored Lynch.
DT: It's wonderful. He's an extraordinary man and I'm a huge admirer. For me, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr. are the films.
AM: Do you know Lynch personally?
DT: I've met him. When Blue Velvet came out, I was a very early admirer and they let me talk to him. And I found him very difficult to talk to, which I think was what he intended. I wouldn't go back to talk to him, I don't think – but you know, why should he be able to explain it? I was asking stupid questions.
AM: And he was being cryptic intentionally?
DT: He was either being cryptic intentionally or he just is cryptic. I'm happy with either! [laughs] I felt embarrassed about asking him the question. Interviewing artists is pretty silly. I think probably with Lynch you need to know him really well to spend a lot of silly casual time with him to really get him, you know. There are a few filmmakers that I've had that sort of relationship with. And that has been so much more helpful than asking them the big questions.
AM: It's a lot of effort to learn how to talk about your own movie without spoiling it. So I think it's sensible for directors like Lynch or Tarantino (or Hitchcock before them) to adopt a character for the media. But who in the business have you known really well? Or have you preferred to keep a distance and try not to touch the screen?
DT: It's a very interesting argument. I've known critics who hated to meet the filmmaker because they felt it compromised them in ways. I always loved the chance to meet them. Although I think meeting them relatively causally is the way to do it. I've not known very many. I knew Michael Powell well because of circumstances. We had a personal relationship and we were friends. That was the most valuable relationship with a filmmaker I've had. I've spent time with some other people that I found in the end useful, like Bob Rafelson, Robert Towne, Francis Coppola, a few others.
It's very hard to sit down with actors and actresses and feel reality. I spent quite a bit of time with Jack Nicholson, and I liked him. But in the end I have to say I felt he was being Nicholson. Probably just in the way that he didn't trust me enough. I've had a few meetings with actors and actresses that I think were valuable, but not very many.
AM: Can you name any others, apart from Nicholson?
DT: Well I don't want to incriminate myself. I spent an evening with Tuesday Weld once that was a great occasion. She's very smart and we had a good time – just talking, you know. I had some time with Pacino once that I valued. He's a very strange guy.
AM: Details, please, from the Al Pacino Experience?
DT: There's something…God, there's something a little creepy about Al. [chuckles] It's fascinating, and I found it very interesting…it was not entirely comfortable. [laughter] I'm sure there are some others if I could remember, but those people are very difficult to know.
AM: I'm not sure we recognize the immense ordeal of acting out-of-order in a demanding film role.
DT: Extraordinary. Sometimes I've seen, when watching a film being done, an incredible memory of details – for something that might've been shot several weeks earlier. And they just remember a way they turned, something like that. Amazing skill.
AM: Imagine waking up in the morning and instead of Fruit Loops, you have to do the nighttime argument with your wife.
DT: And you have to do it ten times, in three different bits!
AM: On top of that, they have no real audience on a film set. And half the time their scene partner is a piece of tape. So they have to work without the two ancient pillars of performance, and develop instead this relationship with a frame. For all our mockery and madness over film stars, we overlook how damn hard they work.
DT: It really is amazing. I knew a young actress who didn't make it. She was a very good natured, gentle person. And she said going out four times a week to an audition, preparing, doing your thing, and being cut off – it's just, you gotta be so tough. And then if you get to be so tough, you may kill the sensitivity that they're waiting for. It's a tough life.
Walter Brennan and John Wayne
AM: In Why Acting Matters, you really dig into our fascination with actors. So much of it has to do with this ritual they go through on our behalf (and their own), this playing out of reality. You write: "Acting is an entertainment, but it is a model for our existence and collapse. We try to act human. That seems the least we can do, and as long as that condition prevails – do not trust it forever – then acting is our engine, and we are driving on a desert road."
DT: You mentioned it earlier – there's a possibility that we've become not quite human. It has seemed to me for quite some time that actors are pioneering that. They give up their own life to take on a program of other people. I think they're real pathfinders in that way. And of course not – I wouldn't say not happy people – but they're not balanced people. It's in the nature of it. They're waiting to be someone else! Suppose you said, "Oh here's my friend. I hope you get along. I have to tell you: he's waiting to be someone else." [laughter]
AM: Maybe it helps if they're able to play "themselves" most of the time. But even that can be dangerous…
DT: Also that's not quite as popular as it once was. There was an age where John Wayne had to be John Wayne and that was okay.
AM: Hard to see John Wayne shake his fist and go: "Why did they give that Norman Bates role to Perkins? I'm standing right here!"
DT: That's right. But it doesn't quite apply anymore. Actors have to be more varied.
AM: Shifting back to TV, some significant series have aired since your book went to print. The Night Of.
DT: Enjoyed it very much. I thought the set-up – the first three episodes or so – was just brilliant. And I was really hooked into it. And as it broadened, as it took him to prison and as Jeannie Berlin came into it, I loved her in it and I liked it very much. I found one or two really implausible things in it that troubled me (a moment where somebody reveals something to a surveillance camera in the prison, etc.), but I have a very high feeling for the show. I like the feeling of it reflecting a city of many races and peoples. I think there should be more films like that.
John Turturro in a The Night Of episode
AM: And there you have Steve Zaillian, a lifelong screenwriter, directing for the first time.
DT: He did a very good job.
AM: Young Pope.
DT: I haven't seen it.
AM: I'm always suspicious of my enthusiasm for a show. When we call a show "great television" or even "art," we're not comparing it to Brothers Karamazov – we're comparing it to Alf. But on first viewing I felt Young Pope transcends the usual TV grading curve. I rate it very high.
DT: You know I think the reason I didn't watch it…is because of Jude Law. Jude Law for me has become a sort of warning figure, which is probably totally unfair. I can think of some things he did that I like a lot. But I saw the trailer with him and I thought eh, I don't know. Prejudice! Raw prejudice!
AM: I saw Jude Law do Hamlet on Broadway.
DT: I heard that was terrible.
AM: Aren't all these celebrity stunt Shakespeares terrible?
DT: If you're going to do Shakespeare, you have to do it for a looong time. You have to make a thing of it.
AM: Who's your last favorite Shakespeare performance on stage?
DT: I'm going back now to being in England, and being quite young, and I saw a lot of Shakespeare in those days. And you know: Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud. It sounds kind of silly but they were amazing. There was an actor named Alan Biddle, who I knew quite well personally. I loved his work. I think the last great Shakespeare on stage I've seen was Daniel Day Lewis, probably. That was Hamlet.
AM: And that's when he collapsed on stage mid-scene?
DT: Yeah, I mean he walked off. And I don't think he was actually very good in it, relatively – I've seen better Hamlets. But he was clearly having a battle. Which is what led to him walking off.
AM: What do you think of his "retirement"?
DT: I'm always very suspicious when actors retire. He's a very unusual guy and he's had a very unusual work pattern, and it may be he means exactly that, but I wouldn't be surprised if he comes back.
AM: Let's talk about change. In How To Watch a Film, you wrote of how your opinion of Casino has changed. Are there any other examples of your opinion about a movie or show changing over time?
DT: I have found in general that re-watching things is quite challenging. My feelings do change about a lot, and that's awkward. Because critics tend to feel they've got to stand by what was said. There are a few people for whom my estimate has gone up or down. I think when I saw Casino, I was sort of monopolized by it being Marty doing gangsters again, and I felt I'd had enough of that. But then as I watched it more I discovered how beautiful it is in terms of just process, and sound, and how wonderful Sharon Stone is in it. And Marty does not have a lot of great female performances, so it's something when he gets one. I've become really a huge fan of the film. In a way, you have to learn to watch it through the soundtrack.
Martin Scorsese, Casino (1995)
AM: It's so interesting to track our changing opinions. There's something vain about our initial reactions to a movie.
DT: Totally, I agree. And you know, if it's your business, you tie yourself to the stake in identifying with certain films. Then you watch them and they've changed – the film is the same; you've changed. There was a period of my life where I thought Red River was the Bible. I now think that Red River is a bogus version of the Bible. It's very interesting, but it doesn't get me as directly as it once did. Most of us I think are hooked forever on the films we saw as children and young people. Yet if you live long enough those films will change, and you have to come to terms with it in some ways.
AM: How old were you when you first saw Red River?
DT: Seven or eight.
AM: I noticed something recently when watching a few I Love Lucy episodes. I realized I had last seen all these episodes pre-puberty. It's very interesting to re-watch something for the first time after you've had an erection.
DT: Big difference. Big difference. And one of the interesting things about I Love Lucy is that almost instantly, it became like a domestic truth. Everybody said: "Oh isn't I Love Lucy wonderful? Isn't she adorable?" All understandable and reasonable.
AM: And the tension of that home! Aye, aye, aye. The whole custom of husband and wife yelling at each other constantly in an apartment…
DT: It's a very British tradition. There's a lot of it in British comedy. Marriage is seen in Britain as a very comic situation to get into, you know. So many human impulses have to be smothered.
I Love Lucy
AM: You have sort of accused Stanley Kubrick of doing the same thing to human impulses in his films.
DT: He's someone whose films I learned to like much more than I once did. I saw the Kubrick films as they came out. I loved The Killing, I liked parts of Glory very much, I actually quite liked Lolita (although it's a shadow of the book). But I did not like Dr. Strangelove or 2001 and I felt myself falling out of love with him. For me Kubrick is very bad on women and I don't think he likes people. Those things became obstacles for me, until The Shining – which I think is a masterpiece, a very, very dark comedy, but a film I like enormously. That sort of prompted me to start going back and looking at some of the films again.
I still can't take 2001 or Dr. Strangelove. But a film like Barry Lyndon – which literally put me to sleep when I first saw it, I fell asleep in the theater and I had to be woken and taken out by the person who is now my wife. I still don't really like it but I go back to it and I see more in it. And that particularly happened with Full Metal Jacket, which I didn't like at first but I persevered with it, and I like it more.
Eyes Wide Shut is still a very problematic film for me. I think it's a big, big failure.
Shelley Duvall in The Shining (1980)
AM: In your essay on Dr. Strangelove in Have You Seen…? you wrote: "If Preston Sturges had taken on this story—we can dream—the one thing I'm sure of, and that underlines Kubrick's limits, is that there would have been a woman in a lead part."
I think that's a profound point.
DT: I was watching The Shining again just recently with my wife. And we love it, but we were saying, Shelly Duval is a pain in the film. We were trying to imagine someone who didn't play at panic point the whole way, how much better it would be.
The other thing that's wrong with it, too, is that you don't feel those two ever had a thing for each other. You almost feel she's the worst person to be with him. And if she was somebody you could believe he was crazy about once – if there was a little space where you felt, ah I could see what that marriage was– then the failure means more, I think.
AM: Have any movie moments visited you in real life?
DT: I feel they happen quite a lot. Here's one. I first met my wife when she fell down a staircase and landed at my feet. She always claimed that it was an accident!
When I met my first wife, that was quite something too. Meeting wives takes it out of you. [laughter]
AM: A line caught me from your sublime book In Nevada: The Land, The People, God, and Chance. You wrote: "I believe in very little except those who believe in stories." Is this a working theodicy?
DT: I don't know if it's quite that, but I believe in it. I remember when Close Encounters opened, there was a big press event I went to. And Spielberg was asked, "Do you believe in UFOs?" And he said: "No, but I believe in people who believe in them."
I don't believe in God, but I believe in people who believe in it. I understand why they do. And I would hold to that. It's a big part of my life.
AM: One hopes there will continue to be people who believe.
DT: I think there are. I think they believe in a lot of other stuff, too. Or actually, it's not even that they believe in it. I mean I think that I believe in stories, I sort of have the consciousness that steps back and says: You believe in stories, don't you? Yeah.
I think a lot of people these days believe in things that they can't articulate; it's a given. That's changing, I think.
AM: What's changing, the fact that we don't know what we believe?
DT: I look back on my education and I would say that I was being helped to discover what I believed in. And I'm grateful for that, and I think it was valuable. But I don't think that's quite as common now. I think it's more – I think you're taught what works, what functions…I don't know, it's so easy to get frightened about all that stuff. And one of the things about our time at the moment I think is that everybody is living that much closer to a breakdown. And they're afraid.
AM: The salient point for me goes back to the idea that we don't know what's happening to us, so how can we control it, how can we handle retain ourselves? We don't know what our technology is training us to become. It's beyond politics or even morality. (It's not like the invention of the printing press or contraceptives where it was somewhat logical to predict the coming changes.) And your recent books present an urgent hunt for clues to this unfolding mystery, using our hundred year history of watching movies as a guide. I don't know when we'll know if we've crossed a fundamental threshold.
DT: I think the "when we will know" and the feeling that something is going to be revealed – that's what's gone. It's like that moment in the old Planet of the Apes, when the Statue of Liberty is there on the beach. It's almost as if we're waiting for aliens to come here and to tell us what we really are. And it's going to be staggering because we're the barbarians or something, you know.
The Statue of Liberty in The Planet of Apes (1968)
AM: Or they'll tell us we don't really exist anymore.
DT: That's right. Someone dreamed us, "And now…I'm pulling the plug."
AM: "I've gotten bored with you."
[here the tape runs out]
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.