Seeing is: David Thomson, a writer about film, speaks about his new book.

David Thomson and 1,000 Unusual Suspects

Michael Fox November 3, 2008

The publication of a new book by David Thomson, the British-born film historian and essayist who’s called San Francisco home for many years, is always cause for celebration, and not just because of the hours of illumination and provocation that await the movie-mad reader. The author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and daring studies of Warren Beatty, David O. Selznick, Orson Welles and Nicole Kidman blends a breadth of knowledge with an abiding admiration for talent that has the magical side benefit of reviving our faith that a young filmmaker is on the verge of emerging with a masterpiece. Have You Seen…? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (Random House), which hit bookstores a couple of weeks ago, devotes one wondrously irreverent page apiece to an iconoclastic array of movies beginning with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and concluding with Zabriskie Point. A new Thomson book also provides an excuse to sit down for an expansive conversation about the auteur Sylvester Stallone, the great Cavalcanti film—well, the many great films—he didn’t include and why he eschews being called a critic.

SF360: At this point in the DVD age, a number of people will look at the book as a rental guide rather than as thoughtful film history. Does that bother you?

David Thomson: No. In choosing the title I did, I sort of open up the guidebook element to it. But it departs from a guidebook in that it doesn’t have a uniform format, it doesn’t treat every film in the same way, it doesn’t have a rating system, it doesn’t tell you what company markets the DVD. And the writing is very idiosyncratic and personal and comic, teasing, literary. It’s reaching for a different kind of book than a guidebook; it’s reaching for a book that you would read for pleasure. So it’s got what I hope is a useful tension and battle going on there. It’s rather like a travel book in the sense that you can take it with you on a trip and it might tell you how to negotiate the Parthenon in the daytime, but if you’re reading it later at night there’s something in the background that will add to your sense of what the Parthenon means. For me, it’s another way of doing the history of the movies, and for me the historical perspective is the important part of the book. It’s a way of making you realize this has been going on a hundred years, and we’re changing the medium all the time. There’s good and there’s bad in that, but it’s a new language.

SF360: In all of your books, from
The Biographical Dictionary to Suspects, you take a great deal of pleasure linking films that don’t seem connected. That’s a recurring theme in this book, also.

Thomson: There’s always been inherent to film this possibility for it taking a step sideways and suddenly enlarging everything. Here’s a good example that I often quote: I think within the same 12-month period, Fernando Rey does The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The French Connection. An example of how an actor in the international sense can go from one project to something wildly different. But here’s the thing: If you put those two films together, it’s wonderful how they illuminate each other. I’ve always been fascinated by that kind of thing, and the way in which actors can do very silly films and very important films almost next to each other. The whole perspective of what’s being attempted can change very dramatically, very quickly. The way in which, ultimately, all films tend to partake of other films. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (screening, coincidentally, Nov. 17 at the Castro in a presentation of the Pacific Film Archive) is made with a spiritual feeling absolutely different from the one that inspired Preminger’s Saint Joan. Maria Falconetti and Jean Seberg look like an eternal woman and an American kid. Yet watch them together and they have much more in common, they have the idea of looking at this woman and grilling her and finally burning her. There’s something almost of the surrealists’ faith in the way that you put different things together and an audience immediately sees ways that they resemble each other. I like that about film. It’s always intrigued me and it’s something over the years I tried to get at. Hopefully, people read Suspects and see that the films of the 1940s changed the way we think. Changed the way we think about our lives now. Noir is one of those achievements of film, like screwball, that’s a way of looking at the world that has sunk in deeply enough that someone will say—describing their own life, not a film—"That was a really noir situation." (Laughs.) And we all know, more or less, what it means.

SF360: Among the 1,000 films, you included several that you don’t exactly recommend. Was that from a strategic standpoint or a fun-of-writing standpoint?

Thomson: The two are very close together for me. I can’t take on a book unless I feel driven by a great enthusiasm to write it. If I think of a book idea I’m going to do, it’s because I want to read it—but I’ve got to write it first. And I read it as I’m writing it, so to speak. It’s a very blessed state, if you get it right. It seemed to me crazily monotonous and a killer to the idea of the book if everything is praise. It makes your task harder. Also, I think anyone knows that there is your pantheon—we all have one, we don’t bother to write it down but we still have one—and there are some films that are in many, many ways big films, and may be big because they would be in lots of other people’s pantheons, that you just don’t like. A class in Las Vegas pounced on me because I made fun of The Sound of Music, which they regarded as a holy film. It was like getting back to that audience of the ’60s that went to see it over and over again because they just loved it. These kids, born well after the film was made, they just love it. We had an awkward period until I convinced them that I truly respected their pleasure. I remember the days when I was an extremely pompous, smart-ass young man who would tear people to strips for liking the ‘wrong’ films. Well, I don’t care much anymore. There aren’t right films and wrong films. And who am I to trample on anyone’s enjoyment of The Sound of Music? I mean, they’ve got problems enough if they enjoy The Sound of Music. I think I managed to convince these people that I was really just making fun of it. You can make fun of it without saying it’s absurd to like it. That’s OK. There are films like that for all of us, and I don’t know what they would be for you, but I’m sure there are some films that I hold enormously dear and you would say. ‘Well, I’ve just never been able to sit through it.’ They’re a measure of taste. I wanted to bring that kind of film in to the book. You don’t have to recommend The Sound of Music.

SF360: Or

Thomson: Or Rocky. Yeah. But those were important films. Without Rocky, quite clearly, we would not have had Sylvester Stallone. Now I think Sylvester Stallone is absurd, in every thought and movement. But he is a vital, vitally absurd part of the movies. When you think that he’s still going on doing Rocky at 60, it’s breathtaking. And it’s an endearing sign that the movie may die, but the trashiness in movies will never die. (Laughs.) That will go on forever. And I think it deserves some recognition. I got into a run, I would say Kevin Costner led me into a run of thinking, ‘Well, whatever Kevin Costner does next is just going to be sillier than what he did before.’ And then he made Open Range. Do you know Open Range? It’s a sweet, lovely little film. I think you have to be alert to the fact that even a Sylvester Stallone, I think he’s avoided it so far, but even Sylvester Stallone might one day wander into a pretty damn good picture. And you gotta be ready for it. I was raised in the auteur theory and I believe the auteur theory is a tremendously valuable and useful way of approaching films. Thank God it came along because it’s sort of chaos without it. But nobody can believe in the auteur theory in detail. Hitchcock made some bad films, Hawks made some bad films, and Norman Taurog made one or two good films.

SF360: Can you give us a couple of other films from the book, like
Open Range, that you think are underrated and overlooked?

Thomson: There is a film from the 1950s called Track of the Cat, a William Wellman film that not many people know. It was a complete failure [at the box office] and I think it’s very, very good. I’m a big Preminger fan, and I think there’s a great deal of virtue in Advise and Consent, which is often just dismissed as a big, rather empty Preminger film. Have you seen You, the Living? It’s extraordinary, a stunning film. Roy Andersson’s going to do more and I think he’s a potentially great director. So there’s a lot of things in [the book] that will surprise a lot of people. The more of a film buff you are, the less surprised you’re going to be, because you’ve seen some of them. But I hope that there are surprises for nearly everyone there. Now, it works two ways. Last night, I came in from something and I turned the television on and Dead of Night was playing. The Cavalcanti film. British, 1945-ish. And I thought, ‘Why the hell is Dead of Night not in your book?’ Since I finished I’ve had I don’t know how many but quite a few that have just hit me and I would say if I were doing it NOW, they’d be in and something else would be out.

SF360: Were they titles you had considered and rejected?

Thomson: Yeah, but perhaps because I hadn’t seen them recently enough didn’t hit me hard enough. In theory I considered everything, but sometimes you go through lists very fast, and you don’t really stop to think. There’s nothing like seeing the film to jolt you. I knew Dead of Night was a remarkable film. I’d reached the point before last night where I thought Dead of Night was fascinating, interesting and strange. It’s beyond all those; it’s quite an amazing film. If I were doing the book again today, that would be in—and something would have to go to make room for it. When we get to the paperback, I will certainly do that. I don’t know how many it will be, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were 20 or so new films in there. I think the truth is, to be true to experience that’s what you gotta do with a book like that. You’ve gotta shuffle a few in and out.

It’s an artificial stop. It was very funny because I had thought I had done a thousand. Ah, a sigh of relief. It’s over. We had a celebratory dinner and everything. I sent the text off to the publisher, and the guy wrote back. "It’s only 999. You’ve miscounted." (Laughs.) It’s totally arbitrary. I stopped writing the book like a year ago. If I had kept doing a film a day, which is quite possible, a film a day is not unmanageable, I’d have another 350 films. (Laughs.) And I think there are at least another 350 films that could have been in the book. I’m not saying they’re better than my best 350, but they’re at least as good as my poorest 350.

SF360: A film a day would be your equivalent of a journal entry.

Thomson: Somebody sort of touched on this in England. ‘You’ve done what, in a way, is a very old-fashioned, almost a Victorian, book which is that you’ve gone for a thousand, and you’ve made a book of a thousand pages. It’s very big. It’s a weighty tome. And yet, of course, we are already in a technology where you could continue to add a film a day to it. And this thing could just as easily have no weight.’ It could be on the Net and I could literally be adding one or two films a day to it. It could have a completely different form, in other words, where people read it on a screen. I know that it reflects my cultural training, my age, that I like it to be a bound book and so on. But I do realize and I do see how, logically, it really ought to be just a Web site that you keep adding to anytime you want to. And maybe in 50 years, maybe less, people will look back and say, ‘How very strange to do a 19th-century book.’ And it’s a measure, I think, of how much 19th century books had to do with my upbringing and what they meant to me. I think that’s an interesting angle.

SF360: In the course of revisiting a thousand films, many of which you had written about previously and sometimes at length, how often did you revise your opinion?

Thomson: As you get older, you become more open to the possibility that you’ve been wrong. I relish going to see a film with someone, or seeing it around the same time at least, sitting down and having a talk about it, and they say, ‘I saw a lot more in it.’ I listen to them. It’s in the nature of friendship and conversation that you listen, and you say, ‘Yeah, I’ll go back.’ I’m ready to change my feelings sometimes quite quickly. That goes on all the time. There are so many people who end up marrying or being with or certainly being seriously involved with people they couldn’t stand at first. Now being wrong is potentially awkward and embarrassing, I’ve found being wrong much more pleasurable than it used to be. And since it’s always been my notion that really the films are there to start us talking to each other one way or another, it’s natural that opinions change.

SF360: Has your view of what constitutes good film writing changed over time?

Thomson: I don’t know if I can define it because I think it’s anything that works. And as soon as you make a definition, something that goes outside the definition will come along but it works. I think it’s basically, Can the person use language in a way that beguiles you? I don’t think you have to agree with what’s being said. I think it’s often very fruitful if you don’t. I think it’s language, but it’s the ability to use language in such a way that offers you, the reader, the feeling that what you think is important, too. Or valuable. I think of film increasingly as a place or a weather system; when you write about the weather, you write about a place. You do it all your life, and you try to get it accurate, and you try to help people share your enjoyment.

SF360: That’s the tricky thing about being a critic: On the one hand you are asserting an opinion and defining where you stand, but you are inviting—or acknowledging—a conversation.

Thomson: You used a term that for me I see as increasingly important. I have only very occasionally in my life been what I would call a professional, hired film reviewer. I don’t think the review form is where I’m at my best or that interests me the most. I would sooner read a piece about a collection of films than a review of one. I just don’t feel personally drawn to or sympathetic to reviews, per se. I don’t know about you, but I know a lot of people who don’t read reviews until after they’ve seen the film because they love the film to be as unknown as possible before they see it. I think that’s very true and valuable. If someone came to me and said, ‘What goes on your passport? Should it be film critic?,’ I’ve always preferred ‘film historian’ or ‘film writer.’ ‘Film writer’ can be a little confusing ‘cause it maybe sounds as if you write films. But a writer about film is the way I would describe myself, much more than a critic or a reviewer.

SF360: After the
Biographical Dictionary and so many other major books you’ve written, yet collecting your thoughts on a large number of films for the first time, how did you approach it so it wasn’t a career summation or a capstone, but merely the latest in a string?

Thomson: It’s interesting you say it because I really had to be uncommonly persuaded to do this book. I didn’t like the idea in prospect and I think it was because it would seem to be a sort of summation of everything. I put off the writing of it awhile, because of that. I was delighted when I started it to discover that the writing was such fun. And the writing overcame the summary-like quality of the proposition. You know, obviously no one wants to write their last book. And yet you get to a certain age where—I’m not quite there yet, but not too far away—where you wonder whether a book could be your last book. I’m at the point where I’d rather write books that were not about the movies, because I’ve had the chance to say most of what I want to say about the movies. It’s pretty silly after two half-a-million-word books to claim that there’s stuff I haven’t said. (Laughs.) I think I’m pretty close to the end of writing about the movies, probably.

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