Dishing On Films With Legendary Critic David Thomson

Any film fanatic who has flipped through an edition of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film has probably found themselves alternating between rigorous head-nodding and violent head-shaking as they make their way through the different entries. Such is the power of his opinions on cinema to provoke, challenge and engage.

That book was named in a 2010 poll of international film writers as the best film book of all time. The Atlantic called Thomson “the greatest living film critic and historian,” and the writer of “the most fun and enthralling prose about the movies since Pauline Kael.”

David Thomson, recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival.
David Thomson, recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival.

On Sunday, May 4, the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival will present the 2014 Mel Novikoff Award to Thomson, “for his lifelong commitment to international cinema and expanding the film-going public’s appreciation of it.”  Following the presentation at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, there will be an onstage conversation between Thomson and author Geoff Dyer, and a screening of The Lady Eve, personally selected by Thomson.

Last week, I talked with the author over the phone about cinema. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Jon Brooks: So why did you pick The Lady Eve to show when you receive the award?

David Thomson: I have noted that audiences at film festivals get a little beaten down by the concentration on drama and tragedy and grim stuff. I have heard people says toward the end ‘wouldn’t it be great to have a comedy?’ So I went to an area I love, American screwball comedy, late 30s and 40s. Lady Eve is a great example of that.

JB: Your New Biographical Dictionary of Film was voted the best film book of all time. In your opinion, is there a second best film book?

DT: I didn’t vote in that, by the way. But one of the books I go back to is Stephen Bach’s Final Cut, about the making of Heaven’s Gate and the collapse of United Artists. I love books that give you a real sense of what happens on the making of a film.

JB: Who are some film critics you admire?

DT: Dilys Powell in England had a big influence on me because I didn’t really understand yet that people could write about films. Beyond that a lot of the French writers on Cahiers du Cinema had a big impact. And then I would say Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris.

JB: Marilyn Monroe appears on the cover of your latest update to the New Biographical Dictionary of Film, replacing an image from There Will Be Blood. On other editions, images from To Have and Have Not and The Godfather have appeared on the cover. How are those decided upon?

DT: The publishers take their jackets very seriously and in fact the first three editions did not have a picture on the cover. After the fourth, we thought let’s risk a picture. I talked to the editor and the jacket designer and we thought it should be a golden age Hollywood image. I was asked to come up with a group of pictures and the one from To Have and Have Not made a pleasing jacket .

For Edition Five we went to color and they said let’s have a more modern picture, and I picked the one from There Will Be Blood. But I think it was a little too outside the mainstream and I don’t think as a jacket it did quite as well.

So this time we harkened to tradition and the jacket designer, Carol Carson (who’s a genius), came up with this silhouette of Marilyn Monroe, and she came up with a design that is irresistible.

JB: Let’s talk about the Sight and Sound poll they do every 10 years asking critics to pick the best films ever made. Last year I heard you say that Michael Haneke’s Amour would now be on your top-10 list, right up there with Citizen Kane and His Girl Friday. Why?

DT: I think that it is about ultimate subjects, love and death and home, and they’re treated very seriously. It has an intensity that never lets up, It’s just very, very emotional, and the simplicity of the story deepens as the film goes on.

It’s also got two actors (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) I’ve grown up with and grown old with and it’s very touching to see two people who were once young and glorious at the end of their life and dealing with that.

I think it’s an example of a principle I really believe in: In an age of special effects, the most special effect of all is the human face.

JB: If you’re a dissenting opinion on a movie among critics, do you ever go back and look at the film again to see if there’s something that maybe you missed?

DT: When you’re writing and thinking about a film, you probably don’t put too much weight into what other people are saying, because it’s very important you work out what you think. But as time passes the movie changes. Of course it doesn’t, really, you change–you’re seeing less or you’re seeing more. There are plenty of instances where I’ve gone back to a film probably years later and seen different things and have felt differently about them.

JB: Can you give an example?

DT: The first time I saw McCabe and Mrs. Miller I thought it was a mess. I had great trouble hearing what was said, for instance, and I think I came to it anticipating certain western genre codes, which weren’t in the film. I realized gradually over time the failure was mine and the film was a little different from what I anticipated. I like it very much now.

Equally there are films I loved when I saw them which over time I’ve begun to think rather less of. An example of that is The Searchers. I have loved it, but the more i think about it and the more I look at it the phonier I think it is.

JB: One dissenting opinion of yours that stands out is on 2001. It’s No. 6 on the all-time-best poll, but you called it “a lavish travesty and an elaborate defense of vacancy or the reluctance to use real imagination.” Why do you say that?

DT: I think it’s a very bad film! I think Kubrick was a man with immense talent and great pretensions. He’s made several pretty awful films as well as several extraordinary ones. 2001 is empty and striving for meaning it never comes to grips with. It doesn’t bother me one bit that it’s high up on the polls. You know from the study of polls that fools and scoundrels often get elected.

JB: One last question regarding that poll. Bicycle Thieves was voted the best film ever in 1952 and No. 7 in 1962, then has dropped off the top 10 since, to where it was way down at No. 33 in 2012. Why do you think critical consensus on a film like that changes so much?

DT: That’s a very good example of what history has done. Only a few years after the war, that film blew people away, I think because it revealed a kind of life that war had led to and was horrifying. It was made with deep realistic convictions of the time. I think gradually over the years it has become more dated, because what we think of as realism changes very fast. It’s a critical term that’s always shifting. I think now it looks like a rather contrived, sentimental film. That doesn’t take away from the fact that it was a sensation when it opened.

JB: What do you make of the fact that film production is virtually entirely digital — now there is no more “film” in film? Do you think that’s a loss for movie culture?

DT: There have been technological changes in the history of film that are absolutely irreversible, and it’s hopeless to stand in the way of them. It’s a medium that’s driven as much by machinery as anything else . But I think it’s a great loss. Film had a beauty that was very special and it imposed certain disciplines that came with the craft of working with it, particularly in editing, which has changed enormously with the electronic revolution. When you were actually holding pieces of film in your hand things were done with the rhythm of editing that have been lost in the new machinery of it.  And I think there was a greater “compositional” beauty when film stock had to be used.

JB: Sometimes when I go to the movies and sit through the previews for big-budget f/x films, there seems to be an almost palpable yawn from the audience. Do you think filmgoers are jaded, that there is no more sense of wonder in the movies?

DT: (Emphatically) Definitely, definitely. Young people today are conditioned by the fact that we’re used to seeing things on tiny screens, where the visual impact cannot  be as great. So we begin to think that visual impact is no longer what it used to be, and filmmakers don’t put a lot of effort into it. They think if they throw money into special effects they’ll produce something interesting.

Equally, film has told the same stories so many times, people get blase about them. It’s very difficult to produce a new kind of story. I think it’s as true now as it’s ever been, that people go to the movies in hopes they’re going to see a story they’ve never seen before. So that mood — call it jaded or cynicism — is definitely out there, and if i were in the business I would be very frightened, because it means people don’t care in the same way.

JB: With such enormous shifts happening in the production and business of movies, how do you see the industry faring?

DT: It depends on what you mean by “the industry.” I think mainstream American filmmaking is in a very bad state. However I think long-form television in America is about as good as its ever been. A lot of people who would call themselves film buffs spend more time watching TV like “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire,” “True Detective,” “Homeland.” There’s a lot of very good work being done there. There’s still an enormous public appetite for stories that seem fresh and important and compelling, with good writing and good action. That’s as true now as it was in the 1930s. If you can find a way of doing it and the medium to do it in, there’s an audience. I think we’re seeing a shift, and the idea of making good, popular entertainment films that open in 3000 theaters, that’s in a very perilous  place.

JB: Whatever happened to film movements, like the French New Wave, Das Neue Kino, Dogme 95. Are movements still happening?

DT: These movements are largely in the minds of writers. The French New Wave is a phenomenon that was identified by journalists and talked about. It was true that a whole bunch of French young people got to make films at same time. But they didn’t all talk to each other; they weren’t a club. The New Wave is a concept in the minds of journalists and teachers and so on. You could argue that long-form TV today is a movement. There are longform directors in TV who have never made a movie. Someone like Tim Van Patten — he’s directed some of the best TV in the last 10 years. There’s a natural grouping there.

There is clearly an independent film movement in this country, but it doesn’t mean they all talk to one another. Festivals like Sundance are their natural meeting place. If I say to you it’s a kind of “Sundance film” you more or less know what I mean. I think movements like that can exist.

I think we’re about to see an explosion in filmmaking in Africa and parts of the Middle East that was the same thing as in Iran five years ago, where it was partly about the political situation and fighting censorship. So if we had a disaster affect the American economy, a massive depression bigger than 2008, it would bring a natural group of artists to the fore that would start to make angry films. It’s perfectly possible.

JB: Finally, a question you probably get a lot: Why is the trend of remakes and reboots so pervasive?

DT: Because the film business has always been so witless and so unimaginative and so scared that they would much rather remake something that has been successful. But that goes back to the beginning; that’s why people said, “Let’s make a Joan Crawford film,” which required them to define what kind of film that is. But there’s a good side to that — the public is eager for the unexpected.

David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film Sixth Edition goes on sale May 6.

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Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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