From Muybridge to Facebook

Q & A | Film critic David Thomson

By Mark Mitchell

David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is considered a must-have reference by almost all serious movie buffs. But Thomson is more than just a film critic, more even than a film historian. His works include a biography of novelist Laurence Sterne, an account of the Scott Antarctic expedition and a brooding meditation on the state of Nevada, along with a few novels and some autobiographical works. In his ambitious Have You Seen…? Thomson presents his take on 1,000 films, pointing out the wonderful ones like a favorite uncle showing you something shiny.

Born in London in 1941, but a San Francisco resident for the last three decades, he still speaks with a soft English accent. Farrar, Straus and Giroux has just published Thomson’s 23rd book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies — a good time to catch up on his ruminations about life, film and the future.

How did you find yourself living near Fillmore Street in San Francisco? My wife, Lucy Gray, got a job here. We had resolved to move to California and we thought that it would be Los Angeles. She came out ahead of me, looking for a job, and went to L.A. first, but nothing clicked. Then she heard about a job up here, and got it. She called me and said, “Would it be okay if it was San Francisco?” — which is a city I’d never seen — but I said, “Sure.” Everyone says San Francisco is a wonderful place to live.

Your newest book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, is both a reference book and a history of the movies. Is it meant to be read straight through? There’s no way to tell how someone will read a book these days. And it’s about more than just the movies: It’s from Muybridge to Facebook. It’s a book about media, really, through moving imagery. It’s meant to be read through. But once you get the hang of it, you can read this book how you like.

In the past, movies came out and then went away. Now everybody can get everything on demand. How does this affect how we look at the history of movies? There was a time when you had to wait years, literally, to see certain movies because they didn’t really make old movies available. The classic example, for me, is Citizen Kane, which didn’t make itself available to me until 1955. And looking back on it, while it was frustrating in those days, it was also a trade-off. There was a kind of treasure hunt to it, because you kept your eyes open for it and you were listening for news of it.

But in recent years, we have been in a position to see nearly anything we might want. If you use places like Le Video and Netflix, and you have friends with collections — which is a very valuable asset, because some things go out of print — you can get just about everything.

Photograph of David Thomson by Lucy Gray

But of course the trouble is, you see it in a different form. You see it on your television set; maybe you see it on your computer. It’s a different size image, it’s a different quality image, and it’s a whole difference between you and the image. So yes, we’re blessed in one sense. But we have a problem — and the problem is only going to get greater, because it’s getting harder and harder to see good prints, 35 millimeter prints, of the classics on a big screen. So you get to my age and you say to yourself, “This may be the last time I get to see this film on a big screen.” Because you know that the distributors want to put things on digital. So we lose and we gain.

Does watching a film at home, on whatever type of device, differ from the communal experience of a movie theater? Well, it’s no longer the awesome experience it once was. When I was growing up, you often saw movies in large, decorated theaters. You were packed in the dark with a group of strangers and the picture was as big as a house and you experienced the powerful feeling that it was out of your control. The movie would roll over you. There was a magnificence that overawed me.

Now you are bigger than the image. The light is not reflected light, it is light coming directly toward you and that’s a big difference. And you are in control of the experience, in control of the device. There will be interruptions, simple household interruptions. You can pause the movie. Many people just skip to the scene they want to see and hop over the rest of the movie.

But technology is bound to change. You can try to resist it, you can say, “I don’t want this technology.” At the beginning of the talkies people said, “We don’t need the sound; the pictures are so expressive as they are.” Of course, the marketplace wasn’t having any of that.

Are there any movies that you would say have to be experienced on the big screen to be appreciated? When you see Psycho with an audience it is scarier, because the rest of the audience is scared. It is also funnier and more tender. But any movie you see, if you have the option, see it on a big screen with an audience. Certainly anything by Terrence Malick or Fritz Lang. Of course, the opportunity to prefer that is running out on us.

We obviously have movie stars these days — you have written your own love letter to Nicole Kidman in a biography of her — but not in the same way that we had in the days of the studio system. Back then you could think of a part as being a “Jimmy Stewart part” or a “Bette Davis role.” Do any of our contemporary stars have a distinctive screen persona? No, I don’t think so. Back in those days, stars existed as the property of the studio, which thought of them as types of automobiles. Being your own make and model seemed to be the definition of stardom. When the studio system broke down, the stars got much more control; many of them became producers, which they never were before. And each movie became a new one-off. It became much harder to have a character or type carry over from one movie to the next.

Today, George Clooney has achieved a certain “George Clooneyness” that he can slip into. Tom Cruise used to have that, but he has gotten a bit too old for it. But there is no way anyone is going to be like, say, John Wayne again.

Is television using up talent, or is it educating that talent? Television is much closer to the studio system. Actors work long days on tight schedules with the same core of writers and the same crew. A lot of things we’ve seen on TV lately — in the last 10 years or a little more — are more entertaining, more human, more grown-up than what we see in the movies.

Do you ever get to turn off your inner critic and just watch a picture? I try, but it’s hard, because if I get really interested in a picture, I want to write about it. That’s the nice thing about flipping the dial on the television and coming across an old movie you haven’t seen in 10 or 20 years. You get to just sit back and see what you remember.

I am a big fan of your novels such as Suspects and Silver Light. Any more novels on the way? I hope to write more fiction than non-fiction as I go along. I have written five or six fiction screenplays, but none of them have been produced. It still may happen. The only screenplay of mine that has made it to the screen is the documentary about the making of Gone With the Wind. I prefer to write books, though. When I write something, I like to see it, and it’s nice to see it on a page.

EARLIER: “A lifetime of loving film

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