ARTicle Magazine

'Privileged prisoner' of the big screen

David Larsen · 14 February 2016

Revered critic David Thomson has distilled 70 years of film-going into his new book, How to Watch a Movie.

The Revenant

The Revenant: a masterpiece, says David Thomson.

How to Watch a Movie by David Thomson (Profile Books).

David Thomson

David Thomson.

This is the way the world ends: another world crashes into it. I'm talking with David Thomson, author of the new How to Watch a Movie, the magnificent Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its sixth edition, and a long list of other film-related books. He has just discovered I'm a fan of Lars von Trier's Melancholia, in which the collision of a wandering planet into the Earth becomes one of the great ecstatic images in all of cinema; or so I maintain.

It's curiously difficult to admit this to Thomson, someone whose eclectic, deeply well-informed, frequently provocative views on film have been shaping mine for years. The difficulty comes from a passage in How to Watch a Movie where he discusses the way various films have improved or changed for him over time: "Does this mean that if you watch any film long enough it gets better? Alas, no; there are plenty of films that discourage you (or me) from trying again. I'm not going back to Lars von Trier's Melancholia or Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. If you admire those films, we must live with our disagreements."

You could easily read that last sentence as an urbane raised finger to dissenting views; God knows it's tempting in my case. I happened to see both these films at the 2011 New Zealand International Film Festival, and more or less disliked them both, and saw them each a second time, and ended up considering them the two best films of that year. The most important thing to know about Thomson as a critic is that while he finds this curious, he also finds it interesting.


Melancholia – Thomson is not a fan.

"It's absolutely okay that you like Melancholia! I mean that, I'm not just being tolerant about it! It isn't just that I have bad taste in some areas and empty spots – and I do of course – it's that I love the difference of opinion. One of my sons, he's 26, he and I have major battles over Lars von Trier. Melancholia was a real test case. He thinks it's a great, great film, and I think it's – not. To put it mildly. But I value von Trier because he's something we can argue about. I always believed above all that people should argue about films. I don't really have much time for the situation where I tell you what I think about a film and you say, 'Oh yes, yes, I agree, that's so true, that's so wonderful.' I disapprove of nearly everything that has to do with establishing pantheons."

In his new book, Thomson offers his personal theory of what happens when we sit down to watch a film, of what film is or can be with an individual life and within the larger culture. Topics covered include film's blurring of the real and the unreal; what a shot is; what a cut is; how a story accumulates from cinematic information; the importance of "the helpless condition of voyeurism"; the paradoxes of cinematic sound ("its apparent completion of realism, as well as its demented introduction of music in the air"); the implications for film as an art form of film as a highly cash-intensive business ("no art has ever been as naked about this, or such a prisoner to it"). Somewhat typically for Thomson's writing life, the initial idea was put to him by the publisher.

"He said, 'You know, you've written a lot of books on movies but you haven't really done anything on the question of what happens when an audience meets a movie.' And I have often met people who have said, 'I wish there was a book like this', so it seemed to me to be a clever idea, so I did it. And we'll see what comes of it. I have very seldom been what you might call a film reviewer. I obviously love certain directors and certain films, but I tend to write about the whole nature of film, that's really what interests me."

Of the many ways in which film differs from the other arts, one stands out for Thomson: the importance of social context. This is intimately tied up with the importance of money. For most of the 20th century, films could only be seen on large screens owned by people with significant capital – in Hollywood's early decades, by the studios themselves. As the nature of the business has changed, film's relationship to the culture has changed, and the experience of watching any given film has changed as well.

"It was very important to me once to feel in going to the movies I was powerless, to feel I was a sort of privileged prisoner. You sat in the middle of a long row of people and you couldn't easily get up and leave ... For me the cinema was the perfect medium for shy people who could hide in the dark in crowds of strangers and watch extraordinarily vivid dreams brought to life. And I don't think that that exists any longer. The dark has changed. Completely.

"The dark as I first knew it was in large spaces packed with strangers. Those circumstances were very, very important to the experience of a film. Young people today do not know the same kind of dark. Frequently they don't even go to theatres. They are watching what they watch in much more domestic, much more controllable circumstances.

The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line – one for the big screen, says Thomson.

"Now I can see that in many ways that's a good thing. It liberates spectators in certain ways. But at the same time, consider the great deceits that box sets and DVDs press upon us. They say, 'You want me? Here I am on your shelf, just like a book.' And it's very nice for people to have a great library of DVDs, especially if we want to write about film, because we can check on a detail of plot or whatever relatively easily, and you know, it's good to show to the children and all that kind of thing. But a few years ago I curated a season at the Berlin Film Festival, for their 50th anniversary, and we showed The Thin Red Line. On a huge screen, beautiful new print. Now Terrence Malick for me has got less interesting as he's grown older. But whatever else that film is, it is visually glorious, and to see it projected on film when film was still being projected, before the switch-over to digital – it was extraordinary.

"I remember the art critic John Berger, years ago, wrote an essay to the effect that the mass production of postcards and great paintings was inevitable and essential. Because you can't really have education without it. But to stand before the painting itself, if you ever get the chance, is an experience of a totally different kind. I fear with cinema we are losing that cultural memory."

Cultural memory being an aggregate of individual memory, and individual memories being a function of the cultural moment that makes them possible: so that films in some ways become impossible to appreciate for audiences who were not there when they were made.

Birth of a Nation

Birth of a Nation – you had to be there, said Lillian Gish.

"To give you an extreme example, I once had the chance to talk to Lillian Gish about Birth of a Nation" –DW Griffiths's 1915 Ku Klux Klan epic, which revolutionised many aspects of film-making, and which Gish starred in. "It's very difficult to show that film now, because its racism – it's really inexcusable. And I said this to her, and she said – she was a sweet woman, and I don't think she was an idiot – she said, 'Yes, I totally understand that, but I have to tell you, you will never understand Birth of a Nation unless you saw it in 1915. I can't describe the experience to you,' she said, 'but it lives with me still.' She said that in 1915 the sensation of what that film did was so great it didn't matter what it was about, if you know what I mean. What was important about it was – 'Oh my God. The wall's comes alive.' That whole wonderment. Which is invisible to us now."

If you watch a lot of films, part of the excitement of talking to Thomson is he's seen what you've seen. "Tricky to give you a number, because I watch whole films, but I also watch parts of films. I'm sure you've found that when you're writing about films you're often writing about sequences or scenes. I would say that in the average week I see some of between 10 and 15 films."

The conversation-broadening addition is he's been at it since the mid-1940s, as he explained to me when I spoke to him for the New Zealand Herald in 2011, shortly after the publication of the Biographical Dictionary of Film's fifth edition: "I was taken to the movies a lot, as a very young child, and really quite quickly after that started going on my own. I lived in South London, there were a lot of cinemas very close, I could walk to them all. And within a few years I was; certainly in the school holidays, I would wait outside a film, not really knowing what the film was, but if it had what we called an A certificate, which I think basically meant that if you were under 14 you had to have an adult with you, I would ask strangers to take me in. Which they did. And my mother knew this was happening, and it was regarded as totally safe at that time. Probably today you would be up in the courts if you let your kid do that. I can remember a group of old ladies who would take me in quite often, and they'd take me out for ice cream afterwards. It was a very civilised proceeding."

A smattering of more recent film opinions: Thomson is glad he saw David O Russell's third film with Jennifer Lawrence, Joy. "I found it an enjoyable mess, not nearly as coherent or as fascinating as American Hustle, but – you know. There's no reason why people can't vary their output, I think." He was hugely disappointed by Hollywood blacklist biopic Trumbo. "I think it's a terrible film. Obviously, I think the subject is of the first importance. The period is fascinating. I just thought it was heavy-handed, inept, I felt the people were caricatures. I like Bryan Cranston as an actor, but I felt his performance was all surface."

On 19th-century man-vs-nature drama The Revenant: "A masterpiece. I really love it. It's curious, because I have not really liked [Alejandro Gonzalez] Inarritu's work before – I did not like Birdman very much. But I was bowled over by the film."

On the journalism procedural Spotlight. "I'm a big admirer of Spotlight. Not least because I think it's a very, very entertaining film, and really well done. However, I will say this. It's a film about child rape. It's a film about an institution – ie, journalism – that is dying all around us. And it is a feelgood film. Now I don't mind a film making me feel good, obviously. That's a nice thing. But there is something wrong here."

One key absence from Thomson's film writing is much discussion of animation: key not merely because it counts as a personal blind spot – "I've always found animation a rather unnecessary sidebar, I admit that, and I expect it's a weakness on my part" – but because it goes to the heart of his love for film.

"I should think about this more, because it's interesting, but I think it has to do with the fetishisation of actuality. It's a deep-seated part of my fantasy, when I'm watching a film, that I'm seeing a physical reality. I think for me there has always been a kind of voyeuristic sensuality in films. Way beyond films that are about love or sex, you understand. I always feel when I'm seeing animated films that I'm watching graphic art, not a film."

How to Watch a Movie cover

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David Larsen reviews film and classical music for Metro magazine and writes about books for the New Zealand Herald and other publications.