David Thomson does not need me to defend him against his detractors, neither those who don't particularly favor his most recent book on Nicole Kidman nor those who just don't seem to like him no matter what he writes. Nonetheless, my eyebrow has to go up in response to the vehemence with which certain criticisms have been levied at his study of Kidman. He, himself, in a SF360 interview with Michael Fox earlier last month entertained the notion that his critics are "pretending to be shocked." The Observer's Peter Conrad pardons the book as "a forgivable bout of elderly nympholepsy", cautioning that Thomson's homage veers vertiginously towards pornography.
Even the author photo on the book jacket is suspect. D.K. Holm writes for Quick Stop Entertainment: "You can tell he is fed up with movies, viewers, and maybe even readers from his author photo. He stands sideways, his arms resistingly, defiantly crossed, his bearish torso covered in a black sweater. Thomson is a writer obsessed with eyes, and his own are caught in a posture of skeptical impatience with the gazer. They seem to say, 'What do you want? What can you tell me? Nothing.' "
With projections like that, who needs enemies? The danger of such "reviews" being that—if you are a less discriminating reader than someone like myself, say—you might actually believe these statements. In which case I might not have even bothered to harrow the reputation to meet the man, who I found charming, poised, eloquent, and generous both with his time and his imagination. After his book reading at Codys Bookstore, David Thomson and I walked to the nearby Café Rouge to select an outdoor table where we might savor coffee and dessert and our mutual desire for movies.
This is more of a cobbled interview than my more customary transcriptions, fashioned from the Q&A after the reading, our chat on the way to Café Rouge, actual recorded material, and our unrecorded conversation while we enjoyed our desserts.
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Michael Guillén: In your lecture you stated: "A great mystery began to open up—which only made the movies more appealing and more compelling to me—which was that the characters I was seeing partook in some way of the real identity and nature of these actors." What does that mean exactly? Are you referring to method acting?
David Thomson: Historically, acting in the late 19th century was very demonstrative and presentational. It was theater acting and you wanted to get your message across in a big theater so the style was large. When the camera came along, gradually people noticed that—if you acted in that large way for the camera—everyone in the audience [cringed]. It was impossibly overdone. It was too strenuous, too much of everything. It got to a point—and particularly it came with the coming of sound—because in a very funny way once the movies had sound, actors could be quiet.
An actor like Gary Cooper, not—as far as anyone could tell—an especially bright man. Not brilliant. And a man who frequently said he didn't really know how he did what he did. But in the early days of Gary Cooper's fame, there were stories told of people on the set watching Cooper only a few feet away from where they were. He was filming a close-up for a character in some sort of distress or angst. They looked and the director said, "Action!" And they stared at his face and didn't see a thing. They said, "I didn't see a thing! Did you?" "No, not a thing," they said. The next day at the dailies, at the rushes, the image comes up on the screen and everyone was [spellbound] because Cooper was one of a generation who latched on by instinct, by intellect, no one really knows, but it was almost true the less you did, the better. The less you did, the more you drew people in to say, "What is he doing? What's he thinking?" Cooper was not a method actor. Gary Cooper never really went to an acting class in his life; but, Gary Cooper was a model for the generation that—about 10 years later—formed the Actors Studio and who believed in intense inward naturalism, who believed that—to act a part—you had to relate the feeling your character was having to a sense memory of your own. So it might be: do you remember the time when you were five and you put your finger in the door and you felt the pain? And you couldn't believe how much the pain was? Bring that memory back to this moment where your wife has left you in the film, or whatever.
Moreorless, that is the acting style that still obtains today; it's naturalistic, it's as little as possible, it's suck the audience in to your face and your mind, don't do too much. Stage actors have to learn this when they go into the movies. They can trust themselves better. Some can't do it. Sometimes you'll get people who just can't do it. They need the bigness. They need the stage and the physical space. They need the live audience. Some actors really need live audience. The crew is a version of a live audience when you're filming but it's a strange version.
[That's] a complicated answer but the style of acting changes and has changed a great deal. Probably it's going to get less and less. There are some film directors now who do not trust professional actors at all. Who will only hire non-professionals. Who will only hire "amateurs" because they think professionals have learned tricks that get in the way.
MG: Your chapter on Stanley Kubrick's filming of Eyes Wide Shut seemed to imply that Kubrick knowingly manipulated Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to create his film, that he psychologically unnerved them and—in essence—masterminded their break-up.
Thomson: First of all, for them at that stage in their careers to be invited by Kubrick to do a film was immensely flattering because I think they both tended to think of themselves at that stage as the kind of actors who did mainstream films and there was this famous genius, living in England, wouldn't travel, and he sent out the word that he'd like them for his film. Although Kubrick does not have a record of either commercial success or of getting Oscars, I think they thought, "Boy, this could be big. And it's us working together." I'm sure at that stage they liked the idea of doing a film together because a lot of the time they're apart—so that's fun. And it might be nice to go to England. They knew it would take a long time because Kubrick always takes a long time. On [Kubrick's] part, I suspect he got the financial deal he did from Warner Brothers because he got them to be in it. They were like the two top stars. Certainly Cruise was like the top star of the month. I think Kubrick, in a fairly coldblooded way, used them.
I think it was very tough on them. It was extra tough too because in London at the time they were the object of intense gossip. There were some very nasty stories going around. For instance, there was a story—completely untrue—that Kubrick had brought a psychiatrist in to talk to them about sexuality. The idea being that they didn't really understand their own sex lives. Absolutely untrue but it got floated. I think—and I'm not sure that I would have known this in advance—but when I saw the film and I don't know how far people remember the film, but actually Cruise is in the film much much more than she is. What I would have suggested to Kubrick would have been that—as Tom goes out into the world—every woman he meets and he meets four or five different women, would have been played by Nicole, looking quite different, but they were different versions of her in his mind. That, I think, would have built a feeling about their marriage that would have been a lot more interesting. But the film didn't work. That's the other thing; the film just doesn't work. I have the theory the marriage broke up because they learned different things from that film. Because she became a much better actress afterwards.
MG: An imaginative theory, which segues into something that I've been enjoying about the book: it's like a road movie without the road. It's allegedly a biography about Nicole Kidman but it's really more about you and your impressions and fantasies of Nicole Kidman. It's more about the audience's relationship to an actor than the actor herself. I've not quite read a biography like this. In fact, I'm not sure it's really a biography; it's an appreciation, not only literally but imaginatively. It's not only about what has-been but about what might have been. You alternate imagined scripts with what may or may not have actually happened. I find that so interesting and compelling.
Thomson: I'm so glad you do. This is the other thing about acting: we only see the films they make. Nicole Kidman has made—I don't know—let's say she's made 20 films; it's about that number. She has probably been very seriously invested for a time in another 40 films that didn't come through. Might come through still one day, but, things that came up and something happened, people couldn't all come together at the same time.
For instance, a few years ago a film came out that did very very badly, Meg Ryan in In the Cut. In the Cut was a novel by Susanna Moore, very erotic novel. Nicole Kidman bought the film rights with her own money. She sat down with Susanna Moore and Jane Campion, the director, for two months, five days a week, and they worked on the screenplay. Nicole was working on it with them. By rights she could have a screen credit on it. She was really invested in it and they were talking about her playing it. Then the script got done, problems came along, years passed, it didn't fit schedules, and it ended up being made with Meg Ryan. I think Meg Ryan did a very good job in it, but, there was a period where Nicole felt, "That's my film." And there are a lot of films, projects like that, and I think if you really want to know the biography of an actor, you need to know as many of those things as you can. So I do bring in, yes, things that didn't get made, things that might have been made, things that might still be made.
MG: The suppositions are challenging. When I saw The Others, I was so struck how her beauty resembled Grace Kelley's. It was like she channeled Grace Kelley acting the role. It suddenly sponsored a whole ….
Thomson: A whole chain of thoughts. Imagine her in Rear Window, that kind of thing. Yes, exactly. I think that's another side of acting. Their heads are full of parts. I'm sure that if she were here, she could tell you 10 stage parts that she fully intends to play one day. It may not happen but she knows those parts, she knows those plays, and probably once a year she gets out Hedda Gabbler. She's come very close to playing Hedda Gabbler a couple of times. She re-reads the text and says, "I can do that." Chances are one day on stage I think she will do it. The other thing about the Kubrick venture is it led her into that stage play The Blue Room, if you remember, which was a very valuable thing for her to do I think. That was happy chance.
MG: Do you think that part of the allure of that project was that here was this major star working for $500 a week?
Thomson: And without her clothes off for 15 seconds. I didn't see it on stage. I think it was a sensation. I think it was an event so big there's a funny way in which no one quite saw it, if you know what I mean. It was so full of hype.
MG: Returning to the notion of the actor's personality melding with the character, something about Nicole seems inaccessible to me or—more accurately—camoflauged. And in that process of camoflauge there's something of a disconnect in her portrayals. In tennis they talk about playing "in the zone" when you're right on mark in the moment. Though I would agree with you that Nicole has a certain star status, I'm not convinced she's as great an actress as you believe she is. I'm not sure she's fully there in her acting. Has she ever lost herself in her acting?
Thomson: I can't say you're wrong. She told me that there isn't a single film that she's done that she's pleased with. She likes certain scenes, certain moments, but she's never done a film yet where she thinks she got it right all the way through. Great artists are never satisfied. Being satisfied with that lasts for about two hours and then you wake up and think, "Oh no."
MG: What do you think are her strongest roles?
Thomson: I would say To Die For is classic her, partly because it's so funny, and I don't think she's done enough work that's got into her humor. I think she's naturally quite funny and there's a very ironic tone to that murderess. I would say Moulin Rouge, which I loved. The other one that I'm very fond of that I think got terrible press was Birth. A lot of people have never even seen it. Do take a look at it. She plays a woman whose husband has dropped dead maybe 10 years ago. You don't know really what's happened to her in those 10 years but, as the film starts, her engagement party to another man is occurring and a little boy appears, 10 years old, and he comes up to her—and her husband's name was Sean—and he says, "I'm Sean; you mustn't marry Joseph." It's a mystery film and where does this boy get his knowledge from? Is it occult? Is it what? But she plays a woman who has not really come to terms with mourning. It's 10 years since but she's really not over the death of the husband. She's not quite stable. She's very vulnerable to this child. It seems absurd. As I describe it, it's a thing you'd dismiss. It's intensely believable in the film that she falls under the sway of this child. The film has problems at the end but her performance in it is amazing. It's a film I'd say where she's "in the zone."
MG: What about her performance in The Hours?
Thomson: I like The Hours very much. I just find the suicidal pattern in it slightly morbid and just a little bit loaded on. I like the three-part structure but I would love to have seen more of each one. Fur is extremely interesting too. Again, it's got a few problems at the end I think but a very interesting film. That opens in November. Robert Downey, Jr. is in it.
MG: Could Kidman be the next Meryl Streep?
Thomson: She would like to be. She would tell you that's her next ambition: just to last in the way that Meryl Streep has lasted and to be playing lead parts. Meryl Streep and Katherine Hepburn are the two people she regards as models.
MG: How has she ultimately received the book now that it's done? [I didn't specify this but D.K. Holm relates that "Kidman, on September 11th, publicly announced her disapproval of the book, willfully misinterpreting it as an 'unauthorized biography' written about her 'after only having one brief phone chat with her.' "]
Thomson: She's not told me and I would not expect her to in any way. I suspect she's looking to see what other people think. I wrote a book not quite like this but with some similarities 20 years ago about Warren Beatty. I met Beatty later, years later, and we had a long talk, he was very friendly, and he said, "Y'know, I couldn't read the book" and I said, "Why? Why was that?" and he said, "I tried several times over the years and then something would happen in the book and I just went, 'That's me! That's me!' " In a way I don't think she's vain enough to read the book, if you know what I mean, and I think that if it got too close, she'd shut it. I don't know. Maybe one day I'll meet her at a party in 15 years time.
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Walking to the Café Rouge, I expressed my enthusiasm about spending a little time with a film commentarian I so admire. Politely, he asked me if I were a film critic and I told him no, I am more interested in film culture. I then asked him about something I had read concerning him: that he no longer liked movies. He clicked his tongue in disapproval and responded that of course he still likes movies. How could he not? He writes about them.
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MG: You outlined how actors learned to stop theatrically demonstrating and to draw the attention of their audiences into their performances. You write a lot about that gradient of desire in the Kidman book and I liked your equation of desire with the imaginal longing between audience and actor. You're saying that some people have complained that a film historian of your caliber should not be writing about actors and yet who else would know about that desire? Who else will have honed their imagination appropriately?
Thomson: That's a good question. I never thought there was anything untoward or dangerous or risky in writing about a movie star, a movie actor, so I've been surprised by the reaction and I still don't really understand it.
MG: It appears to me that someone of your experience and your insight into the world of cinema comes under attack precisely for that reason because there are so many upstarts and people with current theories. But what I like about your work is this kind of lived-in feel about it. Do you think that is offputting to newcomers?
Thomson: Here's the thing. I've been doing it a long time. And I've got to a point where I'm one of the people kids think they can take a shot at, know what I mean? I think sometimes I get some tough reviews because of that but that's fair enough. I've been on the other side. When I was young I've done the same thing. I do think that sometimes the kids don't appreciate the history I've been through and the changes that I've seen. I think the fact that I'm as interested in film as I ever was is a sign of a person who's changed his ideas a bit.
MG: Helping a person to change their mind is what cinema should do, isn't it?
Thomson: I think so. I'm not really interested in reviewing films. I like to write about the world of films and the atmosphere of films, something you said earlier….
MG: Exactly, the culture.
Thomson: The culture. Anything to do with that culture interests me. Once upon a time when I was young, people would come in and say, "I don't like so-and-so. I don't like Buñuel. Or I don't like Hitchcock." I'd get indignant! "You've got to like Hitchcock; you've got to like Buñuel!" Or whatever. I couldn't care less nowadays. If you don't like what I like and vice versa, what does that prove but that there's room for lots of differences in opinion? I'm much more interested in how all films work on us and what we do with them culturally and how we use them in our own lives. Questions like that interest me much more nowadays.
MG: Another quality I like in the Kidman book, and in your writing in general, I liken unto the diaries of Anaïs Nin. She published these sprawling seven volumes or so of her diary and I'd be reading her memories of her life and find myself drifting off and daydreaming about my own life. I realized that was the true value of those memoirs. Via her self-reflection, she triggered my own. Her reveries provided a platform or a launch pad for my own. That's also the value of certain films. You're one of the few film writers I know who allows himself—perhaps because of your experience—the luxury to meditate. This is why I was asking you about the may-have-beens. There's something so valid in that. Can you speak a little bit about what prompted you to explore not only the experience of literal films, but imagined ones as well?
Thomson: Again, I don't see as much value or interest for myself in going deep deep deep into an individual film as reflecting upon things that a group of films have in common in the way they work. I think in the end all films are versions of all other films. There are only a certain number of film stories that they're told and they're very alike and I like the likenesses. I like exploring that. The thing that really turns me on most of all is the way we tell ourselves stories. The way we love to turn information and the world and fact into story. I speak as someone who probably spends as much time reading novels as seeing films, and I've written fiction myself. I just find storytelling altogether—I think it's probably for me the most interesting human practice; the way in which we try to digest our experience and offer it back to other people in the story.
Even if I sit down with you for a coffee and you tell me something that happened to you today, it may be an exactly factual thing, you may not alter anything, but you're going to present it as a story. Because you're going to look at me and say, "I want him to understand what happened. Therefore, I've got to shape it a little bit. Not necessarily cheat it, add to it, detract from it, but I've got to tell a story." When we talk to people, we're telling them stories, we're trying to get them to see something, we're trying to persuade them to our point of view and it's the way we are as communicating beings. I find it fascinating and, therefore, film—while it's always been the medium that grabbed me the most and certainly grabbed me the earliest—I can't really conceive of a conversation about the cinema, say, that didn't eventually get into literature, and theater, and painting too, because of the resemblances.
MG: I do feel that cinema is now providing the moral templates that great literature once did. Though writing is your predominant medium, you do have a keen appreciation of the medium of cinema, and I admire how you move between the two, connecting the two, because I do believe the two—great literature and great cinema—allow us the chance to explore the great themes of life. We're not getting that education elsewhere.
Thomson: Absolutely. If you're going to tell me what happened to you, you're probably going to tell me because you think it was very funny what happened, or it was very frightening, or it was very significant. In other words, I'm learning a lot about your judgment about reality. "He chose to tell me about that." Now that tells me a lot about you and—directly or indirectly—it's going to tell me about your moral point of view. What you find funny, what I find funny, is very close to where our ethics are. Inevitably in humor there's something dark, something cruel even, so how we find something funny tells us a lot about what we expect of ourselves.
MG: You write a lot about Hollywood. Do you have much interest in foreign cinema or the cinema that is coming from developing countries?
Thomson: I was born and raised in England and the American screen for me was so alluring. In so many ways it seemed better than life in England. That may have been very naïve but I knew because of it at an early stage that I wanted to come to America. It's not been a disappointment. In some ways I've been disappointed but not as a whole. I have tended to specialize in American [cinema], but, if you were to say to me, what is the greatest national cinema of all, I'd probably still say the French. And I'd put the Japanese high up too.
Am I interested in developing countries? Yes, I am. Time is of an issue. I write a lot and I work hard and so I don't have as much time as I once had to just go research films all the time. But, yes, I'm very interested in new countries coming along with their films because I think it's how they're going to tell us their story. For instance, when you live in a country like this and you were regularly told by your leaders that Iran is a [den] of iniquity and monstrousness, and yet you know that Iran is one of the more interesting filmmaking countries of the world and has been for several years now, you know something that your leaders don't know and they ought to wake up to, start looking at some Iranian films, because what you've discovered there is a society in flux and a society that I think in many ways is begging to become part of the larger world.
MG: Exactly. It's a global discourse by the way of common themes. I spoke with Bahman Ghobadi in Toronto. I love his films. I love them. I love any film that reveals a humanity past ready-made national identities and that's what I go to film for. My site is called The Evening Class and it was named after Sembene who said that movies were the evening class for discriminating adults and that's how I try to approach film.
Thomson: I think it's a great approach. I love it.
MG: I am concerned, however, that—in order to do that—I find myself moving away from American cinema.
Thomson: Yes! Because American cinema—and this touches on what we were talking about when we came out of the bookstore, you said I heard you didn't like films anymore, and really what I mean is I don't like enough new American films. And I feel angry about it. Because I love the tradition of America being a moviemaking country and I just think that we're not making enough good movies. We're making really awful movies that I don't want to see. That's where my feeling is on new films.
MG: Well, I'm relieved to hear that because it concerned me when I read it.
Thomson: It's not true.
MG: As a new film writer, I read a lot because I figure, first of all, don't write what a million other people have written, try to find some unique approach to the material, and be aware of what other people have done. What I enjoy about your writing is—like I was saying—this leisurely approach you have towards film. That leads me to wonder how you began and what brought you to writing about film and not just going to movies. Because everyone goes to movies, all young people go to movies, but not everyone writes about them.
Thomson: I did a conventional English education and I was headed for Oxford to read history. I just knew in my bones that I didn't want to spend three more years within academic walls in confinement. I wanted to learn much more about the world. In the British film magazine Sight and Sound there was an advertisement for a film school, the London School of Film Technique as it was then called, it was the only film school in England, there was no university that taught film, and I was already film crazy. I shocked my school by saying I wasn't going to go to Oxford, I was going to go to a film school, which was just a one-year course. I just wanted to do that more than the other.
I fell in with a group of people at the film school, all older than I was. It turned out they were mostly people who had been to the university already so they had a lot more life experience, which for me was wonderful. They were pretty much all of them foreign. So that in the class that I joined I met my first American. I met my first Indian, Pakistani, Thailand, Italian. To meet all these people from all over the world who were like five or six years older than I was and that much further on in life just had it; it was everything I wanted. But they all of them already had filmmaking skills such as I didn't possess. They could load and shoot a camera. They could edit film. They could record sound because they'd done a little bit of it already. I was with this group and I was sort of desperately trying to find what I could do with the group and they were all ready to go but they didn't know what to film. And I said, "Well, suppose we have a little story about so-and-so?" and they looked at me and they said, "You're a scriptwriter!" It was the one thing I could do they couldn't do. I could come up with—both non-fiction and fiction—I could come up with ideas for films. We only made little films because we were making a lot of them so they were short. But I could do that and I became the group's writer and I really started to write seriously and to think that I might be a writer and I realized just professionally that one of the things I could do would be to write about films. I'd seen a lot for my age; I'd seen really a lot. So I started keeping little handwritten reviews of everything and that's how it began.
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At this point David's chocolate pudding and my apple turnover arrived and so I turned off my recorder so we could enjoy our dessert. But our conversation continued. He wanted to know about my background and was intrigued that I had worked for an Associate Justice for the California Court of Appeal who had since been appointed to the California Supreme Court. He sympathized completely with my having to retire early due to disability and understood that my body was trying to tell me—since diseases are gods—that I was not in the right place, that I needed to be doing something else. How fortunate for me that, like himself, I found film to be the perfect new fulcrum for my writing.
I asked him what he thought of the tension between print critics and online critics and he admitted to being old-fashioned, preferring words in the newspaper or magazines, though nonetheless cognizant that a time was rapidly approaching when newspapers and magazines would become obsolete and online writers would reign. He agreed with me that there are many fine writers publishing on the Internet, amongst all the dross. The same could be said of print writers truthfully. He found it amusing that I only knew his writing through the Independent and the Guardian's online venues. I countered that I felt the tension between print and online film writers was a false one, yet another fabricated hierarchy, that online writers weren't out to replace print writers, merely fill the void left by the commercial focus of most print sources on larger Hollywood product that left no space for writing about foreign films or independent features, the "smaller" fare. He agreed this was a valuable service of online film commentarians who can write about what they want without editorial tether or word counts.
Cross-posted on Twitch.