Saturday, December 16, 2006

DAVID THOMSON—A Conversation On "Passionate" Film Criticism

Recently, working on a magazine article profiling David Thomson's upcoming PFA film series "A Thousand Decisions in the Dark", David invited me into his home to get the job done. I came prepared with my digital recorder, a few pertinent questions, and some pineapple cornmeal tarts from L'Boulangerie, one of my favorite bakeries (which just happened to be in his neighborhood). After I got what I needed for my article, I took advantage of the opportunity to ask David about an issue that came to the foreground during Andy Horbal's recent Film Criticism Blogathon. I dedicate this piece to Pacze Moj at Critical Culture for inspiring me—through his piece on Pauline Kael—to think more deeply about an issue I take for granted.

Michael Guillén: David, there's been some discussion lately among myself and my compatriots as we've been researching and discussing film criticism about a frequent complaint—which I've not quite known how to address—regarding measuring a critic according to their passionate engagement with a film and that passion being inflected in their reviews. First, there was not a consensus about what was meant by "passion" or a "passionate" review. For example, if someone says Pauline Kael is a "passionate" critic; what exactly does that mean? Do you have any thoughts on that?

David Thomson: Yeah!

MG: Because I consider your writing passionate, especially with regard to how you feel the medium is failing and not living up to its own standards.

Thomson: Right. I hope it is. [Your question] is very complicated. I was brought up in a situation where the critical orthodoxy that existed in England at that time liked certain films, (I thought) wrote about them in a rather dry manner, and seemed to me to be trying to make films feel and sound like novels or plays. I knew that—for myself—the excitement of film came very much from the unique circumstances: the dark, the size of the image, the packed crowd, the visceral quality to it, and the feeling that something sensational was happening. That doesn't mean that those things didn't weigh upon you intellectually and in reflection; but, your first encounter with the film is a tense battle and it's trying to overpower you. In part, you want to be overpowered—it's like a love match—in part you want to be overpowered, in part you want to be yourself. So you're fighting back a bit, you're resisting, you're involved, you're wrestling with it and that's very important to me. It leads to a kind of writing where you feel the heat of the encounter and I always loved writing about film that begins, at least, by giving you that feeling of "God yes! That's what it's like to see that sequence! That's what you feel!" That gets a really precise physical emotional nervous reaction to a scene. I call that passionate because I think it comes from the guts. It obviously comes from the head too, but, it's very directly involved. I like writing about film that does that.

Now, as you grow older, you become perhaps a little calmer and you learn that the passion can be a little bit faked, a little bit self-conscious.

MG: The passion in the film or in your reaction?

Thomson: In the writing. What it comes down to is: I find it hard to read people about film where I don't feel that they are just as crazy about the meeting. I don't mind disagreeing about a film and, indeed, nowadays I would rather read someone I disagree with over a film than agree with because it provokes your thinking. Once upon a time I got angry if I disagreed. Now I've come to see that that's the most interesting reading.

MG: That's why I brought it up because some of the comments I've read basically stated that a passionate writer is not a good film critic. One fellow particularly, steeped in film theory, said that ideas don't come across when the writing is too passionate. I couldn't agree with that because 1) much of the semiotics of film theory bore me to tears and 2) there's such a thing as emotional intelligence and some ideas—as D.H. Lawrence complained—are dead from the ears down. Some ideas fly on the backs of emotions. If you take out the emotions, how will you get that particular idea across? They would plummet like Icarus with his failed wings.

Thomson: I agree entirely. I think it depends on what you mean by film criticism. These days it is so hard to tell what people mean. Film reviews, reviews that you might read on a Friday, say, to decide whether you want to go and see a film, they're terrible. They're as bad as they've been in our time. Also, if you're interested in film, you're not the kind of person who needs to be told what to go and see. You've probably got your list building in advance of what you're going to see. You know what you're going to go see because you reckon you know what's going to be interesting. Occasionally something will come up you've not heard of and if you read a good review of that, that might put it on your list. That can be helpful. But you don't really need too much prodding to go and to know what to see. Real beginners do but we're not in that category.

MG: Is a review ahead of the fact and a critique after the fact?

Thomson: I would rather not read anything about a film at all before I see it but I enjoy reading some stuff on a film after I've seen it. But, you see, I believe in seeing a film several times.

MG: I do too.

Thomson: Kael had this whole thing about you just see it the once. It seems that's what she did. I think that's depriving yourself of a lot of pleasure. The pleasure I have got from seeing certain films in re-viewing is amazing, enormous.

MG: Also I'm very interested in reception studies, not only how a film is received, but how it can be perceived variously at different screenings. For example, I just saw Mel Gibson's Apocalypto twice in one day. The first screening was for press critics—who came in predisposed to tear the film apart more savagely than any historical Maya sacrifice—and the second screening was over in Berkeley at the Landmark Shattuck with a whole bunch of students who were getting in for free, the line was around the block, and what struck me at the second screening—in terms of discussing passion—was that, clearly, Gibson as a filmmaker had done something right because these kids were laughing and gasping on cue. His film got his desired effect. He got the reaction out of his audience that he wanted. However, when the film ended, it was resoundly booed.

Thomson: Was it?

MG: The minute the Spanish conquistadors appeared, Mel suddenly lost his audience. He had them up until then but the moment they appeared, his audience started booing, as if he had pulled a clichéd rabbit out of a hat. I found that fascinating and their disapproval more interesting than the critical predisposition I experienced earlier at the first screening. Between the two experiences of watching the one movie, it was like two different movies.

Thomson: We talked about that before, if I remember. I think the different ways you see a film are terribly important.


Anonymous said...

"Now, as you grow older, you become perhaps a little calmer and you learn that the passion can be a little bit faked, a little bit self-conscious."

I agree with that. I also feel that a lot of people who are in their twenties or thirties who currently write about film are faced with three disadvantages:

Having grown up with VCRs, they take film for granted. There's no immediacy left, knowing that you can screen and rescreen a film at will.

Such immediacy also invites impromptu marathons, where one can "study" a filmmaker film by film in less than a month. I doubt the mind is capable of processing all that material so rapidly. (It also may result in awkwardly passionate or poorly realized reviews or critiques.)

A lot of filmmaking in the past twenty-five, thirty years has been flagrantly derivative of earlier filmmakers. (Is De Palma an auteur if he borrows so freely from Hitchcock?) A viewer in their twenties or thirties may shun the implications of this, the exposure of the limitations and weaknesses in their present culture. Plus, it's a natural conceit to believe that "your" culture is somehow superior to what came before.

Anonymous said...

Having grown up with VCRs, they take film for granted. There's no immediacy left, knowing that you can screen and rescreen a film at will.

I'm not convinced that this is a disadvantage. It seems to be that the positives and the negatives balance each other out nicely.

Michael, this is an interview that I'll be pondering and processing for quite awhile, I'm sure. For now, though, I'll say that my heart lept when Mr. Thomson acknowledged that your question about "passionate film criticism" is a complicated one. There's a lot to the filmgoing experience, far too much to address comprehensively in a review of 100, 500, 1000, or even 2500 words. Too many people are quick to identify one or two aspects of that experience as the only ones worth considering, and so dismiss reviews that deal with the rest...

Michael Guillen said...

Anonymous, thank you for stopping by to comment. I'm not sure I'm catching what you mean by "immediacy"; could you expand?

Andy, I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. You should credit yourself for facilitating a forum that induced the inquiry.

Anonymous said...

Oh, wow. Thanks for the dedication! This is the closest I'll come to ever talking to David Bordwell, I think.

I knew that—for myself—the excitement of film came very much from the unique circumstances: the dark, the size of the image, the packed crowd, the visceral quality to it, and the feeling that something sensational was happening.

I do most of my film watching on a small laptop screen, with headphones. I bypass the excitement, the experience of seeing a film in a theatre. It's interesting how your observations about the two Apocalypto audiences, for example, are ones I wouldn't be able to make. I wonder what sorts of peculiarities my viewing method creates.

For example, I have noticed that I'm much more likely to review a film quickly if I have managed to see it in a theatre; I am more passionate about it. Whereas if I see a film on my laptop, by myself, I usually let it sit in my head for a week, three weeks, and I'll only write about it if something else (another film, a book, a newspaper an article, a current event, an idea, etc.) collides with my thoughts about the film, and spurs a new kind of angle. I also love to pull out film stills, which I can't do if I've seen a film in a theatre. Maybe I'm more prone to dwelling on details, fragments because my spectatorship is fragmented.

I've never actually thought too much about how the how and where of film viewing could affect the writing about it. Has technology (DVD, home theatre, Internet) changed the character of film criticism? Could Pauline Kael have been so passionate about cinema if she watched them in a small dark room, hunched over a bunch of flickering liquid crystals?

Michael Guillen said...

You do mean David THOMSON? I'd hate for you to be having as-close-as conversations with the wrong people. Heh.

Well, I imagine there are idiosyncratic variables and no absolute givens when it comes to watching movies. Only preferences and habits. It's interesting for me to understand how you primarily watch film because I do think it can't help but affect the way you write about them. For myself, watching movies on television is diversionary. Watching movies on the computer is research oriented or pr-oriented. Watching movies in the moviehouse is experiential. All three are equally valid and whatever writing comes out of those viewings is valid. The Evening Class basically came about from watching lots of movies on Turner Classics and has morphed into another animal altogether.

The one way of watching movies that still has absolutely no appeal for me, though it's being heralded by the San Francisco Film Society, is what they call microcinema, or movies on your cellphone or Ipod. I have no interest whatsoever in shrinking a movie down to anything smaller than my television set. Airplane projections on the back of the seat in front of me are the only exception because I am, in effect, a captive audience, usually bored by flight time.

Anyways, as I'm making the rounds with talking to film critics, this will be the one stock question I ask and I thank you for adding it to my repertoire.

Anonymous said...


Yep, I meant Thomson, not Bordwell. I had just finished reading David Bordwell's blog, so I had a case of mixed-up Davids. Sorry!

I've never had a chance to watch a film on a phone or Ipod, but I can't say it's something I'm dying to try. However, I wonder if, like it would seem, the smaller the screen, the less eye movement necessary to watch a film.

Maybe shrinking things down to Ipod-size is doing a reverse of Antonioni's Blowup.

Brian Darr said...

Is the SF Film Society "heralding" ipod/cellphone movies (and didn't "microcinema" mean something else, namely small venues digitally projecting movies for audiences, a few years ago)? I wan't able to attend many of their "KinoTek" programs, but my impression was they they were looking for videos that would make best use of the few advantages and numerous disadvantages of the medium- not that they were proponents of shrinking films made for large-screen presentation into hand-held size.

Michael Guillen said...

When I said shrinking movies down to handheld, I didn't mean movies intended for the large screen. But clearly the Film Society sees that the future engages technology that, as you specify, allows for a greater variety of exhibition. But the scale of microcinema leaves me cold. To be fair, however, the programs were popular.