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Birnbaum v.

David Thomson

Lots of folks complain that the movies aren’t what they used to be, but not many people can tell you why. Our man of the north has a fascinating talk with film critic and writer David Thomson about the start of the art, Million Dollar Baby, and how Nicole Kidman went from bimbo to genius.

David Thomson was born in London and has taught Film Studies at Dartmouth College. His well-regarded canonical Biographical Dictionary of Film was first published in 1976 and in 2002 was reprinted in its fourth edition, which even more recently was updated and expanded. He has written two novels, Suspects and Silver Light, and numerous other books, including Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick; Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts; Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles; In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance; and Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes. He was the screenwriter on the award-winning documentary The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind and regularly contributes to numerous publications. He lives in San Francisco with his two sons and his wife, photographer Lucy Gray.

The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood
is Thomson’s idiosyncratic and insightful examination of Hollywood from its earliest days, and is filled with the kinds of analysis, judgments and anecdotes that one would expect from a writer the Atlantic Monthly has anointed “the greatest living film critic and historian.” This is my second conversation with Thomson. As is his style, which is replicated in his new wonderful and accessible history, all manner of things are subjects for discussion and consideration. I eagerly await David’s next book, whether it is on weather, or not.
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

* * *


Robert Birnbaum: My recollection from our last conversation was that you had it in mind or were toying with the idea of writing a book on weather. You gave some good reasons for its being a compelling subject. Now, reading The Whole Equation, it seems like this book has been gestating for a long time.
Thomson, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
David Thomson: Well, I think most writers realize that they work according to very long-term plans. And, yes, this is a book that had been in my head and in my collective experiences and in my filing system for a long time. And it came to the top. I still want to do the book on weather and, in fact, I remember talking to about it with you and that was a little over two years ago. And I have been thinking about it and reading about it and educating myself a little bit, in a sort of meteorological way. And I’m going to do that book.

RB: Now it seems especially ripe, as I don’t remember a year in which weather was so much of the world news.

DT: That’s the other thing. Of course, it’s not the only thing why I want to do the book. But it has indeed—we are on the threshold of a moment where weather is going to be occupying us more and more. Yeah. So I’m going to do it and I can’t put a timetable to it. It will come. It still interests me even more than it did then.

RB: I’m glad we tied up that loose end. A small matter here—Bob Gottlieb has been your editor for the longest time but you also thanked Jonathan Siegel.

DT: I’ve had different editors. Bob has actually principally been the editor of the Biographical Dictionary. It’s a book he loved, and when the book moved over to Knopf, it was always taken for granted that he would do it. But Jon Siegel has edited—the Selznick book, the Welles book, and this one. So I have worked with him, too. And I have worked with Sonny [Mehta]. I am actually working with Sonny on a project now. Which will actually be the next book that comes out, although it’s not a book that I will be the author of, really. This is the Marlon Brando novel. Do you know about this?

RB: No, I don’t.

DT: Would you like to talk about that?

RB: No. I’ll tell you why. One of the things that I thought of reading this book that there is so much here and I struggled a little to find an entry point and a focal point.

DT: So you don’t want any more angles? [both laugh]

RB: There seems to be a lot of press on the book, though I’ve only read one piece—

DT: Yeah, it’s had quite a bit of press, I think.

RB: It struck me that this has to be a difficult book for a reviewer who has X amount of words and a limited time frame, and therefore I can sense where it might infuriate them. [laughs]

DT: I think that’s right, and that shows. I have not been reading the reviews because I find that when you are promoting a book it’s a terrible time to read the reviews. Being out on the road is a—it’s not an ordeal, exactly, but you have to steel yourself up for it. And I find that you need to keep your morale as high as possible, and so I don’t read the reviews until after—three months after publication and I’ll look at them all then. I have gathered from other people and there have been a lot of reviews that have been perplexed, baffled by the book. Or flat out haven’t liked it. Another reason for that is that this is the work of a person who [thoughtful pause] has been very much identified in the public mind—

RB: That person would be you.

DT:—with a passion for film. And as you know movie people are not overly critical of their own passion. It’s a hot bath they want to jump into and stay there. This is a book that in many ways raises questions and worries. About the overall achievement and culture of film. It asks the question, “Is it really an art? Are we doing it justice when we treat it as an art? Or isn’t it something more complicated and a bit less than art?” So I think there are some people for whom film is a church who think that there is something heretical, possibly, in this book. And there is. I foresaw that there would be some people like that who were offended by the book. But for me it was a collection of things that had to be said.

RB: You had fun writing this, yes?

DT: It’s a long time—to tell you the truth—since I wrote a book where I didn’t have fun. Writing is hard and you owe it to yourself to—if you don’t really want to do a book enough, then don’t do it. It’s very important before you begin—that’s why I think that feeling of percolation—letting an idea sit there for a few years is very important. Some times an idea will come to you and you’ll realize after a couple of years thinking about it that it’s a superficial idea. It’s not for you. So, yeah, I had a lot fun with this book. Partly because the form of the book is a little unusual. It’s not cut and dried chronological. There are digressions and side streets and turnings. I like that kind of book. I always have done. It’s conversational, and I like that side of it, too.

RB: Which would make it additionally problematic for a reviewer, they’d be looking for the money graf or—

DT: You raise a fascinating topic and I’m sure it comes up in what you do time and time again. I think book reviewing is in a very strange state. I review books, too. So I sympathize because, let’s face it, you’re paid a pittance to review a book and really it’s only worth doing if you believe in book reviewing. But you read a lot of book reviews and you wonder why that person was asked, what they thought they were doing.

RB: I read a lot of reviews—

DT: That you like?

RB: I take that back. I don’t read a lot but I notice many that strike me as having been posed or requested for some controversial reason.

DT: I’m afraid to say that there are literary editors in this country who do approach you and sort of say, “Wouldn’t this be a good opportunity to really do so and so?” That’s happening. And there is no doubt that there is a kind of constant naggy, political, aggressive element in literary journalism.

RB: I’ve taken up the sport of book reviewing and I though I am not given to many rules, one guiding principle is that I don’t review books I dislike—it’s a waste of time.

DT: That’s generally my feeling. If I don’t like a book I tend to put it down. There are a lot of other books begging to be read and to go through a book from page 100 onward knowing that you are going to write a killing review. I don’t know, it seems to me to be—

RB: You nailed it there. The literary journalists who are gatekeepers—there is something wrong, something that smells bad. I can’t get over the most egregious example of what we are talking about—Leon Wieseltier on Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint. Who’s to blame here? Sam Tanenhaus?

DT: That’s the question of course. That’s where the issue really resides. It’s an editorial decision and a writer may be enlisted in that, but it’s usually an editorial thrust—much more than should be the case, editors—and I’m not picking out anyone individually—but editors come with a little bit of an agenda. I can’t prove this and perhaps I shouldn’t even say it but the last time the Biographical Dictionary of Film came out the book was a surprising success. It’s a book that had existed for a long time.

RB: The third edition?

DT: No, the fourth edition. And it was well thought of in critical circles and definitely had a following but all of a sudden it broke through to a different level of sales. It actually began to sell quite a lot of copies of the book. And someone said to me at the time, “There’ll be a backlash. You can’t write film books and have a little bit of success and not expect some people to jump on you for it.” I don’t know—the prediction, one way or another, has proved correct. [laughs]


Movie people are not overly critical of their own passion. It’s a hot bath they want to jump into and stay there.


RB: It’s funny you say that. We are talking about reviews of a new book by you but I would have thought that based on my perception of the canonical status of the Biographical Dictionary that you are review-proof. People are going to pay attention to your work without relying on intermediaries.

DT: This book, I am told—I don’t know whether to believe it but I am told—by Knopf that this book will be no. 24 on the nonfiction bestseller list. I have never been on those lists before. This book has had a much less good press than the Dictionary had. I think now there is a body of people who buy what I write.

RB: Have you been busier in the recent past? I think I have seen more journalism of late.

DT: I think I have. I think I have. I think I can explain it. [laughs] I have two kids in private schools [both laugh] and I am of an age where I feel good, I feel tremendous and I feel strong and healthy but I know that the years I can expect to go on feeling like that are probably drawing to a close.

RB: They may be.

DT: Maybe. So I am definitely making the best use of the time I can. I look back on my earlier years and can see that I was lazier. Than I am now. I am more concentrated. I am doing a lot, yeah.

RB: Do you think Harvey Weinstein [whose blurb appears on the dust jacket] read your book? [both laugh] You don’t have to answer.

DT: No, no. In a way. It would disappoint me to think that he did. Because it wouldn’t quite fit with a man of whom I’m genuinely fond. I do know and I believe that he read the Selznick book, which is a much longer book, word for word, because I had a conversation with him once in which it was clear that he had read that book and for obvious reasons because he identified with Selznick in a very obvious way. And because he loves what he does. He does deserve and live up to his reputation as being a tyrant and an ogre and an ugly American kind of thing. But he’s got something that I think that the very first generation of movie moguls had, which is much lamented in the business these days because it’s not there so often. He loved what he did and he was crazy about films. [It] doesn’t mean his taste was impeccable but he lived for and I think that he blurbed my book out of respect for me and kindness to me and because he had read enough of what I have written to feel that he trusted what I was going to write. The thing he thought about me is, “That’s an author who doesn’t simply kick [film] producers.” There is a kind of film writing that says, “Oh the poor directors. They are such wonderful noble people.”

RB: [laughs]

DT: “They are always trying to make great art and there are those producers who just make their lives hell.” Well, a long time ago I fell out of that thinking and the Selznick book most definitively marked it. I know he read that book. He thought, “This is a guy who knows enough about the whole business, the whole thing, the whole equation, that he is not going to dump on people like me. Therefore I’m not going to dump on him.”

RB: If I may, one of the strongest points of this book is that there is no conventional wisdom being touted here.

DT: I hope not.

RB: No category of filmmakers, and I am using that in the broadest sense of the word, is angelic and heroic and, thus, lionized.

DT: It’s not an angelic and heroic business.

RB: [laughs]

DT: And the people who succeed in it, if they are honest, will tell you that they have to be tough, tough, and tough. They have to lie sometimes. They have to cheat sometimes. They have to manipulate. And they have to be lucky. All of those things, you know. And it isn’t a business for feeble spirits.

RB: Did your idea to write this book, was it triggered by the F. Scott Fitzgerald phrase—did something happen when you read it?

DT: Yeah, decades ago. Truly, when I first read The Last Tycoon, I was probably about 20 when I first read it. I was enthralled by it. I remember coming on the phrase “the whole equation” and a click went off and I said, “My God, that’s a great title.” I had no dream then of what I was going to do. But yes, it went into my head the way certain things do and lodged there. But that was a tribute to the Fitzgerald book. What I thought at the time—and I would have read it about 1960—I just thought it was dazzling that somebody who had not been a Hollywood success himself, because Fitzgerald was not, had seen enough of how the factory worked—this is the factory in its great days—and had realized that he was watching a process that was of enormous importance. That’s where ideas and beauty and their very vulgar, awful opposites were jammed together and out of it came the movies, which everybody in those days was going to see, and sometimes they were terrible. But sometimes they were wonderful. And the great thing that book has [Rosie walks in and is hailed, “You’re beautiful”] was respect for Monroe Starr trying to handle the whole thing. And that’s really where my sense of Selznick came from. It’s where my sense of Harvey Weinstein comes from. These guys—yes, they want to make a fortune and they want to live like pigs on the fortune [emphatically]—but they really want to make something great. And they want to make something great that will move millions of people that they will never meet. And that aspiration is wonderful, I think.

RB: You see the impulse to make money as being as legitimate and strong and intertwined with the need to tell stories and make art. You don’t take the stance, “Oh, those short-fingered vulgarians, they just want to make money!”

DT: Well, you’re dead right. This is a fascinating subject. There is another book here, which is—it would be something like, The Redemption of the Ethic of Making Money. We live in a society where so many of the worst and so many of the best things come out of that urge to build things, to make things, and to make fortunes is part of it. And you can’t build things without making a fortune. We’re talking in a city that is undergoing an urban transformation. You may not like every last detail of it, but great cities go through those great surges. And there’s got to be money. We know enough about local politics to know that not every dollar is achieved in the cleanest ways possible. One of the reasons I talk about Chinatown in the book is that the more I watch that film the more I like Noah Cross. You know there is that great moment when Gittes—and Gittes, he’s the hero but he is a rather sort of small-minded guy—and he says, “How much money do you have?” to Cross. And Cross says, “ Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.” And Gittes says something like, “Well, why do you do it?” And Cross says, “The future, Mr. Gittes, the future.” That’s an intensely American ideal. And I don’t see any reason to disparage people because they are in business. Our world is impossible to conceive without business.

RB: A qualifier here is—my sense is that much of the moneyed classes don’t have a sense of the future. That their visions have become shortened.

DT: Fair enough.

RB: We don’t have robber barons. We just have robbers. [laughs]

DT: All too true. Obviously that aspect of business is appalling and deserves our criticism but all I’m really saying is that I think that it’s very difficult for America to disassociate freedom from enterprise. It may be that this country is now on a path toward illness—fatal illness, even.

RB: Maybe? Here’s the money graf for me [page 370 in the book]:

“I regret the way America has elected to make films for its bluntest section of society and in ways that flatter them, and we have to recognize how much of that is being done for money. We have to find another way of measuring ourselves. And film is one of the few ways that might be done. Here and now, a twenty four hour period in which people of the Middle East and the people of the United States simply watched a television record of that day in another place—call it unmediated documentary—could be the most radical jolt to malice and political idiocy that we possess. So much in our films—American films now—supports the worst views held of us in other parts of the world: that we are combat-ready, aggressive, adolescent, greedy, sensationalist without humor, depth or imagination, rampant devotees of technology (as opposed to enlightenment).”

DT: I believe that totally. And I think it remains—that kind of possibility for film is more interesting that any fictional possibilities that you can think of for film.

RB: This would be the kind of expression that would really infuriate people who came to this book looking for film history. In future editions, are you going to keep the subtitle? [laughs]

DT: Perhaps not. I don’t know. Future editions? Future editions suggests some cultural longevity.

RB: I would think. The Whole Equation is jam-packed with insights, bons mots, facts and anecdotes—

DT: Well, I hope you’re right. Actually, I think what I would do, I would add an introduction or a postscript in which I talk about why I chose that title and take on some of the criticisms of it. That would be the proper way to handle the thing. Film is so young and film has always had this potential for storytelling. Hence, what we call the movies. But film is the surveillance cameras in every city car park. Film is the record of quadruple bypass surgery that is sent to foreign countries so surgeons can say, “So that’s how you do it?” Film is documentary. Is the documentary always reliable? No. But it has a document-like value that still offers so much in the way we might understand strangers. And this is a country that has neglected the documentary part of film. Terribly, terribly. As I think more and more people feel uneasy with the way this country is going, documentary is making a bit of a comeback. It’s as if people sense that that duty in film has been neglected. Some of the documentaries are not totally central or important, like a film about spelling bees, but how do you account for Michael Moore? Documentary doesn’t describe adequately what Michael Moore does. It’s something much more complicated. But the notion that films could be an essay of provocation, and inducement to thought—

RB: Why is it a criticism of Moore and that kind of effort, that kind of provocative presentation, that it is edited, biased? Why is that a negative?

DT: I don’t think it need be.

RB: There he is talking to Craig Unger across the street from the Saudi Arabian embassy in D.C. So, OK, he has placed himself there. The fact is, there is the Saudi embassy, an impressive edifice, and there is the Secret Service guy coming over to ask what they are doing.

DT: There is enormous value in that. There is something—what’s the word? There is something [pause] unresolved about Moore himself. People smell the demagogue in him and it’s not simply a matter of saying to Michael Moore, “Shape up!” I don’t know that the guy could. I don’t think he could lose weight and become tidy. And he is what he is. But there is something, I find—and it’s intriguing—something frightening in Moore as well as the subject matter that he is dealing with all the time. People have caught on to that and are feeling a little wary of it.

RB: Apparently as wind of his next project has gotten out—apparently something in the drug industry—the drug companies have been sending out memos with Moore’s picture warning officials not to speak to this guy. Maybe he will lose weight and adopt a new appearance.

DT: I can’t believe it.

RB: It was something of an irony that here you are talking about commerce and art and I wondered, in your discussion of the Edward Hopper painting, “New York Movie,” why it’s reproduced in black and white in the book. Couldn’t the publisher have popped for an additional color plate?

DT: Yes, they could.

RB: [laughs]

DT: They were prepared to but I elected to—we had the chance of one color plate—

RB: So you put it in the front.

DT: And I went for a collage that my wife had done. I like it so much and it has the Hopper figure—it uses the Hopper—and

RB: It’s flopped.

DT: I went for that. It’s my choice. Knopf was little nettled about it. I went for it because I thought that picture said something about the totality of the book. I have had experiences in this book where the generosity of Knopf has been outstanding. Sometimes authors have scars and wounds from their publishers, but this is not a case like that. They have been tremendous.


My habit is to read the credits at the end of a film. And my wife is tolerant of it. She sits there with me. And a few minutes into the credits—the credits sequence goes on about eight minutes, you know—she turns to me and says, “Do you know that about two-thirds of the audience (and it was packed), they’re staying, too. Why is that?” And she looked again and she said, “I think I know why it is. They have been so moved. Some of them are crying. They need time to come out of it.” That’s amazing.


RB: You’re about halfway through your book tour. Have you met readers who have read the book?

DT: What’s been really remarkable is that I have done probably a dozen events, maybe 15 bookstore events in very different cities, and they have been better attended than bookstore readings for me in the past, and the public knows what this book is about. It’s not been a young audience. It’s been a middle-aged audience and people who lament the way in which they feel the movies have pushed them aside. The movies don’t cater to them anymore. A lot of people who don’t go to the movies anymore and who know exactly what this book is talking about in terms of those pictures made in supposedly the factory system that actually stand the test of time better than I think movies made today will do. The public is getting this book, is understanding this book. That’s why even on the low end it’s got on the bestseller charts. A lot of people are very unhappy with what they think Hollywood is and what Hollywood has done to their notions of what a movie is. The value the independent movie—they can see that’s something new and useful. To give you a concrete example: You go out and talk at these meetings about The Aviator and Million Dollar Baby and people think The Aviator is sort of interesting, flashy, colorful, a lot happens in it, but empty. They think Million Dollar Baby is like the kind of movie they used to see and love. And they say isn’t it, they think isn’t it wonderful that Clint Eastwood at the age of 74 can take a very simple story, a story that probably could have been filmed in the 1930s and cast it so well, get the script so tight that it just moves you. And I have not been, in the past—you can look it up in The Biographical Dictionary—I have not been a 100 percent Eastwood fan. I have never thought he was a great actor. And I did not think he was one of our best directors. I thought he was a great producer. But I think apart from anything else in this film, it’s the best acting job he has ever done and I think the film is beautifully directed. And, yes, it’s an old-fashioned film. But what I think people are finding about it, the people I’m meeting is, “Look, you can make a film in that old way and it still works.” Whereas The Aviator, I don’t know what the film is about in the end. Howard Hughes is not likeable. I don’t really care about him. OK, you tell me a lot about his life and that’s interesting—but I don’t care about Howard Hughes. These people in Million Dollar Baby, I care about them.

RB: To talk about “making movies in the old way” does require that someone know what that was—

DT:—but I am talking about people of an age who remember. And of course you do meet kids today who are tremendously sophisticated and well versed in old films because they see them on DVD. But on the whole the audiences I’m getting coming to bookstore events are people 40-plus. Sometimes 60-plus and they remember the old days. And they know that experience of a movie sucking you in until you are hanging on the story. I went to see Million Dollar Baby with a big audience because I’d heard enough about the film in advance to know that it was an audience event, not a critic screening event. And my wife and I went to see it in San Francisco in a big theater—1,000 seats—

RB: They still have those, I guess.
Thomson, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
DT: Not as many as there ought to be. It’s very sad. We sat there, and my habit is to read the credits at the end of a film. And my wife is tolerant of it. She sits there with me. And a few minutes into the credits—the credits sequence goes on about eight minutes, you know—she turns to me and says, “Do you know that about two-thirds of the audience (and it was packed), they’re staying, too. Why is that?” And she looked again and she said, “I think I know why it is. They have been so moved. Some of them are crying. They need time to come out of it.” That’s amazing.

RB: I’ve gone to see two movies in the past year—Open Range and Ray. I’ve stopped going to the cineplex.

DT: Now why is that?

RB: I hate them.

DT: They’re ugly places aren’t they? Ugly sad places.

RB: And the postage-stamp-size screen isn’t better than my TV monitor and a DVD.

DT: The standards of projection are terrible these days. I’m glad you saw Open Range. That was a neglected film—a beautiful film.

RB: I’m a sucker for a good Western.

DT: I loved that film. I thought Duvall and Costner together were just perfect.

RB: Duvall and everyone.

DT: He’s a wonderful actor.

RB: There’s a scene in Geronimo, where Duvall is dying and he flickers his eyes—

DT: He’s a natural. He really is. He is like Morgan Freeman. I’ve not seen the bad scenes they’ve done.

RB: You talk a little bit about bit about TV superseding, or more, the relationship of movies and TV. What do you think of the high quality of some of the movies and series being made for cable TV—for HBO?

DT: I say in the book that I think HBO is the best old-style film studio in operation today.

RB: I missed that.

DT: HBO’s record in the last few years on a big range of material—I’m bound to say that there have been some lapses in The Sopranos, but if you want to argue the case that the great modern movie is The Sopranos, you’ve got a case.

RB: I lost interest after the second season.

DT: I re-viewed the very first season over Christmas. We had relatives from England and we watched the first season again, the whole thing. And I’m bound to say that it was a lot better than the most recent season. There was a tightness to it—I think they have been wandering a bit and filling time a bit.


The most potent special effect is the human face changing its mind.


RB: Your thesis that success spoils people.

DT: Yes, we all know that’s true. It’s also extraordinarily difficult to keep dramatic shape when you’ve got an essentially open-ended thing. I would argue that almost all TV series move toward becoming parodies of themselves. They begin with a wonderful fresh take on reality and then it becomes increasingly as if it’s the show in a mirror. And people do wilder and wilder things. Maybe a few shows have avoided that. But not many.

RB: What does it say about the audiences that they stay with these series? That they have been hypnotized?

DT: The habit sets in. And clearly for many people the habit of the Sopranos is in there just as the habit of watching Friends was in there. We are all, the fans of the series, desperate but terrified to see how it ends. It’s got a potential to have an apocalyptic ending.

RB: [laughs]

DT: There could be no one left alive. [laughs] And yet you feel they might blow it. And you don’t want them to blow it. It’s like Godfather III was such a come down after the first two. So there is reason to be worried. There were problems it had as a project. It’s just not a film in the same category as the first two, but Coppola is not quite the person he was when he did the first two either.

RB: Have you seen The Wire?

DT: I’ve seen some of it but I am not a regular with that, no.

RB: I very much like that show.

DT: We’ve all got our—when you think of the range of things. Deadwood

RB:—love it.

DT: The Larry David show, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Do you like that, too?

RB: I don’t subscribe to the premium cable channels. I watch these shows on DVD collections. I did like the audacity of the show where a Holocaust survivor was at a dinner with a contestant from the TV show Survivor. I thought, “He’s fearless.”

DT: Oh no, it can be extraordinary. Very interesting.

RB: I’m struck by how good the writing is for all these ventures. And how they allow the writers free rein or at least wide latitude. That doesn’t seem to obtain in other arenas.

DT: The TV shows that hit, that really get going now, they build a team of writers with editors above them, that is a format very like the old Hollywood format, “Give me your pages and someone will edit them. We keep you around all the time because you know these characters.” It’s a very, very workable system. The trouble with Hollywood now is that the system is so craven, in terms of material. It’s so frightened of getting into difficult material. Television, for years now, has been much braver. Even network television, about handling difficult things. The best writing by far is on television. One of the best films by far made last year was an extraordinary British documentary called The Power of Nightmares by a man named Adam Curtis. If you ever get a chance to see that, it’s about the origins of terror and the right-wing response to it. It’s brilliant.

RB: You stated, “The most potent special effect is the human face changing its mind.”

DT: Now that’s a line that at readings, it gets sighs of rapturous response.

RB: [laughs]

DT: Because these people are so sick of these endless special effects scenes. It’s a myth that the audience loves special effects and computer-generated images. Children do. But grown people don’t. I think these people remember movies ended on close ups. And in the crisis where somebody was going to do something good or something bad, the face told the whole story from the early days of movies, the silent movies, whoever the face was, Chaplin, Garbo, whoever you’d like to name, it was the face that could let us know what that person was thinking. That was the engine of films. It’s still true. I don’t think it’s changed. Take a film like Open Range. Remember when Duvall and Costner look at the tea cups?

RB: [laughs]

DT: Doesn’t that [look convey] “Well, how do we hold them?” It’s beautiful and it tells you everything you need to know about these guys and the lives they’ve led.

RB: By the way, was that film successful commercially?

DT: [emphatically] No! It was regarded as a rather offbeat Western. It was an amazing film. And again, I have not been a Costner fan. But I loved that.

RB: Speaking of the face, have I come late to an appreciation of Nicole Kidman? It’s only been in Cold Mountain, The Human Stain and Birthday Girl that I have begun to find her acting compelling and outstanding.

DT: Here’s the thing about her, I think. Australian girl, very early meets Tom Cruise and he takes over her destiny. And she is pretty, cute and she has a good body and she doesn’t really act but she has a screen presence—the camera likes her. And I don’t know what happened inside that marriage or inside her but the marriage falls apart and all of a sudden it’s as if this bimbo says, “I’ve got to show the world that I’m a grownup.” And she takes charge of her career. And she suddenly becomes someone prepared to take big risks. She works for [director Lars] von Trier. She may work for Wong Kar Wai. She does Virginia Wolff. All of a sudden I don’t understand that woman. I didn’t know who she was. And she remains beautiful and she is a compelling personality and she is unquestionably one of the real stars of the moment. But she is a very interesting actress and she is a very interesting career maker. I admire the way she took charge. In the end, the thing that a lot of actors never do is really sort of take charge of their careers. They do as they are told for a long time.


Movies have something to do with the intoxication that young people love. The way they like to feel that what they are doing is everything in the world. The most important thing.


RB: And am I correct that Human Stain was not appreciated and well reviewed?

DT: You are understating it. Human Stain was critically demolished. It was a commercial disaster. And I am not quite sure I have gauged your feeling but I think it’s an amazing film.

RB: I loved it.

DT: I thought it was terrific. I believed in it totally. We are in a real minority, however. That counts as one of her failures, without a doubt.

RB: Really? That’s the film that got my attention. She was so vulnerable and so complex.

DT: I thought so, too.

RB: I even like Ed Harris’s piece of that film.

DT: The film got very badly treated.

RB: Validation of not reading reviews.

DT: You see, there you are.

RB: Birthday Girl. I just discovered it.

DT: It’s a gem, isn’t it? Just a little gem. This was done by an English kid who had not really done anything. As I understand it they sent her the script and she thought, “Yeah, that’s interesting. I’ll do it.” She is taking risks. This film she made recently, Birth, which was another real failure but has 20 minutes or so in it that are extraordinary and it could have been out of sight. She is really interesting, and I have a lot of admiration for her.

RB: Did you make the claim that it was Marilyn Monroe that was the moment that celebrity culture was established in the U.S.?

DT: You could argue that, yeah. The ‘50s was a very interesting time because you have Monroe. You’ve got Presley, of course, and you have Kennedy just coming up and Kennedy seems to be the first celebrity politician. Yeah, I think that Monroe’s fame just went way beyond her capacity. Obviously, she was the victim of it, and that added to everything. You have James Dean and you’ve got Brando. They are all part of it.

RB: It was expected that people in the show business would be celebrified. I am inclined to look at someone like Kissinger as being one of the first non-show business celebrities. He had star power.

DT: Definitely and had a great understanding of what it was to be on television as much as he was. You’re quite right movies are a natural link to it, and I think movie people were first celebrities at the beginning of the 20th century. But Marilyn becomes folkloric.

RB: She was a quantum leap of a sort?

DT: Yeah, everybody thinks they understand Marilyn. You get—Arthur Miller wants to marry her. Norman Mailer needs to write about her. Joyce Carol Oates wants to write about her. And that’s going to go on. She’s an unsolved mystery. She’s a “Rosebud,” in that everyone keeps asking the question. Now I think factually, biographically, the answer are not terribly interesting. But we are not deterred by that.

RB: Right.

DT: We are not deterred by the notion that—well, she was a pretty foolish, uneducated, undeveloped person. We want there to be more. So we want her to have a part in every conspiracy there ever was in the middle of the last century. And there are enough conspiracies there now aren’t there? It’s a tangled time. So she’s that kind of figure.

RB: These are times you and I lived through but as we move away from them I wonder, is there a younger generation of film scholar-critics in the prominent the way of [Pauline] Kael and you and [Andrew] Sarris and [James] Agee?

DT: Yeah, there is.

RB: Where and who are they?

DT: Well they write for places like Slate and Salon.

RB: David Edelstein [at Slate.com] is one of those.
Thomson, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
DT: He is definitely someone who grew up under Kael’s tutelage, almost. There is a group. I think they are not read in the way that Kael and Sarris were for a moment or two in time. Film critics don’t matter as much now as they did for a short time. Before Kael they didn’t really matter at all. And that may irritate and perplex them. And I don’t know what there is to be done about that. We may need a younger generation still. Almost teenagers who are going to suddenly come up with an almost new medium and find a critical way of talking about it. I suspect it will have much more overlap with music and stuff like that. But there is a group of writers out there. And they do some good work. And they are very alert to what’s going on overseas because this country has really lost touch with the foreign film. In the ‘60s and the ‘70s, the foreign film had a lot of currency in America but that’s not as true anymore. So identifying what’s going and on and what’s being made is and drawing attention to that is valuable. But they largely do that in very small-circulation magazines like Film Comment. I would think the readership of Film Comment has gone down in recent years.

RB: What is your sense of the twentysomething or thirtysomething critic’s reference to Monroe or Dean—mid-century pop icons—what is their grasp of them? How does that time look to them?

DT: There is a great danger in easy nostalgia and just laying claim to it because you were alive then. Sometimes it’s difficult not to do that. When you are writing about those things, I think you need to see that there is a generation that came alive at the time of say, Star Wars and it’s very natural and proper that young people think that the most important movies ever made were the movies they first saw. Every generation needs to think that and that’s proper. And that means that in time the older films will get a bit more distorted and a bit more forgotten. Going back to this whole question of whether these films were works of art or just works of entertainment—a lot of them were just works of entertainment. If they don’t survive, they don’t survive. There are lots of novels that were bestsellers in the 19th century that no one reads or has heard of anymore and it may be that a lot of the films I treasure will go that way. I think a few of them are going to last beyond it and that some of them still look as good as anything.

RB: Are we more conscious of defining or at least making claims to what is classic and durable? How many times do we need to be told what in recent history represents the golden age of this or that?

DT: I know: How many times is Citizen Kane going to be voted the best film ever made?

RB: I thought Raging Bull received that honor? [laughs]

DT: We need to have something to take over. We need to have fresh models and ideals—fresh champions. We need a new champion. It’s not healthy for film that Kane goes on and on being regarded as—yeah, I think “classic” is a fusty word. The movie I saw last night ought to be the one that matters the most. Or the movie I’m going to see tonight.

RB: Other than a public role [as a cultural commentator], why are we defining things beyond the time frame we experience it?

DT: I agree. To this extent this book is doing that and it is to some extent, it’s a way of saying, “Look, we are in trouble now. We don’t quite know how to make the films anymore.” My feeling is not, “Let’s go back and make endless old films.” I like Million Dollar Baby, yes, but I don’t want every model for the ‘30s to be revived. I want something new. And I think film is desperate for new forms and new ways of doing things and it may well be that narrative is going to change in that sense. And it’s got to be young people who do it. It’s a tragedy that in this country is almost the most ingenious filmmaker around is Robert Altman—when he is nearly 80 or something. [Mr. Altman turned 80 on Feb. 20.—eds.] It shouldn’t be the case.

RB: MASH was the only box-office hit he’s had, yes? There was a string of films, up through Nashville, that were just great. McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

DT: The Long Goodbye, love it

RB: I liked your description of the theme song—the song that never goes away.

DT: The Long Goodbye gets better and better.

RB: Yeah.

DT: I thought The Player was interesting. Short Cuts was very good, taken from Raymond Carver’s stories. I like that a lot. He [Altman] is tremendous.

RB: I didn’t get Gosford Park.

DT: I thought that was just Masterpiece Theater. I didn’t like that very much.

RB: It was nominated for an Academy Award?

DT: I’m sure it was—for a few things.

RB: In The Whole Equation, you mention Mahler’s Ninth, Weegee [photographer and filmmaker Arthur Fellig], some jazz artists, Edward Hopper. Is film still the main lens that you use to look at culture and the world and think about things?

DT: No. And again all those choices, those things that I brought in were very deliberately brought in. I spend—compared with 30 years ago, I spend much more of my time listening to music, much more time looking at art and much more time reading. And getting satisfactions from those forms that very few new movies match.

RB: This may be circular, but would that have to do with a decline of the form? If there were a lot of movies that you found pleasing, what would your focus be?

DT: It’s personal too. The movies are a young person’s form.

RB: What does that mean?

DT: It’s about—an awful lot of the excitement of movies is about fantasy. It’s about imagining yourself something else. And as you grow older you do that a little less. You realize that there are inescapable realities to your life. You recognize mortality. I mean, you have friends who start to die. And you see parents die and things like that. You feel it as not just as a question mark in your own life but a thing that will happen. I am more impressed—more than when I was a kid—by things, by books, music, and people that address that. I would rather sit down and talk with someone who’s got that sensibility than someone who simply wants talk endlessly about the movies they’ve seen. One of the desperate limitations to film buffs is that they don’t want to talk about anything else. It’s the church things again. It’s that “Everything is in the movies. I only know everything in the world because I’ve seen it in the movies.” That’s really come to pall on me. I don’t like that notion anymore. So I think it’s to do with aging and to do with me.

RB: Is that true of other arts forms—accepting that films are art—do people who love music think the world is encapsulated in music?

DT: I don’t think it is. That’s the very interesting thing. Movies have something to do with the intoxication that young people love. The way they like to feel that what they are doing is everything in the world. The most important thing. People who give themselves to other media, they’re interested in other things. I have noticed just in encounters that there are not that many films directors you can talk to who want to talk about anything but film. Now you know, you talk to writers regularly, much more than I do. I think your interviews show, I don’t think it’s forced, I think it’s natural that a lot of them like to talk about very unexpected things. I find being in California, having my children, having a dog now and all those very ordinary things, they get increasingly valuable for me.




Tape ends


biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum