English-American writer David Thomson was born in London and attended film school. He taught film studies at Dartmouth College, and he has served on the film selection committee of the New York Film Festival. Thomson has published seventeen books, which include biographies of David O Selznick and Orson Welles; three novels: Suspects, Silver Light and Warren Beatty and Desert Eye; and books of essays mostly about Hollywood; and In Nevada: The Land, The People, God and Chance, a not easily categorizable book. He published the first Biographical Dictionary of Film in 1975 and has recently published its fourth edition. David Thomson has also been the editor of the short-lived Journal Of Gastronomy and contributes film commentary and criticism to the New York Times, Film Criticism, The New Republic, Salon and the Independent (of London). He lives in San Francisco with his family. He is at work on a number of projects, some of which he discusses in what follows.
Robert Birnbaum: Would it be fair to say that being British in America today is the same as being from Indiana, Montana or Arkansas?
David Thomson: Oh, I don't think so, no. (long pause) Most Americans are much kinder to you if you are British than if you are from Indiana (both laugh). But no, I don't quite see it that way. A great many Americans are kind toBritish people, to what they sense is the load of British culturethat you may or may not bring with youthe traditions. I haveoperated within the worlds of academia, within publishing, and writingin general, and obviously command of the language, command of theEnglish language helpsstill (laughs)and carries a longway.
RB: Two great cultures separated by one language…
DT: Right. In honesty, Americans are verytouched by and are sympathetic with people who use the languagewith a little more precision than young people in America do today.I think I have been very well-treated. To give you an example, Igot the job of doing the biography of David Selznick. One reasonI got that job was that I was English. Irene Selznick, David Selznick'sfirst wife, told me once that she thought and David thought thatEnglish people understood things. What that meant, I don't know,but it definitely had a bearing on my getting that job.
RB: You've been here since '75. In termsof your sensibility, are you irrevocably British?
DT: I don't think so. Occasionally, peoplein both countries ask, "Are you English or American?"I use the word ‘English' now, not ‘British' because‘British' has come to mean something a bit different.
RB: Yes, there is Scotland, there is Wales.
DT: Right, right. I would say, "Can't I beboth?"
RB: It would be confusing to say one was"English-American."
DT: We are allowed to do it with African-Americanand so many other things, so I don't know. I'm an American citizen.I have paid my taxes in this country since '76. I have childrenwho could be President of the United States, though I can't be.One of them definitely wouldn't mind the job. I have children whoare English, and I think that I will definitely spend the rest ofmy days as a resident of the USA. If I were to move to another countryit wouldn't be England. It might be another European country. Ifeel a lot of Englishness in me still, but I have had a wonderfultime learning about America. One of the things you do when you writebooks is you learn a lot about the country. I feel perfectly freeto criticize this country, but I felt perfectly free to criticizeEngland when I was there. It does not seem to me to be unpatrioticif you sometimes you criticize your country, and I think Americawas country founded upon that principle. I know it was, in fact.
RB: I wonder if the really great film criticismhasn't come from and doesn't continue to come from England?
DT: And France. A great deal of really importantfilm criticism came out of France and you can even say that beforethat a lot came out of Russia in the ‘20s. It's a fascinatingquestion, and it gets to a point that I think is easily forgotten.Which is, if you regard the movies as an American inventionandif technologically it was not entirely an American invention, interms of entertainment and show business, it was. There was an undoubtedlysomething in the movies that was refreshingly free from this notionthat in a literary culture only a very few are given the power bothto write and to stand the best. You take a literary master at thebeginning of the dawn of film, Henry James. It's given to few ofus to read Henry James easily. Butliterary culture clearlyacknowledges James as a master. What is refreshing about film isthat particularly in the first great age, people like Griffith andChaplin (just to take the American example), they really seemedto be making something for everyone. Literally, everyone in theworld. And Chaplin clearly for a time was the best-known personin the world. There is a wonderful, democratic egalitarian qualityin that. Which carries with it an end to all this fussing over textualcriticism. "What does this James sentence mean?" Let's just be moved,all of us together. Let's have a great experience that unifies us.Early films did that. At the beginning of the age of film particularlyand for some time there after and even now occasionally, you canhave a film that just hits everybody in a way that the greatestnovel never ever will be able to do. And it recognizes that wayin which we have become a mass culture. It addresses the sheer sizeof us in a very impressive way. Although I hate it as a basic kind,the fundamental American response to a movie, "I liked it," or "Ididn't like it," is almost what Hollywood wants. It's thumbs upor thumbs down. It's not, "Let's write a book about this movie."Basically the impulse to write books about movies began outside.If you look at the history of literature and film, Americans didnot contribute a great deal early on. That's changed and film istaught in American universitiesto excess.
DT: So you get people writing books for tenureand everything happens. As Pauline Kael said, "If there is one thingthat will kill the movies, is if it passes in to academic control."She may have a point. It's an interesting point that some of themost interesting work on filmsomehas been done by peopleoutside this country. But then you've got Kael. You've got Agee.Warshow and plenty of good people writing today. But historically,I think there is something in what you said.
RB: Let me flip the question… thereare good people writing today, but what are they writing about?What is the quality of film that is the content of their writing?
DT: The truth of the matter is that it wouldbe very depressing today to be a regular film critic, a regularfilm reviewer because it would mean that you would have to see allthe junk. We live in a very strange culture where the New YorkTimes and most of our papers take it as their duty, their obligation,to review every film that opens. Do they review every book thatis published? Of course not. Do they review every concert? No. Dothey review every art show? No. Does anyone think they should? No,of course not. There's a great fallacy there. A paper that showedthe courage to say, "A lot of the movies that are opening do notmerit our review space." That would be a refreshing attitude. Butyou have to bear in mind that the newspapers are horribly dependenton the advertising from the movies and that's where the commercializationof it has become terribly overpowering. Generally, the quality ofmovies today is horribly low and depressing for anyone who lovesthe medium and depressing for anyone who might want to work in it.Or has real hopes of where it will go. For some time now the tendencyhas been downward and just not in interesting directions.
RB: Did so-called independent movie-makingoffer a glimmer of hope?
DT: Yeah. There is something to be said forthem, and I think there is room now for a very good book on thehistory of American independent films because we have had time tosee it over a run of ground. There have been some real achievementsand in principle there is something tremendously important in theidea of movies that defy the commercial regulations of the industry.But equally you would have to say that many of the people who havemade their debut in independent film have been co-opted by the industry.And maybe they wanted in, all along. The pressure of the money isamazing. One of the things I want to do in my next book is talkabout that. It's a very difficult subject because it's the lastsubject people will really come clean on. You can find Hollywoodpeople who will tell you about their sex lives, whether you wantto hear it or not. But how much they actually were paid and howmuch that determined what happened, they get very shy of that. Theyare not supposed to admit to that. But I think it's very pressing.The other thing is that once you have been paid a lot of money,you get awfully used to it and the habit of slipping into a moremodest form is very difficult. It affects actors as well as directors.We are much better off having independent film and we have independentfilm because enough people said, "I just can't tolerate thatway of working." And there are people who have led honorablecareers in it and there are people who have lead both honorablecareers and very distinguished, talented careers.
RB: The person that comes to mind is JohnSayles.
DT: Sayles is the truest to the cause. Heis the one who has stood by his principles most defiantly and valiantly.I admire him for that more than I admire the films, to tell youthe truth. But there are good films that come out of this.
RB: Were you going to mention some names?
DT:I regard David Lynch as an independent film-maker. He's made filmsfor big studios, but I still think of him as an independent. Heis not to be controlled. It's been a way for minorities to makefilms. It's been easier for women to make films. Of course, theyall need the outlet. The question of where people see their filmsand how they decide to go to see them, that's still difficult. Maybewe're on the verge of a big change in that respect.
RB: Because of the possibilities of Internetdistribution?
DT: For independent films it's the naturalway to go. Yeah.
RB: No longer requiring theatrical releasefirst?
DT: A lot of them don't get theatrical release.You still want to see them if you can.
RB: I am regularly surprised at the videostore, "When was that released?"
DT: That's right. It wasn't. Equally, tolook at it the other way around, there is stuff on television thatis better than what we are getting in the theaters. What HBO hasbeen doing the last few yearsI'm not the only one to say itby any meansit's just more grown-up entertainment than a lotof stuff you see at the movies. It is also material that it is hardto believe a movie would do. The term ‘movie' often now meanswhat's on TV. It often means what you might buy in a little box.It might come to mean something you download. There might even beother things.
RB: How many large screens are left in SanFrancisco?
DT: Tell me what you mean by large screen?You mean a thousand seats plus?
DT: (long pause)
RB: How ‘bout 600 or 700?
DT: 600, 700 in San Francisco, we've probablygot no more than five. Maybe three or four and one of those is underserious threat.
RB: I have forgotten what it's like to bein a large theater with an excited audience. Sometimes I see a moviewhere in the movie people are watching a movie with a large audienceand it seems very strange…
DT: I know. It's very difficult to conveyto people, kids particularly nowadays, that feeling that I grewup with and I am sure you did that you really had to get there earlyyoumight not get init would be packed. You would be in the middleof a row of strangers and for me those things are still vital. IfI am teaching a subject, in film, you can't teach now a days withoutusing video, but if you wanted to say to people, "Look, this isa film where the sensory experience, the possibility for beautyshould be there from the outset, in your mind, you've got to makethem go and sit in front of a big screen." They may be alone…thisfilm, Far From Heaven, that is playing now. It's made likea big-screen film. It's as big as an oil tanker, if you know whatI mean. It's got these wonderful camera movements and color composition,all of which look a little overwrought on a small screen. See 'emon a big screen and they look more natural. They are natural interms of the big screen. It's like big, epic painting. You can dothings in big painting that you wouldn't think of in a little watercolor landscape. But the young generation clearly thinks that theTV screen is the primary screen in their existence.
RB: You wrote a piece for The Guardian("You Must Remember This," August 10, 2002) that alluded to thegenerational gap and one anecdote you referred to was that you werequoting lines from Casablanca and the young person didn'tget them. It reminded me that I talked with someone who teachesat NYU and he claimed that many of his undergraduate students didn'tknow who Kurt Cobain was. What is the shelf life of any culturalentity?
DT: I know. We do not seem to have the samerespect for remembering. I have young children going through schoolnow and they don't seem to be put under the same disciplines ofsaying, "You've got to learn this stuff. I know it's boring, learning,reciting it and listening but you gotta know that. You can't getanywhere unless you know that stuff. So get on with it. Learn it.By Monday." (laughs) We don't do it. Politically, we have a culturewhere if enough people feel okay in the three months before an electionthe past, even three years ago, seems to be easily given away. "I'mokay now. I feel okay now." Politics has very much to do with memory,because it's to do with history and you and I were raised in a traditionthat said, "It's not just a question of what he did, it's whathis father did and then we go back." I still believe that way.I don't think the world has changed. I think that our present presidentis very much the way he is because he is the son of the other president.There just doesn't seem to be the culture out there that is happyto refer these things back. Many things have contributed to it,not the least education. Education gives this up as early as anyone.But yeah, it's very bizarre. You have to explain more and more peoplein a newspaper story nowadays. You can't mention so and so and youcan't just mention surnames. You have to identify them. In the endyou read a piece and all these people are identified and you readten pieces like that, you get the point. No one knows anything.Or wants to. I used to lecture. I took it for granted that if Iwas speaking about something and I mentioned a couple of names thata student didn't get, they would go an look them up. If they hadn'tgot the spelling, come and see me. Fine. What are you there for?To learn. I just dropped a couple of names you didn't know. Filethem a way and the next time you are in the library, look them up.But you see, they don't teach library skills in the schools anymore.
RB: I was looking through Publisher'sWeekly and there was a Q&A with an author who works inHollywood. Here's the question posed to him, "How would you describethe book and the film industries today?" His answer, "UnfortunatelyI think one is becoming more an more like the other. There was atime when the book industry and the film industry were totally separateentities. Not only in terms of their end products but in terms oftheir behavior. More and more you see the book industry mimickingthe business practices of the film industry in terms of how thematerial is produced and how it's put out there for the audience.In terms of what a viable product is and what it is not. There wasa time when if you could write a good book, your chances of gettingit published were pretty good, and I think that is less and lesstrue because again the book industry emulated the film industry,and it's looking more and more for a specific type of book as opposedto one that has literary merit." What a gloomy picture.
DT: Yeah. I wish I could argue against it.There is a whole lot of truth in it. One measure of it and it'sbreathtaking and you can't believe it until you really get in thereand see itis that fewer and fewer people in publishing readthe books. They are very often publishing a concept. Just in theway a studio is making a concept movie. Some one comes along andsays look "Tom Cruise is a secret agent. Goes all over the world.Beautiful exotic locations. Lot of very high-tech machinery. Fouror five beautiful women. Two or three major supporting actors asvillains. Do you like it?" Now, I'm afraid movies get made likethat. And there are books that get done like that too. A book isstill something you have to pick up and read and reading is stilldifferent from going to the movies. But the manners and the ideologyof the businesses are getting more alike. Very often they are ownedby the same conglomerate, don't forget that. They are looking tofeed off each other. Thewhat used to be called the mid listbookthe critical success novel, that never sold a lot, that'sa disappearing breed.
RB: Do you still write fiction?
DT: I've not written a work of fiction forten years. One reasonit's not the only reason, I can't blameit entirely on thisI write for a living and I can get surebigger money doing non fiction. I have never been able to writethe kind of novel that sold big quantities. I'd like to. But I havenever been able to. The novels I wrote sold modestly. They got nicelyreviewed and everything. I would really determine to sit down andwrite a novel and also be able to do it reasonably quickly so thatit was not too big a drag on my time and make the overall economicsof it very dangerous, if you know what I mean.
RB: The first edition of the BiographicalDictionary came out in 1975? The last edition came out in 1994.Will you continue to update them?
DT:The first edition and the second edition were only six years apart.The second edition was not a big update. It didn't introduce a lotof new entries. There was then a gap from 1981 to 1994.
RB: You were writing novels.
DT: I was doing other things. I was doingthe book on Selznick and I was involved in a lot of other things.Certainly the novels were part of it. The decision to do the thirdedition was really the turning point because I suppose that's whenKnopf came on board. They said let's bring this book back and let'supdate it. Let's enlarge it a bit. Let's really say we have a classichere. We have a book that's going to last. And let's approach itin that way. Bob Gottleib came on board as the editor, which wasa tremendous asset because it's a book where this author needs someonehe can turn to regularly for support and humor and one thing andanother as well as wisdom in the publishing business an d greatknowledge of film. He was a tremendous person. When we did the thirdedition there was definitely the notion we would do a fourth edition.Now I'm 61, Bob is 70, and we both had a conversation as we putthis one to bed and said, "Are we going to do this one again?"He said, "Well you'll be 70, I'll be 80." So it begins to get abit questionable. We can't just go with our determination. Fatemay intervene in odd ways. So, I don't know. At the moment I feelfairly good about the book because it has had nice reviews and it'sselling well.
RB: Nice reviews? They've been love songs.You must go into restaurants and people stand and applaud you.
DT: (both laugh) No, no. It's been very well-reviewedand it's selling better than it's ever sold. All of which is nice.But you are aware of people you have left out so you are easilyin a mood set that says, "I'd love to do the fifth edition."Knowing damned well you don't want to do it for years. When youget to do the work, it's hard work. And as you get older…Idon't know. There might be one more edition.
RB: From edition three to edition four youadded 300 new entries bring the total to about thirteen hundred.Any rhyme or reason for the 300 new entries?
DT: Well, we said at the outset, Bob andI, obviously there are lots of new people and lots of old peoplewe wanted to bring in. So we went to the costing department at thepublisher and said, "If we wanted to do this book as a hardbackfor $35, how big can we go?" They said approximately 1000 pages.And we calculated and that was approximately three hundred new entries.We probably had 400 on our short list. So there were people we hackedout. I'm not sure how much bigger the book can get without becominga dangerous thing to carry around.
RB: I was looking through the book to seewhere I could pick a fight with you and I thought I found it whenI felt a distinct lack of attention for top film composers and thensadly for my contentious impulse, I found your entry for BernardHerrmann, where you make your explanation…
DT: Yes, but you are right. You've got afight there and it's a good one. I feel more and more remiss aboutthat. One of the things that has happened to me in recent yearsis to become much more open to and more interested in the role ofmusic in film. If I live to do a fifth edition there will be a goodlychunk of composers in there. I agree with you, it's a fair criticism.
RB: Of course, these days there is the formulaicidea of a soundtrack as a collection of a bunch of pop songs, someof which you can barely hear in the movie.
DT: A lot of the composers I would put inare people who are dead now. People who have done their work. Thereis some good music being written for films but not as good as wasdone in the past. One of the things that has happened to me in theyears since the last edition is that I probably go to the moviesa little less and I go to concerts rather more. Pretty stupid ofme to have left it for this late.
RB: Any sense of how many movies you haveseen in your life?
DT: I've never worked it out like that. Iused to seein the days that I was really pounding on thisbook in the first edition and when I was teachingI kept recordsthen, I would see about 500 films a year. It's dropped a bit. Ifyou allow that that was the high point and I'm sixty, I've probablyseen about 15,000 or 20,000 movies. I don't mean 20,000 distinctmovies. For me seeing certain movies many times has been vital.An obvious example is when I did a book on Orson Welles. By thattime I had seen Citizen Kane many, many times. I taught it a lot.I still see it a lot. I'm obsessed with it.
RB: No saturation point?
DT: Yes. I taught it for ten years up until'81. And I really needed a break from it and probably didn't seeit for another 10 years. And then I did the book. And I went backto it and I found that I loved it even more. You can overdose ona film. But repeated viewings of films, for me, generally pays offwell. I love to see old favorites and I get more out of them.
RB: You've published 17 books ranging fromessays to personal memoirs to biographies, some novels…
DT: A book about Nevada.
RB: What do you call that one?
DT: I guess I would call it a travelogue.With history. It's about the place of that state in our culture.For me, Nevada is the place where America experiments.
RB: Las Vegas, the Atom bomb.
DT: Yeah, but also divorce and gambling.Things that the country is not quite sure how to handle.
RB: I take it you drove around Nevada?
DT: Oh yeah.
RB: How long did you take?
DT: I've been most places in Nevada. Mostplaces that have a name, I've been there. I was on that book fortwo and a half years. I did a lot of driving in the state. Whichwas a big attraction, for me, to doing the book. I wanted to justexplore. Near the end when I knew what I was writing about my wifewould come and take pictures of many of the places. She actuallydid a show in San Francisco of those photographs. It was a big success.
RB: What are the great Nevada movies? LeavingLas Vegas, Bugsy…
DT: The Misfits, Hard 8…
RB: Desert Rose?
DT: Yeah. There is a nice little collection.
RB: I just watched Bugsy recentlyand I liked it more than at other viewings.
DT: I did too. I thought it held up very,very well. I was very interested in Nevada and I still am. It wasa big experience for me going to live on the West Coast. I reallydiscovered the American West with great fondness. My wife and Ispend a lot of time touring and driving.
RB: Did I get it correct that you had beenan editor of the Journal of Gastronomy?
DT: You are quite right, I was.
RB: You are smiling…
DT: Well, because it was such a chancy thing.A dear friend of mine was appointed president of the American Instituteof Wine and Food, which is headquartered in San Francisco and oneof his dutieshe was charged with founding a magazine. Andhe asked around in publishing and in the magazine world in San Franciscowho might be a good person to have on it and my name came up twice.So we met and got on famously and so he said, "Would you be interestedin doing it?" And it was at a time when I was pretty hard up. AndI made it clear to him that I did not know anymore about food thanmost of us know and less about wine. So I did it and it was quitesuccessful. The Institute folded but the magazine was quite lively.I'm quite proud of it. There were about 8 issues. I had a lot offun and met some wonderful people from MFK Fisher to Julia Child.Both of whom are great ladies. I look back on it with pleasure.When people assume I have credentials in gastronomy, I blush a bit.(both laugh)
RB: I confess to reading the press materials.You are working on a screenplay on Louis Armstrong?
DT: Yes. I've just delivered the draft tothe second screenplay and the people involved like it quite a bit.
RB: You are doing this fully aware of thestatus of the writer in the food chain of the movie business?
DT: Yes, yes, yes. Yes, yes, yes. I'm doingit for friends. People who are friendsat the moment. Thatcould change, as we all know. (both laugh) I am walking into itwith my eyes open and my hand open too. It really came out of afew dinner parties. We just felt we wanted to do something and thissubject came up. We'll see. It's very difficult to get any moviedone and this will have many problems along its way. Many, manyproblems. We'll see, I'm hopeful.
RB: But all your eggs are not going intothat basket? Are you writing on friendship?
DT:No. But it's a subject that interests me. We all have friends andfriendship is so natural that you often don't think about it toodeeply. You take it for granted. I'm interested in the varietiesof friendship and sometimes how friendships will last people muchbetter than family ties. And friendship is sort of the decisionwe make about our lives. I don't know how I'd do it or anythinglike that.
RB: Is there a big project or book that youwould like to do but you are waiting for the right time?
DT: Well…yeah…all right. I'lltell you. And you can tell me whether it's insane or what. I wouldlove to write a book, it would be called American Weather.It would be several things. It would be about the extreme varietiesof weather you get in America. And about how the weather affectslife locally and how within the American character and culture youcan see weather types. And it would be about the way weather isa subject that is one of the universal small talk subjects. Youmeet a stranger you can talk about the weather before anything else.Why is that? And is weather natural, our responsibility? Are wedamning our own weather by things we are doing? Is weather religiousin the end? So, it's a topic that just fills me with interest andwonder. It would allow me to travel across America.
RB: Sounds good to me. So what do you dowhen you have an idea that you really like?
DT: What I will have to do if I am seriousabout it is mention it to my publisher and see whether they go tosleep or jump up and down. And if they go to sleep, then I haveto decide whether to do it anyway.
RB: You wouldn't know if they were just sleepythat day.
DT: That's it. And I don't swear by theirjudgement. It's hard to tell sometimes. I don't want to do anotherbiography. I've done two big ones and a couple of smaller thingsand I don't know that you can do too many of those. Some peopledo. But I don't and there is no one out there that excites me andmakes it feel as would be worth the tremendous time that's involvedin that.
RB: There's no one left? Kurt Cobain?
DT: Maybe there are people left, I don'tknow.
RB: Is it a function of your admiration orthe value of their contribution to human history?
DT: I couldn't do a biography on someone I disliked. I couldn'tsustain the stamina. Liking them doesn't mean you worship them.One of the things I find painful, and this ties in with the earlierquote about the movie business and publishing. I hate pitching.I hate that super-enthusiastic pitch. I always feel so full of doubtsabout a project.(laughs) Selling it to someone, I hate it.
RB: You know this, isn't that what agentsare for?
DT: Yeah, it is but in the end…we'llsee.
RB: You'd rather go face to face with yourpublisher rather than delegate to your agent?
DT: I'd rather that we had a common senseof what the book was. Yeah, I really would.
RB: That seems to be the old-fashioned approachto publishing.
DT: Well, it is. But I think there is stilla bit of it left.
RB: What do you make of the poll determiningthe greatest Briton? A number of significant figures were behindPrincess Di…
DT: Well, it's fascinating because it showsyou what people know and what they believe is important. It's asilly game although they are often revealing.
RB: It does raise the issue of the infestationof our culture with beauty contests…"The Best, The Greatest,The Hottest…"
DT: It's stupid and in the end it's all partof a dumbing down. It's a way of saying, "Let's turn historyinto People magazine. I'm having a conversation with ataxi driver somewhere, last week and we both agreed on something.It was the anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. The taxi driversaid, "You know, All this stuff that comes out about him. I'm sureit's right. I don't doubt it. But it doesn't alter a thing. Whenthat man died it was an absolute tragedy." And that's how it was.Now we didn't know as much about him as we might have and what'sbeen revealed has changed. But that doesn't change the feeling ofthe absolute devastation of political hope.
Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing