on How To Watch A Movie by David Thomson (Knopf)
David Thomson’s How to Watch a Movie is actually concerned with how to watch a movie again. “The ultimate subject of this book is watching or paying attention,” he notes at the outset. Thomson asks for “watching as a total enterprise or commitment,” not because the movies offer such redemptive enlightenment (though they sometimes seem to do) but because inept watching more generally puts us at risk due to a culture that limits, arranges and interprets the visible.
He tells us: if you know how to watch a movie, you know how to watch the culture – because the allure and language of film, like advertising, also entraps. (Once, while on the set of a commercial being shot for my employer, I was introduced to John Toll, the cameraman – who went on that year to work as cinematographer on Terrence Malick’s The New World for which Toll received an Oscar nomination.)
The synchronous appreciation and suspicion of movies started early. Released in 1927, the first notable talkie was The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson. Yet in 1926, just as sound drew people in droves to the movies, Virginia Woolf registered her excitement and misgivings about movies in an essay called “The Cinema”:
“They have become not more beautiful, in the sense in which pictures are beautiful, but shall we call it (our vocabulary is miserably insufficient) more real, or real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life? We should behold them as they are when we are not there. We see life as it is when we have no part in it. As we gaze we seem to be removed from the pettiness of actual existence.”
The first moviegoers were dazzled by how much of the world could be absorbed by the technology’s “different reality.” But as Nathan Heller put it, “The story of the movies is a tale of transformation from a technology operating as a canvas to a canvas that’s become technology.” Thomson adds, “We are in and an isolation which suggests our weakness for fantasy. The screen is a window, but a barrier, too, and one that consigns us to a kind of purposeless oblivion.”
Yet How to Watch a Movie is not out to bite the hand that feeds the film critic. For Thomson, watching a movie once is like watching it twice – because you watch yourself watching. Adoring the artifice of the art, he parcels out this book into chapters titled like tutorials (“What Is a Shot?” “What Is a Story, and Does It Matter? “Who Makes These Movies?”) but which read like brilliant, allusive, one-sided conversations sparkling with wit, opinion, anecdote and acute observation. In other words, lots of fun. So when he says that "Quentin Tarantino is so besotted with movie talk that it often obscures his ignorance of life," he is also underscoring the pleasure of watching Tarantino's characters talk: "I wonder if a great pleasure at the movies doesn't have to do with observing the levels of deceit or imitation."
Actually, Thomson is hardly a conventional film critic even if he often cites conventional examples (Citizen Kane or Psycho). Pauline Kael, who “said that movies were and ought to be sensational, immediate, and so compelling that one had to rely on the first viewing,” is perhaps Thomson’s anti-Christ. He describes a “disarming encounter” with Kael – sitting next to her at a screening while she hunched over her notebook (“the notes seemed to be fluent sentences”) and glanced up at the film. Not watching at all!
The very day after reading Thomson’s paragraphs on Psycho, I watched the movie on cable TV, a medium that seems to sponsor much re-watching. Thomson’s main point concerns Hitchcock’s love of looking – and fear of loss of control as a director. By 1960, big films were always in color; why is Psycho shot in black and white? Why Janet Leigh as the desperate secretary Marion Crane and not Kim Novak, Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn? How is the movie framed (”intense and claustrophobic”)? How does Hitchcock manage to make us “accomplices” in how the film is seen (“his most cunning and intimate skill”)?
As the author of the incomparable Biographical Dictionary of Film, Thomson has insisted on the importance of actors’ appearances – and the cagey eroticism they trigger in the watcher: “If you want to watch films, you must never give up on the beauty of the people, or feel sheepish about it.” He forces us to try squaring our principles, let’s say for sexual equality and mutual respect, with an eternity of sexual obsession. “Especially in 1960, Psycho built up an erotic urgency that had to do with Janet Leigh, those bras and her breasts,” he writes. “You can call this pressure old-fashioned and sexist. Isn’t it asking why a thirty-two-year-old who looks like Janet can’t get laid as often as she likes? Isn’t it also hinting that maybe we could do that laying?”
If you love movies and their history, Thomson is your best co-watcher. He has produced 26 books on the genre, most recently Why Acting Matters (reviewed here last year). But he also wants us to understand the effect on the movies of “conglomerates buying film companies [who] recognized a young audience who might treat going to the movies as an adjunct to shopping.”
If you don’t like his remarks above about Janet Leigh, then consider his take on Pretty Woman (1990) in which a $3,000-a-week hooker named Vivien ends up redeemed by her customer and his credit cards. Thomson notes that Meg Ryan, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Michelle Pfeiffer all turned down the role for its crassness. Instead, the studio hired the young Julia Roberts for a mere $300,000. The film was made for $14 million and has grossed over $400 million. Thomson says the film’s charm “can sweep aside every intelligent reason for despising it. Bad taste is vital in this form we love.”
One phrase near the end of How to Watch a Movie stopped me cold -- when Thomson writes, “so it seems that no one believes there is an audience for pictures about the actual condition of the members of the audience.” It is a severe and querulous conclusion for a film lover. Perhaps it explains why there is no movie about an African-American family whose youngest son has been gunned down in the street, or a Latino family whose father is being deported. Given the “niche-ing” of movies, the hype of blockbusters, and America’s craven requirement for uplifting conclusions, “small” films that pierce the technological canvas demand our attentive watching.
[Published November 6, 2015. 242 pages, $24.95 hardcover]