(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2003)
I’ve written before about critic David Thomson, whose Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema (first published in 1975) had a huge impact on me when I was growing up; I probably read the whole thing ten times over. I couldn’t believe someone could engage with cinema as fluently as Thomson seemed to. Even now, he influences my perception of filmmakers. If not for Thomson I’m sure I wouldn’t think as highly of Dreyer or Rivette (or Angie Dickinson for that matter) and I wouldn’t be as hard on Ford or Fellini.
It probably helped that Thomson was pretty close to what I fancied I might become – a young British guy from modest origins, engaged on a process of giddy, tireless discovery. He writes about the early 60s in London with his best friend, “busy charting the past of the medium we loved” and describes for illustration a week (one week!) in 1961 when they saw Les 400 coups, L’Avventura, Senso, Dark Victory, A Taste of Honey…and nine other films! Since no filmographies were available, they compiled their own, using the library of the British Film Institute. It almost makes you wish that we might lose much of cinema history, so we could have the thrill of excavating it all over again.
Thomson revised his book in 1994, and I eagerly purchased it. It was a huge disappointment – an obvious rush job, with flaccid updates pasted forlornly on top of the peerless original essays. He updated it again last year, and this time I haven’t bothered buying the book. The reviews seemed to confirm that Thomson, now a longtime resident of San Francisco, had become a lazy stylist, either unaware of or indifferent to the contemporary cutting-edge.
A recent issue of Film Comment carried a review of the book by Kent Jones. It’s a wonderfully written review that made me admire Jones almost as much as I once did Thomson. And Jones nails something in Thomson that had put me off, even though I think this too is something I absorbed into my own approach to cinema – a pervasive air of disappointment, if not disdain. Jones thinks Thomson expected too much of movies, and his love “turned cold because they didn’t deliver everything he expected of them when he was young.” Jones offers his prescription: “If you fall for the idea that cinema is any more or less powerful than any other art form, that movies are anything other than aesthetic objects that exist in reality, then you’re fooling yourself.” True enough, except if it were that simple, why would Jones spend so much of his own life writing about cinema?
The Movie Network recently screened a documentary called Cinemania, about five hardcore film buffs in New York. They mostly live on welfare or disability, skimping on meals, spending day after day after day engaged in an intricately planned swirl around the city, from one screening to the next (scheduling bathroom breaks is a major ongoing issue). None of the five have significant careers or, as far as one can see, meaningful relationships. I must admit I watched it with an air of snotty superiority.
Illusion of control
Saddest of all, although not really surprising, is that the five have relatively little to say about the movies themselves. One guy’s obsession is with memorizing running times. Another merely rattles off which stars he likes, and which he doesn’t. For this, they tie their lives into a knot?
Of course, we can’t pick and choose our obsessions. But cinema seems particularly susceptible to this kind of hopeless immersion. I always imagine it’s something to do with the grandeur of the experience – alone in the dark, visually and aurally overpowered, your senses and perceptions guided in a way you don’t even register. No matter how often you do it, it’s like a laboratory that never yields up its secrets. It’s an utterly passive experience, and yet the activity on the screen avoids the emptiness that (unless you have a real problem) eventually accrues to most other time-killing activity.
With the DVD boom, more and more viewers are conquering, or at least radically amending, this passivity. Extras, alternative endings, commentary tracks, features that allow you to reedit part of the movie – it all serves to make the film less a fixed artifact than a somewhat provisional item that can be endlessly probed and adjusted. In a recent New York Times magazine article, Terence Rafferty suggested the dangers of these developments: “The more ‘interactive’ we allow our experience of art – any art – to become – the less likely it is that future generations will appreciate the necessity of art at all. Interactivity is an illusion of control, but understanding a work of art requires a suspension of that illusion, a provisional surrender to someone else’s vision. To put it as simply as possible: If you have to be in total control of every experience, art is not for you. Life probably isn’t either. Hey, where’s the alternative ending?”
Fine, but Rafferty’s examples are mostly the likes of X-Men, Lord of the Rings and E.T. Not to diminish those films, but does it really matter how much enthusiasts play around with them? How profound is the artistic experience to begin with? And for viewers who might have a tendency to end up like the geeks in Cinemania, isn’t this healthier – a way of avoiding complete submissiveness, of hanging onto some iota of self-determination?
Well, yes and no. Either way, you’re still spending too much time on a single movie. My problem with the DVD extras isn’t their impact on the artistic experience, but the underlying arrogance of the assumption that anyone should care that much (an arrogance that’s amply justified of course, judging by the format’s popularity). Rafferty’s “illusion of control” is a pale illusion indeed, if you exercise that power by spending twenty hours of your life, and fifty or sixty bucks, on last year’s sensation.
Still, whether it’s for the reasons Rafferty sets out, or whether because the movies used to be better, or because of a shift in the heavens, being in love with the movies isn’t what it used to be. It’s hard to imagine too many future film buffs retracing David Thomson’s arc from infatuation to disappointment, because they would never have shared his high to begin with. When Thomson was rushing around London cramming in movies, he was a geek no doubt, but he was also a pioneer. Today, he’d just be a geek. When art becomes too available, it runs the risk of conversion into kitsch. Maybe Thomson moved to the States, new technology came along, filmographies became as available as ice cream, and after a certain point, whether or not he still needed movies, it felt like they no longer needed him.