Thursday, March 17, 2005

David Thomson does algebra

David Thomson thinks too much.

Sometimes it serves him well. He's a passionate, prolific, fiercely opinionated film critic -- this is the guy that thinks Spielberg's only good film is Empire of the Sun -- and he probably knows more about the movies than anyone. But he does do lots of thinking, and I think too much cerebrum can wring the life out of a movie. Analysis, of course, is the fundamental part of criticism, but there is something to be said for watching movies with abandon, which I don't think Thomson ever does.

Regardless, his new book The Whole Equation is an ambitious attempt to capture the essence of cinema and how that essence was created/exploited/digested. It's not exactly a history book, though it's a good deal of history (and its subtitle is "A History of Hollywood"). It's not a critical tome, either, though there is plenty of criticism (the polite way Thomson's opinions poke into his prose is amusing). It's more a 370-page think piece, a statement on the state of movies using evidence, sentiment and, most of all, logic. The "equation" of Thomson's title is the whole "why?" of movies -- why they exist, why we love them, why they change, why they've gotten worse. The book, while meandering, always moves from one topic to another in the style of an algebra equation; this equals this, which caused that, and if that means this, then we have that. See?

I'm not sure what's on the other end of Thomson's equal sign, but reading the book is like having a conversation with a fellow cinephile, which is just fine. At the end of the first chapter, through which he describes Robert Towne's vitriolic gestation of Chinatown, he writes: "The gap between Chinatown and umpteen possible future Mission: Impossibles is the lament of this book." And it is a lamentation. If there is a mood to the book, it's "movies these days suck, but movies are dangerous and fickle distractions in the first place, and will never truly deserve our attention." Thomson, of course, doesn't spell this out, but it can be sensed in between his nostalgic delineations of the silent era, how the studios rose, how the studio decline fed the glory years of the '70s, how the glory years of the '70s birthed the blockbuster, and how the blockbuster has become the pallbearer for the state of cinema today. One of the definitive conclusions he reaches is that film is inseparable from money, and many chapters are filled with Thomson throwing around box-office figures, salaries, net profits and net worths, to try and determine the value (both monetary and otherwise) of Hollywood.

Thomson is at his best when he's confessing his own affections and trying to understand his feelings toward the movies. This is illustrated wonderfully in a chapter-long examination of his feelings toward Nicole Kidman, specifically how (and why) she is a movie star and how (and why) she was able to stage a coup of sorts as Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Thomson comes as close as anyone to articulating why we fall for famous people. (Kidman's face graces the back cover of the book, Rita Hayworth's the front, no doubt to make the connection between old and new obsession, the whole equation.)

Above all, though, Thomson is a good wordsmith. Here are my favorite selections from "The Whole Equation," to give you a sense of the book:

"Nearly everyone important in the old Hollywood gambled several nights a week, as if they dared not lose touch with magic."

"Make a success and you are no longer simply in the art of making films but in the business of making successes."

"I have said that happiness is inseparable from the American movies, and surely happiness taken for granted can easily degenerate into stupidity, sentimentality, and absurd overoptimism."

"What of those fleeting instants when something like rapture, or complicity, passes over a face thirty feet high, and we sigh, in the deepest pit of our being, 'Baby...' as if we were being kissed? And kissing?"

"But do the movies offer education, or rather a lifetime of impossible desire?"

"Charlie [Chaplin] fucked like a very wealthy man with an utterly private life."

"That's what the Academy was for -- to blur the equation enough so that profit and fame could be called art."

"I suspect that a greater and more insidious influence may lie in that movies tell us about being in love, and how to conduct ourselves while in that condition."

"Never mind the numbers, if you were to make Gone with the Wind today (but don't), with, say, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman..."

"I have nothing to say about Star Wars."

"Can anyone credit that thirty years from now there will be audience for the three parts of The Matrix, anywhere? Even if Keanu Reeves is our president?"

"[After Love, Actually,] my wife said: 'It's a date film. The place was full of couples. When are today's movies going to regain that old habit they had, of getting us to the point of fucking?'"

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