I don’t generally enjoy author readings. I love books, but I’d rather be alone with them, moving through them at my own pace, backing up at will and lingering where I want to. I never feel as though I absorb very much at live readings, and I remain stubbornly more interested in books than authors–I don’t go in much for author interviews, either. In special cases, however–magnetic personalities, prodigious talents, odd ducks–I do find it worth twenty or thirty minutes of mild squirming just to find out what sort of creature could have produced a particular work, and what it’s like to be in the same room with them. So on Monday night I went to see David Thomson talk about his new history of Hollywood, The Whole Equation, at the corner bookstore.
For me, this counted as an Event with a capital E. Ever since Terry opened my eyes to Thomson’s (New) Biographical Dictionary of Film several years ago, I’ve been fascinated with Thomson’s mind, with the sheer encyclopedic ambition of the NBDF, and with its truly inexhaustible entertainment value. I use the book in two ways regularly: like a reference work, looking up people and movies that I’ve been thinking about or need to know something about; and, once a year or so, like a narrative, reading straight through from Abbott and Costello to Terry Zwigoff. One of the friends who accompanied me to Monday’s talk bought the Dictionary, but not before raising the question “Why a dictionary and not an encyclopedia?” Without missing a beat, the clerk answered: because it’s supposed to be definitive. Exactly right.
After being introduced, Thomson took a seat and spoke rather than reading, bless him, and I liked the talk even if I never did quite reconcile the genial and engaging raconteur he puts forth in person with the dervish of the NBDF, whirling his feelings about movies into definitions–things almost as solid as facts. And a leitmotif of his talk–which appeared at first to be an extemporaneous, offhand chat but eventually revealed itself to be quite deliberately structured–was not quite feeling vs. fact, but feeling vs. intellectualizing about the movies. His show of ambivalence about this opposition was the one part of the performance that was readily identifiable as performance. He kept playing devil’s advocate with himself, floating the notion that perhaps we shouldn’t analyze our enjoyment of movies any more than we analyze our enjoyment of sex or chocolate, but nobody, I think, was buying it. Not coming from this grand lexicographer, the man blurbed by Guillermo Cabrera Infante as “the Dr. Johnson of film.” I think not.
Thomson began by describing a typical critics’ screening. Reminding me of something Terry once wrote, he proposed that critics should be required to see the movies they review in the company of the general public at least once in a while. His reasons were different, however, from those behind Terry’s similar prescription for art critics. He said that film critics are so concerned not to give away their feelings about a movie to their colleagues/competitors that nobody dares have an observable response at these screenings–no laughing, no gasping, no jumping, and under no circumstances anything bearing the least resemblance to producing tears (I believe his exact words were “I’d rather eat my face”). Sounds grim! And his point, that this constitutes a whole different realm of experience from what his readers are doing when they go to the movies, is a solid one.
But it’s not about feeling vs. thinking, it’s about the infectious unease and egotism of these critics when they get around each other. Though I do fully believe that strait-jacketing their own human responses must warp the critical judgments that get recorded in their reviews. Thomson went on from here to describe the first time he met Pauline Kael, which happened at a New York critics’ screening. She was a small, rapt woman sitting next to him, never pausing in her copious note-taking and yet somehow never giving the screen less than her full attention. After the film he quizzed her about her method, ascertaining that a) she did this at every screening; b) she never watched a movie twice if she could avoid it; and c) this was because she felt the second time would be an imitation of experience (actual experience occurring only the first time one saw a film), and so somehow inimical to what seeing movies should be.
(Digression: years ago I went to Chicago’s much-mourned McClurg Court Cinemas in Streeterville–containing the most colossal auditorium and screen in the area–to see, with guilty pleasure, John Carpenter’s remake of Village of the Damned. Much to my and my companion’s delight, Roger Ebert was in attendance. Our delight did not derive from mere celebrity-sighting, but from the fact that he had already reviewed the movie. And trust me, Citizen Kane it ain’t.)
(Further digression: Ebert appeared to love the attention he got from other people in the audience, who sensed his approachability and took advantage of it. He was the chatty, beaming center of a ring of admirers that only dispersed when the lights went down. His presence gave the screening a social, almost festival atmosphere that I’ve seldom encountered at the movies.)
The opposition between approaching movies sensually and approaching them critically–to my mind a suspect if not simply false opposition–formed the backbone of Thomson’s talk. In this context he spoke about the prehistory of film critics, when what critics there were (James Agee, Manny Farber) were writing for small-circulation journals and when everybody would go see everything, not needing the counsel of reviewers beforehand, not even needing to know the name of the movie. It was going to the movies that counted, not the movie itself. And although he didn’t go so far as to endorse this as a healthier state of affairs, there was definitely a hint of nostalgia for a simpler or happier time. Which seemed odd coming from someone who work matters precisely because it is so finely attuned to the minutiae of individual careers, even performances–even pores, as here on Barbara Stanwyck, who is on my mind lately:
Her image of the hard-boiled girl of easy virtue was kept up in William Keighley’s Ladies They Talk About (33) and in Baby Face (33, Alfred E. Green), in which she maneuvers her way up the length of the business ladder–by every seductive means at her command. It would be difficult to think of an actress so expressive of the early 1930s girl on the make–as intimate, shiny, and flimsy as a discarded slip, but with eyes ever sly and alert. So often with great movie actresses, we have a first thought of skin tone: with Stanwyck it is of tacky paint, too warm for glossy hardness.
It was disappointing when, to wrap things up, Thomson ultimately zagged away from nostalgia and movies-as-bonbons to endorse the critical approach. Disappointing not because he did so–you knew he would in the end, and if you bothered to come out and see him at all, you almost certainly wanted him to–but because of the reasons he gave. His young son, given a game system for Christmas, spent 37 hours of his first week of ownership playing it. Movies have made this and other dangerous forms of not-thinking possible. We must talk about them if we’re to avoid being brainwashed or brain-deadened or sheepified by them.
Huh. And all my hours with the NBDF had persuaded me that it’s good to talk about the movies because it enhances our pleasure at the art and the life in them, not because we need to protect ourselves from them. How very odd. But there has always seemed to be some fissure between the dour essayist in Thomson and the joyful lexicographer. It’s much the same crack that appeared in his talk, separating the drably sociological-political closing remarks from wonderfully vivid details like how Kael, unexpectedly diminutive, wrote her notes in the dark in just the manner someone else might write letters. It’s almost as if the freewheeling observer in Thomson–his best critical self–can only come out to play after doing his math homework or his civic duty.