Monday, October 20, 2008


I've always admired San Francisco-by-way-of-London film critic David Thomson, not only for his encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood (see his A Biographical Dictionary of Film & The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, among others), but for his consistently provocative opinions that escape the charge of knee-jerk contrarianism.

Thomson is a free thinker, and that tends to chap the hides (and typing fingers) of his peers. So, it's not that Thomson necessarily sets out to be a provocateur, it's just that film critic circles have become such incestuous (group) think tanks that if you've read the gal from New York, you've read the guy in Chicago, and you've read the transgendered in LA. Don't even get me started on those pesky bloggers!

Thomson published a commentary today in the Guardian UK, about how modern Hollywood doesn't have the talent to artistically respond to the current economic crisis the way studios did with The Great Depression-era in the 30's and 40's:

You only have to look at the films the US mainstream has made in this century so far to know that we lack the talent or experience that will count. In 1930, the talent in American pictures was from literature, the theatre and journalism, with educated backgrounds and a shared sense of the moral identity in being American. Today's talent consists of absurdly rich young people who have made the hits of the past dozen years. They know very little about life, except what they have to lose.

Those people and much of the audience have lost the habit, or even the memory, of hard times.

That "shared sense of moral identity" - or lack thereof - is exactly why Hollywood's Iraq War-era films have tanked. Critics and filmmakers alike scrambled to make sense of that, usually coming up with the ignorant conclusion that audiences weren't interested in seeing films about war during war time (this is code for "we think film audiences are dumb").

But back to that "shared identity". John Ford, George Stevens, Preston Sturges, onto Elia Kazan in the 50's, Martin Ritt in the 70's, and someone like John Boorman with a film like Where The Heart Is in the 80's, connected with audiences because the experiences felt like they were from a common place. Check out the indispensable insight of Martin Ritt from that University Press Anthology of Interviews. It's striking how his social liberalism of the 60's and 70's contrasts with the more obnoxious, angry-mob mentality of today.

Still, I don't know how much I agree with Thomson's charge (even he himself, offers a bright spot at the end of his piece). Populists like Steven Spielberg, Kevin Costner, and maybe a Clint Eastwood - despite their class status - have the ability to make the type of empathetic social films that Thomson says are lacking. Of course, comparing the era of The Great Depression to today's fractured economic climate is already a misfire in itself, but Thomson is tapping into something true here. I mean, who in their right mind wants jokers like Toby Gilroy, Steven Soderbergh, Steve Gaghan, and Paul Haggis representing them? ANSWER: More disconnected jokers like themselves... and Mark Cuban.


Marilyn said...

You've just touched on something that's been stuck in my craw for some time. The news now is that our country is in "economic crisis." What made this news? Stockholders and real estate speculators started losing money. Many people all over the globe have been hurting for years.

Fox said...

I will forever remain skeptical on whether the "bail out" was needed. I'm no economist, but the way the plan was rushed through on the back of panic-the-public media run made me angry. (Also, they snuck in a $25 million bail-out to the auto industry while nobody was looking).

Thing is, it seemed overwhelming that the public was against the $700 billion package. Yet, they didn't care... do they ever?

Yikes, that sounds morbidly politically cynical, but we're at the end of two long-as-hell presidential campaigns so it's kind of hard not to be right now.

Marilyn said...

$25 million dollars wouldn't be Detroit executives lunch.

I don't think a bailout was necessary, unless the government is willing to bail out the average American, too. All the laws that have been passed to make things tough on consumers and poor folks, and now the financial industrial is back at the trough of government welfare as they cry into their golden parachutes. Oh boo hoo!

Their risky investments and a government that looked the other way and made it easy to run bulilsh through the china shop is what got them into a mess. I'm reminded of that Dave Edmunds song, "You got yourself in. Get yourself out. I won't bail you out.

Fox said...

oops! I meant $25 BILLION on the auto...

Ibetolis said...

Great piece Fox.

I read that commentary too, Thompson has always been a favourite of mine and like you, his article resonated with me.

I've felt for some time that our current crop of Hollywood talent were too pampered to deal effectively with the wider implications and ramifications that plight the common man.

Again, like you, I didn't agree with all that Thomspon said (truth is I never do, that's why I love reading him so much) but he's raised a really valuable point. Where will those films come from in the future?

Fox said...


Thanks! Where will they come from? Maybe indie filmmakers or established filmmakers on a smaller? I could see someone like Alexander Payne getting something correct. Yet can he do it without the sarcasm? I guess it doesn't matter.

Thing is, I think what Thomson is describing are the larger, big-budget directors. We can usually find something suitable in the smaller releases or foreign releases, but as for something on the scale of say East of Eden? I don't know.

There is talk of a Wall Street sequel staring Michael Douglas in his Gordon Gecko role. And as Thomson mentions in his article, someone like Stone could do these times justice. I have more faith in someone like Spielberg over Stone, though Stone did handle the father (middle class)/son (upper class) relationship in Wall Street well.

A Pesky Blogger said...

A tranny critic in LA? Do tell ...

But seriously though, folks, don't you think that film schools have a lot to do with all this? The slide began with the first filmmakers who are products of film school, rather than a liberal arts education or the good ol' school of hard knocks. Their films are often technically brilliant but morally and ethically soul-less; they know a lot about movies but little about life.

I don't have as rosy a view of the good old days, however. That "shared sense of morality" aided and abetted by those theater and journalism talents too often helped prop up the worst in the American zeitgeist, to wit: a complacent, flag-waving nationalism, a sense that the world is a simple place, that everything America does abroad and at home is just wonderful because, gosh, we're just great people. The pigeons bred on this are just now coming home to roost.

Fox said...

A tranny critic in LA? Do tell ...

Well there is that LA Times sports writer that got a sex change a few years back. Good for him/her, btw, I didn't mean it as a dis.

I agree with you on the film school. Though, I don't know film school b/c I've never been, it seems just like any other structured education where sometimes you can depend too much on that structure. Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking higher education, I think it's very important... but it shouldn't be wear the foundation building stops.

On your last point I agree & disagree. Sure, there was plenty of flag-waving in films like say, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, but good-or-bad, what is left on me from a movie like that (and from Ford's films in general) is a real understanding of people and interpersonal struggles. Take Judge Priest, or Elia Kazan's Pinky, or Steven's Alice Adams, which all contain some unfortunate stereotypes, but they all rise above it in the wholeness of what they are.

I especially feel this way about Will Rogers performance in Judge Priest which is just wonderful and absolutely, beautifully American. I just don't see that - much - in today's films.

Jason Bellamy said...

- A tranny critic in LA? Do tell ...

- Well there is that LA Times sports writer that got a sex change a few years back. Good for him/her, btw, I didn't mean it as a dis.

The timing is amazing, but here's an update on that story.

Fox said...

Wow... the way things align when we start talking about them! :)

I had forgot that his name was "Penner". I always thought that was funny.

Interesting too that they are getting rid of the "Christine" articles. I wonder what changed his mind??? I do feel for the him, though. That's not a industry that holds back on the jokes and harassment.

A Pesky Blogger said...

It's a wonderful thing to erase the past, isn't it? If it was never in print, it must not have happened ...

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