FOR THE SEASONED LARB READER — or indeed, for almost any contemporary reader — neither Greil Marcus nor David Thomson should need an introduction. Marcus, the author of such books as Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century and Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, is one of our most flexible and surprising interrogators of the American grain. Thomson, author of more than 20 books, including The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and Try to Tell The Story, may be our greatest living film historian. Recently, Marcus and Thomson sat down to discuss matters ranging from the origins and complexities of Thomson’s new book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, to our predilection for vile protagonists. A heavily edited version of this conversation ran recently in Sight & Sound, but LARB is pleased to present their rich and engaging dialogue in full.
GREIL MARCUS: Let’s start with your new book, The Big Screen. I’m a very slow reader, but I tried to just roar through it, and it was completely impossible. It’s a ruminating book, full of echoes. The ideas, the references, the words in the sentences, the construction of the sentences, they continue echoing throughout. So if you just read for information or read for plot, you’re not watching the movie. It’s 525 pages long not counting notes and texts, and no pictures.
DAVID THOMSON: Well there are pictures to come. There are two photographic insets.
GM: All right, there are pictures. But I haven’t seen them, and didn’t miss them. And I think in fact, if you show a picture of the ending of Bonnie and Clyde, where Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are being ripped to pieces, which is a moment you come back to many times in the book — do you show a picture of that?
GM: Good — because you don’t need it. It would just take away from the reverberation that’s already there. I found the greatest thrill in this book to be its sentences. You bring something into such perfect focus, something that’s so right and so swift that you’d completely miss it if you didn’t read it all. You’ve got an argument throughout about the nature of the screen in relationship to a human being, to the human eye, human memory. Starting with Muybridge, going to video games and past that to wherever past that will be. You raise any number of issues outside of cinema proper, having to do with social life, with cultural and individual memory, having to do with community, with the whole idea of communication and what it means to live in a democracy. What kind of culture does democracy produce? What kind of culture does democracy depend on? But that’s not how the book reads. The book reads like floating down a very, very long river. And the boat doesn’t change, the occupant of the boat doesn’t change. But the weather changes, the terrain changes. The people you pass who you meet on the river, who you see on the shore are continually changing. In other words, to me, regardless of the other arguments you seem to be making that might seem to be of greater import, this is a self-referential book in the richest way. About The Passion of Joan of Arc (another film that you come back to again) and Un Chien Andalou, you say:
What these two films demonstrate is the cinema’s short and ready fuse for insult and offense (for those open to it) and the uncanny subterranean power of association — so much more valuable and delightful than the montage theories pounded out by the Soviets — that everything cuts together, that on the screen all images and ideas are playing or resting (like data in a computer). For the first time, a film whispers to us — you could play this film [Un Chien Andalou] with The Passion of the Joan of Arc, not just in a double bill, but at the same time, overlapping images, a perpetual dissolve. Because the screen is a place where all films live anyway. And they are fucking each other all the time. Just think of a movie where Bogart’s Dixon Steele from In a Lonely Place is being pursued by his Phillip Marlowe from The Big Sleep. No wonder he’s so worried; no wonder he’s so cocksure. No wonder he’s dead. But see how lifelike he is. The movies are about this deep ontological riddle, and they are only modestly contingent on art, entertainment or money.
And that is echoed very dramatically at the very end of the book, with your Dartmouth experience.
DT: Well, I’m touched and flattered and I’m pleased that you have divined the essential thing about the book, which is that it should be appreciated as a movie. One of the things about the screen that has interested me for a long time but really came into focus in this book, is that the screen is this impersonal, essentially dead, blank space. It’s there for us at our bidding. We have to turn on the machine for it to come to life. But the screen has carried, let us say, every film there ever was. And I have become more and more interested in the way different movies are like the water in a river. They’re constantly flowing into each other. Indeed, it’s a form that you can’t actually think of or describe as separate items. It’s the flow, it’s the sequence. And I think that we’re at a point in history where it’s not really as significant who makes what particular movies, it’s the constant flow. And like any flow of that kind, you say it’s like being carried down a river, and a lot of time perhaps you feel it’s on a sunny day and it’s very pleasant, but you can drown in a river. It seems that a lot of the culture, elements that I would hope to see maintained, are in danger of being drowned. The screen is a technology that we let loose upon ourselves and we’ve been through all manner of different stages of trying to define it and limit it. So we said for instance, “Oh, it’s a business!” It’s very clear what you do. You make a film. It costs a certain amount of money. You offer it to the world and the public and a year later, or a day later, you have a fortune! There are people in film who still take that attitude to it. Then there were people who said, “Well, no, it’s an art form, with artists.” And usually the artists are the directors, they could be someone else, but it’s simpler and it will fit into the academic structure of teaching film much more easily if we say, “It’s the directors.”
GM: And our hierarchical, utterly bourgeoisie notion of what art is in any form.
DT: Absolutely. Then there’s a notion that it’s all about one of a series of personal but also infinite and almost abstract things. It’s about memory, it’s about time, it’s about place, it’s about the face, it’s about violence, cruelty, romance, sex, all of those things. And that you can see those as fish, if you like, that are swimming in the river, shoals of fish, and it’s very interesting just to look at film history in terms of that. And then there comes along gradually this notion that what seemed for all intents and purposes to be a cinematic medium, in fact became something that people felt they did not have to look at with concentration. They could turn it on and they could then do something else. You can talk to friends, you can take a phone call, you can eat a meal, you can have a domestic argument, you can fall asleep. A whole range of things, and when you wake up or when you come back out of whatever interlude it is, it’s still going on. And when you look again it’s a different story, but all the stories are alike. They have a storiness to them that’s repetitive and ritualistic so that you aren’t lost.
GM: It’s like the surrealist practice of going into a movie in the middle, just walking in. As soon as they got it, as soon as they figured out whatever was happening, they left. In the forties and fifties, people didn’t go to movies when they started. They just showed up at the theatre and walked in, and that’s where the phrase “this is where we came in” comes from. You watch the movie, say it’s an hour into the movie. It’s over, you wait 10 minutes, it starts again, then after an hour you leave. And you didn’t think of this as some ontological experiment, you didn’t think “Isn’t this a strange way to do things?” You knew that within a few minutes you’d catch on. Good guy, bad guy, wants her, mother’s in the way.
DT: That’s right. And now people increasingly tend not to watch movies. They watch scenes, they watch bits and bites.
GM: And yet — when you read Manny Farber, he talks about negative space and about things happening at the edge of the screen, and he suggests that to focus on the action, to focus on the faces of the stars, can often be to miss what will in fact stay with you and bring you back. Or what will lodge in your memory, in a way that maybe you can’t even identify as something you saw in a movie, let alone which movie. But it will be an emblem of loss, of possibility, of desire, of intelligence; whatever it might be, it will stay with you. And you say at one point, “It’s less the visual that we notice than the human gesture in the human existence.” The human gesture contains the human existence. It’s that sense of gesture as opposed to action, as opposed to argument.
DT: And moment. It teaches you a new way of looking at life, which is to see it as moments. And you know that some of those moments are going to stick in your mind like film stills.
GM: So, getting away from people looking at bites: what you’re saying throughout this book is that we watch movies that way anyway. Or let’s say movies watch us that way. We may think we’re interested in the plot but the movie knows we’re not.
DT: I think there’s a great deal of truth in that — although I’m at pains to stress that there was a period of real narrative sophistication and coherence in the movies, when movies did something that novels had done. There are still some movies made like that. I think what influenced this book is seeing the ways young people are using screens now and the whole idea that attention deficit, which is this huge phrase that seems to cover so many holes in our life now, had almost become the new model for consciousness. Yes, very mysterious things were happening to people watching film from the beginning. But critical writing (not that there was an enormous amount of it) didn’t really get onto that for a long time. And the way a film like Un Chien Andalou works is sort of fulfilled by the remote control device with television, the almost automatic editing device. The surrealists talked about putting images together absolutely at random. It’s very difficult for people to do that because they are exercising choice all the time. But the remote control button introduces true randomness. I’m sure you’ve seen some of the people who have made extraordinary films just going through the channels for two or three seconds a channel, that kind of thing. And kids have watched television that way since the remote control arrived. Getting up to change the channel, which we had to do for a couple of decades, was a terrible bore. But being able to alter it…
GM: On the other hand we only had about three channels to choose from.
DT: There got to be so many channels that you needed some kind of automation that would help you do it. But to get back to the main point, and this is what really drove the book, you used the metaphor of a river, you could call it a dream space, you could call it an underground, but I think it’s there for all of us and I think it’s very hard to tell whether it has been for the good or for bad.
GM: One of the things that is so distinctive about this book is that it radiates pleasure. The pleasure of watching and remembering and having memories not be in the past but just become immediately present. But at the same time, almost any pleasure, particularly if it’s strong enough, if it’s distinct enough, is immediately questioned, by you, the writer. And you’re saying “Well, what about this?” You just said you didn’t know whether this whole cinematic experience of the last 120 years was for good or bad. And you’re constantly saying, “What are the implications of this, what does it mean to be moved by this, what does it mean to become complicit in this thing that’s happening on the screen: this terrible crime, this act of cruelty, this blankness where suddenly no one is feeling anything. And so the energy of the book is both that of pleasure without morals and also a constant intellectual inquiry. In other words, it is an argument. You are arguing with yourself and with cinema and with any reader who is bringing his or her own experiences into the book, because the book is so seductive. “I felt that way too,” the reader will say about a completely different movie than the one you’re talking about. And I wondered if you constructed the book that way intentionally.
DT: More than with most books, this was a book that I did not have control of for a long time. I felt very uneasy about it. I was daunted by the amount I had to cover. I was thrown by the fact that in the contract, the book had a certain length which was I think 120,000 words. Long before the end I realized that it was likely to be closer to twice that. All of this was very confusing and I was also in bad shape personally a lot of the time. So I started the book in the middle and there were certain places I thought I knew what I wanted to say, like, say, about Renoir, and about Welles and a few other places like that. So I started there and then began to think about how I was going to frame it. The book was described in the contract as a history. I knew it had to have that sort of ongoing momentum, but I equally knew I had to bring together my disquiet over movies with a similar sort of uneasiness and regret over the state of the world. I didn’t know whether I could do it, but I had to try to say something about the history of movies and screens that was enlightening or provocative in terms of what has happened to the world.
As the world’s population begins to swell amazingly, it is a chance to make us all feel that we are in the same world and going through the same thing, what has been called “the global village.” Whereas I feel that what the screen does is say to you, “This is reality if you want to believe it, but it’s a trick.” And in fact what it’s doing, in so profound a way that nobody needs to understand this, is giving you a screen on which you can tell yourself that you are dealing with and seeing reality whereas in fact what it teaches you is that you don’t have to bother. That the old connections of sympathy, anger, questioning, doubt, political involvement and action that through the nineteenth-century and the early twentieth-century we more or less believed in — it’s a myth. You actually now live in a world where most intelligent young people are confident that it’s going to end, and are assured of the futility of any of the kinds of action or response that would have come from sympathy and anger and protest. So that if you look at, say, Fukushima on the screen, the essential reaction is, “Oh, that’s extraordinary, it’s not me this time, but it will be.” We have issues and we have problems of enormous scale. We know that we’re dancing on the brink and we have the most useless, futile political system we have ever had. I’m talking about this country [the U.S.] but there are many other countries too where everyone actually says, “Well, yes, I’m the president, I’ve got the job, but we can’t do anything about it, we know that.” And it’s just a question of time, just a question of waiting for it. So in many respects, what has come from this immersion in images, is to teach us that we need have nothing to do with reality; it’s pointless.
GM: To put it another way, maybe, you’re saying that the movies and their attendant other media have proved a great machine for erasing empathy. But are you saying that was really what was going on from the beginning, that that was the secret purpose of the screen?
DT: I’m not saying that it was the secret purpose in the sense that anybody in a controlling position was aware of it.
GM: No, I’m ascribing it to the devil.
DT: Oh, well, I don’t believe in the devil.
GM: I meant inherent in the artifact, in the process, that’s what I’m talking about.
DT: Yes, I think so. I think a lot of it has to do with the terrifying ways in which the world changes imaginatively between about 1800 and 1950. The way in which population begins to take on a progression that is unstoppable and full of implications that we can hardly face up to. We try to deal with it, with things like universal education and with democracy. We try to deal with the equalization of the sexes and a whole lot of other things. We got through a century of the most dire wars that have been fought, not just in terms of the number of people lost but in terms of casual wickedness and it culminates —
GM: — in the nihilism the putative purposes behind all of this. Ultimately you’re dealing with a nihilistic impulse.
DT: Absolutely. By 1945 we had produced a stage in technology whereby we could obliterate the world in a matter of a few seconds. For a few decades people lived in terror of that. What I think is so interesting is that that terror has passed. The age in which people worried about nuclear testing and did drills and all that kind of thing, and the campaign for nuclear disarmament, absolutely passed. It’s now taken almost as the best way to go because it would be quick and it would be a great equalizer. So ours is a very broken-down culture and civilization and community, and it seems to me that in a lot of ways, the stress upon fantasy and a sort of privileged loneliness that is inherent in film has to do with this.
Sooner or later, I would suggest in this country at least, the fear of the chaos, and possibly the immediate pain and damage from some sort of disaster, is going to inspire a fascist government, and that would be an incredible crushing of American hope. Which, speaking as someone who was not American once, I see as really one of the great ideals in the world. And of course it was an ideal that, for a while at least, was embodied by American movies because American movies and American television did more than anything else to make this American idealism seem appealing.
GM: We’re talking on July 20th, 2012. If you were finishing your book today, it would be the day after someone turned up at a late screening of the new Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado, and shot to death 12 people and shot some 60 other people. I’ve already read a completely mindless glib essay about how this is going to change the experience of movie-going forever, it will never be the same. If you were finishing your book today, would you have alluded to this event?
DT: I’m not sure that I would, because it would mean that I’d have to write something very quickly and there’s always a great danger that if you do that you say silly things that won’t stand up even a few months later. Also, there are things already in the book that get at it. The moment when my son Zachary saw the second of the Twin Towers go down and said, “What movie is that from, Dad?” It’s the same kind of confusion of forms. I think probably I could resist drawing that in.
And although the book will be out in three months, God knows what could happen in that span, so this could already look very dated. The fact of the matter is that, if you ask the general public — and this is not a means to trap you at all — what’s the name of the man who shot Gabrielle Gifford? I can’t remember it myself. Now there was a month, let’s say, where you probably read everything you could about it, the event, and you were following what was happening to her.
GM: I don’t know if it’s a question of age or if it’s a question of the age, but certainly the signal murderers of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly the sixties, Charles Whitman, Richard Speck, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley, we remember them because they didn’t just seem part of a wave, and they didn’t — I don’t know — it could be the fact that these contemporary killers seem so blank, so uninteresting…
DT: It’s so interesting that within 24 hours you had read that foreboding piece about how movie going will never be the same again. Nothing has ever stopped movie going. This is a country where you can take a two year-old or three year-old to see The Silence of the Lambs or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. So long as they are with you they are regarded as being all right.
GM: You just never know. We took our daughter Emily to see Phil Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers when she was seven or eight and it was a big mistake. The movie completely tortured her, gave her nightmares, made her nervous. Tom Luddy was a good friend who was around all the time, and after she saw that movie, in which Tom played the leader of the pod people who never say anything — whenever he would come to the house she would go hide in her room. One day we were walking down the street in Berkeley, and Emily suddenly screamed and took off the other way, running hysterically down the street. And I caught up with her and said, “What’s the matter?” And she just kept pointing, pointing, pointing. It was Donald Sutherland on the street. It was that betrayal at the end of Phil’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when you think that Donald Sutherland is passing among the pod people, but at the end he turns and points his finger. There he was, in the flesh, on the street, and she just —
DT: It’s too much.
GM: I’ve talked to other people who saw the movie when they were the same age, students, and they had very similar reactions.
DT: But a lot of kids are so anxious to see frightening movies. The challenge of the movies nowadays, I think, is that whereas once upon a time, there was a real sense of excitement in going to see the next step in the sexual revelation. Now I think sex is almost dropped out of regular movies in that way. The question is, are you brave enough to look at this, can you take this.
GM: You mean Saw and Human Centipede?
DT: Yeah, how horrific can it be and can you take it. I talk about dread in the book quite a lot, because I think it’s always been there; it’s part of going into the dark.
GM: I agree, but I think when people are testing themselves or testing each other in a kind of circle-jerk manner over that, it’s less about dread then just playing an internalized videogame called sensation. There’s no dread attached to it, I don’t think.
DT: I don’t know. I watched my own kid, who is now 17, and he put great store by whether he could look at things. Both our boys were very interested in things that were clearly setting out to be frightening, and whether you could take it, whether you could deal with it. It was a sort of initiation rite for them.
GM: I want to go to a moment in The Big Screen that I really like. There are so many: there’s the passage where you are talking about Louise Brooks and you say that she was someone who “didn’t give a fuck” about the kind of careerism that motivated Mary Pickford — just putting Louise Brooks and the phrase “didn’t give a fuck” together tells you 90 percent of what you need to know about Louise Brooks in four words. But one of the things that struck me very powerfully is this line, which maybe to you is a signal moment in the book, maybe it was just a transitional sentence: you’re talking about two films by Kurosawa, Living and The Seven Samurai, and you say “It’s hard to believe the same man made both.” Ok, that’s a perfectly ordinary and reasonable critical comment, followed by, “But it’s hard to believe anyone made either.” That’s an argument of a completely different order. (And it’s also a much better sentence. It has cadence, it goes bump, bump, bump.) That’s a particular experience in the face of art — whether it’s music, whether it’s a painting, whether it’s a movie, a novel. You simply don’t believe that it could be the product of will and intent or planning or even desire. That sense of awe and that sense of surrender I find, as a reader and a critic, extraordinarily valuable and more rare then ever. And I wonder, if that put you in the great club of nice critics all over the world today, if it separates you, if it makes you feel connected with other people or separate from them?
DT: I’m not sure if I quite understand.
GM: Well, do you find other critics speaking that language? That language of awe, that language of surrender, that language of, there are certain things that really can’t be accounted for.
DT: No. I don’t read the great range of stuff written on film thoroughly or religiously. There are people writing today whom I value. I think they are very intelligent, they’re very sensible, but for me, one of the huge reasons to write about film was to try to convey what it felt like when you saw it and heard it. The visceral, direct emotional experience of that moment; I don’t think too many people take that on now. Whether it’s the quality of the writers or it’s an expectation in the readers or editors, I don’t know, but I mean clearly, it was something Pauline Kael did. I feel she had the same urge to do it, as a basic reason for writing about film.
GM: Like her piece on Shoeshine.
DT: Yes. Her life, her career as a critic seems to me to be devoted to that. I think Manny Farber had a feeling for it, but there’s something very odd about Manny Farber if you read him now. I think he was very daring, but he craved a kind of respectability. More and more the thing I value in Pauline Kael is a refusal to be embarrassed. For instance, I make a point in the book about what she said when Last Tango in Paris opened. Time has not been kind to that film. I don’t know whether if she were alive she would say the same thing now, but the passion in her writing, and the quality in the prose that you are kind enough to see in what I wrote, it forgives anything that you might be embarrassed by in the piece. Perhaps it’s mistaken, doesn’t matter — you know what I mean? And I value that a great deal.
I just taught a term at Stanford and I have not taught for a long time. The kids at Stanford are smart kids. They can write a critical paper, but I guess they don’t know themselves well enough to express their own emotion of looking at the film. They’re too cool in a way to feel the emotion. Film for me was the key to emotional life, I felt, more than reading fiction — although that was very good too — film was really the key to feeling things. And therefore it seemed to me that one wanted to describe what happened on the screen as closely, as accurately but as emotionally as possible. It was also for me at the start an alternative to making films. I wanted to make films. I went to film school. I’ve made some films. And I know that when I started to write about films in a really serious way, I was using a sort of disappointed energy that had not been able to make them. So a book like Suspects, say — it’s literally, in part, a remaking of these films, an extension of them. It’s imagining a life not just beyond the frame, but beyond the time confines of the film. That’s always been there for me.
GM: You talk about film as being the key to emotional life, for you.
DT: As a teenager, that’s what I felt.
GM: And you say that, for so many people today, film is the key to not feeling things. Which makes me wonder if that’s not too grand or sociological a view. I can’t believe that people today still don’t make that same kind of emotional connection when they watch movies.
DT: There are great films being made, maybe as great as films have ever been. What I feel, though, is that those films are now seen by a minority. They have been hived off into a sort of academic, avant-garde area and pursuit. The mainstream is where the trouble is. We have got people who can make, and we have got audience members who can respond to, special films. I mean David Lynch’s career is an example of that.
GM: Michael Haneke.
DT: Yes, and there are several others. But not in the mainstream anymore. And part of the reason for that is that, and I may be stretching this point too far, but it’s my belief that young people are not as moved by films as they were.
GM: I’ve always been fascinated by the title of your memoir, Try To Tell the Story. It always struck me as somebody talking to himself. But it immediately put a burden of difficulty and doubt and uncertainty on the whole enterprise, suggesting that no matter what you said, no matter how far you went, no matter how much you revealed, that it was a hopeless enterprise. The story was not really going to get told. I wonder where that title came from for you.
DT: As a child I stammered so much that it was affecting my education, not to mention my life. So my school sent me to speech therapy classes, for four or five years. It was very interesting, because we played with words and sounds and breathing, but there was psychotherapy too. The woman who was the speech therapist wanted me to talk about my relationship with my father and it was clear that I was having difficulties, not just because I stammered, but emotional, psychological difficulties with that issue. And she said, “Try to tell the story,” and it helped me a little bit in that I felt that if I could look on it as a story, then it was something that I might be able to tell. Whereas if you were to say to me, “Tell me what you felt about your father,” I could not begin to do it. And indeed, later on in life I actually used the same phrase to my father, I said, “Try to tell the story.” This was late in his life, and he had never told me the crucial things about himself. There had never been an emotional bond between us, and I said to him, “Try to tell the story,” and he got up and left the room, which had been all my life his standard response to situations where he got into serious argument or conflict, he would just leave. So that’s what it comes from.
I was still a stammerer until the age of 40 or so, but storytelling set in much earlier. I’m very interested in the concept of story — just as I was finishing this book, along came an extraordinary documentary film which hasn’t been released yet, from Sarah Polley, the Canadian filmmaker, called We Tell Stories. It’s a little bit like the Joan Didion remark, “We tell ourselves stories — in order to live.” And this meant a lot to me. I wouldn’t say that it’s healed the wounds and the problems in life, but I think to be a storyteller is a noble profession. I think there’s something profoundly useful in it.
GM: In Suspects you are more of a storyteller in the classic sense than you are anywhere else. Taking these various characters in specific films, all of them film noir by your very expansive definition of it, and imagining the lives of these characters before they appear in the story, and then their lives after the film part of the story ends. And in terms of storytelling — when I read the book the first time, I was having a great time, it was a game. What would Rick have been before Casablanca? And you gave him a left-wing period. And what would his life have been after? As soon as you said he and Claude Rains are a couple, I said, of course! It’s just right there, it’s on a plate for us. But there comes a certain point in the book — and it depends on the reader, the reader might figure this out after 30 pages, or might figure it out after 250, as I did — that something else is going on. It’s not just a game; in fact this is all one story, and these people are all part of it. When I came to that realization, it was completely frightening. This wasn’t what I had bargained for, and clearly it wasn’t going to work out very well. This is, after all, a film noir.
So there you are, telling the small stories with great glee and pleasure and plotting something much more diabolical over all of them. I wonder was that your most satisfying book for you to write, personally?
DT: It was the hardest, I think, in that once I got this crazy idea that some of these characters had met others, there was a kind of family structure to it. Working that out, for me was like mathematics. I had diagrams of the book and things like that. I was having to look back and check stuff, look at the films too, to make sure it reasonably fitted together. So it was very difficult. I know I was very tired when it was done and I felt that I’d done something no one had really done before. One or two people who read it were very kind about that and flattering, so it seemed to be important to me at the time. Whether it offered the most satisfaction, I’m not sure.
GM: The Big Screen starts with David Selznick saying, late in his life, “We blew it. We wasted the opportunity.’
DT: Early fifties, walking around a film studio where nothing’s happening.
GM: And saying, this was the greatest opportunity ever handed to human beings, to tell the story, and all we did was build a mountain of trash, maybe ten good films.
DT: Which is silly, of course.
GM: But that’s how the book begins.
DT: One part of the book begins like that.
GM: It begins with this portent, and you return to it at the end. By the end you’ve established that there are countless films that should be available for people to discover forever, part of the human patrimony. And yet you say, “Does it matter?” You say that too. The baton is passed from Selznick to you in that sense.
DT: The critical experiences for me have been leaving Britain and going to America, going into academia and leaving academia. In both cases they’ve really been somewhat risky decisions, to try to take on a large enterprise. Suspects and Silver Light for me were very important in terms of learning about America and learning to write American rather than English. The sense that I had, once, that I wrote English, that in America it sounded rather prim and stuffy, that I wanted to write American, has been a big issue in my working life. I’ve wanted to try to deal with the largest things, and for me The Big Screen is probably — you tend always to say that the latest book is the most important and it means the most to you — but again it was a very difficult book for the reasons that we talked about earlier. I had a severe depression during the course of writing the book and thought I would not finish it, thought I would not finish anything.
GM: And thought it wasn’t really worth finishing.
DT: Yes. There was a time when I hated the book — it’s been a real battle, this one, and it means a lot to me. Suspects does mean a lot to me. I often say to people that Silver Light is my favorite book because it was about discovering a certain landscape that I fell in love with.
GM: There’s an interesting line in The Big Screen, talking about Fritz Lang, talking about M. “Lang’s big lie was in denying his own appetite for murderousness and film’s impassive but mounting ease with it.” So I’d like to talk a little bit about your murder book.
DT: I haven’t written a word of it yet but it’s probably the book at the moment I’m most excited about. Its working title is Red Rum-Murder in Our Minds. It’s an attempt to track the ways in which murder became increasingly acceptable and even a subject fit for connoisseurs. It’s about movies, obviously, it’s about books, painting to a degree too. I know that an incident in life had a lot to do with it. I’m not going to name the person who it’s about, but I think some people could guess. Years ago, someone said to me, “Do you think about death a lot?” and I said, “Well, it’s there all the time, but I don’t really think about it very much.” And he said, “Would you be able to murder someone?” I said, “Do you mean, just kill someone? If someone came in and attacked me could I just kill them?” And he said, “No, no, no, I don’t mean that — I mean could you, in cold blood, decide to murder someone. And survive in the sense that — ”
GM: — psychically you’d remain a whole person?
DT: Yes. Not that you wouldn’t be caught, but that you could live with it. And I didn’t know the answer. This person said, “I have a great idea for a movie.” Which has since come to pass in various forms — this happened a long time ago. He said, “It’s about a man who is told that he has a year to live and he goes through the various stages in regard to death, the whole Kubler-Ross pattern.” And then he decides, “Well, this is a terrible world and if I’m going to die, I’m going to do some good. I’ve never done good in the world, really, I’ve never made an impact. I’m going to pick five people who deserve to die. I’m going to murder them.” Now, as I say, this idea has cropped up a little bit in various places. But I began to notice that we were in a very strange way falling in love with murderers. Now clearly we’ve lived through an age where murder has been practiced in the most appalling ways. The concentration camps would be the greatest example of that, but there’s a lot of competition. Why is it that we’ve become more attracted to murder? Why is it that we treasure the actors that play villains and actually nowadays I think identify with them more than we did with heroes?
GM: When you say that, you mean people who are presented strictly as villains? Not Tony Soprano who is our hero who does bad things?
DT: It’s a bit of both. Tony Soprano is a very interesting case in point because I would say that he’s actually not really a very interesting character until you realize that David Chase is going to spend five years just looking at him, and you’re going to accumulate so much detail about him that he will become, not sympathetic, although he has things about his life that might prompt sympathy, but he’s just going to become maybe the most fully drawn person in modern fiction. And he’s a killer. I think Chase has actually been kind to him in that he’s dressed him up in a kind of psychological pain and agony that I’m not sure that guy would have in real life, but that’s legitimate. It was a very compelling story in fiction. But Hannibal Lecter is another great case. Silence of the Lambs was a sensational film. Lecter is hideous in the sense of what he does and the film makes clear what he does. But there is a bond between him and Clarice that by the time the next film comes along —
GM: You see the same thing in Homeland, where Claire Danes is having her affair with a marine who she initially is convinced is a terrorist in disguise. As she’s having this affair with him, it’s not that her sexual attraction to him obviates her suspicion. It intensifies it, which makes it all that much worse.
DT: It’s very interesting that you should say that, because you’ve touched upon something that I think is very important to The Big Screen and to what we do. Television is so much better than the movies now. Homeland is a major work.
GM: It was always on knifepoint, in a different way than 24. With 24, for the first two, three seasons, that clock is ticking away, and when it gets to about seven or eight minutes left in the episode I can’t wait for it to be over because the state of tension has been so extreme that it’s all I can take. Like, Oh my God, thank God this hour is over.
DT: But I can’t wait for the next one!
GM: It’s like someone putting a needle in your arm and taking it out an hour later. With Homeland the tension is not of that sort. It is in wondering whether this woman that you make an instant connection with is going to shatter before your eyes or hold herself together with Scotch tape.
DM: And really, in the end, one of the greatest mad scenes ever done. You care much more about the people in Homeland. There’s something about Kiefer Sutherland that resists our caring. But Homeland is full of vulnerable people, interesting people.
GM: Oh, I never cared about Kiefer Sutherland. I was just scared to death.
DT: It was a wonderful suspense machine. You used that image just now about putting the needle in yourself, and the sort of self-abusive, self-destructive element in our culture is a part of all these things. I think drug-taking in a way is an equivalent, or an extension, of the fantasizing in movies. It’s part of the encouragement to seek a very private, calm world. That notion that if the world is going to end, we’ll all need a drug. I am not a drug-taker, but I am a medication-taker, and it changed my life. I think more and more our loneliness is being assuaged by addictions of one kind or another and it will be a big part of the end of the world.
GM: It’s all there in “Heroin,” in the Velvet Underground song. It refers to heroin as “my wife,” and it’s so clear that the act of shooting up is a symbolic acting out of the end of the world. Not suicide, the end of the world.
DT: But this is very personal, and very damaging, and it’s clearly sexual in some ways too. It’s gloomy stuff. I think the thing that you raise is very important. There are still moments of awe at the movies and it’s very important to stress that. I knew that this book was headed towards a dark ending. I’m not sure I can write a book that isn’t headed towards a dark ending but I wanted there to be as much light as possible along the way. That really was a joyous experience at Dartmouth when I projected The Clock, in that bizarre way. It really returned the people who saw it to a kind of innocence and sheer delight at movement, where in so many ways they have become jaded now.
GM: You divided The Clock, Minnelli’s Clock, into two reels, and you projected the first reel forward, the second reel in reverse. You projected them on the screen and they ran side by side.
DT: I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an audience so excited. People were literally bouncing up and down in their seats. It made us all children again. This was a class of bright kids at Dartmouth. Everyone could see some of the implications and the consequences in it; could see what it was teaching us about narrative and shots because all films are certain shots.
GM: And yet, as you describe the event at Dartmouth, you revel in it and you put the reader in that room and the reader is thrilled to be there. When I read that, I thought, if you made this into a pedagogical tool and you did it three times a semester or something, it wouldn’t happen. It would just die. It would be a trick, and this wasn’t trick.
DT: No, it was a fairly spontaneous thing. I hadn’t pre-meditated it. It didn’t just happen, but I don’t think more than a couple of hours went into thinking about it. You’re right.
GM: The book starts with movement, starts with Muybridge, starts with a primitive movement that produces the same sense of confusion and awe, but a delicious confusion. It ends in the same way, in a way that doesn’t seem the slightest bit contrived or like a set-up. It ends as if when you got to the end of the book, what you were doing reminded you that you had an ending. As opposed to when you had started writing and said, “Well, I’ll start with this and end with that.”
DT: That’s right. It was only really very late in the writing of this book that I began to feel good about it. It just wasn’t working for me for a long time, and then, I don’t know how, it fell into place.