Tuesday, February 01, 2005

TV: The Late Show with David Letterman

Appreciations of last night’s Johnny Carson tribute show abound, like the ones here and here. So I’ll single out what I liked best about it: Dave’s use of original TONIGHT SHOW “More to Come” artcards around the commercial breaks. A lovely touch.

Book: The Whole Equation, by David Thomson (2004)

You won’t find a more readable reference work than Thomson’s BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM. I share his views on some subjects; for instance, he calls Robert Mitchum “one of the best actors in the movies” and has a huge soft spot for Angie Dickinson.

More often than not our opinions clash violently. I’ve always thought of Ron Shelton, with his jaundiced eye for detail and skill at combining sex and comedy, as one of the most underrated American filmmakers and a legitimate heir to Preston Sturges. Thomson writes: “few directors depress me more.” Ouch.

Agree or disagree, he’s always worth reading. Which is why I was eager to tackle his latest book, subtitled “A History of Hollywood.” A grand enough subject, to be sure, but early on Thomson casts his net even wider. He’s not writing a history of movies, but a history of America in the time of movies. With Robert Towne’s script for CHINATOWN and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE LAST TYCOON as his lodestars.

That kind of ambition is rare these days. And this book serves as a reminder of why.

When I was in college, I took a course in film criticism. The instructor told us that the true measure of a critic was the ability to write a “thinkpiece.” He pronounced the word the way a physician would say “malignant.” You know what I’m talking about: one of those bloated Sunday arts section essays that takes a single decent idea and inflates it beyond significance. Like A. O. Scott’s recent jeremiad (which, alas, I can’t link to) about SIDEWAYS being the most overrated movie of the year.

Aside: Why do I have the feeling that if SIDEWAYS had been released in 1974 – directed by, say, Hal Ashby and starring George Segal as the sad-sack writer – our Tony would at some point have held it up as a shining example of the kind of film Hollywood just doesn’t make any more?

Thomson’s book feels like a series of tenuously linked thinkpieces. He’ll raise an intriguing point about the origins of film noir or the role of class in the life and work of Chaplin, then move on before developing it. Worse, the transitions between subjects are so intuitive as to border on the personal. He knows how these ideas fit together so he assumes we do, too. And before you know it, you’re left eating his intellectual dust.

There are stirring passages. He employs statistics on declining movie attendance to devastating effect. But overall, the book feels tired. Thomson is unhappy with the direction that film and the steadily shrinking audience have taken in the last twenty years, and he’s allowed that ennui to contaminate his writing.

Which is too bad. Because the current state of the movies is one of the subjects where the two of us see eye to eye.