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February 06, 2005

When I Hear the Word 'Art,' I Reach for My Wallet
(With Apologies to Palance and Godard)

by Ron Hogan

If you're visiting Beatrice because you've seen the BookTV panel, then you know what Housing Works looks like, and I was back there Saturday night to see David Thomson talk about The Whole Equation with Geoffrey O'Brien (whose own book on film, Phantom Empire, was unfortunately not in the store's inventory--which is stocked entirely from what the store receives in donations). It was an engagingly combative conversation, in which O'Brien staked out a position championing film as "the primary expression in art of the human consciousness in the twentieth century," at least in the first half of that century, while Thomson probed: "Do you really feel absolutely confident about calling it art?" He'd put it "somewhere between art and trash," which led to an interesting long digression about the meaning of Sullivan's Travels, and then he wondered aloud if film's declining command of the public's attention could simply be because the novelty of the filmgoing experience wore off, especially once television came into play.

Either way, they agreed, the films just weren't as good anymore (overall); one point of comparison came when the original King Kong was juxtaposed with last year's Troy. O'Brien didn't care for the digital effects in that movie, which he found obvious and distracting; Thomson said the problem with Troy isn't that the digital effects aren't there yet, but that the script wasn't there." He pointed out that the Kong effects couldn't be described as other than "threadbare," but you come to love the gorilla anyway because the film's that good. He then suggested that part of the problem with the critical attitudes on the alleged decline of film as a "lost art" were that film isn't something you should be writing about critically, necessarily, in the academic sense; as he said, "I'm not sure that the intellectual assertion that this is an art form is accurate or even useful." He does, though, believe in an "atmospheric" literature of film. Including the memoirs O'Brien found "trashy" and "unreliable;" to Thomson, the memoirs are "unreliable in the way that film is not reality."

"Our Girl in Chicago" from About Last Night saw Thomson in Chicago earlier this week, and her detailed thoughts about the similar remarks he made there are definitely worth your attention. You should also, if you haven't seen it already, Louis Menand's at-large reflections on a few recent film books, Thomson's included, in last week's New Yorker, which gives Thomson praise that seems not just guarded, but locked up within a vault:

"[I]f you are someone who believes that 'history' means a maximum of information presented with a minimum of opinion, then The Whole Equation is not the book for you. But if you think that our interest in movies has everything to do with our feelings about them, and if you have a tolerance for repetition, digression, first-person indulgence, and general narrative shagginess, then you are not likely to find a more affecting and intellectually absorbing book on film as a popular art."

Now, I happen to be driven mad on a regular basis by a certain type of film biography that engages in "repetition, digression, first-person indulgence, and general narrative shagginess," but that's because I read biography for "a maximum of information presented with a minimum of opinion;" cultural criticism is a completely different ballgame, and Thomson's one of its All-Stars. Other critics disagree: Stephanie Zacharek called him "loquacious to the point of reader numbness" in the NYTBR, and warns that "his judgment is often downright screwy." In the daily NYT, though, Michiko Kakutani doesn't seem to let her reservations with the "appealing but overstuffed and at times undernourished volume" get in the way of an implied recommendation.

(By the way, for those of you who are just arriving, since taping that show, I've launched a new site, Beatrix, which does exactly what I did in the last paragraph--talk about the major book reviews and my reaction to them--in much more, and sharper, detail. I hope you'll try it after you're done here.)

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