We Need to Submit: On David Thomson’s ‘How to Watch a Movie’

February 22, 2016 | 7 books mentioned 2 8 min read


A young boy enters a large and exotic palace, pulsating with people, their faces alive with excitement, their eyes fixed on a bronze statue of a man and a writhing, devious woman. They are all elated and as one. The young boy is now a grown man, and he writes, not without regret and memories of lost glandular joy, “That is a hard ecstasy to abandon.”

coverThe grown man is David Thomson, a respected and prolific film critic and historian, and this description, of his first viewing of Cecil B. deMille’s Samson and Delilah (with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr) is a defense of the experience of seeing a movie — along with more than half the population of the world — once a week, in the dark, young and open, suspended from time and care, in full submission of whatever appeared once the heavy curtain rose and a shaft of light from behind threw the great images on a huge screen. Thomson’s latest book has been given a perfunctory, even pedantic, title: How to Watch a Movie, but don’t be fooled: Thomson, like that witchy, raven-haired Hedy Lamarr, is teasing us, peeling off insights as if they were gossamer underthings, and revealing not only what films have meant to him, but what the watching of them, and the ultimate harvesting of them in our memories, means to all of us.

coverIt is true that Thomson misses the glory days of movie-going, the rushing off to places with names like Palace, Plaza, Regal, Odeon, Astoria, Lux, Electric, designed in Spanish or Moorish or Egyptian style, comically inaccurate but baroque, but he is not ready to give up the pleasures of films (which he quixotically terms movies), which are often seen now in the glow of an iPhone or in a lap on a plane on a tablet or while seated in front of a personal computer. We now see films in cinder boxes redolent of pine cleaner, and no theatre owner delays the raising of the lights after an emotional film, as they once did, to give us our privacy as we collect ourselves: We are now hustled out of the theatre without a chance to watch the closing credits, because people need their next aesthetic desire slaked. We are able and eager to turn to YouTube to call up specific scenes from films to get a quick, free hit of what seduced us years ago, or — and this Thomson might find tragic — to see for the first time someone like Marlon Brando or a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We have all become divorced from our experiences by various distractions. In our homes we watch movies — or anything else — while cooking or talking or crocheting or masturbating or flipping through a magazine. The viewing of movies is simply one of the options available to us at any given time. We need always to be hooked up. This has been going on since the 1950s, when television came into our homes and the size of the movie audience plummeted. Special effects and sounds and gimmicks were invented to lure us back, and by the 1960s, film — or cinema, as many came to call it — became an elite, extracurricular activity. Some people believed that the free stuff coming into our homes was just as good as the movies we had once depended on like a fix, to which we had once been so devoted, but others disagreed. Movie audiences may have grown smaller, but they grew fervent. The studio system diminished, and bolder, brasher films were being made. A congress of critics grew out of this time, and they had rapt and large audiences, ready for their predictions and pronouncements. Collections of film reviews became best-sellers, and magazines bulged with long-form reviews. What happened? I was fortunate to become friends with the critics Andrew Sarris and his wife, Molly Haskell, and one evening, goaded by me, the conversation centered on that gilded age, when movie criticism became a highly competitive, vigorous sport, with critics fighting over how and why films were made; who made them best; why they mattered. Sarris thought that two things inflated the importance of film criticism at precisely the time when the quality and quantity of American films was declining: the number of Americans attending and graduating from college, where films were watched, discussed, studied; and a sense of nostalgia among those writing about film who, like Thomson, could see what had been lost in the film experience. We were now freer, on our own, lost, literally, to our own devices.

The means of watching movies may have changed, but film is there to be loved and studied; it is there to change us, improve us, allow us to look at the other aspects of our lives with a clearer vision. “Watching cannot rest with mere sight,” Thomson writes.

It waits to be converted into aesthetic judgment, moral discrimination, and a more intricate participation in society. That sounds ominous, I suppose, and part of a creeping unease at how the Internet can be a spectator sport that condones our lack of concentration and begins to deepen feelings of futility over dealing with the world. In that mood, there are film commentators who lament the loss of the large screen, the locomotive of the movie, and our amazed attention of it all. Things have been lost, but now I have to make the most challenging point — that cinema, movie (whatever) always had the seed of dislocation about it…The novice at the movies is often overwhelmed by the reality of it all…[and] “primitive peoples shown close-ups of the face are sometimes fearful that decapitation has occurred. When I saw [Laurence] Olivier’s Henry V at the age of four, I “saw” the faces of page boys in the English camp at Agincourt on fire. It was one of the occasions on which I had to be carried away in tears. Later on, I realized I was reacting to a dissolve — the faces and the fire had been laid together. Anyone poised on the edge of a miracle is “primitive.” (Italics mine.)

In that last sentence is, I think, Thomson’s primary argument, one shared with both Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando, two men with whom I engaged in lengthy conversation, and men saved, created, and sustained by movies, and they thought of them as miracles: Miracles of art and technology and talent, yes, but also miracles of healing. Both Williams and Brando — and dare I add Thomson — had lives shattered or lacking in many things, but they went, mind and eyes open, to the experience of a movie, and they were altered, even if for only two hours. Whatever we face in our lives — movies, love, sensuality, enlightenment — should be approached from the perspective of a primitive. Leave your prejudices behind. Not for Thomson the oddly ascetic (and laughable) claim from Pauline Kael that she saw a film once and that was that; it was over. Would you only kiss or make love or enjoy champagne once? Then spend your life recalling, as best you could, how it felt? Thomson is that rare critic who wants you to have and to share your passions, and in How to Watch a Movie, he writes more of the experience of watching than in rating a film or excoriating the ambitions of anyone. The key is in watching, noting.

“Watching and seeing are both physical (optical) and emotional (irrational),” he writes. “In its first sixty or so years, movie had made us all more conscious of looking; it had invested appearance with a new excitement, glamour, and erotic force. That energy is still there, but is it wearing off? This is the dilemma of the Internet — of so much to see that attention wavers or loses faith in itself…Instead of rapt spectators of the lifelike, we have become like screenwriters or editors.”

We are, in short, not watching movies — or living our lives — with the full capacity that once seemed so natural to us. We are more and more unable to submit, and our films and our lives suffer for it. Every year there is boasting of the billions of dollars made by the movies, but where is the passion for current film? The Internet is full of sites devoted to movie stars of the past, to directors who changed the medium, but outside of gossip, what is being said about our current film stars? We no longer ask our films — or any art form — to do its thing to us: We ask films to disprove our preconceptions, but we do not ask films to amaze us.

covercovercoverWhat is our film culture now? The social media fury is reserved for occasions when an actress is called fat, or when we delight in the latest special-effects kapok drowning in debt. Movie reviews — a vanishing act — are more like disgruntled Yelp comments on cold food and diffident waiters, and most could have been written before the screening, as they bristle with deals and back stories and budgets and what was expected. Critics on websites and with Twitter accounts are now courted by film studios and publicists to shore up an increasingly bored and capricious audience, and they speculate on what’s working and what isn’t in the industry. But what did they think of the movie? That is often shoe-horned in as a desultory requirement. Even as I write this — in the throes of Oscar season — no one has any firm idea of who or what will win or why: It’s all a hunch, a guess, and more and more people are waiting to see the films or the performances only if they are awarded, at which time they will be something of a safe investment of time and interest. In my own erratic, interesting life, I have worked on various Oscar campaigns, escorting actors to interviews and industry screenings, mailing DVDs to various guild and academy members, and I am here to tell you that a great number of those voting for these awards are not watching these films — free of charge and with booze and snacks afterward — and they are underwhelmed a great deal of the time. Their complaint — to me, a freelance non-entity who stocks hand sanitizer for stars and directors — is that movies are not “big” enough; they don’t engage. Engagement, I want to tell them, is a two-way street, and highly unlikely to blossom as you watch portions of Carol or Spotlight or The Revenant on the dedicated iTunes account set up for guild voters. Our films, they seem to be saying, need to satisfy a desire they can’t even articulate, or to which they feel superior. They might be the people of whom Tennessee Williams once said “They know so much they have been rendered stupid and immobile.”

Brando, when I asked him why he became so disdainful of the Oscars, stated that “We give awards for effort and endurance, and this is soul-crushing and it demeans the art we claim to be honoring.” The bottom line for Brando? “We are more and more terrified of any value judgments — on anything — because we do not trust ourselves to have an authentic and original experience. We need someone to tell us what or whom to love, and how to move and sigh when we do it. Let’s just watch the fucking movies and get high on them.”

I think everyone is down with that. Let’s see some movies — past and present — and get high on them. But how? Where? Thomson reminds us that the power to be amazed by all things — with movies as our starting point — rests with us. Our vision is our own, as is our experience. Toward the end of this bewitching book, Thomson offers a confession (yet another of his submissions): “You came into this book under deceptive promises (mine) and false hopes (yours). You believed we might make decisive progress in the matter of how to watch a movie. So be it, but this was a ruse to make you look at life.”

“If you really want to watch a film,” Thomson concludes, “you must be ready to recognize your own life slipping away. That takes a good deal of education. But you have to be stupid, too.”

Wise men — Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams, Richard Schickel, Andrew Sarris, and now, David Thomson — are asking or have asked us to forget what we think we know and to become reacquainted with what we feel, with what moves us. Share the stories and the sensations. Recall where you were emotionally when a film hit you. The movie you saw on a first date or with the mate you now love will become a part of your DNA, as will the film you saw right before the horrible phone call about the sick friend or parent. Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett will be fine and will feed their families and their assistants. Studios will keep making movies that will delight and disappoint us. These are not our concerns. We need to submit to things, to life, and we need to feel. This book will help you with this. This book will help you hold on to parts of your life as it slips away.

has had a variety of jobs, ranging from working for theatrical producer Daryl Roth; in the marketing department of Miramax Films; and as the author of Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog (Knopf). Grissom is currently at work on Come Up a Man, a book detailing two years of phone conversations with Marlon Brando. Grissom runs a blog at jamesgrissom.blogspot.com, where all the detritus of his research can be found.


  1. This is a terrific book, which I bought after reading this review. I have always liked David Thomson’s work, but this book is not an analysis of a film, or an encyclopedia, or a collection of reviews. Instead, it is almost philosophical, in asking us to really watch and feel and admire things–movies, yes, but our own lives.

    I really enjoyed this book.

  2. I believe that Thomson took Psycho and The Birds to be among the greatest films ever made. Could never take him seriously after that.

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