Stylish, Finger-Wagging Critic Charts Movies’ Sad Decline

The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, by David Thomson. Alfred A. Knopf, 400 pages, $27.95.

It’s generally agreed that David Thomson has the most deliciously riveting style of any critic alive-witty, allusive, with a slithery vivacity and a whip-crack rhythm. But style alone can’t make a great critic; if it could, Anthony (“Movies Are My Straight Man”) Lane would by now have ascended to Olympus. And there’s no getting away from the fact that Mr. Thomson’s greatest problem is that he knows how good a writer he is. Like an actor with a great voice (Richard Burton, James Earl Jones), whose performances begin and end in the throat, Mr. Thomson often lets the resonance of his style do the heavy lifting, confident that it will at least sound convincing.

Basically, a great critic has to have three things: ideas, personality and the nose for bullshit that a German shepherd at LaGuardia has for cocaine.

Mr. Thomson always buries enough ideas in the dense dance of metaphor to make reading him a continuous intellectual pleasure. Which is one reason why at least two books ( Showman, his 1992 biography of David Selznick, and A Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its second edition) are at the right hand of everybody who cares about the movies.

His new book, The Whole Equation, is structured as an interlocking series of essays laying out the chronological progression and aesthetic deterioration of American movies. Griffith to Chaplin to Stroheim to Selznick, on through to Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, with time out for some delicious digressions that aren’t really digressions-for example, on Edward Hopper’s great painting New York Movie (1939)-and an extended mash note on the subject of Nicole Kidman that truly is a pointless side trip.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Actually, much of it is good. Although Mr. Thomson has never had many nice things to say about Chaplin’s work, for instance, he recognizes that, from a cultural point of view, the comedian is probably the single most important figure in the history of the movies. Chaplin seduced a mass audience with art, and did it on his own terms-the ultimate trick that other filmmakers have been pursuing for nearly 100 years.

“Chaplin had no education, no intellect perhaps. But he was driven by a brilliant modernism way ahead of Freudian understanding-half narcissism, half utter, cold detachment-that left him as outstanding as Einstein.”

Mr. Thomson makes a serious-and, in my view, completely accurate-claim for the genius of Fritz Lang, who’s been underrated even as the far flashier Hitchcock has been overrated, largely because Lang lacked humor and didn’t particularly care about pleasuring his audience, whereas Hitchcock cared about little else.

Mr. Thomson is contrarian enough, and historian enough, to be sensible about the realities of the studio system and dismissive of the crocodile tears shed for the crazed behavior of someone like Judy Garland, when dozens of other stars sailed through the MGM mill without destroying themselves.

I particularly appreciate his analysis of why Montgomery Clift, Billy Wilder’s first choice for Sunset Boulevard (1950), would have subtly submarined the picture: “Clift would have made [Joe] Gillis insidiously charming instead of a desperate scrambler. You would have wanted to save Clift (that was his trick); Holden knows that Gillis is beyond salvation.”

Throughout the book, Mr. Thomson tosses off sentences or paragraphs that induce those “little stabs of pleasure” James Mason mentions in A Star is Born (1954)-lots of extended clauses ending with a snapper that usually keeps his prose, which can be swooningly romantic, from going irrevocably over the top: “I love Technicolor for its expressiveness, its moist aliveness, its damson and crème brûlée mix as lipstick meets cheek, and its passion-because it is, often, better than life. Art is meant to be.”

Part of what makes a critic great is the arguments he or she provokes, and Mr. Thomson always gives you plenty of opportunities to vehemently disagree. His assertion that Errol Flynn and Bette Davis would have worked well in Gone With the Wind (1939) is patently ridiculous. That grimly uneven pair would have presaged the absurd casting that sank the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby. (You’d only wait years and years for Bette Davis if you were determined to strangle her.)

As with most of us, Mr. Thomson’s convictions are actually just prejudices converted into generalized aesthetic principles. For instance, he greatly prefers sound movies to silents. I happen to think that on balance he’s wrong, but one man’s music is another’s cacophony. Mr. Thomson is above all a man of words, ecstatically so, and silent movies are about movement and emotion, not words-closer to dance than talkies have ever been.

The ostensible plan for his new book turns out to be too neat for the intrinsically chaotic nature of an unplanned business like the movies. Ironically, his own taste for the impulsive stream-of-consciousness also takes a toll; for some reason, his perfectly judged point about William Holden and Montgomery Clift comes in a disquisition about Brando and Apocalypse Now (1979).

Also, Mr. Thomson has grown cranky, like an old geezer who feels it’s his God-given right to tell everybody how the world has gone on a toboggan ride to hell since he and Francis Coppola were young whippersnappers. (At the same time, he’s capable of stunning, very up-to-date vulgarity; I’m thinking in particular about a regrettable comment on the invention of lip gloss.)

He seems to draw a line connecting Brando refusing to read his lines for Rod Steiger’s closeups in On the Waterfront (1954) to Michael Cimino’s wild ride with Heaven’s Gate (1980)-bad manners leading to narcissism leading to the curdled, if not incompetent storytelling we get in modern movies. “That is nonsense that could yet destroy a society, as well as an approach that drags down art or storytelling or entertainment. And when enough people take some malaise as a right, the result is a society in which everyone is acting instead of being.”

This argument is, I think, patently ridiculous. Great talent rarely comes neatly packaged with great character, and that fact has nothing to do with generational decadence.

Finger-wagging is what we have to endure with Mr. Thomson, much as we waded through Pauline Kael’s inexplicable enthusiasm for sleazy movies by the obviously third-rate Brian De Palma, movies that nobody has given a moment’s thought to since they were made.

Mr. Thomson spends much of his time prostrate before Chinatown (1974), one of the many movies for adults that were in movie theaters 30 years ago that would have a very hard time getting made today. The Whole Equation, he tells us, is essentially about the gap between the Robert Towne of Chinatown and the Robert Towne who now occupies himself rewriting Tom Cruise movies so they’re slightly less bad than they would be otherwise.

As a matter of fact, movies were better 30 years ago, unless you happen to think computer graphics are a fair exchange for character and emotion. Thomson is particularly good on Star Wars (1977) and what it spawned: “The screen was flagrantly electronic. Yes, there were real actors there, but so much of the imagery was fabricated. Nothing looked or smelled like life. Which may be one reason why it appealed so much to those children of all ages rather alarmed by life.”

Movies have lost most of their power to move the mass audience because that audience has lost belief in the idea of film as art. But let’s try to take the long view. Art doesn’t move in a straight line, and for every Renaissance you can reliably expect 100 years of treading water. The American movie had a pretty good run from, say 1910 to 1980, continually re-inventing itself both aesthetically and commercially. Maybe the soil needs to lie fallow for a while.

It’s our misfortune that the fallow period coincides with our time as an audience, but it could be worse: We could be sitting in the New York theater before Eugene O’Neill dragged it out of the grim clutches of 19th-century melodrama. (Or, for that matter, we could be sitting in the New York theater now.)

Of course, maybe the truth is darker; maybe entertainment values have simply obliterated artistic ones. Certainly, the structural model for movies used to be the three-act structure of literature or the theater, and that has largely been replaced by the incessantly thumping, one-damn-thing-after-another narrative beats of the comic book and the video game.

David Thomson is still the best critic we’ve got. The sad thing is that he doesn’t really have much competition. (And anyway, 10 great movie critics wouldn’t have much to occupy themselves with these days.) I avidly consumed most of The Whole Equation by flashlight, because Hurricane Jeanne had obliterated electricity and was doing its damnedest to obliterate Florida. I wasn’t reading it because I had to, but because this intensely alive writer always compels rapt attention-even if there’s a storm knocking down trees and ripping off roofs, even if you think he’s wrong.

Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life of Louis B. Mayer will be published in May by Simon and Schuster. He reviews books regularly for The Observer.