English-born David Thomson is the film critic for The New Republic and the author of more than twenty books on movies. His most recent book, Moments That Made the Movies focuses on the scenes from movie history that stand out in Thomson’s mind.
Is there a tension between the idea of having a single moment that stands out and defines a movie and the idea that movies work as longer investigations? Does a moment in a film illuminate something about the movie as a whole, or is it a self-contained piece that exists separately from the larger narrative?
Well, from the point of view of the filmmaker, yes, there may be tension or regret. Equally, that filmmaker knows the way he or she recollects films. I think the brightness of moments does obscure dullness or ordinariness—this happens in life, or with novels, just as much as it does with movies. Many of the moments I chose appealed to me because they do embody the whole picture. They teach us how to see the movie. So the very last shot of The Searchers guides us into seeing how it’s a film about a tyrant who softens in some ways, but also who comes to appreciate his own barbarism. Some moments are self-contained—but if they have passed into folklore then they do stand alone.
Many of the moments in the book tend to be sexual or violent. Is there a reason for this?
The movies have always liked sex and violence—in part because the medium offers to show us something we haven’t seen before, and because it opens us up to our fantasies. But I think you exaggerate how many are just sex and violence. Very often, that material leads us to character and story. However, I do think it’s important that in our history the movies coincide with the availability of sex as pleasure for the mass of people. They also overlap with the most violent and destructive of human centuries. It would be stranger if sex and violence were neglected.
How did you narrow down the moments you picked for this book? Do you feel that any type of films would be better represented if you had more space?
I had space for 75 films at about 750 words—it’s a formula like any other. I chose films I liked with vital moments and films I felt excited to write about. These aren’t the greatest moments, or even my favorites – they are moments that, as I thought of them, I felt the urge to write. Obviously these films could be written about at greater length. But it’s not common for film criticism to get as deeply into cinematic texture as moments allow.
Does the effectiveness of a moment vary by movie genre? Do some genres have more telling moments than others?
Possibly, but that seems to me an uninteresting line of thought. What’s far more important is that the circumstances of film, in the dark, on a big screen, are capable of putting a few moments in our heads forever.
Are films with more moments necessarily better, or more interesting, than films without them?
No. I think some films – Hitchcock’s, say –are more full of moments than those by Renoir, Ozu, and other non-Americans. I suspect American popular culture likes the piercing moment. That sensationalism is in our blood.
Have moments changed—or has their importance changed—as movies have changed over time?
Of course. Movies are an ongoing discourse between us and the screen. The movies have developed, screens have changed. And we no longer look on film as the central element of entertainment. But still, if you watch there is a chance you will see something—and that sight will linger in your consciousness.
Are moments things that relate to, or are defined by, film structure, or do the idiosyncratic talents of directors and actors create moments?
Both can operate. A movie moment has to be something that only movie can do. But directors do things—see things—only they can see. The shower scene in Psycho has been very influential, but I doubt anyone else could have seen it in 1960 in Hitch’s way.
Lastly for all us aspiring critics, how did you get interested in criticism?
My mother thought I saw too many films, so she said I had to write something about them to justify my going so often. That started when I was about 15 and more or less the habit has remained. But it’s part of a larger thing: we owe it to ourselves and our world to notice what we see and what happens to us, and to explore the feelings that are left. If I didn’t write about movies, I would find another subject—sport, weather, people in airports, something else. Airport Moments?