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Monday, November 5, 2012 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.

David Thomson talks about movies, memory, Marilyn Monroe

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

What David Thomson doesn't know about movies probably isn't worth knowing. But the latest project for the longtime film historian, author of numerous books including the essential "Biographical Dictionary of Film' (a well-thumbed reference on my own desk), was daunting even for him.

His new book, "The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies" is no less than a sweeping history of movies, from the earliest experiments to up-to-the minute streaming video and TV; seasoned liberally with Thomson's often-salty opinions and delicious observations. (He notes the "sly clatter" of Fred Astaire's feet; writes that Marilyn Monroe "taught us to see that the great images were lost children"; and argues that Tim Van Patten, who has directed 20 episodes of "The Sopranos," "has a case for being the most effective director of his time.") Reading "The Big Screen" is a joy for movie buffs; you'll feel as if you're listening to a wise, witty friend who seems to have seen — and remembered — everything.

Thomson, a native of London who now lives in San Francisco, will be in Seattle Wednesday to discuss his new book, and whatever else in moviedom he might feel like talking about, at Town Hall. Last month I spoke to him by telephone, to get an advance taste.

On writing "The Big Screen"

"I think the key thing with this book, what made it broader and more daunting, was that I no longer felt interested in just saying, 'This filmmaker is a great filmmaker.' I felt one had to try to place the whole medium in the cultural history of the last 120 years.

"In the broader sense, beyond the criticism and appreciation of movies, it did seem to me that relationship was growing between all of us — between society and screens; more than just movies, but screens. ... We've become tremendously dependent on [screens] — they're functional, they're useful — but part of the theory of this book is that they have increased a quality that was always existing in moviegoing: which was to present us with an extraordinary display of reality or the lifelike, but to keep us away from it, to keep us out of it." (Thomson also noted the dual meaning of the word "screen": both something that can be projected upon, and something which serves to block us from something else.)

The end of movie theaters?

"I think theaters on the whole are doomed, as movies become same-day available on television, or on the computer or whatever — I think [the end] will be very quick. It'll be as quick as the crossover from silents to sound.

"Theaters are very impractical, uneconomical and often rather unpleasant places now. I think that's going to go, and we're going to be left with a few museumlike theaters. These may be classic movie palaces that are preserved, or they may be theaters on university campuses, places like that. And they will be really the only place where you can see movies big. And I lament that, and I'm sure many people do."

Those ubiquitous best-movie lists

"I think they have nearly no importance; I think they're a game, part of the way we have become a game-playing culture. I'm sure in your paper, and I'm sure on the Internet that you look at every day, you're worn out by things like the 10 Best Movie Kisses or the 10 Most Daring Dresses Kim Kardashian has ever worn. Listmaking — it's a way of breaking reality down into short bites and takes. The more you do it, the more the public depends on short bites and takes.

"It's ridiculous to argue whether 'Vertigo' or 'Citizen Kane' is the best film." [Recently "Vertigo" made news by replacing "Citizen Kane" at the top of the once-a-decade film-critic poll conducted by Britain's Sight & Sound magazine; "Kane" had held the top spot for 50 years.]

"... They both have extraordinary qualities, as do another thousand films. I think the only value is that in history, you can look back and see how tastes have changed. If you look back to the first Sight & Sound poll, in 1952, it's very interesting to see films that were dominant then which have faded now, and also interesting to note that 'Citizen Kane' was not in that first list."

Reflections on Marilyn Monroe, who died 50 years ago

"Early death for movie stars tends to ensure their longevity. Monroe has become, I think, like a dark pond, and everyone who looks into it sees their own reflection. Feminists see the abused woman, cynics see the woman who simply did anything she could to be famous and to be noticed, actors see someone who dreamed of great parts and great work and never achieved it, and so on. It would be no comfort to her.

"If she died in immense frustration and dismay and anguish — I think probably that's close — then maybe there's some comfort in the fact that we are still thinking about her, arguing about her, really using her as a test case for movie acting and Hollywood and all those things. If she wanted to be taken seriously, and that's one interpretation of her, she has been taken seriously.

On the three favorite movies he listed in "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film" — "His Girl Friday," "Mississippi Mermaid," and "Celine and Julie Go Boating"

His favorites change "every day, almost. I don't think you should get attached to some pantheon like that. I try to change the titles. Hmmm ... the three movies that I want to see this afternoon are 'Man with a Movie Camera,' the full version of 'Heaven's Gate' on a big screen, and 'In the Cut.' "

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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