Author David Thomson is one of the most prolific writers on classic film and Hollywood history. His past works, including Moments That Made the Movies, The Big Screen, and Beneath Mulholland, blend autobiography, memory and history to create an ever-blooming world of film appreciation. His latest work, Sleeping with Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire, is another masterclass in film analysis. This time Thomson casts his eye on the interplay of celebrity and film towards shaping desire; what makes movies desirable to us and also how that inspires an audiences own conception of love and sexuality. It’s a book that’s beautiful, funny, and insightful in equal measure. Thomson sat down to talk about his latest tome, the fading availability of classic film, and the writing process.
What inspired you to write your latest book, Sleeping With Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire?
With more than any book I’ve written once I got into it I realized I was drawing upon memories and experiences and movies from way back [to] almost the first time I started seeing movies. And indeed there were certain movies I went back to just to see whether I was remembering them accurately, and to see whether they still had the same meaning for me they had when I first saw them. As a child and adolescent the movies were a fantastic inspiration for desire in me, which means love and romance and sexuality, but it means desire in the fullest terms. It means wanting to be something, or more, or other than what you feel you are; wanting to go places, do things; wanting to have some sort of lasting value. In a very funny way, and this is true to sex and romance, it’s the hope – a futile hope – that you can overcome death.
How do you feel love, romance, and desire has changed between the studio era and today?
There’s a huge progression. When movies began it was clear that we were being asked to look at these beautiful people and imagine ourselves with them, of being them. There was a tremendous restraint, which was that of censorship, and censorship lasted well into the 1960s and then it really began to break down. You felt that something like a rush toward language, a rush towards nakedness, and a rush toward sexual action was there in the movies. There were a few years when it really characterized American cinema. Then, of course, pornography came along, and pornography was an enormous intrusion on all of us which actually stopped the exploration of sexuality on-screen. The real thing, albeit done in a very automatic, drab way, became so pervasive and so available that it was kinda crazy for movies, American movies particularly, to get into it.
Curiously there is less in the way of love stories in American movies now then there was in the ’50s and ’60s when love was the big thing. It was the big thing movies were about. All movies had a love relationship and ended with it being fulfilled in some kind of way. Now we don’t get that anymore and I think it’s a big loss. Young filmgoers, and of course not many young people are avid filmgoers in the way you were, [but] they don’t really look for love story films anymore and they’re not getting them; they’re not being made. Call Me By Your Name is a foreign film. It’s a transitional crossover. But European films like Cold War, which is a fantastic love story; I don’t think that movie could or would have been made in America at the present time, but it still reaches a number of Americans and they feel it. They respond to it.
There’s actually been articles written about the dearth of sex scenes and romantic movies. How it’s all spectacle.
The other thing is for decades actresses were definitely exploited. They were asked to take off their clothes in a way that men were sheltered from. Many of them were very embarrassed and felt bad about doing what they did. It’s a good thing there’s reform in that area, the whole #MeToo movement, but what it means is a number of film projects or ideas that might have had a good deal of sexual action on-screen the studios are backing away from them. Because they feel if they are to make them they’ll get in trouble with the audience.
How do you settle on your book’s subjects?
For a long time, as a writer and teacher, I worked on the lie of thinking films are made by people. The whole auteur theory that films are made by directors and you can organize them in terms of who made them. A few years ago I began to realize I was much more interested in general, overall things that films do that don’t have anything to do with authorship or the people who made them. I’m interested nowadays in how romance and love are treated, how violence is treated. I’ve got a future book coming up which is a study of murder in cinema. It’s those general ideas that interest me at the moment.
What’s your relationship to classic films been like in a world where these movies are now so hard to watch?
There’s no question about that. I’m older than you are by quite a bit [and] I lived through a time when you literally might have to wait years to see a movie you’d heard about and longed to see, but it just didn’t come your way because films were accessible through limited forms. Then we broke through into an age where young people wanted to know about film history and things became much more available – video, DVDs. We’re definitely at a point now where that tide that came in starting in the ’60s through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s is going out. I know a lot of people who have what I have which is a library of DVDs and which I treasure as much as my books. And I’m beginning to wonder how long I’ll be able to watch them because it’s not that easy anymore to get a DVD player or to get a DVD player serviced.
So I foresee the time when that library shelf becomes almost defunct and that’s when I say to myself [and] the streaming services, “Okay, can I watch it on your services?” I have a fear that’s when they’re going to say, “Oh, no, we don’t carry that anymore because it doesn’t really sell in sufficient numbers.” And then we might be at a point where, if you want to see some fantastic film of the 1930s – and some films of that era are as fresh as they ever were – you might find it hard to find. I’m terribly afraid of that coming.
I keep saying classic film love will go back to the underground, with people going to the bowels of the internet to find certain movies.
It goes back to the days in the 1950s, the early ’60s, when someone might come up to you and say, “Look, I’m going to show a stolen 16 mm version of so-and-so on my wall tonight if you want to come by.” Many people remember this, because so many people are that old, but there was a period in the late ’60s through the ’70s when you could not see Vertigo. Vertigo had been withdrawn by Hitchcock. During that time I had seen it several times. There were film students I had who would take me out to dinner just to tell them the story of Vertigo. So I had to work hard to remember it, and some of the dialogue and some of the scenes. It could be that human memory will hold on to these films in a vital way.
You mentioned writing a book on murder in film. Can you share what that’s going to be about?
It’s very simple. If say to you, “Do you disapprove of murder?” You’ll say, “Of course I disapprove of murder.” If I say to you, “Would you ever murder anybody?” You’d say, “No, I wouldn’t dream of it.” You don’t want to be murdered. You don’t want to do it. You really think it’s a terrible, awful thing. But I would not be surprised if you watch a lot of movie murders and if you look at the kind of material that we get in long-form TV series these days, so many of them are about serial killers or certainly about people who do a good deal of killing. In other words, the fascination with it is intense. And what I want to write about is why, if it’s so bad, we are so fascinated with it?
What is your writing process like working on one of these books?
To some degree I know in advance, but I don’t like going into a book where I know the whole thing in advance. I like to surprise myself so that I will be doing a book when, maybe by chance, I see something on television and I wouldn’t have thought of it. But I see it again and I think, “Oh, God, that works perfectly.” I will co-opt that into the book and do it. One definitely has a plan. You have a direction for the book, but then things happen, things come along, and if they excite you and you feel they’re about the subject you’re interested in, then you have to take them up; you have to follow that lead. Now, obviously, the other thing about a book is you do a first draft, and for me the first draft is like opening up a house; you don’t know what the rooms are like. You don’t know where you’re gonna live. Where you’re gonna sleep in the house. But as you get to know the house you come to conclusions about it. So, in other words, once I have a first draft the rewriting process is absolutely vital.
What are the classic films you love that others should look into watching?
Oh, God, so many! At the moment, and I find that one’s taste develops over time, if someone says to me “what are the great American films?” I would say the romantic comedies, the screwball comedies. The films that mean the most to me, personally. They’re the ones that I can watch over and over again. I had a period where I loved film noir. Everyone’s had that noir period. I find it quite difficult watching noir these days because it seems so cut and dry, so over organized. In a funny kind of way, even though it’s impressive, the people are fake in film noir all the time. I find in romantic comedies, the good ones, the people are more recognizable and I feel closer to them. Movies tend to push melodrama and they tend to underplay comic, ordinary life. As I’ve gotten older, and I’m afraid I have gotten older, I love the comic of the ordinary more and more.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.