Book Review
By Ray Young


The Whole Equation

A History of Hollywood

A new book by David Thomson

404 pages, illustrated; Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95


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WholeE.jpgThe magic of the movies is in their uncanny, hypnotic ability to make us believe in fantasy. Extending from the images on the screen to the exaggerated lifestyles of the falsely refined movers and shakers who make them, the lies trickle down to affect both the manner and perception of us, the viewer. To say that movies (and, more profoundly, television) have reshaped society is an understatement: their sweeping modification of reality is one of the legacies (and the foremost curse) of the twentieth century.
    As David Thomson displays in The Whole Equation, to write about movies is to write about fabrication and influence, and authors even as keen as he are just as susceptible to the same power of suggestion as everyone else. Going through this energetic, analytic volume, we’re with a man caught between exposing the lie and loving it. In over a dozen books and countless magazine articles, Thomson’s study of this dangerous game of chimera and self-deception has been enlightening and often irritating. (How dare he shatter our illusions!) Updated once every decade, the unsentimental tone throughout his Biographical Dictionary of Film has infuriated some readers to the stage where several crabby reviews have been as caustically entertaining as the pointed work itself. The audience who condemns what they fancy to be his myopia fail to recognize Thomson’s intense respect and adoration of good films, directors and actors. But it’s there, most certainly so, often packed very tight between the lines, an area generally overlooked by unadventurous minds and delusional addicts.
    Borrowing his title from a passage in Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished ode to Tinsel Town, The Last Tycoon — “Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads” — Thomson claims his new book is “a one-volume account, a history, of magicians, con men, hacks, and scoundrels.” But The Whole Equation isn’t so fast and innocent. Go back to his funny and fascinating Rosebud, the only Orson Welles biography worth reading more than once, for a sampling of how much arsenic Thomson will scatter over that broad a declaration. With its shrewdly benign subtitle, “A History of Hollywood,” this is an investigation (indictment?) into a collective consciousness that never graduated beyond the childhood comfort in fairytales and myths; of egos systematically pumped up by those who later initiate deflation; of the art of the lie. In the past, the author has championed the cheek and ingenuity of Welles’s F for Fake, a shaggy dog comedy/counterfeit documentary about art frauds and white-collar thieves — the same breed that’s been making pictures ever since Edison. In its own way, Thomson’s book continues Welles’s tradition of arched-brows and cynical smirks directed at the suckers and suckees, the unfortunate, guileless souls (you, me, everyone) who buy the package, and that elite few who get to groom it.
    It’s that latter group Thomson endeavors to unmask, either by juxtaposing the manufacture of Charles Chaplin with that of Nicole Kidman (!), or in debunking the myth of D.W. Griffith: “To be honest, I don’t think [The Birth of a Nation and Intollerance] really stand up as art, so much as something on the way to art.” Relating their birth and development against the waning years of great literature and musical composers, Thomson contends that “films are about disclosure, revelation, appearance, the world of visibility, and the fetishization of appearance.” Note the telling use of the word ‘appearance’ twice in one sentence. It echoes later: “In American films, the camera tells a certain truth — it records appearance — but then it adjusts the appearance so that it becomes a lovelier version of itself, an ideal often, but a nightmare, too. Anything except the real thing.”

“He OWNS the police!” Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown. Looking at the world through a flawed iris, the character was described by David Thomson (in his Biographical Dictionary of Film) as “a woman from a Lubitsch film, condescending to appear in a George Raft picture.”
    In the teens, producers relocated from New York and New Jersey to chase that idyllic appearance all the way to Los Angeles, a city bathed in an uncommonly bright and warming light, “a gold richer that that found in the Sierra.” In between nearly formal dissertations on Eadweard Muybridge and the Lumičres, Thomson pokes below the surface of Hollywood to address a few of its lesser-known denizens who wielded enormous power, the men who owned the people who owned the studios. William Mulholland, for example, whose name would one day grace a Drive and an eerie David Lynch portrait of dashed dreams, was an entitled figure “absolutely untrained as an engineer, but head of the Department of Water and Power,” a model for Robert Towne in the construction of Chinatown. Nepotism and influence and vast amounts of wealth accounts for most of the hiring in and around Emerald City, while bourgeois inbreeding has amended the shape of the land and continues to corrupt souls to this day.
    Thomson blends observations on these power brokers with astute points on the movies, their aesthetic value and social impact. The studio chiefs recognized that movies fed our inherent need and desire to flex the imagination through stories, coercing the mind through the eye and ear, and that there was a fortune to be made off the relative ease of its exhibition and accessibility. “The urge to tell these stories,” asserts Thomson, “is inseparable from the wish to make money.” The studios could not stay in business unless there were films to shoot week in and week out. Their alliance with theatre chains necessitated a constant replenishment of merchandise to keep the clientele coming back for more — an assembly-line operation. “Put quality aside for the moment,” he writes, “this is…an unremitting demand for product. It follows from this requirement that all films should be broadly alike…roughly the same length, and nature.”
    The Whole Equation considers the plight of artists who were stifled by such base conformity, as opposed to those who simply exploited it. In an enlightening chapter on Erich von Stroheim’s construction and Irving Thalberg’s deconstruction of Greed (from nearly ten hours to two), the epic is used to illustrate the conflicting natures of art and popular taste, and of the myriad faces of integrity. “For those of a mind to believe that the American movie was within reach of ‘art,’ it has always been easy to describe Greed as a tragic loss. But for anyone willing to allow that American film is something else — not an art so much as a business based on moving us — then what happened is not only understandable but reasonable. It shows Thalberg as a model of fairness. As if fairness had anything to do with art — no, it is the mealy-mouthed language of common sense and business and politics.”
    Or, the bottom line. They buried people like Stroheim under the bottom line. Thomson comprehends the queer ramifications that derive from mating artistic vision (and its positive effect on craftsmanship) with the commercial concerns of pampered bean-counters catering to an audience who, more often than not, simply don’t care. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Back to Greed: “But what kind of job did Thalberg and his cutters do?…Pretty good, I think. I urge anyone to read the…novel and see if they can really hold to the conclusion that the novel has been cheated…However, I suspect that at ten or eight hours, the passion of the story, its verve, would be smothered by the melodrama, the slowness, the prolixity, the symbolism, and the fatally old-fashioned moral.”
    Candid, perhaps long-winded, David Thomson speaks to the reader who’s wary of the ‘Two thumbs up — way up!’ school of lightweight, middlebrow criticism. (Who knows where those thumbs have been?) He asks us to have a sober, open mind: “Just as we should never believe in Hollywood’s advertising or its worldview, so we should stay doggedly unhorrified at the horror stories in which it takes equal pride. Stay calm and cool — it’s your best chance of taking in the history of it all, as opposed to being made giddy by the roller-coaster.” This in the age of the yellow television of Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight. Could the Ken- and Barbie-doll commentators on those programs appreciate the sad, bittersweet cynicism of Thomson’s worldly view: “I regret the way that America has elected to make films for its bluntest section of society and in ways that flatter them, and we have to recognize how much that is being done for the money.” Would Ken and Barbie even notice?
    Near the beginning of his book there’s a loving tribute to the film Chinatown, in which Thomson associates the picture’s bead on Los Angeles money and politics with the ingrowing family tree of Hollywood. He describes the input of the principals — Evans, Towne, Nicholson, Polanski, Huston — that made it so much more than ‘a film by’ any one person. Is it the last great adult American picture? In the thirty years that have lapsed since writing the screenplay, Robert Towne weathered a bumpy career before selling his soul to some Noah Cross figure perched high atop the food chain. From writing Chinatown and The Last Detail and Shampoo, he acquired wealth beyond his wildest dreams in return for a couple of by-the-numbers Mission: Impossible scripts that netted two hollow action flicks. “The gap between Chinatown and umpteen possible future Mission: Impossibles,” writes Thomson, “is the lament of this book.”

“Sing Sing, Gettys! SING SING!!!