Famed British-born, San Francisco-based author David Thomson recently published Disaster Mon Amour, a slim 198 page book on our collective cinematic addiction to disaster. Thomson has been very prolific recently and has published several thoughtful and provocative books in the past few years. His Sleeping with Strangers argued that our collective love affair with beautiful stars on the screen has set us up for desiring others and things we generally can’t have. In Murder and the Movies, he also persuasively argued that violence and revenge in film has had a violent impact on our collective psyche and has influenced violent people. These are not new or far-fetched arguments and his other recent book, A Light in the Dark, was an overview of significant filmmakers, which might suggest Thomson has run out of ideas.
Whether these book prompts are novel are not, Thomson continues to be a fascinating and even seductive writer. He consistently writes in a style that makes me feel he is only writing to me, and I’m sure many other of his readers feel this way. Thomson is known for his orneriness, and that is apparent in sections of this new book including when he writes about Meryl Streep and Sophie’s Choice. According to Thomson, “Streep did win the Oscar, and she deserved it. She always deserves it, and usually gets nominated because she commands a strain of brilliant artifice that reassures and impresses the dumb Academy” (65).
Overall, though, Thomson’s book comes from a concerned and caring place. He began researching the book before the current pandemic, and frequently mentions how in disaster movies hundreds or thousands of human figures die and the viewer isn’t meant to care. Thomson reflects on this indifference to human life on screen, and how in the real world many hundreds of thousands of Americans have died of Covid and how many more of their family members have suffered with this loss. Thomson repeatedly comes back to the Dwyane Johnson movie San Andreas, where countless people die in an earthquake and contrasts it with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road which follows a father and son in a post-apocalyptic world. According to Thomson, McCarthy illustrates care about single lives whereas a film like San Andreas clearly doesn’t. At one point, Thomson’s book basically becomes a diary of the first few months of the pandemic, and this might have made for a stronger, separate book.
I mostly enjoyed Thomson’s book, but I felt a lot of it had already been covered in some more recent critical film books. Peter Biskind brilliantly argued in his The Sky is Falling that disaster narratives in texts such as The Walking Dead strengthened the extremist views that have led to the profoundly polarized world we live in. Mick LaSalle’s more recent Golden State also eloquently covers movies like San Andreas and the clear death wish in Hollywood and its audience to watch its beloved cities be destroyed by earthquakes and aliens.
In this book, Thomson writes about watching Rachel Maddow on television throughout the pandemic, which often brings to mind his far stronger Television: A Biography from a few years back. At the end of A Light in the Dark, he makes the argument that the last four hours of the third season of Ozark are more compelling that Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. I’d be very interested in reading a book by Thomson about TV in the steaming age.