David Thomson discusses cinematic voyeurism for his book ‘Sleeping with Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire’

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One of the first talks put on by the Bay Area Book Festival featured David Thomson, author of the book “Sleeping with Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire” along with nearly 30 others.

Thomson’s affection for the movies was never less than palpable as he was questioned about all things film by Lucy Gray. Having devoted nearly his whole life to film criticism, he was unafraid of speaking his mind on movies he’s had a lifetime to formulate opinions on.

In a Q&A format, Gray started by asking Thomson to elaborate on certain claims he makes in “Sleeping with Strangers.” Thomson said his book begins with the fascinating subject of sex and the movies and how desire on screen has shaped the idea of desire in real life.

“People in movies do something remarkable,” Thomson said. “They pretend they don’t know you’re watching.” This evident disregard for the audience by the character on screen “allows you to be a voyeur” — something he believes to be very desirable for audience members.

Thomson noted that being able to intrude upon the lives of others is taboo in real life but is a fundamental aspect of desire in movies. “We bring our fantasies to the movies,” he said. Seeing attractive people on screen fulfills our voyeurism.

Thomson discussed his own experience with desire on film, joking that Warren Beatty can start to look pretty attractive after watching “Bonnie and Clyde” 50 times, even if you were only attracted to Faye Dunaway the first 49. He did not unpack this claim, though, nor could he ever seem to decide whether he was critiquing or celebrating the way that sex, according to him, is used in movies.

Though Thomson’s book has received mixed reviews, at least one apparent good thing came out of it. When asked what he learned through the process of writing “Sleeping with Strangers,” he replied by saying he overcame his hostility toward gayness. However, he didn’t elaborate further.

This discussion ended up having little to do with the supposed purpose of his book — how films have shaped desire — and a lot to do with laying down opinions on film in general. Mostly going on tangents about about celebrity culture, social media, “Avengers” movies and “Phantom Thread,” the discussion’s direction was ambiguous. While most of Thomson’s claims were confusing, he made one opinion clear in the talk: He believes that “Phantom Thread” is a “perfect movie” and suggested that everyone see it.

Contact Julia Mears at [email protected].