VINE VOICEon 3 October 2008
"Early on as I watched films and tried to read about them, I found that I valued broad comments on the medium...more than intense and reverend scrutiny of particular films composed by critics who treated a Nicholas Ray film as if it might have been a sculpture by Bernini, or Hamlet."
How odd that in the month that Sight and Sound (in its Who Needs Critics issue) includes this comment from David Thomson, his new book is published, a book that consists of "a personal introduction to 1,000 films" or in other words a not quite reverend but certainly intense scrutiny of particular films.
Having made that snidey point, what does the book do and who is it for? Well, each of Thomson's chosen films has one page to itself and approximately 500 words, but no pictures. The period covered is 1895 to 2007. Even though limited to fiction films (with some borderline exceptions like Man With A Movie Camera, F For Fake) the range covered is tremendous. There are intriguing and bizarre juxtapositions, quality rubs up against trash (but not too much of the latter), Tom and Jerry appear between films by two Jacques (Becker and Tourneur), one could go on and on. It's perfect for dipping into and skimming over, though one's eyes are caught by titles and phrases so you keep stopping to read that or this entry; there are great opening lines, to hook you: "Eddie Constantine was forty-eight in 1965, but he looks like a thousand-year-old lizard in Alphaville"; "The starting point of The Lavender Hill Mob is when a man who wears a bowler hat meets a fellow given to bow ties."; "Has anybody made a voluntary decision to see Heston's Ben-Hur in recent years?". As to who it's for, I'd say the knowledgeable and curious cineaste or buff and not your regular multiplex popcorn munching Vin Diesel connoisseur (though a Vin Diesel film is in here, or rather a film with Vin Diesel in it).
However as a born quibbler of course I have reservations, concerns and criticisms. To state my view clearly: I love this book but David Thomson drives me to distraction.
I have often wondered why Thomson has devoted the majority of his writing career to cinema when it increasingly seems to cause him so much distress - about its worthiness to be taken seriously at all, about its infantilisation, its obsession with CGI spectacle, etc. All of his criticisms are true - to an extent. We acknowledge, and by we I mean the sort of person likely to buy and read this book, that movies are created by committee, diluted by collaboration, blunted by compromise, emasculated by censorship, crippled by hypocrisy, tainted by commercialism but despite these restrictions and sometimes because of them, movies do get made that can be called masterpieces, or great, or minor triumphs or that are just worthy of our time and attention.
This dismay with the state and status of film feeds into Thomsons'other recurring concern that watching films, studying them, talking about them and so on takes up precious time that could be devoted to other less demeaning pursuits. He suggests that the failure of many modern films is that they are made by and for people who know too much about movies and not enough about life. This attitude is often viewed as one of his strengths: the following ridiculous comment exemplifies this (in an overall excellent review of Thomson's The Whole Equation): "It is the work of a man who has read novels, listened to Mahler, fathered children and so while knowing perfectly well ...just how big cinema is, never loses sight of the fact that there are still-biggger things in the world." I like the implication that reading books and raising family are exotic achievements available only to a few rarefied individuals - or are they just unusual for film fans. Well, I have done all those things too and I would beg to disagree with the original assumption that devotion to and passion for something (be it film, skiing, butterflies, astrophysics) means that it is exclusive or results in one being diverted from an engagement with the real world. It is usually quite the opposite, I would suggest (though I appreciate certain hobbies are often used as a refuge from it). Stupid people - like fans of The Sound of Music for example (this is Thomson's opinion, by the way) - are usually uninterested in anything. The truth is surely that for the committed, engaged, intelligent viewer cinema feeds into other passions, and informs and stimulates and is enhanced by other interests that are pursued elsewhere. In the real world even.
Thomson's reputation is that he is the most insightful, illuminating and provocative writer on film today. The sort of writer you read not necessarily because of his subject matter but because of his prose style, so suggestive, allusive, nuanced that it enters the realm of literature. Well, I do enjoy reading his books, a particular favourite is Rosebud, about Orson Welles (though I am not remotely convinced by the portrait of Welles that it paints), and there is also the unavoidable and highly regarded Biographical Dictionary of Film. But I also find his style stern, gnomish, aggravating, pretentious. It's often so circumlocutory, so hesitant, so couched in broad strokes and `poetic' generalisations that you finish reading and wonder, does he like the film or not, is this a recommendation or a kicking? I offer as examples: "And it's only when peril gets neurotic, and comic, that people start to smoke". What people? Real people? Movie characters? It's nonsense, David. On Hollywood's vaguely liberal Democrat voting persuasion: "But the allegiance is so unreliable when the custard philosophy is hiding or denying the real muscular differences and antagonisms of politics." (Forrest Gump). Or this "Lang's method was always to stage every event as if he were quoting it from the scrapbook of dream images - what I mean by that is that the brilliant compositions always underline themselves; they are in italic, and thus a touch suspect, more haunting than reliable." (Woman in the Window). If you unpick these sentences you are (or more precisely, I am) not really any wiser than I was before I read them. There's plenty of this sort of stuff here, as there is in all his books (at least the ones I've read) so that one has to embark on a sifting exercise to pan for meaning in the same way Bogart, Huston and Holt do for nuggets of gold in the Sierra Madre. Compare such passages with V F Perkins book on The Magnificent Ambersons in the BFI Classics series (in my view the greatest `intense and reverend scrutiny'of a single film available). Next to Perkin's limpid and precise approach Thomson's prose is often like lumpy mist, heavy and yet insubstantial. An unfair comparison perhaps as Thomson has jut 500 words on many films and Perkins several thousand on just the one, but I maintain my core point about Thomson's fuzziness.
OK, that's enough carping, let's skip to the positive stuff. Firstly Thomson isn't Barry Norman, that is to say he doesn't peddle consenus views of what the great films are or why they are interesting, he doesn't resort to the tired recycling of critical orthodoxy, nor the dreary plot synopses that plague many books on film. His approach is fresh and unawed and both visceral and intellectual. There is the awareness of how one's response to films and cinema is fluid and shifting both over time (see his entry on Paris Texas) and also during the actual viewing of any individual film (see his entry on Broadway Melody of 1940). He notes that some films are worth recalling in total whereas others are precious for one particular scene or performance or a fleeting mood; in our digital age we can choose to watch favourite sequences without having to sit through the whole film, even make the equivalent of movie `mix tapes'. He knows that our response is also shaped by the circumstances in which we watched it, and by our interest and knowledge (or lack of these) of other films of the same genre or director or studio. One of the key points Thomson makes is the factor of chance and serendipity in the making of movies, the many variables at play, the dropping out or unavailability of a particular director or writer or star allowing someone else to step into the breach changing the course of the project from the moon to the stars, or from the stars into the gutter. This is where Thomson is at his most persuasive and is the practical result of his stated area of interest, i.e. in how and why films are made rather than whether individual films are good or bad.
Finally then, Thomson's wayward, disgruntled, wistful and sniffy judgements are not for your average multiplex audience. This book, like his others, is indeed provocative and aggravating. I am sure I will return to it again and again, as I do to the Dictionary and Rosebud. And it will be in the same way and for the same reasons that I go back to those other books; they insist that I sharpen my own views and attitudes. And, if you've made it this far and are asking if this review is a recommendation or a warning, it is the former; I do think it is a wonderful book, rich and fascinating and challenging and revealing and of course it prompts and nudges you to see or re-view many many films including those you would normally avoid. But it is also exasperating, infuriating and sometimes plain incomprehensible. It comes with a health warning: Addictive (and slamming it shut in consternation may not necessarily help).
(Incidentally I hope that Amazon will allow the indulgence of this lengthy review - my original version was twice as long, a reflection I guess of just how provoking Thomson is.)