Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Have You Seen ...?" (David Thomson, 2008)

David Thomson's Have You Seen ... ? is one of those doorstop-sized list books that some moviegoers will read and argue over, and not necessarily for what Thomson leaves in or out of his survey of a thousand of his chosen must-see films.

The British film writer for Film Comment, The New Yorker, and Salon lays his intentions on the line in the book's subtitle, A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films: it's a number meant to impress, in this age of lists, and the reviews are one-a-page, so even the most casual moviegoer familiar with, say, Jaws, will at least glance at it's opposite-page mate, La Jetee, Chris Marker's 29-minute film about life after a Third World War.

Or maybe not. These essays are written in that certain telegraphic newspaper style of film criticism -- with an assumption that the reader shares a common knowledge of, and admiration for, what goes on the screen, as well as behind it. A lot is written about the struggles and disappointments of directors and scriptwriters -- the films that could have been. Those who know directors Ford from Huston, Carpenter from Boorman, will enjoy the backstories of classic films, if they don't know them already; others less interested may find such details distracting in essays -- sketches, really -- that run only 750 words in length. And as might be expected, most of Thomson's list draws heavily from films before 1970. As he writes in his introduction,

"Films are not what they were. Far fewer of us go to see them. Young people coming to this book are being asked to bear with 'restrictions' that they resist in the marketplace -- silence, black-and-white, a lot of smart talk, a sense of morality, etcetera ... Of course, the latest films do not fare as well in this book as pictures from the thirties and the forties. Too many new films are gestures trying to capture the interest of kids set on war games and PlayStations. We are so ready for shallow amusement that it may be harder to enjoy profound entertainment ... This book may come off as helplessly nostalgic -- a tribute to an age that is not coming back."

In other words, Thomson reviews these films secure in the knowledge that he thinks they're great (and they undoubtedly are, most of them) but his enthusiasm for old Hollywood mostly misses the mark: as an introduction to movies, he tells us names and dates and stars (what makes the movies tick) but never really communicates what would make these films exciting to a first-time viewer. Young movie fans are missing in Thomson's book, unless they have an interest in exploring older films on their own. And without a younger audience of readers interested in movies, Have You Seen ...? loses is point, even as it tries to be entertaining.

That observation may sound uncharitable, but consider: Thomson begins his alphabetical list of reviews not with his original first choice, Abe Lincoln in Illinois ("trapped by alphabetical order," as he writes) but with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, so as not to open the book with a film that "would depress the ordinary heart." That's odd: the book is Thomson's personal introduction ... but he's talked into this choice by a Sony Pictures representative, who at least had the grace not to suggest one of his own company's films.

A reader supposes there's room for Abbott and Costello in such a long list. Paying nearly $4o to read that "the movie becomes about Lou's jitters and romantic self-absorption" doesn't make the cut'n'paste of Universal Pictures' horror and comedy franchise stars a more classic film. Or even much worth the time of its 83-minute running length, considering there are 999 more films to watch. For a film buff such a marketing ploy throws the rest of Thomson's reasoning into a questionable realm.

There are great choices in the book of course, but the sheer number of titles dilutes the power of truly great films deserving to be seen (Murnau's Sunrise) and elevating some that are less than mediocre (The Incredible Shrinking Man). What is surprising is that Thomson takes aim (repeatedly) at some directors whose reputations are secure at this late date: Kubrick ("strange," "straining," "pretentious") and David Lean (in Lawrence of Arabia "the sun shines over the shell of an empty film") are just two examples, and John Ford (How Green Was My Valley) receives several backhanded slaps apparently for not attempting to be a better director than Carol Reed (The Stars Look Down).

Thomson gets down to explaining his view of Kubrick in a March, 2009 interview from Stop Smiling magazine while promoting the book. It's a shame he wasn't this forthcoming in his reviews of Kubrick's films; it would have added some context to his criticism.

"I think there’s something tremendously dotty and appealing about Kubrick the American giving up America. About the space traveler giving up travel. About the man open to the wide world becoming a hermit, nearly. About the man with a rather limited private life making studies about rich emotional lives. He’s fascinating. The ambition alone is awesome. In my book he’s made two masterpieces, and for me, if you make one masterpiece you’re of major importance. Some of Kubrick’s work fails, badly. But I’m not put off by bad failure. I think it’s all fascinating. It’s quite true that I’m extremely critical about many of these films, but I watch them over and over again. There is a sheer pleasure and fascination in watching Kubrick fill the screen. When he’s on, he’s amazing, and one of the great life stories in film."

You won't find this kind of explanation presented anywhere in the book, unfortunately. Since the Kubrick, Lean and Ford movies are included in the book at any rate, Thomson's judgements seem awkward and arbitrary, and the reviews don't achieve any critical depth. As with any book of lists, the reader is free to agree or disagree with Thomson's broad generalities employing one's own standard of disbelief.

Favorite films are a personal choice, and the brief reviews of Have You Seen ...? would be a great, drowsy beach read in a hot sun. It's doubtful Thomson's book will spark any serious debate; it's not scholarly, and it's meant to be an introduction to movies that, by far, are not even making the rounds of art houses any more. More than likely it will be a handy, hefty guide next time you're rearranging your Netflix queue on lazy Saturday afternoons.


Anonymous said...

The Incredible Shrinking Man – the movie that scared the hell out of me for at least 10 years; and then I saw it on TV 2 years ago and saw that the cheese he “ate” when he was one inch tall was made from Styrofoam and that the whole think stank like Limberger, it was sooo baaad! I was always afraid that my parents would come home from a party and be about one foot tall and come to my bedroom to kiss me goodnight and have to stand on a chair. Crazy!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mark,

And here... are three.... of my favorite films.

Lili (1953) Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer-- bittersweet love story bordering on allegory. MGM musical with one song and several dance numbers, notably the heartbreakingly beautiful dance between the two leads against dreamlike sepia background. (most beautiful dance I've seen on film)

Nights of Cabira (1957?) Often considered one of Fellini's best. Have you seen it? Happy-go-luck prostitute Cabiria (played by Fellini's wife, Giulietta Masina) wishes for true love but when a man appears and proposes, she again faces loss. (If you have never seen it, don't miss it. The B&W cinematography is captivating. Every scene is a winner. Masina is lovable, heart-wrenching, mesmerizing, great actor and comic)

Limelight (also 50's) Chaplin's masterpiece, many say. A "talkie". The old worn out clown brings life and hope to the despondent young ballerina. Features a great routine with Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It's a very long movie and Chaplin gets verbose (truly talky) One reviewer said, however, you might as well fault a rose for having thorns as point out the flaws of this film. Claire Bloom is beguiling as the ballerina, Terri. And that final scene-- I could almost cry just thinking about it!

Thanks for the article,


M Bromberg said...

Hey Alan

Nice picks, I've seen them all and they are great films.--
"Limelight" is the only one that makes it into Thomson's book, but then
he had to make room for Abbott & Costello ... and "The Nutty Professor."