Necessary but hardly faultless
David Thomson is, without doubt, the greatest living film historian, archivist and professional fan, as any reader of “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film” will surely agree. Whether Thomson is also a great critic is not so clear.
“ ‘Have You Seen . . . ?’ A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films” is Thomson’s latest contribution to an oeuvre that includes biographies of Orson Welles (“Rosebud”), David O. Selznick (“Showman”) and Marlon Brando; a highly entertaining novel (“Silver Light”) that mingles the lives of real people in the Old West with characters in movie westerns; several manifestations of his film dictionary; and a recent mash note to Nicole Kidman. “Have You Seen . . . ?” is, he writes in his introduction, “a ‘bumper’ book for your laps, a volume where you could keep turning the pages and coming upon juxtapositions of the fanciful and the fabulous.”
Going for a thousand, Thomson says, is “a gesture towards history -- it seems to require that the selector weigh the old against the new. It’s like wondering whether Beowulf can talk to Lolita.” The result requires that a diligent reader wade through more than half a million words.
I take no pride in admitting that “Have You Seen . . . ?” defeated me. Even though I share many, if not most, of Thomson’s tastes and agree with most of his judgments, I just don’t think I’m ever going to return to “Have You Seen . . . ?” for his thoughts on “The Sound of Music,” “Going My Way,” “Ben-Hur,” “Portrait of Jenny,” “The Firm,” “The Dirty Dozen” and perhaps a hundred other films that I don’t care about.
Why, a film fan wonders, has this book been padded so obscenely with remarks on movies that aficionados, Thomson among them, care little or nothing about? In the entry on “The Sound of Music,” which I read only to see why he wrote about it, Thomson claims that it “has to be in the book if only because millions of the stupid and aggrieved will write in to the publisher, ‘Where was “The Sound of Music”?’ if it is not [included].” Clearly Thomson is being facetious, but in the absence of any real answer for including reviews of unwatchable films, the obvious one must suffice: He’s out to score points shooting at easy targets. For instance, “The Dirty Dozen” (OK, I read that one too) is “slovenly and second-rate, devoid of cinematic interest or tension.” Correct, but who could miss a target that broad?
There’s enough pork-barreling in “Have You Seen . . .?” to give John McCain conniption fits, but fortunately there’s enough sweet meat to satisfy. Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild” is “like an injection of some very powerful drug. You lose control and inhabit the paradise of powerlessness.” The skill of Disney’s “Bambi” “is to open up an infant’s world: this is the forest made of perfumed rain and balmy banks. . . . [It] may be the most beautiful film Disney has ever made, as well as the toughest ordeal for any of his characters.”
Barbara Stanwyck in “Ball of Fire” is “saucy, naughty, and as quick as a shortstop.” Not a bad reference for an Englishman. In “Crossfire,” Robert Ryan “is an actor who seemingly had no wish or need to be liked. He makes everyone else look soft and complacent.” And when Thomson hates something, he can be just as sharp in his observations. Of David Fincher’s “Se7en” he concludes, “Its very achievement is disgusting.”
Whether or not you regard Thomson as a great critic may depend on how many of his famously quirky judgments you agree with. If impassioned argument could transform an interesting misfire into a great movie, then “The Truman Show” ranks with “Citizen Kane.” (“ ‘The Truman Show’ was the mainstream phenomenon of the 1990s.”) and Bob Rafelson’s “The King of Marvin Gardens” the equal of Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City.” But “The King of Marvin Gardens” -- “This great film” as Thomson calls it -- was, I think, more accurately described by the late Pauline Kael as “an unqualified disaster as the type only talented people have.” No argument, no matter how eloquent, can patch up “The King of Marvin Gardens.”
His passion is often infectious, but even to Thomson’s loyalists some of his favorites will forever remain a puzzlement. “For me,” he says of “The Missouri Breaks,” “the film could go on forever.” To many of us, alas, it seems to.
“Have You Seen . . . ?” appears to be Thomson’s bid to match “5001 Nights at the Movies” by Kael, a critic he too often quotes and refers to. Thomson, however comprehensive his knowledge of film, lacks Kael’s conciseness and her ability to distance herself critically from her subjects. Despite the title of her book, Kael covered more than 4,000 films in fewer than 900 pages. Thomson’s enthusiasm often clouds his critical faculties and takes him straight over the edge.
But as much could be said of any real movie lover and is easy to forgive. In the end, if you’re any kind of film fan, “Have You Seen . . .?” is essential. It’s worth the price; I just wish they hadn’t charged by the pound.
Barra is the author of “Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends” and the forthcoming “Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee.”