Have You Seen . . . ?

By David Thomson

Most writing on film, or to be more precise film criticism, isn’t very good. Not because it isn’t well written, but because of its indifference to the facts. In part I think this is because, before the advent of videotapes and then DVDs – that is, before home viewing and personal film libraries – it was so much harder to check those facts. That a critic was describing not what actually happened on screen but what they remembered happening was excusable. Perhaps it even came to have a certain validity.

Examples abound. In reviewing David Mamet’s Bambi Meets Godzilla I had occasion to point out that he seemed not to have seen the eponymous classic short. In reviewing Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies I might have said something about that estimable critic’s description of a scene from The General where he mangles the chronology of the main chase scene, or his mistaken account of the scene in Jaws (this from The Great Movies II) where he has “three or four men” gathering on a pier and hoping to catch the shark with a roast secured by a chain. In fact there are only two men on the pier.

I don’t mention things like this (and the list goes on forever) in a spirit of “gotcha!” but only to note the different standards of book and film reviewers. Try making mistakes like this in a review of a new novel, any new novel, and you will be truly shamed. In a movie review . . . who cares?

This brings us to David Thomson, whose essays, I am happy to say, seem factually flawless. “Have You Seen . . . ?” announces itself as a “bumper book for your laps,” a companion to the author’s opinionated Biographical Dictionary of Film. As with all such anthologies it is not meant to be a ranking so much as an exercise in taste. Rankings, after all, change over time as the “wheels of fashion keep turning.” In his Introduction Thomson adverts to the Sight & Sound polls that come out every ten years as an example of the way critical judgments bounce up and down. Estimates of quality come to seem “ludicrous” in hindsight. This is also the reason Thomson gives for spending so much time talking about Academy Awards, “because so many of the Oscar decisions make us so wary of passing judgments.”

Nevertheless, passing judgment is what a book like this is all about. And so once again we have what amounts to a leading broker’s take on the ups and downs of the cinema stock market. The blue-chips are, of course, well represented. Orson and Alfred are still riding high. Almost as high, surprisingly, is Spielberg, a valuation at least one reader can’t imagine will last. Scorsese continues to be debated. Kubrick is inhuman and overrated. Among the Italians, Fellini is trading down (“Fellini can make a scene in his sleep – but does he have to?”) and Antonioni is way up (even Zabriskie Point!). If not (yet) the judgment of history, this is the judgment of the Critic: “La Dolce Vita now is like an old shoe, ruined, found on a beach. L’Avventura is a fresh footprint, still warm.”

The imagery of the old shoe and the fresh footprint isn’t representative of Thomson at his best. Better is the way Birth of a Nation “now seems slow, methodical, and merciless, like Scott dragging sledges across the South Polar plateau.” Or how watching Lee J. Cobb in On the Waterfront “is like observing meat in the act of pickling.” Or how impossibly dated Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf‘s chatty dinner seems today, “reminiscent of things like long-playing records, canasta parties, and Norman Mailer.”

Aware of the fact that a collection of a thousand raves can only “lead to lazy writing and formulaic thinking,” Thomson also takes time out for “just a few disasters” along the way. These are typically Hollywood blockbusters like Titanic (though it is “not as awful as you think it’s going to be”) and The Sound of Music (which is). The historical perspective is conventional, subscribing pretty much to the twin golden age theory, the second of which was brought to an end by that great “line in the sand, the disastrous event” of Star Wars (foreshadowed as a watershed by Jaws, but Thomson thinks more of Spielberg than he does of George Lucas and so doesn’t assign him as much culpability for cutting short the bright promise of the 1970s).

Aside from the truly dreadful title, the quality of the writing throughout is sharp, though perhaps not quite as tangy as in the Biographical Dictionary. Each movie is given a single, double-columned page of analysis (there are no pictures). The resulting miniatures engage in anecdote, connoisseurship, and the occasional big-picture philosophizing. Who but this author would see Alien as “a study of loneliness of the human species, dismaying and moving because of unknowns it is on the point of disclosing”? Or declare that “the history of movies is the history of whether or not we can come to terms with sexual existence”? At the same time, Thomson also has his feet firmly grounded in an understanding of movies as a business and a form of popular entertainment, not high art. And the two don’t really mix. One is always aware that “The Dead” was better as a short story. In Fantasia “the better the music, the more trashy, second-rate, and absurd the pictures” seem.

Leaving questions of art aside, movies are not as important now as they once were or are ever likely to be again. We don’t even view them in the same way. Thomson wistfully remarks that he sees fewer films today “in real dark, in great prints, on enormous screens.” Instead we experience them more like books: privately, at home, on DVDs that divide the film into chapters and include indexes of editorial materials. Not just film studies, but filmgoing in general is entering a period of “theater withdrawal” and “there is no going back.” Which makes Thomson’s book also a kind of elegy. The coming century of cinema is unlikely to be as worth writing about.

Review first published January 31, 2009.

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