HAVE YOU SEEN…?

by John Boland

A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. By David Thomson.

If you love good prose, provocative insights and witty putdowns and have even a passing interest in the movies, this is the year’s most engaging book.

Thomson is an Englishman who moved to the West Coast of America in the 1970s, from where he has been writing constantly about the medium that has always entranced him. For many of us, his masterpiece is his Biographical Dictionary of Film, which has gone through three updated revisions and which, despite its po-faced title, is a treasure trove of idiosyncratic criticism informed by a deep knowledge of cinema.

And now here he is offering 500-word essays on a thousand films – from the 1895 L’Arrosseur Arrosse to the 2007 You, The Living – that have either enthralled or appalled him but that he still insists you should see, even if that means deriding them, as he does with The Sound of Music (“a picture that I loathe but which 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. It is here.”)

The films are arranged alphabetically, though there’s an index at the end which lists them chronologically. You may wonder at some of the inclusions – that’s part of the fun – but there aren’t many obvious omissions, though I’m rather shocked he can find no space for La Bete Humaine, The Ladykillers, The Sorrow and the Pity, the Three Colours trilogy, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Manhattan, Groundhog Day or Jackie Brown, to name just a few personal favourites.

But he enthuses eloquently about some other movies I love, including such neglected masterpieces as  Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View and Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun and he had me ordering Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid and Iain Softley’s The Wings of the Dove from Amazon to see if I’d underrated them first time around.

Thomson’s an unashamed fan of the European tradition and the Hollywood system, though not of how the latter operates these days – he dates the rise of dehumanised, effects-obsessed  movie-making from the huge commercial success of Jaws and the Star Wars franchise. Indeed, a disenchantment with the drift towards infantility in contemporary movies is a key theme of the book.

Yet he’s essentially a celebrant. “You must see it!” he raves at the end of his piece on the Swedish film You, the Living (I immediately ordered it). “A heaven of a movie,” he says of Renoir’s Une Partie de Campagne. And of Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? he concludes: “This is a gem, the real thing, a riot. Oh, go see it!” How could one not?

But there’s oodles of quirky information about the making of these films crammed into the pieces, too, as well as frequent withering observations. He worries about the “cute nihilism” of the Coen Brothers,  deplores the soullessness of most of Kubrick and recoils from the adolescent attitudes he finds in much of John Ford and Martin Scorsese. Easy Rider he dismisses as “unwatchable – unless you are benefiting from the illegal substances it advocates.” And of The Sopranos (he includes a few television series), he notes that it occupied 86 hours but “did not turn them into great theatre. The Godfather plays every year. The Sopranos in reruns will bore you.”

You may find that infuriating (I think it’s on the button), but the point about great critics is that, whether you agree with them or not, they cause you to reevaluate your own judgments and your reasons for forming those judgments. They also articulate what you felt but couldn’t quite define and they enable you to see things that you otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. Thomson does all that, which is why he’s the best living writer on movies. Ask Santa for this book.

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