How to Watch a Movie
by David Thomson
New York: Knopf, 2015. 256 pp. Hardcover: $24.95.

Reviewed by Michael Sandlin

Alongside his often thoughtful, apolitical, and reliably inoffensive reviews, for the last forty years respected middlebrow film critic David Thomson has cranked out cinema-studies books and film reference guides with the mechanical efficiency of an expert lathe operator milling widgets to meet a company quota; it’s more or less the same perspiration-over-inspiration Protestant work ethic Woody Allen applies to filmmaking. Thomson’s hulking Biographical Dictionary of Film (1975, now in its sixth edition), you could say, positioned him as the Samuel Johnson of his field. His workmanlike biographies of Orson Welles, Warren Beatty, and Nicole Kidman are scattered among numerous assorted critical studies, none of which are as confounding as his latest, How to Watch a Movie, which innocently claims to be “a guide to studying film, and having more fun and being more moved.”

But a “guide” would suggest direction, or at least some consistent line of practical instructional sense, which is hardly extant here. And where Thomson’s criticism is usually marked by reasoned value judgments (e.g., he had the good sense to pan Whiplash) and general readability, in How to Watch a Movie he produces a succession of semicoherent free-flowing meditations on formal aesthetics of cinema, all precariously adhering to chapter themes. Thomson philosophizes on the anatomy of a shot, how edits function, the devolvement of film from a unifying force to an alienating one, cinematic information and our “helpless condition of voyeurism,” the role of sound in the depiction of movie realism, the “look of money” in movies, and what he calls “the myth known as documentary.” These discursive conversations are all ostensibly geared toward our betterment as movie “watchers.”

Most of the films used here as interpretive fodder are on predictably well-trodden canonical terra firma (Welles’s Citizen Kane, Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Psycho, Fritz Lang’s M, etc.) or sometimes skim the high-end of classic European art-house cinema: for instance, Bergman’s Persona and Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour are repeatedly namechecked throughout. For Thomson, films like these are prime sources of “unknowability” and have essential “dreamlike” qualities and thus demand repeated viewings to be fully appreciated. Also particularly worthy of critical interest is a momentary “loss of control” in the otherwise controlled environment of a particular film. Thomson insists that seeking out this “unknowability” in movies (even in documentaries) will help facilitate one’s transformation from intellectually inert popcorn-munching dope to hypersentient cinephile. But how many viewings are required before Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life becomes meaningful?

And if a certain indefinable “openness” is needed to provide the ambitious viewer with the uncluttered interpretive space for becoming a meaning-producing dynamo, why stop at Bergman or Resnais? Why not explore the “unknowability” of Maya Deren’s trance films, the avant-tastic “painted” films of Stan Brakhage, or the surrealist-occultist celluloid pageants of Kenneth Anger?

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde

The first two chapters serve as an apt introduction to the wider celebration of associative chaos to come. Here Thomson employs the first of many juxtapositional shock tactics: he finds symbolic similarities between a Derek Jeter Gatorade commercial and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and makes some oblique point about how cinematic lighting can deify otherwise mere mortals on-screen and consign the viewer to nonparticipatory oblivion: “Yes, the screen seems to be a window on paradise in which we are the beneficiaries,” Thomson tells us, “but context has been betrayed. We are not there, with the spectacle.” Yes, and any half-sane person would know that we’re not “with the spectacle” (unless we’re at a midnight showing of Rocky Horror). But the chin-scratching statements don't stop there: “Film screens are bearers of revelation…we get most of our murders and our naked people on them like omelettes we cannot eat.” And for those with a sweet tooth for synesthesia, Thomson likens the “visceral, sensational rush” of seeing Bonnie and Clyde to “the taste of salted caramel.”

So a section that began with naked people being likened to omelettes eventually winds its way to an analysis of Peter Lorre’s character in Lang’s M as nurturing our modern moral detachment to screen violence and to the villains who perpetrate it. Lorre’s Hans Beckert is the impetus for Thomson’s old-fashioned ongoing obsession-cum-bafflement over audiences’ desensitization to screen violence and eventual embrace of the sexualization of said violence (and its posited beginnings in Bonnie and Clyde). Thomson wants to know: just how did we become such murder junkies?...

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