Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films
Reviewed by George Rafael
Have You Seen…? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films
by David Thomson. New York: Knopf, 2008. 1024 pp. Hardcover: $39.95.
Of all the arts, film is the most democratic. You don’t need to be an expert to have an opinion (too much technical talk marks the nerd) and all bets are off. And yet, to paraphrase André Maurois on literature, “in film, as in love, we are astonished at what is chosen by others.”
So imagine how David Thomson must have felt when the right-thinking readers of The Guardian voted Cinema Paradiso as the greatest foreign-language film ever—yes, greater even than Rules of the Game, La Ronde, L’Atalante, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, or 8 1/2. The mind reels, which explains why polls shouldn’t be taken too seriously; even Sight & Sound’s decadal survey, which, as Thomson persuasively argues in his introduction, has usually revealed little more than the vicissitudes of time and taste.
That said, Thomson has produced Have You Seen…?: A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films, a bumper of a book and complementary companion to The Biographical Dictionary of Film. This is Thomson in a mellower, more accommodating mood, passing on the benefit of his wisdom to the sort of moviegoer bowled over by Pan’s Labyrinthbut probably unacquainted with Spirit of the Beehive.
Thomson’s selection runs the gamut from Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein to Zabriskie Point—neither of which I’d want to see again but I do relish his idea of Abbot & Costello Meet Persona. And therein lies his appeal—the leaps of imagination, the wit and whimsy, the illuminating imagery and memorable passages—a thousand films fly by before you know it and you only wish there were a thousand more; so heavy a book, so light a touch. As for his “controversial” views, I’m happy to report that after all these years, after all the petty, boneheaded arguments about Thomson not being hip to the latest Taiwanese cinema (The Puppetmaster is here) or how his approach isn’t “scientific” enough (read “unreadable”), he still goes with his gut instinct; no allowances for reputation, provenance or fashion, no silly division of high and low. Thomson recently confessed to the BBC his preference for fast, sharp pictures, hence pages rippling with screwball comedies, films noirs, white-phone musicals, cheap horror flicks, and laconic Westerns. It stands to reason; his formative years coincided with the postwar flood of Hollywood’s finest into the European market, what Wenders and Bertolucci called (the latter ironically) “the colonization of our subconscious.” This delayed exposure to the Golden Age was followed by the shock of the New Wave and the birth of art-house/film-club cinephilia.
Nevertheless, putting Have You Seen…? together has prompted second thoughts on several key figures, notably Chaplin, “who towers over so much;” though Thomson still thinks Keaton “funnier, and sadder,” the Little Tramp can’t be denied. Griffith and Ford still get stick—Thomson’s entry on Fort Apache raises uneasy parallels between Little Bighorn and Abu Ghraib/Guantánamo—but he’s let up some on Wyler, Wilder and Kubrick though 2001: A Space Odyssey remains the clunker it undoubtedly is.
Other films allow Thomson to reflect upon certain actors, such as Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, “rather more the real thing than an actress,” more “knowledge still looking like innocence, a natural being, a knife herself”; Marlene Dietrich’s “louche, ironic attitude” piercing “the bubble” of Emil Jannings’ “great acting” in The Blue Angel; Robert Ryan (Crossfire) as “an actor who seemingly had no wish or need to be liked, who makes everyone else look soft and complacent;” Peter Lorre, whose films after M condemned him to a lifetime of roles as killers or monsters, “though one glimpse of his bulging eyes suggested a rare, if not warped, sensitivity” (Der Verlorene, which he also directed); fifteen-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire’s stunning debut in À Nos Amours, “a life force,” “fierce, funny, very sexy, and as smart as wolf;” Miranda Richardson’s “refusal ever to play for sympathy’” as the murderess Ruth Ellis in Dance With a Stranger, her “prodigious performance” worked “beneath a bone-white china look that is eerie and frightening.” There are films that escape pigeonholing (Man With a Movie Camera, I Am Cuba, La Jetée, F for Fake) or the underground (Chelsea Girls); and others that have never escaped the art house (Andrei Rublev, Theorem) and are all the better for that. There are entries on landmark TV productions such as Berlin Alexanderplatz and The Singing Detective, the latter an elegy to the public broadcasting ideals of the BBC and to the irreplaceable Dennis Potter. Thomson’s range is staggering, his enthusiasm infectious—like the best critics he sends you back to the source.
Still, as is often the case with books like these, you question some of the choices. I can understand the inclusion of “event” pictures and box-office winners like Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun, The Sound of Music, Jaws, Star Wars, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Titanic, and Lord of the Rings, and a few disasters (Cleopatra, Heaven’s Gate), but does Thomson really need to have the tasteful, middlebrow hits of yesteryear here as well? Does anybody watch Kramer vs. Kramer anymore, or Out of Africa or The English Patient? Well-meaning, liberal pieties such as In the Heat of the Night, The Way We Were (The Way We Weren’t is more like it) and Sophie’s Choice were dated before they even made it to the canister. Do we need reminding that the creaky solemnity of How Green Was My Valley beat out the dazzling showmanship of Citizen Kane for the Oscar? (Plus ça change…)
There are a few too many halfhearted offerings on display in Have You Seen…?, especially when you consider the absence of Sacha Guitry, Claire Denis, Seth Holt, Michael Reeves, Roger Corman, Monte Hellman, Michael Ritchie, Mike Hodges, the two Todds (Solondz and Haynes), Alexander Kluge, Percy Adlon, Elio Petri, and Aki Kaurismäki—surely Thomson could have dropped The Ten Commandments or an Oliver Stone or two. Finally, it mystifies me how a writer whose first book was on Laurence Sterne could omit Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, a film that, like Time Regained, manages to pull off a tricky narrative scheme with breathtaking panache.
But I’m raving. I pretty much see Thomson the way he sees Hawks, as an optimist —a rare thing in this game—who takes the bad with the good and hopes for the best; some gold is bound to pan out, you just have to be patient. It could be anything—Kay Francis taking off her heavy pearl necklace in Trouble in Paradise; the exhilarating opening shot of La Baie des Anges, the camera pulling away at speed from a platinum blonde Jeanne Moreau sashaying down the Promenade des Anglaises at dawn; the “magnificent music” of Maurice Le Roux for Bitter Victory, Anna Karina’s exuberant mating dance near the end of Vivre Sa Vie—so long as it’s on the level and shows, in James Agee’s words, “real life or energy or intensity or intelligence or talent.” Capital.
George Rafael contributes to The London Magazine, The First Post and Salon.com.
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Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste, Inc.