If Pauline Kael is often pugnacious, Jonathan Rosenbaum belligerent, Anthony Lane frivolous, then what word should we bestow upon David Thomson? Perhaps impertinence fits best, as Thomson so often takes a small thought for a walk and arrives at the subtly insolent. We may notice it in a passage from his A Biographical Dictionary, where he throws Frank Capra, John Ford and Francis Ford Coppola in the same camp and says, “These are three men of remarkable talent and facility … they are storytellers capable of … well ‘genius’ … But that genius is not enough.” Thomson goes on to talk of “meretricious magic”, and that in “all three, the work eventually seeks to hide its profound muddle in hysterical gesture and demagogic assertion.” (1) This would make for a pretty hefty PhD thesis: “Meretricious Magic: Aesthetic and Ethical Limitations in Capra, Ford and Coppola”. Thomson offers it in a paragraph as part of a capsule account of Coppola. Critics including Rosenbaum and Kent Jones have taken Thomson to task for what they perceive to be his laziness, ignorance or arrogance, but one cannot say of Thomson, to paraphrase Kael’s criticism of Sight and Sound, that you never know which Peter or Derek wrote the review. Thomson is always an assertively subjective presence in his work, no matter how wrong-headed we may often find him. When Rosenbaum notices that “many of the most important new names are missing from the just-published third edition of David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film” (2), Thomson might reply “important to whom?”, wary of the alternative doxa he might feel Rosenbaum is practising.
Now Thomson has come up with a companion piece to his A Biographical Dictionary of Film: “Have You Seen…?”, a clumsily commercial title for a book that skilfully navigates between Thomson’s need to have a thought on everything, and a publisher’s desire to get another big book out of him. It is as if there is insolence in the very project – “a personal introduction to 1,000 films” goes the subtitle. This isn’t even the tired, old “1,000 best films” book, but nothing less than a list of personal favourites and otherwise. Let us think for a moment, in Thomson style, about that subtitle. Doesn’t it imply a writer who has seen many thousands of films to choose a thousand from? This is an oracular tome from a publisher’s point of view as the great, esteemed, much published and utterly prolific Thomson offers his opinion on a thousand films to add to his work on a thousand names.
But finally this is less an opinion on high, than a lower case study of cinema, full of fluid rather than categorical observations, wayward asides and perspectives that could easily be side-stepped as another takes it place, or easily absorbed if one offers a counter-opinion. “The first thing to ask about this ravishing film is, why is it called Klute [Alan J. Pakula, 1971]?” (p. 444) “Horror, it seems to me, is a painful and erroneous genre if one enters the dark tunnel chanting that label and expecting to be frightened.” (p. 234) Sometimes he reckons we should leave behind any hermeneutic impulse: “There’s no sense in looking for a thorough explanation to Mulholland Dr. [David Lynch, 2001], and only madness would require a reading of it in which every last detail has been made to fit together.” (p. 581) Better, he believes, to “surrender as fully as possible to the helpless fluidity of the arbitrary and ill-fitting.” (p. 581) Is this too far removed from a Roland Barthes interview that Rosenbaum quotes in Placing Movies, where the French theorist believes “the best films (for me) are those that suspend meaning the most … an extremely difficult operation, requiring at once great technique and total intellectual honesty”? (3) Obviously, many would insist that Barthes works within a weighty semiotic tradition that gives grounding to his ideas, and that he would often write detailed and extended analyses of these ideas, including an essay on “The Third Meaning” in Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan Groznyy I (Ivan the Terrible, Part One, 1944), and his semiotic study, “Myth Today” (4). But isn’t Thomson’s experience, in its own way, equally august: teacher at Dartmouth College, writer of numerous books, a critic employed for 40 years? For some, the problem may be that while Thomson takes a thought for a walk, he is happy with a casual stroll; he is a flâneur of thinking more than a writer given to strenuous long distances. As he says, when asked by a publisher to write Suspects – his fictional exploration of characters in American film – “I enjoyed the format of the Dictionary, where I might write an entry in a single sitting”, and thought the same approach would work for Suspects (5).
One of the most engaging aspects of Thomson’s writing is that he doesn’t seem to sweat on the page. He may be one of the most prolific writers on film, but the work ethic isn’t especially pronounced. This is more carrot than stick, one feels, as Thomson rummages around as readily in his own memory as the films under discussion. He doesn’t create interpretations for the sake of it, but muses over the thoughts films have prompted in him. When he says of Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers, Luchino Visconti, 1960), “I recall its screening [in 1960] at the London Film Festival with audience members crying out at the concluding events of the melodrama” (p. 732), spotty memory becomes affective recollection. Sometimes he’ll half ignore the film he’s attending to, for a digression – who would expect to read in a review of La Guerre est finie (The War is Over, Alain Resnais, 1966) that “the last American lead actor who had that mixture of being good looking but exhausted was William Holden”? (p. 351) True, he is drawing comparison with Yves Montand, the lead in Resnais’ film, but how many film writers would think the comparison significant enough to fit into a 500-word piece, or think of the observation in the first place?
This is again evidence of Thomson’s healthy impertinence, and as David Bordwell’s formalist generalisations and always-too-pertinent comments become the path of least resistance for film teachers around the world, critics like Thomson offer that resistance. Bordwell is a fine but decidedly institutionalised thinker. Film for Thomson doesn’t lie in the broad strokes of overarching analysis, but in the singular preoccupations of the critic. Perhaps an article needs to be written drawing on Gilles Deleuze’s ideas about the private thinker – Baruch de Spinoza, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre – as opposed to the public professor, but in relation to film. For Thomson, whatever his Ivy League teaching credentials, seems to have a strong private dimension. In an article on Woody Allen ten years ago in Film Comment, he says “I must admit a few things straight away: I don’t like to look at Woody Allen; I don’t like to listen to him; but I think he’s getting better all the time at that thing called filmmaking” (6). This is intimate criticism, close to the decibel level of whispered gossip, with the lights low and the conversation confessional. These are not comments for the packed lecture hall, more for the table in the quiet corner of a bar or restaurant. That he is aware of the delicately personal nature of his work is evident in A Biographical Dictionary. Here he admits he has often been to Los Angeles and has met maybe one hundred of the people in this book. Some of the hundred he knows “so well that writing about them is delicate and dangerous.” (7) This is where Barthes segues into Truman Capote.
Earlier we mentioned that significant critics like Jones and Rosenbaum have attacked him. Jones’ piece in Film Comment occasionally has the tone of a lament, often an ad hominem attack. This isn’t especially a problem considering Thomson’s very criticism incorporates the personal: when attacking (not for the first time) Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999) in “Have You Seen…?”, he talks about “the first sex Stanley had ever shot” (p. 273). This is about as far from Bordwellian objectivity as you can get, and Jones matches it by mischievously wondering whether English-born émigré Thomson’s ongoing fascination with Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) contains its own rosebud: “I would venture a guess that it’s something lost in England, never to be recovered in America.” (8)
However, Jones at the same time seems to have a problem with the personal. Not only the personal as biographical detail, but also as subjective observation. Jones warns: “beware of how much you talk around a movie in proportion to how much you confront it head-on.” (9) According to Jones, Thomson fails in getting the balance right, unlike many of the critics he admires, whatever their limitations: Kael, J. Hoberman, Rosenbaum, Robin Wood, as well as Serge Daney, Raymond Durgnat and Manny Farber. But one is reminded of a comment Durgnat once made: “a film is like an iceberg; one-tenth of it exists on the screen, the other nine-tenths in the spectators’ minds” (10). Thomson is a critic who is willing to take responsibility for that off-screen psychic space, where Jones is more given to brilliant, sensuous descriptions of the film’s surface. Is Jones really thinking of the critics he mentions, or of his own approach to criticism?
Central to Thomson’s Suspects project was this idea of what is in our minds rather than what is on the screen; as he said, “I had always felt that compelling films left me wondering what happened next – what would happen to Jim [James Dean] and Judy [Natalie Wood] after Rebel Without a Cause [Nicholas Ray, 1955]?” (11) Should the sort of speculative faculties we practise in the viewing experience be ignored when we get down to the critical writing? Surely central to a “readerly-writerly” film, if you like, is the capacity to speculate around the material on-screen? Do not many modernist films work with this as a built-in expectation? When Anna (Lea Massari) goes missing in L’Avventura (The Adventure, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960), surely we muse over where she has gone and why she has disappeared; in Mat i syn (Mother and Son, Aleksandr Sokurov, 1997), we may wonder how much time has passed from the beginning of the film to the mother’s death. As Stanley Cavell says,
But what will you be saying, if you say, speaking about this work, that this shot is a point of view shot, and you go on to say nothing further about this shot in this work? Unless your words here are meant to correct a false impression, they do not so much as add up to a remark. (12)
There is the suggestion here that to remark upon something is not simply to describe it but to inject into the work the subjectivity to which the film gives birth. In the Woody Allen article, Thomson says of Bullets Over Broadway (1994), “Allen hardly gives us a closeup in the entire elegance of the picture, preferring those tricky long distance views where people struggle for position and we have to look and see.” (13) Thomson adds, in a nod to Jean Renoir, that Allen has “always been drawn towards the detached, problematic point of view, and the crowded stage on which everyone has his reasons, and his chance.” (14) In Jones’ article on Thomson in Film Comment, he points up the bourgeois reader Thomson generally writes for in “Salon, the Independent, and, above all, the Times” (15). This is the intelligent, educated general audience that can keep a critic within a limited point of view as he refuses to go beyond the demands of his readership, and Thomson is indeed more or less that critic; this perhaps helps explain why Michael Douglas would get more space than Abbas Kiarostami in his Biographical Dictionary. But he is at the same time a critic who brings to mind Robert Warshow’s comment: “a man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” (16)
Is this simply pandering to one’s readership, or acknowledging one’s own desires, longings and needs that the screen accompanies and, on occasion, exacerbates and alleviates? In his introduction to Suspects, Thomson talks of the “imp of mischief, or creativity, or just making life difficult for oneself.” (17) He is talking specifically about the problems of writing a novel about fictional film characters, but he could also be talking of his own general approach to criticism, where he isn’t averse to allowing the idle thought to wander onto the page. Central to “Have You Seen…?” are these casual thoughts. On Ultimo tango i Parigi (Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972), he proffers that “on a movie screen, vacant real estate can tip some people over the edge – especially if photographed by Vittorio Storaro and designed by Ferdinando Scarfiotti.” (p. 456) He says of Ugetsu monogatari (Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953), “some people believe in the supernatural; some believe in camera movements – they each shall be rewarded.” (p. 927) It is as though the imp of mischief wants to avoid the commonplace, and can live with arriving at the perverse. “Have You Seen…?” is a sort of autobiography of impulses; this is its huge strength and, of course, its debilitating weakness. When Thomson says of Lars von Trier, “you never know when some hack is going to glimpse the grail” (p. 232), we may feel that it is one thing to dislike von Trier, but quite another to elevate Dogville (2003) over all his other films. Surely von Trier is too singular an artist to make one great film and a pile of trash? Yet in relation to Thomson’s waywardness, Voltaire’s famous comment about disapproving of what someone says but defending to the death their right to say it comes to mind.
This is true even in his book on Nicole Kidman where Thomson wonders, circuitously and pretty cheaply, whether Kubrick destroyed her marriage with Tom Cruise (18). In the Allen article, he says “I don’t want to be with him or have to listen to his justification in person. I wouldn’t want to have to watch him and Soon-Yi under any circumstances.” (19) Do such observations have a place in the world of film criticism, however scurrilous? Perhaps they do so if they have a place in our minds and our day-to-day conversations. Thomson may often get too caught up in the zeitgeist of popular taste, descend to tittle-tattle, and put more of his personality in the work than we would sometimes like, but he remains an exemplary critic from the Warshow point of view, a critic who readily admits that he is that man.
“Have You Seen…?” A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, by David Thomson, Allen Lane, London, 2008.
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- David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, André Deutsch, London, 1994, p. 148.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Movies as Politics, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1997, p. 50.
- Rosenbaum, Placing Movies, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1995, pp. 50-51.
- Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning: Research notes on some Eisenstein Stills”, Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath, Hill and Wang, New York, 1977, Noonday Press edition, 1988, pp. 52-68; Barthes, “Myth Today”, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, Hill and Wang, New York, 1972, pp. 109-135.
- Thomson, Suspects, No Exit Press, Harpenden, Herts, 2006, p. vii.
- Thomson, “Shoot the Actor”, Film Comment, vol. 34, no. 2, March-April, 1998, pp. 12-19, p. 12.
- Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, p. x.
- Kent Jones, “Eyes Wide Shut: David Thomson’s fear of a movie planet, or the thin line between cinephilia and cinephobia”, Film Comment, vol. 39, no. 1, January-February, 2003, pp. 32-37, p. 36.
- Jones, p. 35.
- Tom Ryall, “Durgnat on Hitchcock”, Screen, vol. 16, no. 2, Summer, 1975, pp. 120-124, p. 120.
- Thomson, Suspects, p. viii.
- Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London, 1979, p. 177.
- Thomson, “Shoot the Actor”, p. 17.
- Jones, p. 34.
- Roger Ebert (ed.), Roger Ebert’s Book of Film: From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the finest writing from a century of film, Norton, New York, 1997, p. 407.
- Thomson, Suspects, p. 12.
- Thomson, Nicole Kidman, Vintage, New York, 2008.
- Thomson, “Shoot the Actor”, p. 16.