Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dissecting Film

I’ve just discovered a marvelous new book on film written by David Thomson, one of the most insightful of all film critics. It’s entitled Have You Seen… A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (published in 2008) and it’s one of the most perceptive, intelligent and astute commentaries on many of the most famous movies ever made.

Wisely, Thomson did not make this a Top 1000 book, merely listing his favorites; instead he made this project into an analysis of films both great as well as disastrous (disastrous in their execution, not necessarily in their performance at the box office) Along the way, he reminds us how often movies carry a particular impact due to the moment they are made. This is both a positive and a negative for the author, as evidenced by his thoughts on how some films have aged beautifully, while others seem today to be only a reminder of the past, while others still reveal new layers not seen at first glance.

For example, when writing about such films as Rocky and Rain Man, he discusses the momentary impact these films had, despite their obvious shortcomings (his comments on the fight from the first film are “it’s not just implausible, it’s not far from slapstick ballet,” while his slings against the latter are more devastating; “it’s little more than a commerical for itself.”)

As for films that look and feel great today, Thomson points to such works as The Godfather, “still as beautiful as it is mysterious”; Bringing Up Baby, “it still feels as if it were made last night,” and Taxi Driver, “I watch the film again and again, unsure where it will take me this time.” He has special praise for such works as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, “the strength of the film is the unsentimental approach to the three treasure seekers,” as well as Blue Velvet, “(David) Lynch wrote it and directed it with an implaccable assurance that he has never quite matched since.” He includes dozens of foreign films, not only such classics as The Rules of the Game and Open City, but also such lesser-known works as La Ronde (1950) directed by Max Ophuls and Rocco and His Brothers (1960), a Luchino Visconti film that Thomson labels as “a shattering experience” when he saw the film’s premiere.

As for directors, he has his favorites, yet he rarely gives them a free pass. He praises Alfred Hitchcock for Vertigo, “ a masterpiece and an endless mystery,” and for Rear Window, “ a great film and a great entertainment,” but takes Hitchock to task for such works as Marnie and Spellbound (the former “feels contrived” to Thomson, while he labels the latter as “one of the most expensive vanity pictures ever made in America.”) He commends John Ford for his work on such films as The Searchers and The Grapes of Wrath, but has a mixed review for Stagecoach, which he praises for its visuals and message about an outlaw who seeks redemption, but writes that it is “a marinade of cliché.”

Thomson saves some of his greatest praise for the works of Otto Preminger. He finds his best films to be quite intelligent, noting for example, the complexities of the world of Washington, D. C, in Advise and Consent, especially as compared with the similar trappings of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He considers Preminger’s Laura a “masterpiece” and offers wonderful observations about Anatomy of a Murder, which he labels “perfect”. One quote in particular displays Thomson’s admiration for Preminger’s direction in Anatomy;  “As always in such things, Preminger’s camera style prefers deep space and groups of people, so that we have to decide where to look while clinging on to every word.”

Along the way, Thomson is quick to point out the remarkable work done by cameramen, costume designers, composers, editors, screenwriters et al as well as the efforts of the actors. This isn’t just about famous performances such as Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath or Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty; Thomson also singles out actors such as Sterling Hayden (The Killing, Dr. Strangelove), Ida Lupino (They Drive by Night) and Joel McCrea (Sullivan’s Travels) for their work. If you didn’t know it before, you know after reading only a few detailed entries (usually about 500 words for each film) that Thomson doesn’t just watch a film, he dissects it.

I do have to fault Thomson regarding a few entries, however. Why does he include The Sopranos in this book? I can understand a distinctive made-for-TV- movie, but why a television series? Another strange topic is the film Sweeney Todd, which he pans. But why include merely a negative review of this film? Thomson takes Oscar-winning Best Pictures such as West Side Story and The Sound of Music to task, but those films were monumental successes at the box office and at awards time. Todd did poorly with the public and while it did win one Oscar (set design), it was not a film bestowed with many honors.

I also fault the editor of this book for not including a table of contents or an index at the end. The films are arranged in alphabetical order, but I’m certain there are many film buffs who would want to check and see how many films in this book were directed by John Ford, Orson Welles or any number of famous directors; still others might want to read about the films from Italy or France. There’s just no way to do that without looking at every entry and it’s a bit frustrating. (Thankfully, there is a chronology at the end of the book so the reader can at least reference films by the year they were created; the oldest film Thomson writes about is from 1895.)

Still, this is a marvelous book thanks to engaging writing and keen observations. Much of Thomson’s best prose is about films that he sees as works that not only entertained, but also held up a mirror to the times, such as 1998s The Truman Show. “No other American film was clearer that the greatest threat to our existence was ourselves, and above all our decision to be cheerful, amiable and pleasant,” he writes.

Growing up in World War ll in England, Thomson equated America with the characters and situations he saw in its films. Now living in San Francisco, he still sees the charms and excesses of America represented in its best (and sometimes worst) films. He writes about the neo-realism of Italian films, the French New Wave and silent films just as creatively. His talent as a chronicler of movies is unquestionable; film enthusiasts can be thankful for the author’s decision to undertake this labor of love.

Have You Seen…?
By David Thomson
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY
2008, 1007 pages, $39.95

- On a slightly different note.

Air One has become my favorite new airline. Why? Well, on a recent flight from Chicago to Rome, the airline showed two of the greatest cartoons ever made: What's Opera Doc? (1957) and Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century (1953). Both were directed by the genius Chuck Jones during his heyday at Warner Brothers. There's no need for me to talk about these amazing cartoons, expect to say they are as enjoyable today as when I first saw them many years ago. Thanks, Air One!

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