“Have You Seen . . .?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Film, by David Thomson. New York: Knopf, 2008. Hardcover, $39.95, 1,024 pages. ISBN: 0-307-26461-0.
One entertains the vague possibility that our dismal global economy is to blame. After all, only the budgets of the most ardent film autodidacts have room enough for labors of love SRP’d at forty clams (although I should point out that this humble critic purchased two copies — and not by accident). Still, David Thomson’s new publication “Have You Seen . . .?” feels like the evil, fraternal twin when sharing shelf space with his cineaste’s encyclopedia (A Biographical Dictionary of Film, first published in 1975). The title of the former book is deceptively studious; the title of the latter seems to have sprung from flaky vernacular lips. The premise of Thomson’s dictionary was noble, challenging, even a bit mad — catalogue and critique as many names in film as is humanly possible until a comprehensive resource is compiled? — whereas the modest goals of this current tome seem to have been borrowed from the legions of bargain “recommendation” books with glossy photos of Rashomon and Citizen Kane: 1001 Movies to See Before You Die! and so forth. Even the cover photographs of the two projects seem wistfully distant from one another. On the dust jacket of “Have You Seen . . .?”Marlon Brando’s iconic Don Corleone crooks his index finger, dipped in black and white, ready for a perpetual place on the coffee table. But you’d be hard-pressed to find an average film bum who can spot at first glance Hoagy Carmichael’s scene from To Have and Have Not plastered on Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary — a wide-angle Hawks still that should be just as iconic as Gloria Swanson’s descent to hell on a crystal staircase, or Harold Lloyd’s dangling from the arms of father time, above the dustbin of history.
Then again, maybe the recession — god forbid I should use the “D” word — is not so much to blame as it is an indirect cause of the book’s tone. Thomson’s introduction is playful, but there are traces of an eerie foreign gravity that threatens to expose the entire enterprise as foolishness: “The first purpose or wish behind the question in my title is not to establish you as an expert in film studies but to give you a good time — or a better time than you have been having” (viii). We can read this agenda two ways. First, that Thomson means to point us in the direction of analgesic movies: cheap thrills (even when artistically rich) for cheap, dreary times. Second, that the book itself should be approached as an entertaining diversion rather than a research guide (although any book that features 500 words on The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is likely to divert only a slim, sickly sub-sliver of a demographic). Taking those goals into account, “Have You Seen . . .?” performs admirably. But with those goals, how could Thomson fail?
Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary is, simply put, his Leaves of Grass: a canonical, constantly fluxing tour-de-force that will hopefully see even further revisions and footnotes as Thomson ages (perhaps his son Nicholas can even retrieve the editorial torch one day). To drag the conceit a few more lines, the book is also a poetic achievement just as immediately as it is a critical one. Thomson’s peculiar gift as an expository writer is that he leads the reader through assertions and suggestions with figurative and linguistic — rather than rhetorical — aplomb. His collection of fictive fragments Suspects (which adds meat to the bare-boned character sketches of various noir anti-heroes and heroines through film synopses and fanciful invention) might be the purest example of his dexterity in this regard. But much of the dictionary is equally Homeric. An entry on Fred Astaire lingers for an entire paragraph on the mellifluousness of the actor’s stage name before even hinting at his career’s trajectory. In these excerpts it’s clear that Thomson has incubated and hatched at least one of the visionary eggs that Manny Farber laid: namely, that the language of film criticism can be as personal, as artful, as theoretically elusive, and as aesthetically oriented as the language of film itself. This is both a blessing and a curse for Thomson, since he is often derided for eschewing the jerrybuilt version of objectivity many movie historians adopt in an attempt to survey popular readings of the classics. But Thomson’s detractors often fail to recognize that he’s at his best when he’s revisionary (i.e., Charlie Chaplin was a demagogue; Angie Dickinson was a termite artist; John Ford was a bloated, mythic bore).
If the Biographical Dictionary in its various incarnations is Thomson’s Leaves of Grass, then “Have You Seen . . .?” might more closely resemble November Boughs (via a metaphorical cheat). The front cover’s byline seems to admit the breezy hodge-podgery in store: “A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, Including masterpieces, oddities, guilty pleasures, and classics (with just a few disasters).” Despite the wealth of historical insight (and several spot-on inclusions that may rescue several movies from unjust marginalization), the approaches and stances to individual films seem far less daring than his human-centric ones. Part of the joy of the Dictionary was observing the writerly side-swipes and bank shots: an entry on Mikio Naruse is written from the (fictional) point of view of a smarmy critic who has never seen any of the Japanese master’s work (he then admits the ruse and, with typical Thomsonian double-speak, half-heartedly describes the director as “ineffable”). In contrast, the section on When a Woman Ascends the Staircase (above) in “Have You Seen . . .?” is mostly sterile, concentrating on the distinctions in domestic perspective between Naruse, Ozu, and Mizoguchi. Ho-hum.
The fiery, ironic critic-poet seems — and it pains me to say it — tired. Unless I’ve miscounted, this is the fifth of Thomson’s publications to discuss Roman Polanski’s Chinatown: his page on the definitive neo-noir is here headed off with “Tell me the story again, please.” (165). Another voice then answers “Very well,” and proceeds in a laconic, patronizing manner that Lenny never would have subjected George to. But is Thomson bored with our fixation upon Chinatown (one of the very few films in the “masterpiece” canon whose status is rarely if ever disputed) or his own? Or is Chinatown — Thomson’s only discernable repeated image, if we might apply auteur theory to film criticism — a symbol for his obsession with the movies, the canary in his élan’s coalmine? As with the Biographical Dictionary, the entries in “Have You Seen . . .?” follow a tight pattern: creative speculation intermingled with plot; followed by more plot outline and the direct assertion of an argument about the film; followed by a brief recounting of the film’s technical/historical/social background and/or repercussions; followed by credits and a brief epilogue that occasionally leaves our intellect smarting. In the Dictionary this formal consistency was helpful; it grounded the reader in structural symmetry, acting as a kind of guardrail to grasp when the prose became a bit risky (when the book crosses paths with Kurosawa and Hitchcock on less-than-beatific terms, we feel the earth tremble beneath our feet). In this collection, however, the style feels more monotonous, though admittedly never frustrating — is it that Thomson’s genius can only truly blossom when offering career overviews?
The last question is an intriguing one, because the strongest content in “Have You Seen . . .?” — aside from the entertainingly baffling trademark asides (e.g., Kiss Me Deadly is a noir-satire that needs no titular comma, Greed and Bringing Up Baby belong in the same taxonomy class, etc.) — can be teased out by jumping to and fro and following threads of directorial analysis (I highly recommend reading the book in chronological rather than alphabetical order, if you can manage it). We know that Thomson organized the book by director whenever possible (he admits this, despite leaving much editorial information to our collective imagination, in his review of Sawdust and Tinsel), a curiously auteurist approach to a book that seems on the surface to be about mutually exclusive films. I should have known better. To Thomson, no films are isolated from one another, not even ones with decades and miles between them: they’re all porous cells swimming, shitting, and mating in the same bloodstream.
Films that share a director are begging to be linked with invisible bookmarks, and these cover the page in instances where the reader bothers to seek them out. Discussing Preston Sturges’ own comments on The Great McGinty, Thomson admits: “There is the insouciance of the man you must come to love if this book will mean anything to you. With a meager 500-word allowance, I cannot trace all the Bum’s ups and downs . . .” (346). Indeed, such a project has its limits, but we feel the ups and downs of the noble artists herein are most precious to the writer. The analyses of Michael Powell and Douglas Sirk, if ordered properly, are among the best and most intrepid of Thomson’s portraits. The film-specific format allows him to linger a while, salivating profusely, over a dreamy film like I Know Where I’m Going!, which in the Dictionary was hastily tagged as “genuinely superstitious.” The entry on Imitation of Life features only a single sentence on the film itself — the remainder is devoted to the achievement, to the legacy, and to the exclamation point the melodrama bestowed upon Sirk’s career. This flamboyant disrespect for self-set parameters is symptomatic of a film critic who is penning a confection of a handbook for the holiday season but wants to be toiling on his own edition of The American Cinema. Or perhaps the effect is intentional — is this subtle, auterist propaganda for an unwilling audience? Either way, we desperately need it — the saddest thing about “Have You Seen . . .?” is Andrew Sarris’ blurb on the back cover: “If you are thinking of renting a DVD but are uncertain, you couldn’t do better than consult Thomson’s round-up.” When did Sarris turn into Leonard Maltin?
The other somewhat depressing consideration is that most readers will likely skip to Thomson’s most recent inclusions first, none of which are particularly noteworthy (there’s far more competition, however, when attempting to configure an untapped interpretation of Brokeback Mountain than there is when offering insight on Broken Blossoms). The 500 words on Adaptation are more concerned with Thomson’s own decision to include the film at the last moment (and why no Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?). Yet, one quote from the page on No Country for Old Men (above) does protrude in memory: “[S]urely Chigurh could have been played cooler and straighter. Bardem is a touch too lurid and wacky, and McCarthy’s Death needs to be a clerical figure, ticking off assignments but never really getting off on them. He is not a serial killer, after all, he’s encyclopedic. That’s to be brooded on.” (603)
The clinical detachment, the note-taking, and most of all the odd “encyclopedic” comment are meant as inside jokes, I think. Has the lurid, wacky Thomson of old exfoliated his edge and withered into a cooler, straighter author befitting of the “serial killer” epithet? There’s an unsettling similarity between the social perversity of the film critic and that of the cold-blooded murderer — one that I dare not explore in too much detail. All I have to say is this: if David Thomson ever menacingly demanded that I flip a coin, the metal would be spinning in the air faster than he could say “Nicole Kidman’s menstrual blood.”