His Eyes Have It / David Thomson’s Ouevre

5 Feb

David Thomson [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

David Thomson [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

I assume David Thomson is most noted for his delightful and idiosyncratic (‘idiosyncratic’ standing for remarkable originality, not some perverse opaque criticism) Biographical Dictionary of Film and its five revised iterations—the most recent of which, the 6th edition was published last year. And his intelligent and buoyant film ‘reviews’, currently to be found in the benighted New Republic (until he was unceremoniously relieved of duties).

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition

I am confident you get full value out of an acquaintance with Thomson even if you only have familiarity with the above mentioned tomes— I am here to tell you his bibliography is packed with a variety of gems worth your time.

Moments That Made the Movies

Moments That Made the Movies

Moments That Made the Movies

Silver Light

Silver Light

Silverlight

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The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies

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The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder

In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance

In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance

In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance

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The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood

 

 

"Have You Seen . . . ?": A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films

“Have You Seen . . . ?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films

“Have You Seen . . . ?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films

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Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles

 

 Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman

Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick

Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick

Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick

 

 

Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts

Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts

Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts

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America in the dark: Hollywood and the Gift of Unreality

The  Biographical Dictionary of Film: First Edition,

The Biographical Dictionary of Film: First Edition,

The Biographical Dictionary of Film: First Edition Completely Updated and Expanded

Why Acting Matters

Why Acting Matters

Thomson’s new book Why Acting Matters(part of the Yale University Press series, Why ——Matters) may not seem like a book for none but the film /theater scholar and devotee but as is the case with David’s journalism his digressive manner of cogitating/meditating, produces not a narrow slice of film lore but a generous helping, fitting art into life. As the publisher asserts, “he argues that acting not only “matters” but is essential and inescapable, as well as dangerous, chronic, transformative, and exhilarating, be it on the theatrical stage, on the movie screen, or as part of our everyday lives.” Here’s a sample from Why Acting Matters:

…a mirror image of he regular dilemma in life between freshness and habit.

The long run. A Steetcar Named Desire ran for 855 performances on Broadway. Eight hundred fifty-five times to smash the tableware or scoop up the ruined Blanche as if you have just thought of it.Eight hundred fifty-five times to step forward for the ovation. Eight hundred fifty-five living in a drab, drab place in Elysian Fields. Brando had his own routine for getting through the grind:$550 dollars a week and several girls in the dressing room every evening> That was a life of abandon such as Stanley would never have dared> The actor missed a few performances when his face got battered in a fight and Anthony Quinn stepped in.Yet there are some actors who become as desperate as Barrymore with the repetition.They see the playmaking process as an arc: months of preparation, a few weeks of playing at their peak and then the long decline of hating yourself for doing the same thing every night until it seems stupid. Life knows that dismay. There are wives who come home after work and find the man waiting for dinner. They cook it and the men consume it in silence. And the one day, the wife never comes home. In his lifetime Yul Brenner played the King and I 4,625 times. He did other plays and movies. He was married four times. But if he ever walked into a room, the people there saw the King and they were dismayed if he had hair.

I’ve spoken with David Thomson a couple of times

RB: I have forgotten what it’s like to be in a large theater with an excited audience. Sometimes I see a movie where in the movie people are watching a movie with a large audience and it seems very strange…

DT: I know. It’s very difficult to convey to people, kids particularly nowadays, that feeling that I grew up with and I am sure you did that you really had to get there early—you might not get in—it would be packed. You would be in the middle of a row of strangers and for me those things are still vital. If I am teaching a subject, in film, you can’t teach now a days without using video, but if you wanted to say to people, “Look, this is a film where the sensory experience, the possibility for beauty should be there from the outset, in your mind, you’ve got to make them go and sit in front of a big screen.” They may be alone…this film, Far From Heaven, that is playing now. It’s made like a big-screen film. It’s as big as an oil tanker, if you know what I mean. It’s got these wonderful camera movements and color composition, all of which look a little overwrought on a small screen. See ‘em on a big screen and they look more natural. They are natural in terms of the big screen. It’s like big, epic painting. You can do things in big painting that you wouldn’t think of in a little water color landscape. But the young generation clearly thinks that the TV screen is the primary screen in their existence.

And later on for the publication of his seminal work The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood :

RB: You see the impulse to make money as being as legitimate and strong and intertwined with the need to tell stories and make art. You don’t take the stance, “Oh, those short-fingered vulgarians, they just want to make money!”

DT: Well, you’re dead right. This is a fascinating subject. There is another book here, which is—it would be something like, The Redemption of the Ethic of Making Money. We live in a society where so many of the worst and so many of the best things come out of that urge to build things, to make things, and to make fortunes is part of it. And you can’t build things without making a fortune. We’re talking in a city that is undergoing an urban transformation. You may not like every last detail of it, but great cities go through those great surges. And there’s got to be money. We know enough about local politics to know that not every dollar is achieved in the cleanest ways possible. One of the reasons I talk about Chinatown in the book is that the more I watch that film the more I like Noah Cross. You know there is that great moment when Gittes—and Gittes, he’s the hero but he is a rather sort of small-minded guy—and he says, “How much money do you have?” to Cross. And Cross says, “ Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.” And Gittes says something like, “Well, why do you do it?” And Cross says, “The future, Mr. Gittes, the future.” That’s an intensely American ideal. And I don’t see any reason to disparage people because they are in business. Our world is impossible to conceive without business.

RB: A qualifier here is—my sense is that much of the moneyed classes don’t have a sense of the future. That their visions have become shortened.

DT: Fair enough.

RB: We don’t have robber barons. We just have robbers. [laughs]

DT: All too true. Obviously that aspect of business is appalling and deserves our criticism but all I’m really saying is that I think that it’s very difficult for America to disassociate freedom from enterprise. It may be that this country is now on a path toward illness—fatal illness, even.

RB: Maybe? Here’s the money graf for me from The Whole Equation [page 370 in the book]:

“I regret the way America has elected to make films for its bluntest section of society and in ways that flatter them, and we have to recognize how much of that is being done for money. We have to find another way of measuring ourselves. And film is one of the few ways that might be done. Here and now, a twenty four hour period in which people of the Middle East and the people of the United States simply watched a television record of that day in another place—call it unmediated documentary—could be the most radical jolt to malice and political idiocy that we possess. So much in our films—American films now—supports the worst views held of us in other parts of the world: that we are combat-ready, aggressive, adolescent, greedy, sensationalist without humor, depth or imagination, rampant devotees of technology (as opposed to enlightenment).”
DT: I believe that totally. And I think it remains—that kind of possibility for film is more interesting that any fictional possibilities that you can think of for film.

In 2014 David Thomson received the Mel Novikoff Award (a beloved San Francisco film exhibitor) at the 57th annual San Francisco International Film Festival.The festivities included a congenial and enlightening onstage conversation with Geoff Dyer— one hopes the video of which will be made publicly available.

Currently reading Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy (Spiegal & Grau)

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