A Spirited Sprint Through A Marathon Movie History

Cover of David Thomson's '"Have You Seen…?": A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films'
"Have You Seen...?" A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films
By David Thomson
Hardcover, 1024pages
Knopf
List price: $39.95

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Film critic David Thomson

Film critic David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Lucy Gray hide caption

itoggle caption Lucy Gray

Unfussy and debonair, his cool common-sensibility blending seamlessly with a dynamic eccentricity, David Thomson writes like the world's most literary film critic. In 41 years of publishing, the British émigré has produced biographies, essay collections, movie-mad fiction, and a monumental Biographical Dictionary of Film, which now has a sister — no less elegant and even more zaftig — in this bold volume. "Have You Seen...?" is a marathon argument about movie history raced in 500-word sprints.

What it isn't is a list of the best or greatest or (as Thomson writes) "one thousand preferred films." Rather, there are plenty of classics to praise and reappraise with fresh wonder, and others to deflate. The entry on Fellini's 8 1/2 — where Marcello Mastroianni plays the Italian director's dithering alter ego — begins, "Forgive this observation, but if you're undecided about what film to make, 135 minutes is rather self-indulgent on the worry."

There are icons to smash, landmarks to spot, obscurities to spotlight, oddities to normalize and crushes to nurse: Thomson has an endearing, debilitating weakness for Nicole Kidman and, with his passion for Wellsian wunderkinder, a habit of being 40 percent too generous to Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood). And though he's entranced by Westerns as only an Englishman can be, his supple way of understanding a random horse opera as a contribution to American myth is his alone.

His critical vision is so keen because he sees movies talking to the world and to each other in ways their directors may or may not realize. For Thomson, The Birds is an unflawed film that nonetheless stimulates the audience's embarrassment at seeing Hitchcock address, almost openly, his insecurity with icy blondes: "We wonder if we should be watching. And these birds attack the eyes." Or admire how he defines a slacker hero and delineates a satirical aesthetic in the space of 24 words about the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski, "a movie about the kind of life that would be burned at the stake before it admitted being impressed at being in a movie." The phrase turns the head. The idea turns up and loops neatly around. Thomson turns film criticism into popcorn philosophy of a nourishing sort, never stinting on extra butter.

8 1/2 (1963)

Forgive this observation, but if you're undecided about what film to make, 135 minutes is rather self-indulgent on the worry. But then you'd have to consider the argument as to whether Federico Fellini—full of art-house celebrity and restless facility—didn't turn to self and selfhood as opposed to story or subject. I know that seems ungrateful when you consider the unique and endearing insouciance/lethargy/fraud/boredom that Marcello Mastroianni turned on for this role—to say nothing of the photography (by Gianni Di Venanzo) that produced sophisticated blacks and whites like the layouts in a great fashion magazine. (It's not that you admire the clothes in this film—you want to purchase them. A boutique in every lobby would have cleaned up!) And surely, after the brooding disquiet of, say, Antonioni, there were more Italians than just Fellini who saw the charm in having the greatest problem in the world be what will you do or wear next?

But Antonioni—give him his due—hovers over spaces filled with mystery, whereas the gravure look that Fellini perfected here has an instantaneous accessibility that shuts out subtexts, doubts, or inner meanings. What you see is what you get—and what you see is Fellini reveling in the ironic self-centeredness of a whole film in the way Guido (Mastroianni) dreams up the harem set piece to give equality to all the competing (and betrayed) women in his life. So the considerable bitterness and justice of his wife (Anouk Aimée) can be shrugged off as high-strung nerves.

On the other hand, I agree with anyone who observes that as Fellini gives up on the charade of being interested in anything except himself, his style becomes richer and more mellifluous. It's not that 8 1/2 could or should go on forever, just that it feels as if it does. Whereas there was an authentic conundrum awaiting him after the specious La Dolce Vita: What should he do next? The matter of pressing subject was waning, and it was one among many signs that film was losing its grip on him. So Fellini turned to celebrity, with some wry grace but still as wholeheartedly as far more painfully vain directors.

Now, there is talk about his life as an ongoing circus or party—but we know those parties we cannot remember, and after a few years we gaze in dismay on the hundreds of nights they consumed. This was an act Fellini could turn on anything—his Rome was to come. He could as easily have made a film about his shirts or shoes. For myself, I don't think another real movie for him comes after 8 1/2, and I include Amarcord, which is something like My Youth, yet in a way that has forgotten how to notice pain. So the word Fellini-esque crept into being at almost exactly the moment when it had come to mean much less than ever before.

But Di Venanzo's photography changed the world. And Nino Rota had the oil to add to every dish. Also with Claudia Cardinale, Sandra Milo, Barbara Steele, Rossella Falk, and Madeleine LeBeau. The script was by Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, and Brunello Rondi.

Boogie Nights (1997)

Perhaps the first point to make is how remarkable that it took the "respectable" motion picture business so long to try the shadow world of pornography as a subject. Then recollect that in Paul Thomas

Anderson's brilliant and very poised film there is hardly any "real" sex—I mean the kind of happy, relieved, self-discovering sex that couples tend to have in most of our movies. In other words, the manufacturing of industrial sex has eclipsed the authentic thing. That is a truth with one exception, and it's crucial: in the midst of the porn production, Little Bill's wife seems utterly unimpressed by the hard-core celluloid job. She just wants a small closet where she can rut away with anyone and everyone. And when Little Bill glimpses that, he is devastated by the horror and kills everyone involved—himself included.

What are we to make of that, especially those of us who have unmistakably used movie sex as a vital part of our sentimental education? It sometimes seems to me that one of the most fascinating things about sex in the movies—and no one can deny the creepy affinity that exists—has been to educate a large public in how to regard and exercise sex in an age when its widespread use became not just possible but a source of enjoyment (and indeed, in some cases the epitome of all pleasures). And so, for the period up until the ruin of censorship, sexuality was, like horror, a thing all the more potent for being so reticently shown. And then moviemaking (the respectable pursuit) had to ask itself what it was doing when

Amber Waves and Dirk Diggler (or figures like them) could do it in the long shot and the close-up in the same half hour, with little more feeling than that of vague family fondness (and that rather distant warmth is maybe the most shocking and disturbing thing in Anderson's film).

So this was an amazing choice of material, long before one faced the actual depiction of life at the Jack Horner studio. And while

All of which omits to say how very funny so much of Boogie Nights is—the sexual smoothness of Rollergirl (Heather Graham), for instance, is entirely human yet lodged in the annals of satire. And Mark Wahlberg is so undeveloped in most other respects that his humungous proportions in one part amount to a cartoon triumph of comedy. Burt Reynolds is sublime as Horner—it is a very telling sign of the passing of one cultural era to another that Warren Beatty declined that role! For the rest, the Anderson stock company was taking shape: Julianne Moore (more stunned than stunning as Amber), John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Does the guy only hire triple-decker names?) No, there's Don Cheadle, Alfred Molina (terrifying), Robert Ridgely, and several others.

Some films are just for seeing, and some are for talking about. You could run a seminar on the nature of film after Boogie Nights.

The Birds (1963)

Alfred Hitchcock was far better suited to small worries than big ones. In which case, I think it is wiser to see The Birds not so much as an alarm being raised about birds—or any creatures, winged or not—taking over the world but, rather, a nagging revery on why Jessica Tandy and Tippi Hedren have such similar hairstyles. In which case, The Birds was an uncommon amount of investment and time spent on real seagulls, special effects, and even painting the passing circumflexes of aggressive crows onto the film stock.

Look at it this way: Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) finds Melanie Daniels (Hedren) in a San Francisco pet store. He is attracted, so is she, but their flirtation is not quite natural—it begins to reveal the cracks of insecurity. So Melanie follows Mitch "home" to Bodega Bay, where he lives with his mother, Lydia (Tandy), and there's a schoolteacher in the town (Suzanne Pleshette) who's obviously a burnt-out flame from Mitch's past, frightened off by the mother and by Mitch's reticence about going beyond Mother's wishes. May I say in passing, or remind you, that The Birds followed Psycho in Hitchcock's career, a film much concerned with ways in which the mother-son relationship can get tangled. And Melanie and Lydia do have the same hairstyle—a front wave swept up off the head, with little vertigo curls at either end. And the mother is unhappy about Melanie, just as Mitch is nervous about claiming her while Mother is disapproving.

That is when the birds start to attack—and, by implication, it is what drives them. This all comes from a Daphne Du Maurier short story (set in England, with simple farming people). The script is by Evan Hunter, though he and Hitch did not get on too well as the project advanced. Once the birds take wing—with classically Hitchcockian shock effects tinged with comedy, as when the birds gather on a playground monkey bars—the movie is a prolonged and very taxing ordeal, in part because birds are spiky, alien, unpredictable, and ungraspable. And the climax of the ordeal is one in which Melanie (and even Hedren herself) is subjected to a kind of onslaught or rape—hell to film, and traumatic in impact. So a stricken Melanie becomes the child of the mother.

We know now that this strange drama was exacerbated by Hitch's infatuation with Tippi Hedren, in many ways the inevitable outcome of his lifelong adoration and torture of actresses. It is also instructive that The Birds comes after the huge success of Psycho, so he was unbridled, and the film was more abstract than anything he had done before. It was also his last unflawed film.

So it's an extraordinary, very troubling picture—not just because of the irrational hostility of the birds, but because of the deep-seated neurotic explanations for their aggression. It is as if Hitch had at last elected to act on his most insightful reviews and had admitted sexual insecurity as his subject. All in all, it's not just a brilliant if rather academic film, but something tinged with embarrassment—ours: We wonder if we should be watching. And these birds attack the eyes.

To Die For (1995)

In Little Hope, New Hampshire, and yet from the eternity of TV fame, too, Suzanne Stone turns to us—direct to camera—the freshest sundae, all pinks, creams, blondes, and custards, and goes into the lovely ad lib confession on what she did to her husband, when any idiot can see that why she did it was, quite simply, to be a sundae show on TV, to be not just the weather center in Little Hope, but the Whether Center in America (the question being whether Suzanne is just guilty or delicious—her show is called Your Guilty Pleasures, in which on reality TV you get to go through with the deepest, darkest longings you've ever had).

Well, no, the glorious To Die For doesn't quite reach that far. It stays in Little Hope with those grungy kids when its own great vaulting esprit indicates the chance that Suzanne could GO ALL THE WAY—she could be Up Close & Personal, she could be a Katie Couric, so wide-eyed and pretty that she can take in all of America in what amounts to the first TV blow job.

It's a brilliant try, taken from a dark, witty novel (based on a real case) by Joyce Maynard and very well scripted by Buck Henry, even if it falls short of some final manic, cartoon surge where one murder makes Suzanne a killer hit. It needs the zest of Network, that satirical energy, and the understanding that Suzanne Stone really is modern America—pretty, sweet, shallow, and a killer-diller.

It may be that Gus Van Sant was not quite the director for that kind of satire. He seems as interested in Joaquin Phoenix as he is in Nicole Kidman, and that's understandable at the New Hampshire level, because Phoenix is outstanding and very accurately observed. But Nicole—in claiming her own identity and naughty-flirty presence on our screen—was reaching for the stars, not just the George Segal figure, but the Robert Redford stiff from Up Close & Personal and a kind of Clintonian president who sees her and sighs, "Santa Monica!"

So the parents are cameo treasures, but the film lingers with them too long. And really Matt Dillon needs to be disposed of more quickly. Suzanne is the Bad Seed grown up, and Nicole is like a candy rocket willing to soar over the mediascape, shedding light and her panties wherever she goes. A masterpiece was in prospect—instead we have a very nice, tart, daring comedy and the sublime insight that so long as Suzanne is confiding in us, direct to camera, mouth to mouth, she can get away with anything.

So this was Nicole Kidman's real debut, yet look how far the business held back from putting her in more outrageous comedies, let alone pictures in which she rose like bubbles in champagne to the level of mass murder. Here is a unique sensibility, seductive and devouring, and all too often Ms. Kidman would be fobbed off with earnestness or cuteness. Terrific support from Illeana Douglas, Maria Tucci, Casey Affleck, Alison Folland, Dan Hedaya, and David Cronenberg.

Chinatown (1974)

Tell me the story again, please.

Very well, there was this detective in Los Angeles, Jake Gittes, as honest as he could be after years with the LAPD. But he had had trouble in Chinatown and so retired into independent operation. Then he was set up, and you have to realize that he was sought out in just the way that Scottie was in Vertigo. Someone picked him to receive the story that Hollis Mulwray was having an affair. Trace it back and you'll see it was all a cruel design. Jake Gittes did his best, but he was as much damage as he was good, because he fell in love on the job with a woman who was such trouble it smelled like gangrene. And so, finally, the bad man, Noah Cross, was left in charge, and they led Jake away to some hiding hole and they whispered in his ear that it was all "Chinatown." I really don't see why you love the story so much.

It was a story that Robert Towne, an Angeleno, dreamed up for his pal Jack Nicholson to play. And another friend, Robert Evans, would produce it at Paramount. But Evans thought that Roman Polanski should direct, and Polanski battled with Towne over the script—it had to be clearer and tougher. Towne had had a gentler ending, with less death. But Polanski knew it was a story that had to end terribly—so no one forgot. The director won, and the picture worked with its very bleak ending.

What's more, the picture worked in every way you could think of. Faye Dunaway was the woman, and she was lovely but flawed and incapable of being trusted. John Huston was Noah Cross, and the more you see the film, the better you know that that casting is crucial, because Cross is so attractive, so winning, so loathsome. And the rest of the cast was a treat: Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd, Roy Jenson, Burt Young, Belinda Palmer, and the others. John Alonso shot it. Richard Sylbert was the production designer. Sam O'Steen edited the film. Jerry Goldsmith delivered a great score. The craft work, the details, are things to dream on. We are in 1937. And don't forget Polanski's own little bit of being himself.

So it's a perfect thriller, and a beautiful film noir in color. Moreover, if you care to look into how William Mulholland once brought the water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, it is a piece of local history. But with this extra aspect—that accommodation of the history of southern California itself, and the fable of how sometimes power and corruption make life and the future possible—you also get another reflection on filmmaking in that world: It is that you can do very good work, work so full of affection and detail and invention that you can live with it over the years, but in the end the system will fuck you over and someone will whisper in your ear that you are not to mind, because

"It's Chinatown."

And that's how it worked out. There had been a trilogy in the reasonably honest mind of Robert Towne. They let him make the first part near enough to his own dream so that he would always know it could have been. And then they crushed him on the second (The Two Jakes)—blew it straight to hell—so no one had the heart ever to ask about the third.

Duck Soup (1933)

Duck Soup is all credentials: Leo McCarey directed; Herman J. Mankiewicz produced it; Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby wrote it; Ansel Adams photographed it, mostly at magic hour; it was Marcel Proust's favorite Marx Brothers film; the Duke of Windsor watched it constantly in his years of exile. Are you believing this? Where does that get you? It was the poorest performer of all their Paramount films—there was a time when the University of Chicago economics department was stocked with people who'd done their Ph.D. on "Duck Soup and the Collapsing Cash Nexus" and similar titles. In other words, how could you expect a dazed, defeated, demoralized, and de-walleted population to go to see a film that mocked government when the folks were waiting for a New Deal?

In case you can't place the film, this is the one where Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) will give the nation of Freedonia $20 million if Rufus T. Firefly is appointed its leader (and if she gets the fire in the fly). Aha, you may say, such cynicism and manipulation the affairs of modest third-world nations was far more likely the cause of public despair. Enter Trentino (played by that very respectable actor Louis Calhern), the ambassador from Sylvania (before it was in the TV business), and soon we are on the brink of world war. But why remind the public of that?

Like many Marx Brothers films, Duck Soup has the suspicious air of a few set pieces strung together with Christmas lights and Hollywood was learning with talk and plots and so forth that the manufacture of whole films (as opposed to scene anthologies) was a dirty job, even if you were being paid for it. There has never been a better answer to the question of what holds this film together than glue. The essential ethos of the Marx Brothers (this is Irving Thalberg talking as he prepared to ship them off to Culver City) is to make their fragmentation seem natural. So Thalberg foresaw Marxian nights with a film program continually interrupted by little scenes from Marxist groups. This was a principle applied fully on the BBC years later with the arrival of Monty Python. The show might be over, but still somehow the other programs—the news, Gardeners' Question Time, England v. Pakistan—could not but take on a Pythonesque flourish. This could have revolutionized TV, but the Python boys (who had been to university) asked for ghostly residuals.

Anyway, Duck Soup has the extended routine where Chico (as Chicolini) and Harpo (as Pinky) harass Edgar Kennedy. And it also has Groucho and the mirror, which is enough to persuade you all to get every bit of polished glass out of the house.

If you find you like this sort of thing, you'll be glad to know that The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, and Horse Feathers once existed. There was a moment—we call it sound—when the Marx Brothers made the trip from vaudeville to Hollywood, and it's like Neil Armstrong stepping down onto the moon and landing on a banana peel.

Excerpted from "Have You Seen...?" A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films by David Thomson. Copyright © 2008 by David Thomson. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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