A Rambling Love Letter To The Silver Screen In 'How To Watch'Veteran film critic David Thomson's new book will get you thinking about the magic of film — but his personal, meandering arguments are sometimes too personal and too disjointed to land solidly.
Between exhibits at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, there's an interactive behind-the-scenes playground. You can record Marilyn Monroe's lines in the ADR booth; you can plug goofy sound effects into Jurassic Park. Sure, some of it's just to amuse kids (make the raptors meow!), but if you have an interest in the backstage how and why, it's good to see how a new soundtrack changes the gallery scene in Vertigo. And once, I saw a kid at the stop-motion station painstakingly construct dozens of frames with the props so that William Shakespeare got hit by a car and flew out of sight. It looked like a standstill, until the kid saw a cutout ocean wave and gasped; suddenly there was somewhere for Shakespeare to fall, a closing gag. There was a story. That kid hadn't just captured some frames — that kid had made a movie.
That same sense of learned storytelling rhythm, of meandering, thoughtful discovery, is everywhere in How to Watch a Movie. It's not a work of film-school-checklist rigor — about a quarter of the way in, author David Thomson promises "I do not intend to present you with a tidy pantheon or a set of correct answers." Instead, it's a love story. Some readers might have already guessed as much — Thomson, in his long and storied career, has become less a scholar of cinema than a prophet of it. His work rejects any attempt at the cool remove — for him, the only worthy cinema experience is up close and personal. His seminal Biographical Dictionary of Film is idiosyncratic, as much a biography of himself as of the films he mentions, and why not? In its most potent form, isn't any film a relationship that exists in the dark purely between you and it?
Sometimes this level of free association veers from elastic to esoteric. There are some deeply engaging moments — fanciful alternate castings in Psycho, projection ratios, how first impressions of editing can alter the meaning of Rebel Without a Cause, childhood reminiscences about moviegoing as an ephemeral experience (almost wholly vanished since the advent of VHS), and how much visual storytelling can loop back to Diego Velázquez's famous painting Las Meninas. This is a book whose aim is to make you think about all the ways film has bled into the way we process stories; it talks about single-reels at the turn of the century because we live in a not-too-different YouTube age.
But that same free-association vibe also means wading through several mumbling-stranger-on-a-park-bench tangents. (Thomson repeatedly mentions of concentration camp footage — an increasingly odd thing to make so many passing comparisons about in a book largely unconcerned with documentaries. He complains that Birth of a Nation is kept from anniversary celebrations long before mentioning that yes, it's also racist. Don't even ask about Denzel Washington and Obama.)
Thomson is without doubt a passionate and knowledgeable viewer of film, and there's a rhythm in the way his seemingly-spontaneous connections draw on film's family tree, so that you think less about the well-traveled Citizen Kane than about 2013's man-in-a-car drama Locke and the slow deconstruction of the heroic story. But in a book so personal, sometimes the arguments stay too personal to land.
Thomson is a film critic of the old school — something he acknowledges openly when talking about the difference between the dark theaters of his youth and the 18-tabs-open, set-photo-updates, just-the-good-parts world in which everything is at your disposal but you lose that blind anticipation that gives movies their ineffable magic. But he also points out that once you start deconstructing movies, it adds to that magic rather than ruining it; by producing an ocean for Shakespeare to fall into, you understand how stories are made. And though this doesn't have the reach of his best work, How to Watch a Movie accomplishes that much, meandering and bizarre eddies aside. Despite what he calls, "the silly nowness of it all," it's a book that will get you thinking about the magic of film, even if all you've done before is make the raptors meow.