A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, November 28, 2008

List, List, O List!


This review appeared recently in the Washington Post Book World:


“HAVE YOU SEEN...?”

A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films

By David Thomson

Knopf, 1024 pp., $39.95

Everybody loves a list. The American Film Institute, for example, gets a couple of TV specials every year out of listing the 100 best movies in some genre or other. And every film critic in the country is annually obligated to come up with a list of the top ten movies of the year.


But a list of 1,000 films? The vastness of such a project betrays its absurdity: No one's critical sensibility is so fine-tuned as to allow a convincing distinction in quality between the thousandth film on the list and the dismissed thousand-and-first.


David Thomson is the author of numerous film books – biographies, histories, essays, even novels – all marked by passion, curiosity, scholarship and wit. His Biographical Dictionary of Film, with its blend of factual information and critical insight, is one of the essential movie books, and “Have You Seen...?” was proposed by his editors as a kind of companion volume. Thomson says in the introduction that he designed it to answer the question he's asked frequently: “What should I see?” But really, the book is an excuse for Thomson to wander around the gargantuan buffet table of movies, gleefully picking and choosing, sampling, savoring (and sometimes spitting out) whatever catches his fancy.
He also makes it clear from the beginning that he's not going to be tied down by any list-making principle other than that there have to be 1,000 entries of approximately 500 words each. The first entry – the book is arranged alphabetically -- is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which he says is there because a friend told him he couldn't lead off the book with any film so solemn and earnest as the one he first chose: Abe Lincoln in Illinois. High seriousness is not Thomson's typical mode, so to set the right tone for the book, Bud and Lou replaced Abe and Mary.

Blithely making up the rules for inclusion as he goes along, he slips in entire TV series (“Monty Python's Flying Circus,” “The Sopranos”) when it suits him and when he can make a point (e.g., “The Sopranos” shows how much better the Godfather films are). There were to be no documentaries until he decided to include one because it was made by Orson Welles (F for Fake). And he even includes a film that he hasn't seen for more than 30 years and hasn't been able to find a print of: Roger Vadim's Sait-On Jamais..., which Thomson admits is “not a great movie,” but remembers for its great jazz soundtrack. The entry leaves you wondering about the thousand-and-first movie that got dropped so one he saw nearly half his lifetime ago could be included.

To put it succinctly, “Have You Seen...?” is a big, glorious, infuriating and illuminating mess. You'll be happiest with it if you're on Thomson's wave length, that is, if your favorite directors include Renoir, Hawks, Welles, Hitchcock, Preston Sturges, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Antonioni, Bergman. You'll be less happy if you prefer Ford, Wilder, David Lean, Woody Allen, Scorsese, Kubrick, Kurosawa or Fellini, all of whom he finds wanting in one way or another. He acknowledges what he regards as their best work, but even then his preferences can be startling. He thinks, for example, that Otto Preminger's Exodus is better than Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. His favorite Allen film is Radio Days, which he calls “a masterpiece.” Annie Hall, on the other hand, he regards as “disastrously empty.” Taxi Driver, he says, “is a great film ... hallucinatory, beautiful and scarring.” Whereas the movie a lot of people think of as Scorsese's masterpiece, Raging Bull, he finds “fascinating, but truly confused.”
You don't come to such books just to sate your complacent taste, but to bristle at the things you disagree with and to whet your counter-arguments.

But with a universe of films to choose from, it's sad that Thomson wastes space and energy getting in a few more kicks at a movie like The Sound of Music, which has been stomped on by every reputable critic for the past 43 years and still keeps cheerfully toddling along, chirping about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. It's the Teflon musical, and Thomson's treatment of it is more like bullying than criticism. He says he includes it because “millions of the stupid and aggrieved will write in to the publisher, 'Where was The Sound of Music?'” But so what if they do? This belies the advice he had given only a few entries earlier, writing about why he includes Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running instead instead of his Gigi: “If you love Colette, Gigi is ghastly. If you don't love Colette, put this book aside.”


In the end, everyone who doesn't put it aside will find much to like and learn from. Thomson is, after all, an incisive observer and a tremendously clever writer, and his enthusiasms have taken him into dusty corners: He's a great fan of film noir, for example, so the book is dotted with obscure melodramas from the 1940s. There are also films in the volume that only a few fanatics like Thomson have even heard of, let alone seen.
But everyone will also find something missing. For example, he stints on the great genre of animation, including only a few Disney classics, an odd little essay on the Tom and Jerry short “The Cat Concerto,” and a nice tribute to Sylvain Chomet's The Triplettes of Belleville, in which he disses the Pixar films because he finds their “sunniness ... boring and complacent.” That's his prerogative, but why no acknowledgment of the work of Chuck Jones and others at Warner Bros.? Or the miraculous films, like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, of Hayao Miyazaki?

See, that's the thing about lists. Give us a thousand films to think about, and we'll still think about the ones you left out.