HAVE YOU SEEN? by David Thomson (Allen Lane 1007 pp. £22)
Reviewed by Roz Kaveney
A selection of ten films or even a hundred is an attempt at a canon; a selection of a thousand is a chronicle of personal taste, in this instance by a critic and scholar who is usually insightful but occasionally just as lazy or wrong as the rest of us.. 'Have you seen?' is not a book to be read, in any standard sense, so much as a book designed to have its pages turned in an idle moment when the desire strikes us to know what David Thomson thinks of something - and sometimes he will have something to say and sometimes we will just go on dipping for an hour, because this is a well that will take a long time to run dry.
Thomson has his biases, of course, and some of them are biases one could do without. He is good on the classic phase of Japanese cinema, for example, but more recent films from East Asia are largely absent - you would not know from this selection that Korea, or Hong Kong, or Taiwan, or Iran had a film industry at all. Those of us who love the bizarre fantasies of Tsui Hark, or the perversely decorated thrillers of Takashi Ishi, or the 'Infernal Affairs' sequence, will be disappointed not to have the Thomson take on them. He understands Hollywood, and its politics, and its yearning for ever more successful product, and there is a price he pays for the leven of concentration he pays for that knowledge, and we pay it with him.
He also has his conscious prejudices and perversities, some of which come close to being follies. The assumption that, because 'Alexander Nevsky' is a time-serving piece of propaganda, it is also a mediocre film is not one everyone would share, for example, particularly given the extent to which it was innovative in its synchronization of soundtrack and the cutting of action. Thomson has no great taste for epic in film - it is significant that, of the Hollywood genre, his favourite is 'El Cid' which has doomed love as much as heroism at its emotional core - which leads to his mean-spirited response to the Jackson 'Lord of the Rings' which he describes as less a work of art than 'a regime undergone'.
He mentions preferring Jackson's earlier, less vast 'Heavenly Creatures' - and he is probably right to do so, and yet that film lacks an entry of its own, so that his preference lacks any anchor in explanation. There are too many occasions in this book where he expresses such preferences, and then does not back them up.
On occasion, he is surprisingly inattentive in his praise. He rightly loves the French animated feature 'Les Triplettes de Belleville' with its cyclist kidnapped by Mafiosi and rescued by his indomitable lame grandmother, and her retired vocalist allies. Yet he nowhere mentions one of the film's best jokes, which that its soundtrack contains no articulated dialogue, and few words save those which randomly occur in the scat songs of the trio. He praises James Cameron's 'Aliens' for its dialogue and daring-do, but omits here - and in his study of the 'Alien' franchise - the underlying symbolism of Ellen Ripley's ascension from mere heroine to quasi-goddess, a symbolic trio of Maiden, Mother and Crone. Quite often, when dealing with Hollywood action directors, Thomson suffers from the delusion that they are less clever than he is.
Thomson is extraordinarily good on comedy and on why things are funny, or, occasionally, not. There are unpopular opinions here, and they are usually correct ones - he rates Bogdanovich's attempt to re-invent the screwball comedy,' What's Up, Doc' quite as highly as it deserves and is not influenced by its failure actually to change very much. He is good on female stars, and not only on those of classic Hollywood - he possibly over-rates Nicole Kidman, but he is, for example, fair-minded in his assessment of the better films of Barbra Streisund.
This is a less essential book than Thomson's 'Biographical Dictionary of Film', but one which pretends to less authority, while being hardly more quirky. At his best, Thomson shares with other great film critics - Pauline Kael for example - a fascination not with the screened film alone but with the chances it missed, the possibilities that a different cut might explore; he enjoys not only watching film but also thinking about it - his is a version of movie as text which includes the various levels of process which went into that text. For him, sitting in the dark with film is only one point in an endless dialogue; movies are for him not only a visceral and emotional experience, but also a trigger that makes him think, and suggest that we do.