Editor’s Choice November 2008

The Reel Thing

An infuriating, idiosyncratic critic can’t help but be elegiac in cataloguing the history of film.
The Kobal Collection)

Now we have the long-called-for companion to David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film, first published in 1975 and throughout its various editions the most seductive, infuriating, and influential reference book ever written on the movies. Thomson, an Englishman living in San Francisco, is the author of more than 20 books, including several on movie personalities such as Warren Beatty, Orson Welles, Nicole Kidman, and David O. Selznick, and others on such disparate subjects as Scott’s Antarctic expedition, Laurence Sterne, and Las Vegas. “Have You Seen …?”—a by turns astringent and gushy appraisal of 1,000 movies made from 1895 to 2007—is, for better and worse, something of a muddle. Whereas the lyrical and bullying, ardent and Olympian, minutely detailed and defiantly impressionistic Dictionary, with its closely packed, tightly printed, double-columned pages, aims toward the comprehensive, this work discriminates in what it includes and what it doesn’t—but does so using several different and somewhat contradictory criteria.

With its god-awful title, the book ostensibly responds to the question most frequently asked of Thomson: “What movies should I watch?” To be sure, he has included his favorites among the single-page entries. (The format, along with many other features, makes this a much less idiosyncratic work than the eccentric and audacious Dictionary, whose entries varied from three sentences on Wes Anderson to several thousand words on Graham Greene.) But he also writes about many pictures he can’t stand, including the 1959 Ben-Hur (“Has anyone made a voluntary decision to see [it] in recent years?”), Kramer vs. Kramer (a work of “inane studied gentility”), and Rain Man (“the smug movie of a culture charging down a dead-end street”). All of these films won the Oscar for Best Picture, so the reader might assume that Thomson has gathered both movies he esteems and ones he judges influential commercially, culturally, or otherwise.

Not exactly: he omits Mrs. Miniver, Gentleman’s Agreement, and Crash—all Best Picture winners, all social or political bellwethers, and all movies he (justifiably) doesn’t like. He also ignores the Hope-Crosby “Road” movies, even though—as he notes in his typically penetrating and off-kilter history of Hollywood, The Whole Equation (the title is from The Last Tycoon)—those “silly … stay-at-home ‘Road’ films” exercised a profound “healing effect” on America, and their stars were “the top box office attraction in America throughout the 1940s.” Oh—and he does include four entries on TV series (The Singing Detective; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Sopranos; and Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky), products of a medium whose constraints and possibilities differ significantly from those of the cinema. Thomson can’t resist forays into television: his entry on Johnny Carson is among the lengthiest and most perceptive in the Dictionary.

This jumble reveals a highly cultivated critical mind as it develops and refines judgments on minor issues, major themes, and first-order principles concerning the most vital art form of the 20th century and our social and emotional engagement with it. Throughout, Thomson points out the films Oscar has honored and shunned—verdicts he deems “misleading and unhelpful in the intelligent regard for movies in America”—to support his contention that assessments of movie quality have been consistently “ludicrous.” Embarrassingly stupid pronouncements aren’t limited to the movies, of course, but the cinema has been particularly susceptible to them. The apparently obvious reason is that the sordid commercial standards for judging a huge industry’s product have squashed the standards for judging creative endeavor. But that’s hardly adequate. After all, stately, self-important, and socially worthy pictures, not mindless blockbusters, crowd the list of Oscar winners over the years. And if many of the industry’s judgments have been self-regarding and boneheaded, those of the academics and art-house critics have been faddish. How many critics in 1973 would have assayed The Godfather superior to one of their then favorites, Bergman’s ponderous The Seventh Seal?

Still, Thomson insists that judgments be made, and that they be based on a deep comprehension of the medium. This wasn’t so uncommon when movies were truly a mass entertainment—when they were what Thomson calls “the bloodstream of a great nation” and something like half or three-quarters of the population went to the pictures each week; even up through the early 1970s, a smaller audience had grown up in a movie-saturated culture. (“In the darkness at the movies,” as Pauline Kael romanticized the situation, “where nothing is asked of us and we are left alone, the liberation from duty and constraint allows us to develop our own aesthetic responses.”)

But today less than 10 percent of the population goes to the movies weekly, and the older pictures that account for most of the entries in this book are unknown to nearly every young movie-watcher. The availability of sparklingly restored prints of classics on DVD and on cable stations like TCM hasn’t come close to compensating for the fact that old movies—good, bad, or indifferent, in all their creaky splendor—are no longer shown ad infinitum on local TV, where they weren’t enshrined by cineastes but were just part of the movie-watcher’s mental landscape. Today that landscape is awfully barren. The college seniors in a UCLA seminar I recently taught fancy themselves sophisticated filmgoers, but haven’t seen Grand Illusion, Chinatown, or a single John Ford, Cary Grant, or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. Urbane newspaper readers, as Thomson bemoans, deem Cinema Paradiso the best foreign-language movie ever made—because they’ve seen it, and don’t know its betters (“if you haven’t read much else, then Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger may be the best book you've ever read").

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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