By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 1, 2006
Ah, the new year . It stretches ahead of us, full of possibility, like a runway before our taxiing plane, or nine verdant slopes peppered with golf holes. This is the year, we promise ourselves, we'll pick up the guitar again, or learn Spanish, or take that course in Kabbalah. And read more. Oh dear, how many times must we urge ourselves to read more?
Which brings us to the ultimate intersection between high purpose and high enjoyment: reading about the movies, a topic, after all, that most of us love.
If your purposes are dutifully archival and referential, grab any combination of Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia , John Pym's Time Out Film Guide , Leslie Halliwell and John Walker's Halliwell's Film, Video and DVD Guide , and that ubiquitous but essential Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide . These are indispensable books, found on the desks of film scholars, critics and buffs all over the world. I like the Katz book and the Time Out Film Guide (in part because I routinely disagree with Maltin's opinions).
But how can we find something that deepens our experience but also provides that frisson of fun? Books that, say, dissect the romantic comedy work of Hugh Grant with the same vigor with which they salute the tortured face of Maria Falconnetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1929 silent classic, "The Passion of Joan of Arc."
For something that's authoritative but doesn't feel like academic heavy lifting, I heartily recommend David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the English writer's alphabetical guide to actors and filmmakers, from the Lumiere brothers to Macaulay Culkin. Its dry title has nothing to do with the racy, energetic, passionate stuff between its covers. Thomson (nope, no relation) writes penetratingly about cinema folks. And he doesn't hold back. Take his entry for Ben Affleck: "On the one hand, I have a soft spot for Mr. Affleck in that he is the only actor who has played, or is ever likely to play, the man who founded the school I attended," referring to Affleck's portrayal of Edward Alleyne, founder of Dulwich College, in "Shakespeare in Love." Thomson then goes on to his "other view" that "Mr. Affleck is boring, complacent, and criminally lucky to have got away with everything so far."
On Cary Grant, he waxes poetic and insightful: "The essence of his quality can be put quite simply: He can be attractive and unattractive simultaneously; there is a light and dark side to him but, whichever is dominant, the other creeps into view." But don't let the Affleck/Grant mentions lead you to believe that Thomson takes the view that old talent trumps new; he warmly embraces Julia Roberts, for example, as "a star of the highest force."
After we've read a biographical take from Thomson, we can never look at his subjects the same. (Hugh Grant, for me, will now and forever remain a moral zebra.) And as we read those words -- sometimes stinging, sometimes adulatory, always dead on -- we can appreciate the power of a distinctive, passionate voice. Thomson makes these alphabetized listings seem less like rote dictionary entries and more like the best of criticism.
On that score -- critical voice -- there are dozens of worthy books to choose from, including Village Voice critic J. Hoberman's " Vulgar Modernism ," Anthony Lane's " Nobody's Perfect: Writings From the New Yorker " and Kenneth Turan's " Never Coming to a Theater Near You." In October, this paper's chief critic, Stephen Hunter, released " Now Playing at the Valencia ," a collection of reviews and essays.
There are all those numerically driven books, too, such as Steven Jay Schneider's very readable (with color photos) " 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die ." (And if you want to read about the night when, at age 16, I persuaded my grandmother to get me into a showing of "Last Tango in Paris," you might consider picking up " The X List: The National Society of Film Critics' Guide to the Movies That Turn Us On .")
But if you want to relive a critical period before the current age of political correctness and postmodern detachment, try the books of critics Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, fierce adversaries in the 1960s.
In his pieces for the Village Voice and in the landmark book " The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929--1968," Sarris introduced Americans to the theories and attitudes of French critics (particularly those of the Cahiers du Cinema magazine) who saw the director as the sole author of a film. Hollywood movies, at least the better ones, the French argued, were not studio-engineered entertainments but the personal statements of such great directors as Howard Hawks and John Ford.
In a 1963 essay, Kael, who saw films in a more holistic but no less impassioned way, attacked the auteurist theory -- and Sarris. When he responded in another column, a war of words was on. These were the days, critic John Powers recently wrote, "when Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael battled for the souls of the young, and preferring [Jean-Luc] Godard to [Francois] Truffaut (or vice versa) was a way of announcing who you were."
Reading Sarris's "The American Cinema" and Kael's writings in such essential collections as "For Keeps" and " 5001 Nights at the Movies," it doesn't feel like dusty history but the heat of some 40 years ago still burning.
Vitriol isn't the only way to fire up a page, of course. Film critic Roger Ebert's " The Great Movies " and " The Great Movies II " make enlightening reading, not so much for their artful turns of phrase but for the way Ebert opens doors. With his welcoming, populist style, Ebert seeks the simple statement rather than the poetic profundity. It's like drinking very pure water instead of cheap champagne.
We remain fascinated with "The Wizard of Oz" into adulthood, he suggests, "because its underlying story penetrates straight to the deepest insecurities of childhood, stirs them, and then reassures them." In his summation for "Casablanca," he's eloquently simple: "As we leave the theater, we are absolutely convinced that the only thing keeping the world from going crazy is that the problems of three little people do, after all, amount to more than a hill of beans."
In a review of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's 1954 "The Seven Samurai," Ebert easily lures the reader into this black-and-white, subtitled movie by describing its lead actor, Toshiro Mifune, in evocative terms. Mifune's character, Kikuchiyo, he writes, "is an overcompensator. He arrives equipped with a sword longer than anyone else's and swaggers around holding it over his shoulder like a rifleman."
Writerly? Maybe not. But are you seeing it? Of course you are.
Finally, I'd like to recommend a movie book that's pure fun: " The Film Snob's Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Filmological Knowledge , " by David Kamp and Lawrence Levin, which comes out next month. The authors, who gave you " The Rock Snob's Dictionary " and who are former writers for Spy magazine, offer an A to Z collection of film terms for the film snob -- defined as an "obsessive for whom the actual enjoyment of motion pictures is but a side dish to the accumulation of arcane knowledge about them."
The tongue-in-cheek book introduces you to terms like "wire-fu," a new term to denote Asian films such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," in which the characters defy gravity by means of hidden wires. Art-house darling Andrei Tarkovsky, it describes as a "Russian director of stunning intellect and visual acuity . . . afflicted with a glacial sense of pacing that makes watching his films not so much an entertainment choice as a lifestyle."
And the book helps us understand the sticky semantic difference between films and movies.
"It's a MOVIE," the "Film Snob Dictionary" declares, "if its male lead is hurled through plate glass. It's a FILM if its male lead has sexual urgings for young boys, his sister or his mother."
Got that? In the poking of fun, however, "The Film Snob's Dictionary" also pays left-handed tribute to cinema love. You can love something and tweak it, too.
But if you really want a laugh, I'd like to point you to Zagat Survey, the "world's leading provider of consumer survey-based leisure content," perhaps best known for its restaurant guides. The Zagat Survey 2006 Movie Guide , unintentionally, offers hilariously banal syntheses of movies, based on reactions from thousands of moviegoing respondents.
The entry for 1979's "Apocalypse Now," for instance, informs us: " 'The Vietnam Nightmare' meets Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' in this 'landmark' Coppola opus that's one part 'gut churner,' one part 'acid trip' as it examines the 'insanity of war'; true, it's 'long,' the 'last half hour is disappointing' and many wonder 'what the heck Brando's saying,' but ultimately this 'sprawling' 'meditation on the human mind' just plain 'grabs you.' "