He Lost It at the Movies
"HAVE YOU SEEN . . . ?"
A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films
By David Thomson
Knopf. 1007 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 obligated to come up with a list of the top 10 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 1,000th film on the list and the dismissed 1,000-and-1st.
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 a question he's frequently asked: "What should I see?" But, really, the book is an excuse for him to wander around the gargantuan buffet table of movies, gleefully 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 is "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," which he says is there because a friend told him he couldn't lead off the alphabet 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). And he even includes a film that he hasn't seen for more than 30 years and hasn't been able to find: 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 1,000-and-1st movie that got dropped so that 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 wavelength, that is, if your favorite directors include Renoir, Hawks, Welles, Hitchcock, Sturges, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Antonioni, Bergman. You'll be less happy if you prefer Ford, Wilder, Lean, Woody Allen, Scorsese, Kurosawa or Fellini, all of whom he finds wanting in one way or another. Thomson 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."
You don't come to such a book 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, whistling "My Favorite Things." 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 gives only a few entries earlier when writing about why he includes Vincente Minnelli's "Some Came Running" 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 "Have You Seen . . .?" 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 this 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. ·
Charles Matthews is a writer, editor and former film critic living in Northern California.