It’s a sad commentary on our time — to use a phrase much favored by my late father — that people increasingly celebrate Christmas Day by going to the movies. In the past, families, having attended church the evening before, spent the morning opening presents, then sat down to a big meal (thank you, Mom!), followed by a round of visits to nearby relatives. At each household, uncles would set out a bottle of Seagram’s or home-made wine for the grown-ups, aunts would pass round a platter of sugar cookies, and the kids would show off their new dolls and cap guns. Once night fell, someone might break out an accordion and play carols, polkas or folk songs. Sometimes there would be dancing on the linoleum kitchen floor.
I suppose movie theaters are the churches of the modern age, where we gather reverently to worship the tinsel gods of Hollywood. Still, things have come to a pretty pass — to use another of Dad’s locutions — when the birth of Christ is commemorated by watching explosions, whether these are caused by James Bond, Mad Max or the Awakening Force. Still, if you’re going to attend the service, you might as well understand the liturgy. Which brings us to David Thomson’s “How to Watch a Movie.”
Thomson has written about film for decades, although he’s probably best known for “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” one of those reference books that you can browse for hours. As one might expect, he’s seen everything. Throughout “How to Watch a Movie,” he often speaks of his latest or most recent screening of, say, “The Godfather,” “Citizen Kane” or “Psycho.” In fact, Thomson’s critical advice can be reduced to a single dictum: Watch serious films more than once. To this, one might add two corollaries: Always pay close attention and, even as you surrender to the screen action, keep a part of your brain thinking about and judging what’s happening.
Thomson, in short, values the movies as art. He doesn’t utterly disparage the big franchise spectaculars — such as those for which people will be lining up tomorrow — but they are, in his view, mere entertainments and distinctly simple ones at that. You “get” everything from them in a single viewing. In contrast, the movies that matter are those that explore messy human relationships (Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise,” Kechiche’s “Blue is the Warmest Color”), or probe the complexities of life without settling for easy or clear-cut answers (Resnais’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”). Praising Bergman’s masterpiece “Persona,” Thomson declares that “it will teach you that film is an adventure in which you are meant to see more than the things before your eyes. The things seen are not just the view; they are windows that open it up.”
For Thomson, “clarity is death if you like to see films again and again.” He explains, “I don’t want to see ‘The Usual Suspects’ again now that I know who Keyser Soze is. Instead, I see that movie as a mass of mannered implausibilities, and witty character acting, that bets all its chips on the thing we don’t know. The eventual revelation destroys the film’s fragile mood.” He then lists other “good, pleasing films that deserve no more than a single viewing,” even if they have won Oscars: “The Artist,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “The King’s Speech,” “Gravity.”
At another point, discussing film noir classics such as “Crossfire,” “In a Lonely Place” and “Kiss Me Deadly,” Thomson compares their severe beauty and blistering social criticism with the innocuous “blancmange” of popular films of the same period, including “An American in Paris,” and “Roman Holiday,” or those “epitomes of rational, liberal optimism” “Twelve Angry Men” and “Ben-Hur.” You can hear the disdain in his voice. These movies are bland, dated, shallow. Of all Steven Spielberg’s films, the only one that comes “close to greatness,” says the fearless Thomson, is “Empire of the Sun,” derived from J.G. Ballard’s harrowing novel of wartime Shanghai.
While “How to Watch a Movie” considers technical matters — editing, cutting, music, montage — as well as the organization of time and the importance of beauty in actors, it always does so in an easygoing, essayistic way. Thomson frequently draws on his boyhood memories of movie-going in Britain, relates anecdotes about scriptwriters and directors, deftly summarizes various films, and generally circles around his subjects rather than zeroing in on them. This isn’t an academic manual or “Movies for Dummies.” You read Thomson for contact with an urbane and provocative intelligence. “Michael Corleone,” he observes, “is the master of his world and maybe the most effective leader in modern American film.” “To hear Rudy Vallee talk in ‘The Palm Beach Story’ is to be close to heaven. To hear the chill politeness of Catherine Deneuve in ‘Belle de Jour’ is to be there.” And which of us would disagree with Thomson when he writes, “Often enough in life we stand in bad light and do not know what to say”?
As a critic, Thomson doesn’t just talk about The Industry. He regularly refers to books, paintings, our common experiences. He casually throws out the brilliant aperçu that being read to as a child “is the template of every intimacy in life.” In Velázquez’s great painting “Las Meninas,” he discovers a model for the cinema’s tantalizing obsession with appearance and reality, with seeing and being seen. What is going on, before our eyes and behind the scenes, in this famously multilayered picture of the artist, a royal princess, two dwarfs, a big dog, and various shadowy figures? Referring to Monet’s water lily paintings, the critic coyly speaks of “the fatal attraction of nymphéas.” Thomson expects, or at least hopes, that his reader will recognize not just the French word for water lily but also the punning allusion to Nabokov’s “Lolita” and “the fatal attraction of nymphets.”
As it happens, David Thomson also offers a brief foreword to John C. Tibbetts’s “Those Who Made It,” a collection of conversations with nearly two dozen Hollywood legends, including pioneering cinematographer Glen MacWilliams, Disney animator Ollie Johnston, producer and actor John Houseman (who recalls his fruitful partnership with the young Orson Welles) and stuntman Richard Farnsworth. Ray Bradbury explains how comics taught him screenwriting, while preservationist Kevin Brownlow laments the disappearance of nitrate film and with it a tonal richness beyond the power of digital reproductions.
Most particularly, film critic Roger Ebert, who died in 2013, bewails the presentism of this era’s movie audiences: “I think with the death of reading and with the collapse of the American educational system, today’s young people are primarily oriented just toward what is happening right in front of their nose and at that very moment.” Ebert suspected that wonderful older films, such as those of the 1930s, held no real interest to millennials.
Was he right? As David Thomson would argue, the best movies reward focused attention and invite repeated viewings. Yet who now goes to the multiplex expecting wisdom or subtlety? Bring on the explosions.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of ”Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
By David Thomson
Knopf. 242 pp. $24.95
By John C. Tibbetts
Palgrave Macmillan. 235 pp; paperback, $32