David Thomson, author of “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film” and many other books on film, has seen everything. Throughout his new book, “How to Watch a Movie” (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95), 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 the one currently dominating the cineplexes — 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’ “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 Söze is.” 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. 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 moviegoing 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. “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 it happens, David Thomson also offers a brief foreword to John C. Tibbetts’ “Those Who Made It: Speaking with the Legends of Hollywood” (Palgrave Macmillan, $32 paper), 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.