Just an old fashioned love song
“I was in a video store, Le Video in San Francisco, renting Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels. There were two guys behind the counter, very young, and as they noticed Fallen Angels passing through their system, one said to the other, ‘That’s my favorite Wong Kar-Wai.’ The other guy was eager. ‘Does it have two stories?’ he asked. ‘I don’t know,’ said the first guy, ‘I’ve never seen it all.’”
Ah, fandom. The recollection is from David Thomson’s new book, “Have You Seen…?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (Alfred A. Knopf, $39.95), a cineaste’s version of Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies. He provides approximately 500 words apiece on “a thousand films,” as it’s explained in his introduction, “going back to 1895 and ranging across the world — the landmarks are here, the problem films, a few guilty pleasures, a few forlorn sacred cows, some surprises, a thousand for you to see.” The hefty volume should find a permanent home in the private library of every cinephile’s bathroom.
A handbook for those too often asked, “What should I see?”, “Have You Seen…?” arranges single-page crib notes alphabetically. Face-to-face, this creates a smorgasbord of double feature prospects heretofore unknown to modern man: The African Queen with L’Age d’Or, Ben Hur with Berlin Alexanderplatz, Bringing Up Baby with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Thirty-five years ago, there were revival theaters in Manhattan which would’ve happily used this as a programming guide.
Some critics have dismissed this collection as a throwaway, the breezy format allowing Thomson to forgo the labor of penetrating analysis. But he’s never been an academic writer. Caught up in his emotions (remember his feverish 300-page dedication to Nicole Kidman), Thomson’s forever — delightfully, unapologetically — enamored with old school charmers like Josef von Sternberg, and all-too eager to recite passages from otherwise forgotten chestnuts such as Fun in a Chinese Laundry. This is where Thomson has me returning for more.
An inherent honesty enables him to openly admit that his emotional investment colors insight: “The latest films do not fare as well in this book as pictures from the thirties and the forties,” he writes. “Too many new films are gestures trying to grab the interest of kids set on war games and PlayStations. We are so ready for shallow amusement that it may be harder to enjoy profound entertainment…This book may come off as helplessly nostalgic — a tribute to an age that’s not coming back.”
In the vein of the author’s The Biographical Dictionary of Film, the write-ups (they’re surely not reviews) are pithy and sharp and open for argument. He’s nostalgic, but only to a point. (Landing beyond his parameters, Easy Rider is “unwatchable.”) Sacred cows are tipped for sober thinking (Griffith’s Intolerance “is stupendous, yet it goes nowhere…the sheer pretension is a roadblock”), as yesterday’s trendsetters yellow from obsolescence (Jurassic Park “was a sensation when it opened…but I doubt today that one kid would lift a fat thumb in its favor”). Take issue with such sentiments with caution. Like Pauline Kael before him, Thomson questions the way we inadvertently fall back on duty, obligation and nostalgia — the stuff of imagination and self deception — to form our opinions. However foolish they may one day seem.