Saturday, April 24, 2010

On First Looking Into Thomson's Have You Seen

I picked up a cheap, mint hardcover copy of David Thomson's Have You Seen...? at the Housing Works bookstore the other night.  I began casually paging through it after I got home, and the next thing I knew, a couple of hours had gone by.  The same thing has happened to me many times with Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of FilmHave You Seen...? (subtitled "A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films") is perhaps a more conventional film book than the Dictionary, being an alphabetized collection of capsule review/essays, at least superficially similar to the ones many other critics have published.  Thomson's style is unmistakable, though.  While he occasionally produces a sentence that leaves me stumped, even after multiple readings, the condensed format generally keeps Thomson sharp and critically focused, while allowing him to show off his mastery of the pithy summation. Many of the entries, in both books, end with a well tuned, instantly memorable line (on Audrey Hepburn: "...Audrey - in eyes, voice, and purity - rang as true as a small silver bell. The great women of the fifties had a character that is in short supply now."; Eyes Wide Shut: "It is a shock to find that the film is only 159 minutes. Every frame feels like a prison"; or his most succinct tagline of all, re: His Girl Friday: "Bliss").

Hopefully, Thomson will get the chance to revise and perhaps extend Have You Seen...? as he's done with the Dictionary (currently in its fourth edition), but even in its current form it's great fun, the one-page-per-movie format yielding some wonderful juxtapositions (part of Thomson's plan, as he explains in the introduction), perhaps none better than Bringing Up Baby opposite Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (imagine those two movies mashed together every time the book is closed!).

One remarkable piece of trivia gleaned from Have You Seen...?:  
Sunset Boulevard and In a Lonely Place, arguably the two finest "dark side of Hollywood" movies, came out in the same year, 1950.  I say "arguably" because I think Mulholland Drive (or to be accurate, Mulholland Dr., a fine distinction Thomson makes a lot of) deserves to be considered a peer of those two films.  Before seeing In a Lonely Place, I thought of Mulholland as, among other things, a kind of homage to Sunset Boulevard, but in fact it has echoes of/affinities with both earlier films.  And what's this I hear about Lynch planning a sequel?

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