HAVE YOU SEEN….? An Interview With David Thomson on His New Book

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Film Comment, Movieline, The New Republic, Salon, and The Independent (London). His other books include Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick, Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, Nicole Kidman, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, and three works of fiction: Suspects, Silver Light, and Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes. He was the screenwriter on the documentary The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind and served as the editor on Fan Tan, the uncompleted novel by Marlon Brando and director Donald Cammell. His new book is Have You Seen…”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (Knopf) and below is the interview I conducted with him about that and other topics.    

TCM: How does a film scholar like yourself even begin to approach a project as daunting as HAVE YOU SEEN…? How many lists or attempts did it take to come up with your current selection of 1,000 films?

David Thomson: Well, I took the view of climbing a mountain – one step at a time, don’t look up or down! At the start, I was urged to do lists but the only thing I did really was to imagine how many films from different countries – just to have a model in my head. I also worked out several allocations decade by decade – just as a guide. But I knew from the start that my 1000 would include films I loved plus films I don’t love but which I conceded have to be in such a book because they are landmarks. That fits everything from The Birth of a Nation to The Sound of Music and it meant that this book could have different voices. It wouldn’t be simply one rave after another. The other guideline was, think of the ordinary moviegoer (without training), on the young side, and daunted by the catalogue of films. How do you explore the past and different countries? How do you get more out of seeing pictures?

I knew I wanted a “written” or “readable” book – not just a list or a reference book.  I had a vague hope that, taken as a whole it was a way of doing a history of film.

So I didn’t get to the lists until I was about two-thirds done. Then I drew up lists as a way of finding what was still left out. And I shared the master list with several people as a way of getting more suggestions. It meant that as I got down to the end, there was more and more input and turmoil – and at the end there was a flurry of drops and late additions…it could easily have gone on longer. In a way it does for I am preparing a list of new entries for the paperback – granted that as one goes in another comes out. Of course the 1000 is arbitrary and game-playing. But so is any number you pick.  

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music

TCM: Although you cover this to some degree in your introduction to the book, what was your personal criteria for selecting the titles that you chose?

DT: Above all, do I love them, do I rate it very highly, do I want to write about it?

Tom Neal & Ann Savage in Detour

Tom Neal & Ann Savage in Detour

TCM: You mentioned that you included a few guilty pleasures among the 1,000 titles. What is your opinion of a guilty pleasure because for me it’s a film I’m actually reluctant to admit to anyone that I enjoy; otherwise, there is no real guilt involved.

DT: I know what you mean. I hate the idea of guilt being associated with pleasure and I love the claim of really trashy films, or low-down mainstream product (like Detour, say).

Du levande (You, the Living)

Du levande (You, the Living)

TCM. I had never heard of the film YOU, THE LIVING which is included in your book. Who else besides Roy Andersson gives you hope for the future of contemporary cinema?

DT: Oh, plenty of people – Paul Thomas Anderson, Jonathan Glazer, the new young Rumanians [Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristian Mungiu].

TCM: I was delighted to see one of my favorite films, DEEP END (1971), included in HAVE YOU SEEN…? Do you believe that there are certain films like DEEP END that can never reach a wide audience because of their quirkiness or refusal to fit comfortably into any genre? Or is it all really a matter of smart marketing?

DT: Good question. When it came out, in England, Deep End was dismissed or seen as a dirty film. For me it was always a great picture about adolescence. I like pictures that don’t make it first time – it’s a great tradition, after all, with Citizen Kane as the leader. And I think it’s one of the great cases for film criticism or writing that over the decades so many films have been missed or underappreciated.

TCM: I’m always interested in what movies were formative experiences for moviegoers as children? What are some of your earliest film memories?

DT: The Olivier Henry V. Lassie film. Scott of the Antarctic. Burt Lancaster in The Flame and the Arrow, Meet Me in St Louis, Red River.  On the whole, I think the films you loved from age 5-16 (say) are the deep personal favorites.  

Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas

Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas

TCM: You made an interesting observation at the end of the PARIS, TEXAS entry that read “I used to like it very much. I now see it as a “problem” film. And I wonder if I will live long enough to hate it.” I’d like for you to clarify what you mean by “problem” film. And to cite any examples of movies that have produced the exact opposite reaction over the years. For instance, what movies did you first strongly dislike and later come to respect and even consider important films later?

DT: A problem film, I suppose is one that pulls you in different directions at the same time – you like and you dislike. Others I can think of would include The Apartment, Meet John Doe (Capra is a good example of problem films because I think he was so unresolved) and in a way Touch of Evil

Gary Cooper & Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe

Gary Cooper & Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe

TCM: In this same vein, I’m interested in the whole process of critical reassessments of films one has previously proclaimed landmarks or sacred cows. When I see a movie again that I once considered a masterpiece fifteen years earlier and find it unable to make my A-list anymore, I begin to wonder if my should revisit all the movies I once proclaimed great to see if my judgment has become radically altered by my age and life experiences. Is this something you struggle with or see other critics addressing as they grow older?

DT: Well, I am of an age now when revisiting has become a major part of movie-going. And I find it very powerful and moving because often the film seems to have changed. It hasn’t, of course, we have changed. It’s a part of growing up or growing older and I find myself increasingly drawn to it as an area of study. Because whereas some films die or stop, a lot of great movies do seem to change over time.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

The Passion of Joan of Arc

TCM: You recommend several silent films in your guide. In regards to your own children and friends who are mostly novices when it comes to silent movies, what titles have you found to be the most enjoyable and accessible entry points for beginners?

DT: The Passion of Joan of Arc (always works), Metropolis (ditto), Chaplin and Keaton. Silent romance hardly ever works though – that convention is lost forever. Pandora’s Box. The Man with a Movie Camera.

TCM: Some movie fans have a very strict definition of what constitutes a genuine film noir. For instance, it has to be filmed in black and white, can’t take place in a bright, sunny setting or have a “happy ending.” What is your take on that?

DT: I believe in a very broad open view of noir; for instance I include color films and movies where I just feel a noir attitude is at work. Thus, I think it’s silly to dig up some pretty bad noirs just because they fit the definition and not include Taxi Diver.  

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver

TCM: The moviegoing experience has changed drastically over the years and I no longer feel the need to see a documentary feature such as Michael Moore’s FAHRENHEIT 911 at the cinema. But I do feel compelled to see something like Terrence Malick’s THE NEW WORLD on the big screen. Do you make a special effort to see certain films or a certain director’s work at a theatre? By watching movies only in the privacy of one’s home, do you feel we are seeing or experiencing the movie any differently – in a significant way – than a theatre patron?

DT: I try to see every new major film – certainly every one which anticipates a big visual punch in a theatre. But it gets harder and harder and for those of us too busy in life the DVD is a godsend. But I feel we have To keep contact with the old, huge cinematic image.

TCM: In your preface to HAVE YOU SEEN…?, you mention the late fifties as a period in which a whole new generation of filmgoers emerged as film students, shaping film culture in a significant way. Do you see anything comparable to that curiosity and passion today among college students or in the under-25 culture?

DT: I think the period from the late 50s to the mid 70s was a great period in film-making that coincided with a huge increase in film education. A cultivation of the old went on side-by-side with great new things. We have lapsed, but DVD has directed attention to film history. But I’m not sure how much it matters to people and I wonder if we can regain an age where film is a central subject in the culture.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

TCM: I have to agree completely with your comment,”…the Academy still insists on awarding prizes for a type of film that is hardly made anymore. And that is misleading and unhelpful in the intelligent regard for movies in America.” Based on their previous nominees this decade, what 2008 films do you predict will be the forerunners in this year’s Oscar race?

DT: Oh, tough question – and I have seen so little this year because of book promotion. But if I had to guess (as opposed to predict) five nominations for Best Picture: The Dark Knight, Wall-e, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Australia, Revolution Road.

TCM: In addition to your film criticism, you have written some novels. Have you had any success in selling them as screenplays in Hollywood? I had heard that Martin Scorsese was mentioned as a potential producer for a film you wrote entitled FIERCE HEAT. Any further developments with that?

DT: Huge question. I did a book called Suspects that aroused as lot of interest. Scorsese and Harry Uffland hired me to write a script in the vein of Suspects. It was called Fierce Heat and I like it but I doubt it will ever be made.

TCM: Do you have any surprising revelations to share about your teaching experiences at Dartmouth College and the students’ reactions to certain films? For example, were there any films that resonated with them in unlikely and unexpected ways? Were there any encouraging signs that these potential filmmakers of tomorrow preferred something like CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING over PULP FICTION?

DT: Well I taught in the 70s – a great time – and I do recall that Celine and Julie Go Boating went down very well at Dartmouth. I had terrific students and about half a dozen of them have gone on to real careers in film-making – from Chris Meledandri to Ty Burr. Also we had the great luck to get Michael Powell to come to Dartmouth.

TCM: In regards to the current trend of layoffs of film critics from major magazine and newspaper staffs, what are your thoughts about the future of film criticism in American and what form will it take? Internet blogs? Podcasts? Something other than traditional publishing?

DT: I think critics are an endangered species – but so are newspapers. It may well be that web sites will take over the role of good, responsible, challenging criticism. May I say that, for me, it would be great to see the voice of TCM allowing more disagreement instead of simply saying that all our films are great.

TCM: What films would you like to revisit that are not currently available in any entertainment format? Or perhaps I should ask what is your top ten NOT-ON-DVD list?

DT: I’m at a loss here for the moment. There is so much one can see that I do not notice so much the omissions. But I regret the difficulty in getting early Renoir and Ophuls and stuff like that.

TCM: This is not so much a question as it is a thank you for singling out some films in your guide which I feel were ignored, maligned or overlooked at the time of their release such as Bertolucci’s THE SHELTERING SKY (I don’t understand why so many critics dismissed it as a failure), THE MISSOURI BREAKS, NIGHT MOVES, SOMETHING WILD, BONJEUR TRISTESSE and THE BLACK LEGION, in which Bogart gives one of his finest and most overlooked performances as you pointed out.

DT: Well, thank you. I think my biggest pleasure with this book is having someone thank me for suggesting a film they’d never heard of. For instance, a very serious writer I know last week went crazy over Suddenly because it’s in Have You Seen? Now, I see no reason to say Suddenly is a masterpiece or close) but if you never knew it existed then it comes as a knockout.  And I think it’s a noir.  

David Thomson

David Thomson

 Interview conducted by Jeff Stafford

14 Responses HAVE YOU SEEN….? An Interview With David Thomson on His New Book
Posted By Al Lowe : November 28, 2008 10:13 am

I think Pauline Kael and Mr. Thomson might have been better as bloggers about films rather than critics.
The problem is that their preferences and dislikes sometimes seem irrational and wrongheaded as compared to what most of the other critics are saying. Kael for example blew off The Sting and liked this oddity called Everybody Wins, which noone else has ever admitted enjoying. Thomson writes off Stanley Kubrick and Sandra Bullock. He includes Johnny Carson in his book even though the famous late night host was not known for movies.
The book I am referring to is The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. I have that one and the one he published in the 1970s, The (Old?) Biographical Dictionary of Film.
Still, he and Kael are astonishingly good writers. I wouldn’t have the books and reread them so often if they weren’t worth it. Thanks for the interview.

Posted By Al Lowe : November 28, 2008 10:13 am

I think Pauline Kael and Mr. Thomson might have been better as bloggers about films rather than critics.
The problem is that their preferences and dislikes sometimes seem irrational and wrongheaded as compared to what most of the other critics are saying. Kael for example blew off The Sting and liked this oddity called Everybody Wins, which noone else has ever admitted enjoying. Thomson writes off Stanley Kubrick and Sandra Bullock. He includes Johnny Carson in his book even though the famous late night host was not known for movies.
The book I am referring to is The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. I have that one and the one he published in the 1970s, The (Old?) Biographical Dictionary of Film.
Still, he and Kael are astonishingly good writers. I wouldn’t have the books and reread them so often if they weren’t worth it. Thanks for the interview.

Posted By Roger Hanover : November 28, 2008 6:25 pm

In his NEW BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM, Mr. Thomson wrote one of the funniest and shortest entries in the entire book on director Richard Donner: “Mr. Donner has made several of the most successful and least interesting films of his age. And one doubts it’s over yet.” I’m not here to defend Donner’s place in film history and mostly agree with Thomson’s kiss-off line. Yet, despite all of the souless, blockbuster hits (Superman, 4 Lethal Weapon movies, the Maverick remake), there is an oddity in his filmography – Inside Moves – that Thomson doesn’t point out. He may have seen it and hated it but it’s the one film of Donner’s that reveals there might be a human being behind the corporate machine director. It might be an imperfect film but the performances by John Savage, Diana Scarwid, Amy Wright, Bert Remsen, Harold Russell (from “The Best Years of Your Lives”), David Morse, Pepe Serna and others make it a very moving human drama – small scale but intimate and often heartbreakingly true. Is this the kind of movie Donner really wanted to make but didn’t? The price of success is often everyone’s loss.

Posted By Roger Hanover : November 28, 2008 6:25 pm

In his NEW BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM, Mr. Thomson wrote one of the funniest and shortest entries in the entire book on director Richard Donner: “Mr. Donner has made several of the most successful and least interesting films of his age. And one doubts it’s over yet.” I’m not here to defend Donner’s place in film history and mostly agree with Thomson’s kiss-off line. Yet, despite all of the souless, blockbuster hits (Superman, 4 Lethal Weapon movies, the Maverick remake), there is an oddity in his filmography – Inside Moves – that Thomson doesn’t point out. He may have seen it and hated it but it’s the one film of Donner’s that reveals there might be a human being behind the corporate machine director. It might be an imperfect film but the performances by John Savage, Diana Scarwid, Amy Wright, Bert Remsen, Harold Russell (from “The Best Years of Your Lives”), David Morse, Pepe Serna and others make it a very moving human drama – small scale but intimate and often heartbreakingly true. Is this the kind of movie Donner really wanted to make but didn’t? The price of success is often everyone’s loss.

Posted By Jackie R. : November 28, 2008 6:54 pm

David Thomson is always an engaging film writer even if I tend to agree with him only about 50 % of the time. But when I do agree, it’s over the stuff closest to my heart. His entries in his Dictionary of Film on Tuesday Weld, Anthony Perkins, Mercedes McCambridge, Jim Henson, Marguerite Duras and too many others to name are so dead on and articulate that I feel he must be a kindred spirt. Then I encounter a complete stranger who includes entries in that same book on Michael Ovitz (who cares?), Don Simpson (ditto), and James Toback (“Fingers is the best first film by an American director since Badlands…” ???), and feels inspired to write a biography (of sorts) on Nicole Kidman of all people. I can’t wait to read Have You Seen…?

Posted By Jackie R. : November 28, 2008 6:54 pm

David Thomson is always an engaging film writer even if I tend to agree with him only about 50 % of the time. But when I do agree, it’s over the stuff closest to my heart. His entries in his Dictionary of Film on Tuesday Weld, Anthony Perkins, Mercedes McCambridge, Jim Henson, Marguerite Duras and too many others to name are so dead on and articulate that I feel he must be a kindred spirt. Then I encounter a complete stranger who includes entries in that same book on Michael Ovitz (who cares?), Don Simpson (ditto), and James Toback (“Fingers is the best first film by an American director since Badlands…” ???), and feels inspired to write a biography (of sorts) on Nicole Kidman of all people. I can’t wait to read Have You Seen…?

Posted By Rod Pardey : January 1, 2009 11:08 am

David Thomson is the greatest film writer of all time, and one of the most provocative writers I’ve ever encountered. He would be at my ideal dinner party of five I would like to have over to dinner from history. And if you find him wrong-headed or even just plain silly in his provocations, then I would guide you to R.W. Emerson’s quote on teaching:

Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.

Posted By Rod Pardey : January 1, 2009 11:08 am

David Thomson is the greatest film writer of all time, and one of the most provocative writers I’ve ever encountered. He would be at my ideal dinner party of five I would like to have over to dinner from history. And if you find him wrong-headed or even just plain silly in his provocations, then I would guide you to R.W. Emerson’s quote on teaching:

Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.

Posted By Roger Kalika : January 1, 2009 9:05 pm

I agree with Al, David Thomson is a blogger at best. A near total FRAUD as a critic. Half the time, he is just making things up, printing his uninformed speculations as fact. His research is thin, if he’s done any at all. Consider his idiotic description of the recently departed Ann Savage. (Not even given her own entry, she’s mentioned under Edgar Ulmer) “Detour… shot in six days, on the road and in wretched , cramped rooms, its attempt at a love story never stands a chance.”

Is he KIDDING? Has he even WATCHED Detour? It’s the so obvious that 95% of the movie was shot on soundstages and REAR SCREEN PROJECTION – there’s NO WAY he could have seen it and thought it was shot on the run! Wait, Thomson has worse to offer: The Tom Neal character is waiting for a nemesis, Ann Savage – were these actors, hoping for careers, or derelicts resolved to treat the idea of a movie with contempt?”

Tom Neal was a well trained, fine actor who had previously worked under contracts at MGM and Columbia Pictures. Ann Savage had trained with MAX REINHARDT, for God’s sake, and made over 20 movies at Columbia Picture before Detour.

Thomson is the most irresponsible, offbase writer in the film world. He TAKES AWAY from films and the people who make them in the noble effort of reinforcing his pithyhood. Why does anyone bother to publish him, and WHY would TCM give him a forum.

Posted By Roger Kalika : January 1, 2009 9:05 pm

I agree with Al, David Thomson is a blogger at best. A near total FRAUD as a critic. Half the time, he is just making things up, printing his uninformed speculations as fact. His research is thin, if he’s done any at all. Consider his idiotic description of the recently departed Ann Savage. (Not even given her own entry, she’s mentioned under Edgar Ulmer) “Detour… shot in six days, on the road and in wretched , cramped rooms, its attempt at a love story never stands a chance.”

Is he KIDDING? Has he even WATCHED Detour? It’s the so obvious that 95% of the movie was shot on soundstages and REAR SCREEN PROJECTION – there’s NO WAY he could have seen it and thought it was shot on the run! Wait, Thomson has worse to offer: The Tom Neal character is waiting for a nemesis, Ann Savage – were these actors, hoping for careers, or derelicts resolved to treat the idea of a movie with contempt?”

Tom Neal was a well trained, fine actor who had previously worked under contracts at MGM and Columbia Pictures. Ann Savage had trained with MAX REINHARDT, for God’s sake, and made over 20 movies at Columbia Picture before Detour.

Thomson is the most irresponsible, offbase writer in the film world. He TAKES AWAY from films and the people who make them in the noble effort of reinforcing his pithyhood. Why does anyone bother to publish him, and WHY would TCM give him a forum.

Posted By Jeff (Atlanta) : January 2, 2009 9:39 am

Roger, thanks for your candid comments. Whether you agree with or differ with Thomson’s film opinions, his credentials speak for themselves. And obviously he is an immensely popular writer with a wide following or he wouldn’t enjoy the high profile, esteemed reputation he currently holds, nor would a major publishing house like Knopf bother with publishing him.

Posted By Jeff (Atlanta) : January 2, 2009 9:39 am

Roger, thanks for your candid comments. Whether you agree with or differ with Thomson’s film opinions, his credentials speak for themselves. And obviously he is an immensely popular writer with a wide following or he wouldn’t enjoy the high profile, esteemed reputation he currently holds, nor would a major publishing house like Knopf bother with publishing him.

Posted By Roger Kalika : June 20, 2009 4:55 pm

Jeff,

If Thomson had actually SEEN the movies he writes about, his work wouldn’t be riddled with so many errors, mistakes and outright fabrications, and you’d have a point!

Your PRO Thomson arguments are just mirrors of the illness that has destroyed mainstream film – that it sells! Look at your justifications “popular”, “high profile”, “major” – all fitting of the MADOFF mentality that has not only wrecked film, but practically destroyed the entire country. You have totally ignored my point to try and intimidate by implying Thomson a big time “MAJOR” leaguer! What a joke!

I still assert: at best, Thomson is a bush league blogger from the BUSH era. At worst, a bloated, overlong whiner screaming for attention via unsubstantiated opinion that Knopf, like TCM, push like General Motors pushed SUVS, because they need high dollar, high profit “product” in their oversaturated sales pipelines, regrdless of merit.

Posted By Roger Kalika : June 20, 2009 4:55 pm

Jeff,

If Thomson had actually SEEN the movies he writes about, his work wouldn’t be riddled with so many errors, mistakes and outright fabrications, and you’d have a point!

Your PRO Thomson arguments are just mirrors of the illness that has destroyed mainstream film – that it sells! Look at your justifications “popular”, “high profile”, “major” – all fitting of the MADOFF mentality that has not only wrecked film, but practically destroyed the entire country. You have totally ignored my point to try and intimidate by implying Thomson a big time “MAJOR” leaguer! What a joke!

I still assert: at best, Thomson is a bush league blogger from the BUSH era. At worst, a bloated, overlong whiner screaming for attention via unsubstantiated opinion that Knopf, like TCM, push like General Motors pushed SUVS, because they need high dollar, high profit “product” in their oversaturated sales pipelines, regrdless of merit.

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