Top critical review
109 of 133 people found this helpful
on December 8, 2008
This series of thumbnail summaries of many many movies is erudite, funny, well-written and infuriating. Like Pauline Kael and Anthony Lane, Thomson is an intrusive critic; we're usually more aware of his own presence than those of the movies he evokes. And his presence is that of the worst sort of Englishman in Southern California, a virus that has infected theSanta Monica region since English directors, actors and technicians (and decades later, music industry folk) began flocking to these shores in the 1900's. They get rich and fat off our pop culture, love the weather, yet feel free to criticize us from their perspective as insider/outsiders who truly have Yanks' measure as no-one else does. Public school class snobbery drips off of these loyal social democrats more than any fox-hunting hyphenate I've ever met; they spend their entire life, when they're not getting drunk, playing hide-the-ball for the fact that they are involved, one way or another, in making mindless entertainment for midwestern american teenages for the benefit of american banks by heaping scorn on the institutions that fatten them.
Thomson is a gruesome offender here -- no matter how much he likes a movie, he's always somehow better than it. Individually, his reviews are terrific, but his flaw-spotting becomes noticable after a while, because it always comes down to the immaturity and infantalism of American audiences that the even the most gifted film-makers are in thrall to, even Kubrick, Altman, the Coppola of The Godfather. He extends this to most global cinema post-1980, seeing folks like Kieslowski as too Hollywoodized; he also hates religion in all its forms, and thus consigns Tarkovski, Bresson, and John Ford to the ash-heap of history, on the implicit grounds that the religious are stupid gullible people.
This from a man who wrote two book-length mash-notes to Warren Beatty and Nicole Kidman, of all people, books all the worse for being highly intellectualized and cerebral. See what I mean about fattening yourself at the trough while biting the hand that feeds?
His book on Orson Welles was the nadir, he clearly loathed the fact that Welles was a popularizer of high culture, and a smiling bad boy who would back down to no-one (unlike Thomson,who writes commisioned works on behalf of Nicole Kidman), and instead of recognizing Chimes at Midnight as being the greatest, smartest Shakespeare cinema adaptation ever, beats up on Welles for his weight and supposed dilletanteism and inability to complete anything, all myths (except the weight part) biographers like Bogdanovich, Leaming, and Rosenbaum have done much to dispel. It comes down to the lamentable notion that if Thomson had been around Welles in 1942, he could have told him a thing or two about better managing his career and putting together his films. What's weird is that this kinda Marxist critic of the US culture industry winds up sounding little different than the executives at RKO who executed Welles' downfall on the grounds that he was too big for his britches and cocky and didn't care what they thought of him.
All of the capsule reviews in this book start to read like this after a while, know-it-all hectoring of the "those who can't do, teach" variety. The self-hating critic's contempt channelled from his job to the works under review. For all his scholarly talk of Sterne and Nabokov tucked away in his movie reviews, he cannot conceal the fact that books like this, and his most famous, similarly thumb-nail entry-organized book The Biographical Dictionary of American Film, are essentially meant to be read while on the toilet.
On the other hand, his novels about the movies Silver Light and Suspects are Borges-like little wonders, fiction about characters from classic movies and their unlikely interactions that actually show a real understanding and empathy for how America's myths often victimize and trap her. Maybe Thomson is just more humble as a fiction writer, aware of his weaknesses out of respect for the form. Both novels, which like 7 people have read, are worth seeking out, more so than his criticism.