David Thomson: Notes On Canons, Pantheons and a Century of Cinema

Choosing their top 10 is a game most film critics are accustomed to — and one that allows depressives to ask, “Are there really 10 worth keeping?” (This is a healthy doubt, more useful than the routine thumbs-up on two or three fresh masterpieces every week.) Writing about a select hundred is a regular form of bookmaking — the exercise of taste makes a moderate-sized book and a harmless pantheon. But going for a thousand is a gesture toward history — it seems to require that the selector weighs the old against the new. It’s like wondering whether Beowulf can talk to Lolita.

How is it that a thousand seems to omit so many more than a whimsical 10? How can 10 hundred escape being an outline of the history of the medium and of our jumping tastes? If you’re picking 10, you may not consider the silent era in Sweden. But if you’re doing a thousand, then those Stillers and Sjöströms deserve reappraisal. And they may be among the best early films we have. Equally, it’s touching to find in Irene Mayer Selznick’s private letters that, in 1927, the cool, inside crowd in Hollywood reckoned Sunrise was the best film they’d ever seen — and surely the harbinger of great creative changes. (The newly founded Academy actually created two types of Best Picture — the Hollywood prize, for Wings, and an arty one for Sunrise.) So it’s a surprise that in Brussels in 1958, a gang of historians put Murnau’s The Last Laugh way ahead of his Sunrise. I can recall a time when “film writing” took that estimate for granted. Yet now The Last Laugh feels like an academic exercise — while Sunrise is different and dangerous every time you see it.

This is a book created to meet the question frequently asked of anyone with a reputation for knowing about films. It’s “What should I see?” So “Have you seen ... ?” is a response to that uncertainty. I knew early on in thinking about this book that I could not face it as David Thomson’s “best” films. My favorites are here — but there is a monotony in writing or reading about just the splendid. As my editor, Bob Gottlieb, observed on reading an early draft, “We’re snowed under with ‘greats’ and I’m still on B!” Enthusiasm is too easy, and it can lead to lazy writing and formulaic thinking. Very often in a book like this you can signal your critical stance to a reader with just one bad-tempered dismissal as easily as and more rapidly than a hundred raves will permit. (So The Sound of Music is in here, along with Doctor Zhivago, The Ten Commandments, The Last Laugh, and others. You’ll find them.) A little severity in such writing can be as welcome as the song of the blackbird at the end of a hot day.

The pantheon of film culture is an untidy place: It is every year’s Top 10 or the survey of critics and filmmakers that Sight & Sound attempts every 10 years — with Citizen Kane rated the best film on every survey since 1962 (yet nowhere on the first such list in 1952). It is what “everyone” thinks and knows and takes for granted. God bless “everyone,” but watch how slippery he is. For example, I write for The Guardian in London. I have read that paper most of my life; I love it and its readers. But not so long ago, in 2007, it took it into its head to poll readers on the best foreign-language films ever made. CinemaParadiso won (and it had won a previous poll in 1993). And that’s not the fault of the film in question or of those who made it — and it has little to do with whether Cinema Paradiso is sublime or pleasant. Or not. But Cinema Paradiso surpassed M, L’Atalante, Les Enfants du Paradis, Belle de Jour, L’Eclisse, La Ronde, Ugetsu Monogatari, The Travelling Players, Pierrot le Fou, Tokyo Story, La Règle du Jeu and Pather Panchali because, clearly, more people in TheGuardian’s electorate had seen Cinema Paradiso than the others. If you haven’t read much else, then Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger may be the best book you’ve ever read.

When I was asked to do this book (as something like a companion to A Biographical Dictionary of Film, first published in 1975), I wondered whether I would be idiot enough to take on another half-a-million-word project. Writing the Dictionary had put me in the position of having to reckon which films — as of then — were keepers. And in some ways, I had caught larger moods: The Dictionary argues that Hawks is very important, and Buñuel and Renoir and Mizoguchi and Ophüls — and it asks, really, what is all the fuss over Chaplin, Griffith, Eisenstein, René Clair (really a faded glory), and so on. It’s not regarded as dotty now to say that Cary Grant is the most intriguing actor in the history of movies — yet, in 1975 that was still fanciful.

So if you think you were right you don’t allow much room for your mind to change — especially as you grow older and, shall we say, firmer. This is a book that has had to accommodate that ugly process, and it would not have surprised me if I had included just about every film by my favorite directors. I am an auteurist still. But as I began to sketch out lists (and asked advice from others), a number of things struck me — not least that Chaplin and Eisenstein may be in need of some recovery. Those wheels of fashion keep turning. I still think Keaton is funnier, and sadder, but historically Chaplin towers over so much. I wondered how different figures and nations would fare, and I started the immense process of reviewing old films.

I re-encountered many films I had not seen for decades. The results were mixed, as you might expect. But when a film reminded me of what it had meant once, that only encouraged me to believe that there might be a tradition in which films are made and seen, where the past naturally enriches the present. But is that so? Films are not what they were. Very few of us go to see them. Young people coming to this book are being asked to bear with “restrictions” that they resist in the marketplace — silence, black-and-white, a lot of smart talk, a sense of morality, et cetera. Few pictures contribute to the overall wonder at films, a thing that existed from around 1920 to the 1950s, a mood that no one born in that time can forget. Yet many films today are merciless and mercenary, and increasingly they are not even photographed. Story, character and the innate beauty of the medium are being sacrificed. What does that leave, apart from desperate novelty? Well, The Lives of Others; Eastern Promises; No Country for Old Men; You, the Living ... You, the Living? What on earth is that? I can hear you asking. One of the best films of this century, so far. That’s all.

“Have You Seen ... ?” A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, published by Knopf, is in stores now.