San Francisco-based David Thomson, the film critic for The New Republic, has written more than 20 movie books, among them must-owns such as “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” “The Big Screen,” and “‘Have You Seen…?’: A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films.” (Here he is on Steven Spielberg.)
The Brit transplant’s long experience with writing accessible, entertaining, idiosyncratic, erudite and enlightening movie books led him to the most delightful one of all: “Moments that Made the Movies.” Trust me. This is a keeper.
It all came out of a conversation with Thomson’s editor at Thames & Hudson, Will Balliett, who told Thomson that he wanted to do an illustrated book with text, not just a coffee table book. Thomson tossed out a few ideas and then said: “You know, if you ever talk to anyone about the movies they love, sooner or later they think of moments. They can mean a lot of different things: five minutes or maybe longer, or a few seconds. But if they love a movie they hold on to these momentos, these little scenes. They can remember them when they have forgotten the plot of the film. They survive wonderfully because film has always loved the idea of special moments, where lives change, where a story clicks to together and you get the answer.”
The two men got excited about the idea and agreed to do it. “I wrote the stuff in a white heat of excitement,” Thomson tells me on the phone. “I had so much fun writing it.”
You can tell. The book’s 70 moments over 100 years are assembled in chronological order, from Eadweard Muybridge’s 1887 “One Woman Standing, Another Sitting and Crossing Legs” to the Coens’ 2008 “Burn After Reading,” with sets of well-designed screen grabs–as opposed to staged publicity stills. Thomson dedicates the book to his wife, filmmaker Lucy Gray, critic Molly Haskell and Mary Corliss, who devoted much of her career to the Museum of Modern Art photography collection before they unfortunately shut it down.
Thomson combines iconic movie moments–of the kind that Chuck Workman might include in his compilation shorts–from Scorsese and De Niro in a cab in “Taxi Driver,” Jack Nicholson vs. John Huston in “Chinatown,” Nicholson vs. the bartender in “The Shining,” and Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in “When Harry Met Sally” to confronting a possible killer in “Zodiac,” the body floating in the pool in “Sunset Boulevard,” and Cary Grant running across corn fields pursued by a plane in “North by Northwest,” along with more arcane scenes and selections from his favorite foreign films. (See trailers below.)
Following a few San Francisco readings Thomson came down to LA this weekend for a packed book signing at Diesel in Brentwood and an appearance at The American Cinematheque before heading to New York. Other things to look forward from him include a long interview he conducted with founding Film Comment editor Richard Corliss (now film critic at Time) to be published in an upcoming issue celebrating the 50th anniversary of that magazine. Happily, I worked with both men early in my career in New York as an associate editor. And yes, I asked Thomson if he would consider devising another excruciatingly challenging quiz. He’s thinking about it.
Anne Thompson: These movie moments have power. They can evoke strong emotions, years after the films were originally viewed. John Wayne in the doorway at the end of “The Searchers” still gets to me.
David Thomson: They do. I found it a riveting concept. It was so much fun to think about what to do, so much fun to write. I hadn’t been storing them up. I had not planned in advance at all, I had not been collecting stills. I started from scratch but once they started I found the ideas spilling over.
How much could you write about each one? You did 500 words for each “Have You Seen?” entry.
DT: It worked out to about 750 words per moment, and it’s about 75 moments. Obviously that’s an absurdly small choice. I knew from the outset that hundreds of thousands of great moments would be left out because of that. I sort of relaxed about it.
Well you tend to go at things from your own idiosyncratic personal point-of-view anyway.
DT: “Have you Seen” helped a bit but it was different. I thought of great moments I liked. I got the publisher to agree very early that we never going to say these are the greatest moments in film history. I don’t like that kind of thing. It’s the part of me that doesn’t like the Oscars. This is a selection of moments that might amuse you and entertain you, a process to start you off thinking about other mementos. I give people a healthy plateful of what they expect and then throw in some things that you wouldn’t have believed in there, which they probably haven’t seen, and shake them all in there together. It seems like a good mix.
How did you find the photos?
DT: The key step in the illustration process was the publishers hired picture researchers. They came back with a lot of ideas and stuff. The key thing was going through the barrier of mere film stills, a lot of which are not what you actually see in the film, they’re flat and posed and very familiar to the people who are likely to buy our film book.
I said, “What we’re going to have to do is go to the film itself, the print, and get images from there.”
A lot of times the book gets a real lift by having the image from the film itself. They agreed with that, which made life more complicated, but we had people working on research and design who were outstanding. It was a happy relationship, which is not often the case. In one or two cases they asked if a moment could change a bit because of good pictures.
I love that you used the seemingly impossible long take when the camera goes through the window in Antonioni’s “The Passenger.”
DT: It’s one of my own favorites. I always found that scene at the end of “The Passenger” incredibly moving.
You didn’t pick the long take Henry Mancini opening for Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” however.
DT: “Touch of Evil” is a good example, I was just being a little perverse, the opening scene was doable, but for “Touch of Evil” the scene I picked was even more spectacular. I went for that scene in the motel room where he finds the dynamite. I wanted there to be a playful quality more than academic. I didn’t want to say these are the greatest moments, these are a lot of fun moments. I’ve done a few bookstore events where there’s a kind of reaction to it that I never really had before. People really love this book.
It seems to call for visual tie-ins, YouTube clips or a documentary.
DT: Early on I approached through a friend Turner Classic Movies, saying “Here’s this book coming and you have a format for a lot of little intervals between films when someone comes on and talks. We could do a little piece if you wanted as video events. I’ve used clips when I was talking over them. It might work very nicely.” I thought it was a great idea, but Turner Classic movies did not, they have not responded to it. It still could happen. I’d love to do a doc film. If the book gets off the ground, ideas will come along.