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How To Watch A Movie admits its pointlessness for aspiring film buffs

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How To Watch A Movie

Author: David Thomson
Publisher: Knopf

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We are not in a golden age of film critics looking back on their long careers and summing up what they’ve learned. Just a few months after Richard Schickel shrugged out Keepers, here is David Thomson’s How To Watch A Movie, another slapdash look at cinema that feels rushed out at the first-draft stage. Both Schickel and Thomson are respected critics (Schickel was with Time for many years, Thomson The New Republic), but in neither case do the years of experience amount to a hill of beans.

Where Keepers was a broad overview of cinema history, How To Watch examines different elements of the form, allegedly with the intent of illuminating how to draw insight beyond a film’s story. It utterly fails at this task, with Thomson offering abstract philosophizing instead of practical analysis. There’s a chapter defining frames, for example, but basically no discussion of framing. Other fundamentals of visual analysis—lenses, lighting, color—are similarly downplayed, if not omitted entirely. As these are basically the first things a viewer should look at when digging into a film, their exclusion is mystifying.

While the title suggests something introductory, even film buffs may have trouble following Thomson’s points, with his case studies seemingly chosen for obscurity rather than appropriateness. He discusses cuts (that is, the splicing together of two shots) in the context of Jacques Demy’s Bay Of Angels, a film that’s scarcely even notable for its editing. There’s no mention of an illustrative example like 2001’s flash-forward, for example, or even an examination of a film viewers are likely to have seen. Beginners will be totally adrift, while those well versed enough to know who Demy is probably don’t need a refresher on what a cut is. (To learn about specific filmmaking choices, readers could do much worse than to scroll through the archives of Scenic Routes or Internet Film School.)

It’s difficult to fathom an appropriate audience for this, and even admirers of Thomson’s criticism may find the book hard to stomach. A section on plot begins, “‘Tell me a story,’ we beg as children, while wanting so many other things. Story will put off sleep (or extinction), and the child’s organism hardly trusts the habit of waking yet.” There’s then a brief discussion of All Is Lost and an unconvincing argument that only certain narrative outcomes were possible with Robert Redford as the star. Thomson moves onto a list of films that are more about mood than incident, but it’s just trivia; there’s no suggestion of how audiences might approach these titles, how the directors accomplished the moods, or what they were hoping to achieve with them. The chapter ends with a bit on how hard it is for TV shows to pull off series finales and an anecdote about why Thomson stopped watching Homeland. Pointless blather, in other words.

Even when praising things, the book’s structure resembles a rant more than instruction. In Thomson’s telling, the quality of film elements has more to do with their function than the skill of their creation. He dislikes inspirational speeches, therefore inspirational speeches are bad dialogue. He likes witty banter, and thus does witty banter become an example of good dialogue. Because the book never delves deeply into anything, we’re left with random statements like how neither Fred Astaire nor Cyd Charisse “were what we could call ‘actors,’” or how Quentin Tarantino so loves his “small talk” that it “obscures his ignorance of life.”

Calling these statements arguments feels like an overstatement. Admittedly Astaire is best known for his dancing, but why dismiss the charisma he brings to his dialogue, or for that matter, his dramatic roles like On The Beach? Consider him a bad actor if you must, but don’t pretend he’s not one. As for Tarantino, is Thomson saying the filmmaker’s dialogue isn’t realistic? That it isn’t insightful? (Pulp Fiction’s monologue on morality begs to differ.) That it’s clumsy at setting up themes or plot lines? If you’re going to throw something like that out there, at least elaborate enough that the argument can be evaluated.

Thomson’s thesis is that “to watch a movie properly, you have to watch yourself watching.” In other words, be aware of how things like swelling music can be manipulative (to make this argument, he compares a Derek Jeter ad to Triumph Of The Will, which, whatever their superficial similarities, is off-putting). The problem is that he never explains what a viewer needs to watch out for; the book’s practical knowledge is minimal to nonexistent. But even if that wasn’t the case, Thomson clouds the issue by suggesting that just because you understand how a movie is generating its effect, that doesn’t mean the effect is illegitimate.

Eventually, he gives the game away. “You came into this book under deceptive promises (mine) and false hopes (yours),” he writes. “You believed we might make decisive progress in the matter of how to watch a movie. So be it, but this was a ruse to make you look at life.” This would feel presumptive and arrogant even if it was remotely earned. About the only useful thing to come out of the book is: “If you want to know how to watch a movie, Persona is a film to see. For it will teach you that film is an adventure in which you are meant to see more than the things before your eyes. The things seen are not just the view; they are windows that open it up.”

Watch Persona. That’s good advice. The rest can be discarded.