Thursday, January 2, 2014

Book Review: David Thomson’s Moments That Made the Movies

Back in early December, Harry Burton, publicity director at Thames & Hudson, was nice enough to send me a gratis copy of David Thomson’s Moments That Made the Movies—a beautiful coffee table book filled with gorgeous pictures and brief, idiosyncratic essays from the iconoclastic author and film critic for The New Republic.  Thomson has written a good many books on the subject of film; his best known are perhaps the oft-updated The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (its fifth edition was published in 2010) and a 2008 reference entitled ‘Have You Seen...?’: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films…a weighty tome that reminds me of a funny story which I’m not going to tell because it makes me look like an idiot.

Described as “the first fully illustrated book of his illustrious career,” Moments That Made the Movies has an interesting premise: the author looks at some seventy different movies from a period covering the early days of moviemaking to latter-day works, and reminisces about these films by highlighting memorable scenes, or “moments,” as opposed to the entirety of each movie itself.  True to his freethinking tastes, Thomson’s choices are often surprising and different.  For example, while you and I would probably think of the infamous shower murder of Marion Crane in Psycho, for Thomson his standout memory occurs just before that bloodbath, when Marion “meets the first gentle, sympathetic or insightful person in the film” (her murderer, Norman Bates) and has a cheese sandwich with him.  The moment that makes Casablanca is not when Rick tells Ilsa that, oh, she’s getting on that plane…but rather the instance where she enters his café for the first time, and reunited with her friend Sam, tells him to play “As Time Goes By.”

Hailed by The Atlantic Monthly’s Benjamin Schwarz as “probably the greatest living film critic and historian” (Schwarz also compares him to Pauline Kael), Thomson’s Moments is a most interesting book…and even when I don’t agree with his point of view (and that’s quite often) he does the job that first-rate film critics are required to do: make you look at movies you’ve already watched through different eyes…and if you haven’t seen the film, check it out for yourself.  My caveat would be that if you’re already familiar with Thomson’s essays (particularly in ‘Have You Seen…?’ or his celebrated The Big Screen: The Story of Movies and What They Did to Us) you might find Moments a little thin on the criticism side, with the photos accompanying the essays doing most of the heavy work.  (Though he includes classics like Sunrise and Pandora’s Box in Moments, I find his statement “But I don’t know that I would ever have fallen in love with silent cinema” a little curious for a respected film historian.)

The first book of Thomson’s I read as a budding film fan was Suspects—a page-turning novel that had much fun with the style known as film noir, using characters from old movies to tell a most interesting and suspenseful tale.  If you were to ask me to recommend an essential Thomson book, I’d go with ‘Have You Seen…?’—but I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest that Moments is a most welcome primer for those just getting their foot in the door.


1001: A Film Odyssey is produced, directed and written by Chris, a librarian. said...

I agree with you about Thompson. I don't always agree with him, but he is almost always interesting. I will definitely seek out this book.

ClassicBecky said...

I have not read Thompson, but I like the concept of Moments. I often find that my favorite scenes are not the most famous ones. I think I would like to try "Have You Seen.." first to become acquainted with his work. Thanks for an interesting review and a new author to try.