November 22, 2008

Have you seen...

David Thomson is one of the doyennes of the American cinematic critical community. His book 'Have you seen...' has many merits- it is written by someone obviously obsessed and discontented with the art that he writes about- a positive attribute for any critic. He aspires to a cinema which really does touch the stars and explain them and the void beneath in sentences of perfection and images of perfect clarity. And yet, and yet, for me there is something that does not quite work about Thomson's book- though I admire it in so many ways, its completeness, the ability to give an opinion on so many films, the verve of the writing and its style- there is something which makes me wonder about how profound the critic is when he looks at that he loves.

What's the problem? Let us distinguish between two things- one is cinema, the other is 'Hollywood'. One sees Grace Kelly, the sexiest blonde in film history but also the coolest, as the heroine of Rear Window, the other sees the actress as a nymphomaniac and later a princess. A great test of whether you like Hollywood or cinema is whether you are interested in Princess Grace- if you are its not the films but the glitz and the gloss around them. Robert Bresson never cast an actor or actress twice in a film and always chose unknowns because he never wanted the actor to overshadow the performance, the stylist the sentence that the film delivered. And that's the problem with Thomson's work- he takes a great film like Voyage to Italy and tells the story of its production as though that explains what the film 'means' to an audience that never heard of Ingrid Bergman and Rosselini's flawed passion and never cared.

Ultimately if we are to ask why a film was made the private story matters- Taxi Driver might not have been made without Scorsese's drug fuelled crisis, the battles between Hitchcock and Selznick changed the nature of Notorious, Kidman and Cruise's dynamic in Eyes Wide Shut almost certainly influenced the way that film was made and was perceived. But those movies all have to survive in a world where few know and fewer in time will care about those moments. And films flower in that harsher world when they say something important or interesting and they say it with verve and interest. Lets face it, there is a great backstory to the recent film Mr and Mrs Smith starring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, but noone would match that film up with Voyage to Italy and that's not because the back story of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rosselini is more interesting, its because the film is better.

Thomson and Kermode and other critics that I like often seem so carried away with the back story- the trivia of whose career is up and down and what a film does to a career- or who is having an affair with whom- that they forget the first duty of a critic. Is this a good film, and if it is, why, what does it tell us that we need to or want to hear? Once I've heard that- I may be interested in why it is a good film and the process of production, the relations of the leading players etc, but the key point is not what Goddard was feeling on the set of Le Mepris, but what he created and what it means to the viewer. Of course, one of the ways of understanding that is placing Le Mepris against others of Goddard's films, to get the syntax of the director and against other films of the time, to get the cinematic syntax of the time, but the reasons why the film was made are unimportant beside the question of whether it is interesting or not.

Ultimately films cannot be judged independently of their times- their times tell us a lot about the context of what the film is saying- but we should never lose sight of what the film is saying. That is what is interesting about the film- and only after that is the question about why the film was made in this form an interesting one. This is an unfair criticism of Thomson perhaps who is less guilty of this sin than many others- but it is a sin and it besets film criticism today and irritates your blogger profoundly. If you want to take film seriously, lets take it seriously and explore the film as an intellectual creation not as an excuse to gossip about the stars. 'Hollywood' gossip is interesting, but cinematic genius is essential to our civilisation and the way that we think about it.