These Lovely Strangers

May 15th, 2011

Clive James reviews the latest edition of David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film:

[…] Most people of [Thomson's] generation who have spent their lives seeing every properly released movie even if it stars Steven Seagal are incapable of judging them. The reason is simple: those people are monomaniacs. Thompson has found time to do other things: read books, breathe clean air, cook and eat real food. It takes someone with greater resources than a mere buff to ask whether his chosen field might not have reached a point in its history where the best movies, being aimed successfully at an audience that wants art, are no longer for everyone. On the other hand, such a moviegoer can see that he might just be getting old.

Whatever the subject, a real critic is a cultural critic, always: if your judgment doesn't bring in more of the world than it shuts out, you shouldn't start. Writing at his best, Thomson is well qualified. You have to know about more than just the movies to see the "nobility" in Denzel Washington's best acting; to isolate Al Pacino's characteristic of "outrageous inner size," you have to be up to speed with short-legged Napoleonic warlords since Alexander the Great; evoking Warren Beatty's "puzzled look" is a nice way of describing catatonia, but it proves that the critic's eye for aesthetic value can penetrate a surface; and it takes a knowledge of the American class structure to make the correct observation about Katharine Hepburn that she "loved movies while disapproving of them." Thomson just loves them, but he knows there is a world elsewhere.

[Via The Morning News]

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