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Writers on the Form

In their new books, David Thomson and Anthony Lane make reading about movies a pleasure unto itself.

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As someone gamely writing about film, I can't think of two better writers from which to glean insight about the interconnected worlds of writing and film than David Thomson and Anthony Lane. Actually, Thomson and Lane are indispensable for anyone who loves film, or reading about film. Although they come to their work from divergent paths -- Thomas clearly is a venerable film buff, Lane a whipper-snapper Renaissance man of letters who counts film among his many muses -- they both have an extraordinary way of making film more relevant to their respective and overlapping audiences.

And, hence, they make it more enjoyable, because of their opinionated delivery. It is in this approach that Thomson and Lane show that not only can everyone have an opinion, but an opinion with supreme context justifies itself gloriously.

Was it just amazing coincidence that Alfred A. Knopf published within months of each other at the end of 2002 two crucial works by the two Brits? Thomson released his updated (after eight long years) version of his Biographical Dictionary of Film, while Lane put in enough time at his latest gig to present Nobody's Perfect: Writings From the New Yorker.

Dictionary might be a bit of a misnomer; Thomson's work is so heavy on opinion, analysis and judgment that maybe "treatise" might be a more suitable word. Lane's work is broken down into three sections: film reviews, essays on books and authors, and profiles of cultural icons ranging from The Sound of Music to the Museum of Sex. The precision of both writers' observations is so sharp that it can leave a wannabe film critic either tied up in a ball of frustration or grateful for the lessons learned. Same for a moviegoer; you may disagree with the writer, but you learn from their points.

One need look no further than their seeming disagreement over the master himself, Sir Alfred Hitchcock. The world's most famous film director, Hitch is still, 23 years after his death, a lightning rod for debate. Judge for yourself the writers' thoughts on their late countryman.

Thomson: "Ignorance and fear are the abiding impressions left by his films. Just as his suspense works through deliberately withheld knowledge -- and withheld from the hypersensitive voyeuristic curiosity that he aroused -- so he teaches us to share the fear of the world that he always owned up to. Why not face the implications of his two celebrated admissions: that he feared, above all, arrest; and that his aim in cinema was to put the audience through it? I would not deny that his films can lead to great insights of an intensely pessimistic vision. But I do not see how a man so fearful, and so chronically adept at conveying fear, can be judged as a profound artist. Suffering in his films invariably depends upon the victim's being unbalanced or demented. The pain felt by Perkins in Psycho or Stewart in Vertigo is savage, yet it is more limited than that in Renoir, Mizoguchi, or Welles because of Hitchcock's resort to mania or melodrama."

And, then, Lane: "It is impossible to tell, with Hitchcock, where fear ends and fantasy begins; indeed, the two are twisted together for strength, like the cords of a rope. His cinema is one of compulsive repetition; from film to film, his characters are initiated afresh into rituals that Hitchcock alone can comprehend. If this was designed as a purgation, he failed beautifully; far from behind broken, the spell of unease merely tightened his grip, as if the director were half in love not just with his actresses but with the perils they faced. He liked to claim, for instance, that he never drove a car ... 'If you don't drive a car, you don't get a ticket,' he explained, and a ticket -- the stub of authority, stamped with trouble -- was what Hitchcock dreaded most. ... Hitchcock's pleasure was to dip his performers into precisely the type of quicksand in which he himself would have sunk without a trace; the ingenious bravado with which they hauled themselves free not only tickled him, as it did his audiences, but offered the comforting thought that our treacherous world could sometimes, by a whisker, be put to rights."

Here we see similar observations of the same work, yet with different conclusions. While Thomson acknowledges Hitchcock's greatness, he stops short of even calling him an artist. By contrast, Lane stops short of any ultimate judgment of Hitchcock; he never calls him an artist or a non-artist. But you can still see the love Lane has for the man's work.

For another comparison, just take a gander at the photos they selected for the inside back cover of their respective books. Both have their arms folded, the first warning sign of import. Both have an air of challenge in their eyes, as if daring you to think you're smarter than they are. Look a little closer, and you see a little bit of disappointment in Thomson, like maybe he's seen more dog movies than he's cared to over the years. Lane, on the other hand, seems rather delighted with himself (as he often does in his sometimes circuitous prose) and maybe, by extension, even the silliest of films he's forced to review.

Take Lane's review of Pearl Harbor: "The last Michael Bay film, Armageddon, was a handy guide to what you should do when an asteroid bumps into your planet. At the time, most critics scorned the picture as deafening and dumb; in retrospect, it feels like a mature, even witty, exercise in self-reference, considering that the effect of watching a Michael Bay film is indistinguishable from having a large, pointy lump of rock drop on your head. His new picture, Pearl Harbor, maintains the mood, pulsing with fervor as it tells a tale familiar to every child in America: how a great nation was attacked and humbled by the imperious pride of Ben Affleck."

That's classic Lane, who never met a witty punchline he didn't like to insert. Some readers of his work have tired of this ploy -- the intellectual using work smaller than his brain size for pure writing whimsy. Few critics have mastered the cutting comment better than Lane, mainly because he coats it in such grand set-up. Where some critics -- Roger Ebert quickly leaps to mind -- are so geeked up on their film knowledge that you can almost hear the huffing and puffing at the keyboard to Make A Point, Lane is so confident in himself that whether a movie is good or bad is irrelevant. Regardless, Lane's gonna come out smelling like a rose. If that's a fault, I'll take it any day.

Thomson might suffer from that same stodginess of mind that an Ebert does -- though I'd wager he would smoke Ebert in a movie-trivia contest -- but Thomson's also a tremendous writer. His passion for Howard Hawks erases any doubt that he's simply a gruff grader of film: " ... Hawks is at his best in moments when nothing happens beyond people arguing about what might happen or has happened. Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep are not only characters tangled in a tortuous thriller but a constant audience to the film, commenting on its passage."

That is a love of film that, like Lane's musings, are so delightfully infectious that you have almost as much fun reading about movies as watching the movies themselves.

Almost.

In their new books, David Thompson and Anthony Lane make reading about movies a pleasure itself.
  • In their new books, David Thompson and Anthony Lane make reading about movies a pleasure itself.
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