Sunday, October 26, 2008

Film buffs rejoice: A brief encounter with two Davids. . .

I've just been to see the first of many David Lean films that will be showing over the next few weeks at Cinematheque Ontario. Their retrospective is in honour of the centennial of Lean's birth and along with screening old favourites like Lawrence of Arabia (which I'm excited to see on the big screen), The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, and Brief Encounter (one of my all-time favourite movies), I'll finally get to see earlier films from the 1940s and 50s that aren't yet available on DVD, such as The Passionate Friends, Hobson's Choice, Madeleine and The Sound Barrier. Lean also did wonderful adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist (definitely worth renting if you are a Dickens fan - the latter makes one regret he never tackled Wuthering Heights), and they will all be shown in beautifully restored prints. This Lean love-in will also be travelling to Vancouver, so keep an eye out. For a list of books and web resources on Lean's work, check out the British Film Institute site here. For a great overview of Lean's work, read this piece by one of my favourite film critics - David Thomson - that he wrote for the Guardian when the films were playing in London earlier this year.

Thomson has also just released one of my most eagerly awaited books for this fall and though it weighs a ton, it's my constant night-time reading companion. Have You Seen . . .? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films is a collection of mini-essays on films ranging from 1895's L'Arrosseur Arrosse to 2007's You, the Living. Each movie is given one page of witty, knowledgeable, cynical Thomson prose and as he writes in the introduction, his purpose is not to make the reader an expert in film studies (although you could do far worse for a textbook), but, to give you a good time - or a better time than you have been having. And the subtitle gives you a flavour of what to expect: Including masterpieces, oddities, guilty pleasures, and classics (with just a few disasters).

One of these disasters is The Sound of Music in which he begins his write-up by proposing a movie in which a serial killer in a nursing home (and rabid fan of the movie) smothers her patients while singing "Climb Ev'ry Mountain". He goes on: I am a very sick, vicious old man, but writing a thousand of these little recommendations can drive you crazy, especially when I come to a picture that I loathe but which - unquestionably - has to be in the book, if only because millions of the stupid and aggrieved will write in to the publisher . . .

It's a testament to Thomson's writing that even when I vehemently disagree with him he's still so much fun to read. And of course the book includes many films (most of them available on DVD), that he absolutely adores. Here he is on Vertigo which he calls a test case: If you are moved by this film, you are a creature of cinema. But if you are alarmed by its implausibility, its hysteria, its cruelty - well, there are novels. Or on Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep: It's pretty clear that, on first impression, no one could make sense of the Chandler plot or care about it. If Hawks was right, you just made each scene so damn interesting no one bothered, and then at the end you eliminated several people and had your guy and his girl upright but writhing, like the smoke from two cigarettes.
You get the idea. Endlessly fascinating, full of film trivia, Hollywood gossip and a fan's passion for the movies. I can think of no better lifetime project than to (slowly) work my way through his recommendations. A great gift idea for film buffs along with his terrific reference bible, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. And if witty and insightful film criticism is your thing, I also highly recommend Anthony Lane's collection of film (and literary) essays, Nobody's Perfect.

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