How to Watch a Movie (2015) David Thomson
Anyone picking up this book who has previously read David Thomson will know exactly what to expect. Thomson has written about film for The Guardian, The Independent, Salon, Film Comment and many other publications. He’s written many books on film, several of them doorstoppers. Thomson is also intelligent, brash and opinionated. (What film critic isn’t?) So even if Thomson can be abrasive, at least this little volume should be a lightweight excursion, even for those who’ve never read the man’s previous works, right?
How to Watch a Movie is certainly no instruction manual or textbook, although you get the idea that many reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads began reading the book thinking this was the case. Thomson delves into philosophical territory, commenting not only on film, but the way we look at film in the 21st century, how film has changed, how we have changed, and how our access points and viewing possibilities have changed.
This very well could have been a book about how we read or how we listen to music, both of which have also changed drastically in the past decade. It’s difficult to approach such subjects in a practical manner without talking about the gravity of those aforementioned changes, most of which are due to technology. And we’re only talking about a 228-page book, so there’s not a lot of room to explore with much depth.
So Thomson tries to cover a lot of conceptual ground, trying to get us to think about what we watch, how we watch and why we watch. All well and good. Yet Thomson assumes that we bring to the table at least an elementary (or sometimes higher) understanding of film and film history. He makes reference to many classic films such as Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, Psycho, and many others, but also includes more recent films like Gone Girl, Locke, Ida, and All is Lost in what seems an attempt to be more relevant to modern audiences. Again, all well and good in theory.
The problems start piling up as Thomson assigns chapters to the book such as “Watching and Seeing,” “What Is a Shot?”, “What Is a Cut, and Does It Hurt?”, “What Is a Story, and Does It Matter?” Such chapter titles make us think that Thomson is going to give us a ground-level lecture (again, a brief one; remember, the book’s only 228 pages long) about each aspect of film, but rarely is this the case. Again, if you’ve read Thomson before, you really shouldn’t be surprised. The biggest problem in reading How to Watch a Movie without some experience in Thomson’s writing is coming away feeling frustrated, polarized or both. In short, we aren’t sure who the audience is for this book: beginners, veteran film buffs, both, neither?
I think Thomson is attempting to reach the “beginner” audience by discussing commercials featuring Derek Jeter and Rob Lowe in the same way he discusses the composition of films like Citizen Kane. In doing so, Thomson runs the risk of having veteran film buffs close the book at that point. Yes, the comparisons are ridiculous, but in Thomson’s defense, he’s trying to establish connections. At least he’s trying.
In spite of all the reasons not to like the book, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, perhaps because Thomson clearly loves and is passionate about film. You can’t help but pick up on that. Thomson sprinkles many gems along the side of the road and asks many good questions, so the book is certainly worth reading for those who have more than a passing interest in movies. For those just getting into films, however, I’d say maybe wait on reading this one for awhile.
Near the end of the book (page 226, to be exact), Thomson discloses his real purpose:
You came into this book under deceptive promises (mine) and false hopes (yours). You believed we might make decisive progress in the matter of how to watch a movie. So be it, but this was a ruse to make you look at life. The true subject of movie is seeing and being seen….
Of course Thomson could’ve saved readers a lot of time and trouble by placing this sentence in his introduction, but then many readers might’ve stopped right there. It’s almost like a parent tricking his child into eating vegetables.
In the end, perhaps the best advice comes from A.V. Club writer Ryan Vlastelica in reviewing the book, who said (paraphrased) that if you want to know about great films, then go watch great films. I can’t argue with that.