San Francisco film historian David Thomson has added yet another to his groaning board of must-own film books. Old-fashioned in its tree-destroying simplicity, “Have You Seen … ?” is 1,000 one-page reviews (of about 500 words each) of must-see movies.
Spanning cinema’s 100-year history from the silent era to the present, the titles reflect not only Thomson’s taste but films he doesn’t even like: for the sake of breadth, he omits many of his own picks as well as best picture Oscar winners. To trim the book’s bulk, Thomson persuaded his Knopf editors to publish no photos or illustrations. The book seems oddly naked without them, but finally, it’s about the text.
The respected Brit author of 20 books — 1975’s “The Biographical Dictionary of Film” is his top seller — was able to watch again on DVD most of the films and reevaluate long-held prejudices. Like many critics, Thomson had favored silent clown Buster Keaton more than Charlie Chaplin, but swings the pendulum back toward Chaplin here.
Never pedantic or dull, Thomson’s reviews engagingly combine historic erudition, dishy anecdote and snarky attitude.
Clearly, Thomson — who compares the reds in the Technicolor masterpiece “The Adventures of Robin Hood” to “spilled strawberry jam on a white cloth” — aims to entertain. He says he ditched his original choice for first entry “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” when Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker said he needed “something wilder” for his first page, starting with “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” instead.
Browse the alphabetically organized “Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films” and you find odd juxtapositions such as the 1949 Tracy/Hepburn pre-feminist classic “Adam’s Rib” next to Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation.” You can bask in familiar faves like “The Philadelphia Story,” “La Strada” or “Z,” or learn about films you may never have seen, like “Violette Noziere” or “You, the Living,” which Thomson calls “one of the best films of this century, so far.”
“Have you Seen … ?” is a book for the Long Tail Age, for anyone with a Blockbuster card or a Netflix queue who seeks more depth than a Rotten Tomatoes score.