This weekend, I read Benjamin Schwarz’s review in the Atlantic of “Have You Seen . . . ?” A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, David Thomson’s follow-up to his Biographical Dictionary of Film. I’ve never read that earlier book, but I’ve seen enough references to it to figure that it’s kinda canonical in film criticism and bathroom reading. The new book sounded like an entertaining read, with its one-page writeups of a thousand movies (including a couple of TV shows like The Singing Detective and The Sopranos). Wrote Schwarz:
Itâ€™s impossible to read this book from cover to cover without being convinced that Hollywoodâ€™s greatest achievements are not the monotonously important dramas that so often sucker in Academy voters but the stylish, highly polished entertainments, largely comedies, that endure even though they werenâ€™t made to be lasting. Above all, Thomson prizes wit, charm, and good-natured ease. Heâ€™s reached an age, he notes in his appraisal of North by Northwest, when heâ€™d â€œrather have a great screwball comedy than a profound tragedy. After all, tragedy is all around us and screwball is something only the movies can do.â€
On Tuesday, I meandered around the nearby Borders during my lunch-hour, and noticed Mr. Thomson’s book on the new non-fiction table. It’s organized alphabetically by movie title, so I turned to Miller’s Crossing to see what he thought of it. I couldn’t help it, Tom! It’s my nature!
I was gratified to find that he loves the movie, and that several of his comments were in sync with mine. I began skimming through the book to see if he commented on any other of my idiosyncratic faves and fascinators. Sadly, no entries for Another Woman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Shallow Grave, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or Three Kings. Still, I thought, this would be a great book to have on hand, one to dip into every so often and read his ideas on movies I liked, didn’t like, or never saw. Exactly the sort of thing I would pick up occasionally and read for an hour at a time.
Of course, we live in the future, so I couldn’t just buy it there. After all, its list price is $40, and I figured Amazon would have it for 30-40% cheaper. I looked it up that evening and saw that Amazon was selling it for $26.37 (34% off). I was about to add it to my wishlist when I noticed two things:
- it weighs 3.4 lbs. and is almost 2.5″ thick, and
- it’s also available for the Kindle.
Sure, I was a little irked that the Kindle edition sells for $23 â€” most Kindle books are $10 or cheaper â€” but it’s got criticism of a thousand flicks, the e-book is searchable by word, and I’ll have it with me wherever I travel. Frankly, that’s worth $23 in my world. It looks like the twin forces of new technology and my desire not to carry lots of stuff around sure has messed with my book-buying habits.
(I just wish Cultural Amnesia â€” Clive James’ 800-page collection of short biographical essays on 20th century literary, political and artistic personae â€” had gotten en-Kindle-ized. It would’ve been a good fit for the exact reasons as “Have You Seen . . . ?”, but I gave up waiting last week and bought the paperback for $10.77. Grr.)
Anyway, here’s Mr. Thomson’s review of Miller’s Crossing (I figured out how to copy-and-paste off the Kindle, sorta):
I am not a steadfast enthusiast of the Coen Brothers, and I have given up trying to explain the haphazard movements of their career. But the thing that nags me about their record is Millerâ€™s Crossing, a superb, languid fantasia on the theme of the gangster film that repays endless viewing. It is derived quite plainly from Dashiell Hammettâ€™s The Glass Key, although the script was done by the Coens themselves.
At the heart of the filmâ€™s assurance are the dour, glum rhythms of Gabriel Byrne as the â€œheroâ€ figure who happens to be fucking his friendâ€™s girl. The girl is Marcia Gay Harden, never better and so sexy that you understand why Byrne did not bother to debate the temptation. The friend is Albert Finney, charged with energy and booze in equal parts as the thick-headed crime boss who canâ€™t see a con if itâ€™s a cat curled up on his lap. This broken bond between Byrne and Finney is a good version of the relationship between Ned Beaumont and Paul Madvig in Hammettâ€™s novel. And itâ€™s a shared virtue of both works that they convey the disgust and disbelief in tough men that sees how they can betray each other over a piece of ass. Of course, it is a testament to Hardenâ€™s ass that we never question the imperative of the ruinous equation.
The next thing to remark on is the way Canadian studios and locations give such a rich, satisfying air of period and place. We never know, or need to know, the city, but there is nothing shabby or secondhand in the dÃ©cor, and thereâ€™s an eagerness in the look of the film that speaks to a real love of space, furniture, light, and mood. The same pleasure vibrates in the very intricate story structure. There are some who find Millerâ€™s Crossing too clever by half, but I think that misses how far the Gabriel Byrne character recognizes the curse of intelligence that hangs over him and the duty it imposes â€” of always being driven to nose out the cons of others, while hoping that his own subterfuges are going unnoticed. Itâ€™s kill or be killed and the air of life is smartness. Take it or leave it.
Thereâ€™s more, much more, and I think it centers on the â€œSchmattaâ€ as played by John Turturro â€” queer as a coot, a dandy, a coward, and as brave as any coward who takes terrible risks. This could be the finest work of one of our best supporting actors. And donâ€™t forget that he stands out in a movie that includes the adorable Jon Polito and the very frightening Eddie the Dane (J. E. Freeman), not to forget a passing secretary, who is Frances McDormand flashing the camera a quick greedy eye as she minces by.
All of that said, after learning to love the crammed texture and its nearly constant inventiveness, it is the more baffling and disconcerting that the Coens seem so often prepared to deliver films that are enervated and without a single good reason for being made. Do they wake up at night wondering if they were ever really this good, or do they refuse to look at the film again?
Now I wonder if he thought any better of Casino than I did . . . ?
UPDATE: I do have a significant complaint about the Kindle edition of this book. There should be a table of contents with hyperlinks to each movie. Grr.