It’s difficult to gauge the purpose of ”Have You Seen…?”, a raft of mini-essays by critic Thomson (author of the hyper-opinionated Biographical Dictionary of Film). The subtitle is ”A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films,” so…it’ll prepare you for first-time viewings, right? Not really: You’ll want to have seen the movies before you crack the spine, because Thomson blithely divulges the final scene of Thelma & Louise, the mystery of Citizen Kane‘s Rosebud, and even the verdict in The Verdict. Okay, so maybe this is a tour through his personal canon? Again, not exactly. Thomson clearly detests some of these films (he calls The Shawshank Redemption ”a veiled testimony to the idea that being in a prison is not so bad”). Instead, the book is a hodgepodge survey of box office champs, critical favorites, and Oscar winners, synopsized and evaluated in sniffy prose. And even then, there are puzzling inclusions. Advocacy for cult totems like Bigger Than Life is welcome, but why bring up the rather obscure Cutter and Bone only to warn of its modest rewards?
Thankfully, Thomson’s fresh perspectives, and his superb one-liners, abound. As several editions of the Biographical Dictionary have demonstrated, he’s most impressive on specific performances (in The Misfits Montgomery Clift is ”like his character from Red River after two stints at a Betty Ford Clinic”). But Thomson can also efficiently push you to reevaluate an entire movie, as when he frames the sax-playing protagonist of New York, New York within Martin Scorsese’s pantheon of jerks: ”Jimmy Doyle is gangsterlike, yet denied any of the warm, supportive atmosphere of a gang.” Even at his most lunatic — insisting that Jim Carrey should have starred in Eyes Wide Shut or calling Blue Velvet‘s Jeffrey Beaumont ”Beowulf at the International House of Pancakes” — Thomson’s sly incisiveness and originality almost overcome the pointlessness of the whole enterprise. B