Conversation: David Thomson on Film

For more than 30 years, film critic and scholar David Thomson has been asked one question over and over again: “So, what movies should I see?” His latest book, “Have You Seen….?,” is an extended romp of an answer, with short essays on 1,000 films.

Have You SeenBorn in 1941 in London, Thomson started watching movies during “the moment in film history when more people went to the movies than they have ever done before or since.” He would go on to create his own life with the movies, writing for publications such as Film Comment, Salon and the New York Times, teaching film studies at Dartmouth, helping select films for the New York Film Festival and writing the screenplay for the award-winning documentary, “The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind.” He is the author of nearly two dozen books, including his popular “Biographical Dictionary of Film,” now its third edition, and “The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood” (2004).

“Have You Seen…?” covers films both loved and unloved, the awful with the artful. “I was very keen that the book be readable, and I didn’t want it to be 1,000 essays that had all seemed to have been stamped out of the same machine,” he told me. There’s plenty of opinion, of course, but the entries also feature history, unsung heroes, description and gossip.

In our discussion, Thomson admitted that his collective knowledge doesn’t necessarily add up to an equation for what makes the perfect film. “Part of the joy [is that] the audience decides and audiences have a weird way of loving the unexpected,” he said.

Thomson, who’s lived in San Francisco for several decades, spoke with me last week about the new book, how technology is changing the way we watch movies, the films he has enjoyed this holiday season and which ones he would want to have on a deserted island for an eternally satisfying double feature.