Try To Tell the Story
By David Thomson
Alfred A. Knopf, 224 pages, $23.95
There are two kinds of personalities prone to getting lost in the movies:
1. Those for whom movies are an escape from life.
2. Those for whom movies are a lens through which to examine life—from a safe distance.
On the basis of his new memoir, David Thomson started out as the former and evolved into the latter, although we have to take that evolution on faith, because Mr. Thomson cuts short his story just as he’s entering film school at the age of 18.
HE GREW UP to be a critic—a cranky, erratic, indispensable critic. At least one edition of his oft-updated Biographical Dictionary of Film (1975) is on every cinephile’s shelf, and absolutely deserves to be. Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick (1992), his biography of the legendary producer, rendered every other book on the subject irrelevant. I also have a soft spot for The Whole Equation (2004), his discursive history of Hollywood.
But he’s not exactly self-effacing. David Thomson is one of those glorious showboats, like Pauline Kael, whose true subject is not the movie at hand but the critic’s own sensibility. (I loved the early Kael, although she was a monstrously bad reporter—e.g., Raising Kane; I got off the boat when she enthusiastically climbed aboard the S.S. Brian DePalma, which I took to be incontrovertible evidence of derangement. Nothing that happened after changed my mind.)
At his best, Mr. Thomson functions as a vibrantly purring voice of truth (with, it must be said, a touch of cultural condescension about his adopted country). He never seems to break a sweat. For that matter, he never seems to want to. At his worst, his skill as a writer can’t quite conceal an elegant, sniffy agent provocateur who is just as interested in provoking a response as revealing home truths about art.
The greatest critics—Arlene Croce, for instance—are transparent; the ego never gets between the reader and the dance. She’s not trying to convert you, not trying to create or destroy reputations, not trying to show off. She’s just using her intelligence to translate movement into crystalline prose, to make the reader experience the same thing she did, but in a different medium.
Mr. Thomson is more like a performance artist (a tremendously engaging one), not averse to scoring points for his team or, I suspect, accepting applause.
THE BACKDROP of Try to Tell the Story will be familiar to those who have seen John Boorman’s Hope and Glory: Here, too, we have a child enveloped by the uncertainty and fear of the London blitz, postwar rationing and a family that could gently be termed “eccentric.” But where Boorman constructed a predominantly loving memory play, Mr. Thomson’s account is much harsher; he focuses more on what was missing than on what was present.
In the family house in Streatham, South London, there was a grandmother, a mother and young David. Kenneth Thomson, David’s father, moved out when his wife became pregnant: He did not want children, she did. As is often the case, she got pregnant anyway. The father visited his unwanted child on weekends and holidays, while maintaining a separate residence with another, presumably more obedient woman.
“I never heard him say he loved me,” writes Mr. Thomson. “In all our time together, he never made that incriminating statement.”
He remembers being taken to see Winston Churchill pass by in a car; he remembers his grandmother reading to him from Robert Falcon Scott’s journals, but not the grim ending.
The sole common ground between David and his father was sports—soccer, mostly—which, on the page as in life, is reliably stupefying. Also in the mix was cricket, which is far more eccentric, hence interesting, if only someone would take the time to actually explain it.
For deeper things, Mr. Thomson went to the movies with his mother. The first film he has clear memories of is Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, especially that wonderful moment near the beginning, when the actor Olivier is playing coughs to clear his throat before he strides onstage at the Globe Theater.
“I laughed myself helpless at Bob Hope. I was ready to catch Burt Lancaster on the trapeze of adventure.” But none of those movies resonated like Red River, with its story of a father and a son driven apart into mutually murderous anger, before ultimately reconciling. “This was the first story I had encountered that I knew was meant for me. So I could not give it up.”
Mr. Thomson pretends not to notice that the reconciliation at the movie’s end is absurd in terms of reality, and equally absurd in terms of the movie’s reality—more or less on the order of “You boys stop fighting,” whereupon they magically do. Such is the power of wish fulfillment that even a great critic is helpless before the needs sown by childhood deprivation.
Certainly, there was nothing like a Red River father-son reconciliation for Mr. Thomson. He tells us later in the book that as he grew older, and his father grew drunker, there was at least one episode when he had to hold his father down to keep from getting beaten up:
“He roared at me and said he hated me. He shouted ‘Murder!’ And then he passed into a drunken sleep.
“The next time I saw him it was as if nothing had happened.”
IT’S KENNETH THOMPSON who haunts this book, with sins distributed equally between omission and commission, and it must be said that he was a cold, grudging piece of work. When David wanted to attend film school, his father told him he would stand the £100 tuition if his son sought nothing else from him in university costs. Ever.
The deal was struck, and maintained by both sides. At the time, David’s father owned three houses. When he died in 1993, he left his son nothing in his will.
The book reveals much about the author, as any good memoir does—not all of it intentional. I finally understand David Thomson’s deep distrust of the frequent, familial warmth of filmmakers such as Chaplin and Ford, for instance. In this family, nurturing was bartered in exchange for the mute acceptance of hidden, shifting agendas.
Try to Tell the Story is a rueful book, honest and true. It’s a memoir written, not in fiery, recriminatory orange, but in regretful tones of blue.
Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.