The book “Moments that Made the Movies” is a wonderful easy read and highly recommended for film aficionados everywhere. In the introduction, author and film critic David Thompson asks the reader “Do you remember the movies you saw, like whole vessels serene on the sea of time? Or do you just retain moments from them, like shattered lifeboats?” It is with this book, Thompson decides to focus on those shattered life boats, which even though they remain fragments, they can leave a lasting impression on the viewer.
We are taken on a journey through some of these moments Thompson has handpicked himself, and more often than not, he gives us ones not commonly discussed. For instance, when he speaks of “Bonnie and Clyde”, he doesn’t go for the obvious analysis of the iconic shoot out that ends the picture, but rather he describes an early scene in a diner where Bonnie first decides to rob banks with Clyde. Thompson describes it as “a seductive little scene”. It’s a character moment, but it’s also a moment for the actors of the film Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. He describes movements and gestures, how Beatty’s Clyde is talking like a producer which was what he was for the actual film. Thompson takes this pocket of a scene and is able to fill it with context for the entire film itself.
Unlike most critic’s book, we are not just privy to deconstruction, but Thompson is giving us a look into his own tastes in movies, and some which might surprise a casual movie goer. One such case is a somewhat revisionist take on the work of Meg Ryan; an actress who, it could be argued had her best days behind her after her reign as romantic comedy queen came to an end. Thompson does focus on her most iconic scene in “When Harry Met Sally” where she fakes an orgasm, but maybe more importantly, he highlights her under seen Jane Campion directed film “In the Cut”. In this film, she plays largely against type, and is far more dangerous and sexual than is usually given credit for. After reading these two entries, one could get the impression that Ryan is one of our great Hollywood actresses who got a bad break when she no longer became bankable. You may have the urge to re-watch some of her work to see the talent Thompson eludes to with his two essays.
I was far more curious with the hidden gems highlighted in the book rather than the usual suspects commonly found in these types of retrospectives. Notably there is the Danny DeVito directed 90s film “Hoffa” which starred Jack Nicholson as the infamous teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa. There is also the foreign film “Celine and Julie Go Boating”, directed by French new wave icon Jacques Rivette which was a hit when released but has since been little seen in North America.
The book goes chronologically starting with a handful of early silent films moving into the modern era. You might be shocked to see some films left off his list such as “The Wizard of Oz” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Even “There Will be Blood” which Thompson chose to be the cover of his most recently published edition of his “Biographical Encyclopedia of Film”. But as he comments in the book’s introduction “Don’t be troubled about what is left out. The selection is, of course, personal.”
With his selections, Thompson challenges the reader into viewing films the way he sees them. Sometimes all people care about in a movie is the plot or the story, which is all fine and good if that’s what you’re looking for. But films can work on another level as well, as Thompson points out. They are moments caught on film, literal motion pictures, edited together with sound, music, and performance. Once viewed they can leave indelible marks on us that can last forever. Sometimes we don’t have to remember a whole movie, it only takes one shot to stay with us. Thompson makes this idea most apparent with his selection that ends the book. It’s not a shot from a film at all, but a photograph. It was taken in 2014 in Vancouver Canada after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup. For those who don’t remember, there were massive amounts of damage, riots, and injuries throughout the city that night. Yet among the chaos, an iconic photo was taken of two young people spread out in the middle of the street embracing each other and kissing. As Thompson mentions “A moment can be an instant” and confesses how he was “struck by how movie-like it was….It could be the first shot of a movie, or the last”.
His statement is a testament to the ever-changing medium of film. It started out as a something that was fed through a projector and illuminated onto a giant screen. But since then it has transformed into digital media, YouTube, and streaming services. Film is basically anything you can imagine it to be and is now available for anyone to use.
Thompson is a realist, he doesn’t waiver to the nostalgia of 35mm projection, even though it’s a nice thought. He sees it as a tool which is ever-evolving, but one constant his book illustrates is how the images can remain memorable and even life changing. They can reflect memories of time, or waking dreams. It speaks to the power of film as an art form, and how it can become a personal and profound experience. You’ll want to think of your own moments in movies after reading this book.