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‘A Light in the Dark’ is a love letter to the directors, personal flaws and all

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Or perhaps simply transforming. And not, of course, for the first time: One of the most useful functions of “A Light in the Dark” is to remind us how recent a phenomenon the movies are and how much they have changed. To make this point, Thomson focuses on directors. After all, the director is the central, guiding agent of filmmaking, the one with the imaginative vision and the power to implement it, the auteur to whom the picture’s success or failure — artistic, if not commercial — is to be attributed.

A director’s work is, in a real sense, behind the scenes. Outside of Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg, how many directors could an average moviegoer name? Perhaps the book’s title alludes to this: Its subject is not the person the light illuminates but the one who stands in the dark, pointing it, directing it and manipulating those it falls on. The temptations and seductions that are bound up with such power and concealment form one of Thomson’s main themes.

“There was an era when we wanted to admire movie directors,” he writes, “and so we overlooked their desperation and the way they assumed power. We are less forgiving now about that authority. Anyone in the film business knows how much it is a power game. But humanists in the dark are inclined to idealize creative figures.” This isn’t about sex, and sexual exploitation — necessarily. But Thomson makes it clear that this is indeed on his mind. “In the early days of the picture business, it was invariably a man wanting to photograph a woman, and the sad record of our fine art has to face how often that was a path to seduction, exploitation, and the control lurking in the phrase ‘directed by.’ ”

The general worry gets applied to particular directors — nearly all of which, in this book as in the industry, are men. Of Howard Hawks, Thomson writes, “You have to be locked into hero-worship not to see how far his movies are extensions of the womanizer’s romance with himself. His Girl Friday is a masterpiece, but it also indulges a restless male adventurism that takes it for granted that the favored female (the best in sight) will always come back, no matter how badly a man behaves.” As for Hitchcock, no amount of hero-worship keeps anyone from noticing how rife his films are with repressed desire, voyeurism and creepy sexuality. “There has never been another director who has lain in wait for us with the same wrath or disgust,” Thomson writes. “He saw no reason to like us or himself.” Woody Allen, he writes, “was a treasure — everyone said it — and we hardly bothered to notice his preoccupation with guilt, duplicity, and regret. That intelligence is too late now. Woody has been made an outcast.”

Thomson doesn’t deny the accomplishments of Hitchcock, Hawks or Allen. (“We only have to live long enough,” he remarks of Allen, “to see how belated amnesia … will one day resurrect him as an American master (with an asterisk).” His regret, and disappointment, regarding the sins of the medium and its practitioners is sincere but so are his admiration and enthusiasm for their work. And attending to flaws as well as virtues isn’t just a moral or political impulse. It also makes a better story. This, as much as a lack of enthusiasm for the work, seems to account for certain omissions — that of Spielberg, for instance, of whom Thomson remarks, amusingly: “But it’s hard to believe there is a fallible human being within the empire known as Spielberg. Can an outstanding film director be that uninteresting?”

At roughly 300 pages — less than half the length of Thomson’s essential 2012 book, “The Big Screen”— “A Light in the Dark” leaves many directors in the shadows. The book is focused on America and Europe, with only brief mention of directors from Japan, India and elsewhere. Directors receiving substantial attention include Hitchcock and Hawks, D.W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Luis Buñuel, Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard and Nicholas Ray. Most of a chapter is devoted to Quentin Tarantino, largely to explain why Thomson dislikes him (while nonetheless admiring his talent). Figures like Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson get a little space, all three of them — in varying ways — representing exceptions to the general pattern Thomson notes among recent American directors of “sudden personal expression and fulfillment, to be followed by years of relative failure or diminished energy.”

Thomson does not deny — for there is no denying — that film directors are preponderantly White and male. He is right to fret about it. I do wish, though, the book had noted the fact that over the last decade or so of the Academy Awards, the best director category has been among the most eclectic and surprising. Consideration of directors like Bong Joon-ho, Barry Jenkins, Ang Lee, Benh Zeitlin, Jordan Peele, or the triumvirate of Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón might have hinted at that diversity and suggest more hopeful possibilities for the future of the movies. (Women directors have not fared as well — only one woman, Katherine Bigelow, has received an Oscar for best director, from a mere seven female nominees. Still, the fact that two of those nominees date from films released in 2020 justifies at least a little hope that the academy is shifting in a more equitable direction.)

That said, every reader will of course find omissions to protest; that’s part of the fun (Chaplin! Lubitsch! Tarkovsky! Kiarostami! The Coen brothers!). And there is no denying that this often beautifully written book is fun, no matter the aura of gentle mourning and foreboding that hangs over it. We cannot know whether the movies will survive the pandemic, streaming and cultural amnesia. But if the future of the movies, like the future of everything, is uncertain, Thomson’s writings leave no doubt that its past, while far from innocent, is full of glorious magic.

Troy Jollimore’s new book of poems, “Earthly Delights,” will be published in September.

A Light in the Dark: A History of Movie Directors

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