David Thomson is a British-born, American-based film critic known for his encyclopedic knowledge of movie history (see for example his massive New Biographical Dictionary of Film) and his caustic wit. He is well respected in the film industry, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have his enemies, too. Let's just say he's very blunt.

Here is Thomson on Marlon Brando: "Brando had a childhood in which he decided he was not loved, and these circumstances allowed him to use that experience to explain all kinds of mistakes, disaster, and bad luck that befell him and those around him. Famously, he … grew into the bloated wreck that is the opposite of his youth and the American ideal for actors." Ouch.

In his new book, Thomson strives to get at what F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Last Tycoon, called "the whole equation of pictures." By this he means that picture-making is not simply about the writers, directors, actors, sets, crewmembers, and producers. It's largely prompted and bolstered by historical context. Maybe this explains why I hated The Deer Hunter (Best Picture in 1978) when I first saw it a couple of years ago. I was a child during the Vietnam war, and I lacked the anger or discontent to "get" the movie. Thomson, of course, loved it and devotes several pages to it.

Above all, of course, movies are a business. In 1915, when Louis B. Mayer (later of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, M-G-M) orchestrated the first movie sensation, Griffith's racist yet riveting The Birth of a Nation, people flocked to see it. Money poured in. And so it has been ever since, Thomson laments: "[Movies] derive from corporations and producers, not individuals or artists." Although I cringe at this statement, I do so because I know it's true. Why else would producers ...

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