An Absentee Father’s Legacy to His Movie Critic Son

Review of Try to Tell the Story by David Thomson


The worldview of most well-known movie critics is anything but Christian. While that doesn’t invalidate their opinions about how art works, it raises the question about the presuppositions those critics bring to their analysis of films and filmmakers. David Thomson has written about motion pictures for the New Republic and other publications, but he may be best known for his books about movies, most notably A Biographical Dictionary of Film, which was named the best film-related book in a Sight and Sound poll of critics and filmmakers.

Thomson has written more broadly about film culture, but in 2009, he widened his oeuvre to include a memoir, Try to Tell the Story. What does the book tell us about what makes Thomson tick?

The answer, in large part, is that the critic grew up in a home with an absent father who carried on a cross-town affair with a woman Thomson knew very little about. And Thomson suggests that he, in some way, may be to blame. “My father did not want children. And a time must have come when he made that clear,” Thomson writes. But his mother, in her words, “tricked him.”

“She went into the nursing home to have me,” Thomson writes. “They were living at 10 Thirlmere, and that’s where she took me afterwards. But my father was already gone. Just as he had said.”

Thomson’s disappointment at the lack of two fully present parents is understandable, but his concerns go deeper. He fears that he will follow in his father’s footsteps—letting down, if not abandoning, those who would depend on him later in life, and never expressing his true feelings toward those whom he would love.

“At times in my life I played with the notion—the hope—that my father had been someone else. … But this was a rough case to make in that I resembled my father in so many small, irritating ways.” (11) And yet “I never heard him say he loved me,” Thomson remembers. “In all our time together he never made that incriminating statement.” (18)

Thomson’s love of cinema manifested during his adolescence, and nothing would ever top that love. Certainly not church, which proved a weak competitor for a young man interested in vibrant, visual storytelling.

“The cinemas were immensely decorated, utterly beyond the limits of realism or the lifelike,” Thomson writes. “Church paintings and stained-glass aspired to one gloomy message. But the décor in cinemas was crazed and extravagant, and perfect preparation for the films or the pictures. I never thought at the time that the messages of church and cinema were in competition. What chance did the churches have?” (97)

Still, Thomson’s father looms large in the background, as does Thomson’s struggle with his father’s legacy. Two-thirds of the way through the book, a conflicted Thomson wants the reader to have “no doubt” that his father, who once punched him in the stomach as apparent retaliation for being called out as a liar by his son, had “a certain love … for me,” (166)—even though Thomson’s next memory is of “a real physical fight for my life” he had with his father. (167) Such impulses aren’t mutually exclusive, but what comes through more than Thomson’s desired impression that his father loved him is Thomson’s own need to feel that fatherly love in this life.

He never found that sort of acceptance from a Heavenly Father. When his girlfriend dumps him and “slip[s] a small gold cross out from under her shirt,” Thomson remembers that he “felt like Dracula being repulsed by one of his maidens, and she explained that she had promised herself to another boy, a fellow Roman Catholic. That was another club.” (181)

After Thomson settles into his professional calling, personal happiness proves elusive, then temporal. In a coda, Thomson accelerates the time frame of his memoir, letting us know that in 1976 his marriage “broke down (entirely because of my own behavior—so you have fair reason to wonder how deeply my father had affected me).” (211)

Thomson concludes his book with what transpired when he showed the memoir’s manuscript to his second wife—outside confirmation that he was, in some ways, blind to the lasting negative effects of his father’s behavior. “She said she liked it and she thought it was accurate in terms of what she had seen and observed,” Thomson writes. “But she said I had cheated a bit: I had written the book of a person who felt happy and lucky because of life. Whereas, she said, quietly and kindly, I had been damaged by it all. And I know she’s right, and I accept that in the telling I have neither explained it nor healed the damage.” (213)

Having experienced the rejection of his earthly father, and having rejected the greatest story ever told, Thomson concludes, bleakly, “Every one of us, for better or worse, is the center of our universe for a moment. And all we can do to signal our dumb longing to posterity is to leave a photograph and children or try to tell the story.” (214)

The legacy Thomson will leave is one of eloquent insight into films and filmmaking, as well as the many debates and conversations his writings have inspired and provoked over the years. His influence has been felt by many film lovers and film makers, yet even that significant contribution to future generations will be, by his own admission, fleeting.

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