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The Searchers 

Feeling dubious about Reese Witherspoon, and other insights from film historian David Thomson

Wednesday, Dec 4 2002
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"There's definitely a point at which someone my age says, "Am I serving any purpose by referring people back to the past?'" admits David Thomson, the British-born, S.F.-based film critic and historian. "Isn't it the duty of a new generation to come along and say, 'This is what we love about our films'? I feel the elements of nostalgia and reaction creeping in, and I try to guard against it. I have had every opportunity to say what I want to say, and I sometimes feel I'm old enough to shut up."

Thomson, 61, isn't retiring; he's simply sated after completing the fourth edition of his endlessly insightful tome, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf). The new entries, some admittedly initiated by criticism from other critics, include Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Iran's Abbas Kiarostami. "My book is very argumentative," Thomson says, chuckling, "and I certainly can't complain if people start arguing with me." As for Hollywood, Thomson says, "I have terrific hopes for Paul Thomas Anderson [Hard Eight, Boogie Nights]. I think the first films had amazing things in them and amazing ambition. I feel dubious already about Reese Witherspoon. For a brief moment she was a pretty girl with a nasty streak. But Nicole Kidman, who once seemed pretty raw, pretty callow, has made choices where [in] one film after the other she's extending her territory and her range. She's become an actress and a star of big proportions."

A storyteller and a film buff, a romantic and a realist, Thomson is also a delightful public speaker. He'll be showing clips at the Castro on Thursday, Dec. 12, and riffing on the function of songs in nonmusicals, from The Deer Hunter to The Sheltering Sky to Moulin Rouge. "I want to show that there are movies that, although they are not musicals in the conventional sense, are deeply musical," he says. (Go to www.thecastrotheatre.com for info and tickets.) Thomson will also be at the Rafael Film Center on Sunday, Dec. 15, to introduce the Carole Lombard classic My Man Godfrey.

Bad Blood Former S.F. International Film Festival artistic director Peter Scarlet, who went on to a brief tenure at the Cinematheque Francais in Paris before getting ousted this past summer, has resurfaced as executive director of the Tribeca Film Festival. The New York event runs May 6-11, 2003, right behind the S.F. International Film Festival, but don't anticipate a scuffle for premieres. Yes, Scarlet has stronger European contacts than our local programmers (the SFIFF has a slight edge in Asia), but the Cannes Film Festival always gets first crack. And by the time Cannes chooses, it's too late for either S.F. or N.Y. to program the "rejects."

Can't Stop the Music The Oscar horses aren't even at the post, but the most hilarious piece of "For Your Consideration" promotion is already racing to Academy voters -- a CD single of Jennifer Lopez's song Alive (from Columbia Pictures' Enough). The Oscar campaign for Best Original Song was no doubt part of Lopez's contract when she signed to do the picture. But I wonder what director Michael Apted received to sign the letter that came with the CD: "Jennifer is not only a strong musical talent but an actress who deeply understands the characters and films she works on, so to have that creativity and understanding brought to life in an end-title song is a director's dream," Apted (or, more likely, a PR minion) writes. I can't wait to read Lee Tamahori's note accompanying Madonna's contribution to Die Another Day.

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Michael Fox

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