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A life in pictures

David Thomson's books will tell you more about film than anyone else's, yet the term "critic" can't

When he was young, in the late 1950s, David Thomson was into lists. He would sit in the BFI Library until it closed, mining American trade magazines, trying to match the films he'd seen to certain directors and cinematographers, filling up notebooks. No official lists existed then, no manuals, no overview of what was really going on in Cinema. Thomson did the archiving himself.

Later, at the London Film School, he added to the lists, eventually publishing his seminal Biographical Dictionary of Film in 1975 - a thousand-page A-Z of the people involved in the industry, mini-essays which often end with the words "Here's the list" before socking you with dates and titles, and alternative titles. Further lists were involved in the writing of his new book, Have You Seen . . . ?, a collection of 1,000 short essays on films of note (for good or ill) - lists of movies recommended by friends, lists of suggestions from the publisher, films Thomson liked, films he'd forgotten he didn't, films he'd just been sent on DVD, the names at certain points in the process running into the many thousand.

So possibly you might expect someone neat and precise. Not so. Thomson walks with a fan-boy shamble and carries his things in a plastic bag: a person who has spent much of his life in the dark. Get him talking and his ready giggle is high up and manic: a person who has retained his glee. The day I meet him he soundly rejects the idea that he's someone with an overwhelming urge to taxonomise. "I don't really care what the best films ever made are. I did when I was younger. I was sort of very partisan and very political about it. But I don't care a damn now."

He leans happily over a pile of French fries. Thomson's face is supremely appealing and intimate. Dimples, folds, expressions passing as shadows and light, a tremble of the shoulders, a tremor of the head. I mention Citizen Kane and its enduring reputation as The Best Film Of All Time. "Oh, that's not good for Kane," he says, his small mouth rounded to a little "o" of worry, as though Kane is a person he knows well who keeps coming out of rehab and walking straight into a relationship with a dealer.

Thomson is always described as a film critic ("the great film critic", "the veteran film critic", "the great veteran film critic") but he is really a wild novelist manqué, inventing his own forms. Sure, he's worked on most of our major newspapers at some point as a reviewer, but the rest of the time he's been living in San Francisco inventing short stories about journalists going to meet A-list female stars, or 30-page playlets about films being developed and writers being screwed over, or essays on what James Dean might have been like had he lived to 50, or proliferating riffs about the various things that could happen to James Stewart and Grace Kelly after Rear Window ends. Although not strictly film criticism, his 20 books will tell you more about film than most others could hope to; will furnish you with all the right answers. Hence, he is a film critic.

But the term simply can't contain his love. Several times when I'm with him he talks about films as one might a member of the family. A poor film is "like having a child who has a bad character. It is still your child and you must love it." Of Hollywood, he says: "You know, my child can be a bad person and have bad morals and be badly behaved and disappointing. But he's my child. And he has some great days. And I'll settle for that." My child. My child running amok with a handgun.

One of the things that becomes clear reading Have You Seen . . . ? is that the con vulsions of the industry have come to excite Thomson more than the films themselves. The fights, the changes of cast, who passed the script behind whose back at the Studio, where the money went. Is this inevitable in a lifelong writer on film? "Well, as soon as I moved to California in the 1970s I realised I was in the trenches. I was going to be in the position of having to decide whether to meet the people. And my friend who is a film critic at Time said, 'You can't meet them: it confuses and corrupts your objectivity and you just have to keep your distance,' and I guess it was the end of proper film criticism for me - because I was totally unable to keep my distance. Because I find the business so fascinating. How something got made is almost always so much more interesting than the thing itself. I just love the talk of the business. I don't admire it, but it's so giddy and so funny and so filmic and I can't understand how people resist it."

For how long did you try to resist it? "Well, look, over the years I've met a great many of the people who have made films, and a great many of them are fascinating - so long as you don't have to talk about the films." Never about the films? "Rarely." I buy that. I mean, who really wants to hear Clint Eastwood talking about his latest movie? "Well, Eastwood's a star, at least. Old crone. Got natural authority and he doesn't give a fuck about anything else and there aren't many people like that. These days stars are told to make their killing quickly and get out."

Is there anyone coming up that you think is really good? "Well, this guy Ben Whishaw is fantastic. In Brideshead Revisited you can't take your eyes off him . . ." And he trails off.

For someone so casually brilliant at talking about actors (I heard him on the radio the other day describing Daniel Day-Lewis's body in There Will Be Blood as so tough, it had seemingly undergone some "geological change" and might be used to cut down trees - yes), Thomson likes to talk about them far less than you'd imagine. Well, today at least.

Today, it's directors he digs. Says that right now he'd be happy to sit and listen to the worst director in the world bang on for hours about how much of a pain in the arse it was to make their latest film. He laughs: half ironical, half delighted. His cheeks flush. It strikes me that Thomson, now 67, would look good on camera.

Thinking of a director to quiz him about, I mention Terrence Malick because his 1973 debut, Badlands, has been on the TV a couple of nights earlier, and I've been wondering about what happened to all that promise. Thomson draws in a sharp breath, like a cry, and condenses his expression to one of pure intrigue. "Malick is now making a film about a plant." An amazed wiggle of the head. "You can just hear people say, 'Gee, Terry, a whole film about a plant! That's heavy!'" Dimples. "Look, anyone really talented and brilliant is very quickly going to learn how killing the routine of actually making a film is. How fucking boring. That's why there are so many people who make one great first film and then fall away. So, Malick likes birdwatching and collecting plants. But y'know, some people like raping virgins, and it's a lot less destructive than that . . ."

Just before we part, I mention Thomson's 2006 book about Nicole Kidman, over which critics united to yell that they thought Thomson had gone lecherously insane. It was quite a mauling - especially for a writer used to praise.

Did you think they had a point at all? "Well, I always allow that I could have been wrong. But anyway, she didn't like it." What did she say? "Not much." In what way not much? "Well, let's say she could have taken more of an interest." What about seeing her in a movie now? Would it hurt - like when you see an old lover and notice the ways they've changed? "Oh, I wouldn't mind not seeing her again. But mostly because of what she's done to her face . . ." Suspicions about Kidman and Botox have been circulating in the press. "She has damaged her looks a lot. To be honest, I'm afraid of seeing her . . ."

I have no doubt that he is. Afraid. Dangerous. Flaw. Impetuous. Jittery. Fool. Human. Astounding. All favourite Thomson words. But the one he saves for the highest compliment in both the Dictionary and Have You Seen . . . ? is mysterious. "Really? Do I?" Yeah. Why mysterious? "I guess I must just like the sound of it." As he edges round the table in his enormous, complicated sandals I ask: "What would you like to do the most now, David? Write a screenplay and win an Oscar?" There is no hesitation, and I don't think he's joking when he answers: "To be honest, I'd like to learn to fly."

"Have You Seen . . . ? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, Masterpieces, Oddities and Guilty Pleasures (With Just a Few Disasters)" by David Thomson is published by Allen Lane (£22)

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Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power