Bigger Than Ebert
The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
All of a sudden, fame has discovered David Thomson. Between the third edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film in 1994, an event for his coterie, and the renamed fourth version this fall, broadened by more than 300 new entries, he has been taken up by the New York Times and other mass outlets and become, by default, a member of the critical mainstream. Which naturally marks a loss for those of us film geeks who preferred to glory in cultish appreciation.
But Thomson does not go in for such foolishness. He has never believed that subcultures necessarily have anything on the masses, nor that "difficult" European art entitles you to turn up your nose at Bruce Willis. (Lars von Trier, he argues, "is brilliant in a way that gives that term a bad name. He knows no reality--only film.") A prep-school-educated Englishman (he graduated from the same alma mater as Michael Ondaatje and Raymond Chandler) with a correspondingly broad frame of reference, Thomson cherishes movies for both their superiority to reality and, at their best, their emotional honesty.
Most of all, though, he loves them as vigorously popular art, something that people can and should enjoy together. The coldly aesthetic Peter Greenaway (The Thief, the Cook, His Wife & Her Lover), Thomson opines, "is a test case in the question as to whether cinema can really be as solitary as literature. Or is there not an inevitable, maudlin, melodramatic sense of the crowd as soon as one throws light on a wall?"
For Thomson, "cinema" covers an enormous assortment of creative work. His essays discuss directors, actors, writers, producers, critics, set designers, and the occasional TV star (Johnny Carson, Lucille Ball, James Garner). And he considers movies as, variously, culture, sociology, politics, and art. For him, the movie-palace era from 1930 to 1960, and everything it connotes--centralized production, stars' confected grandeur, formulaic plotting--is an ideal context. Within the studio system's almost medieval array of limitations, artists could carve out powerful meanings. He writes of one favorite, Howard Hawks, that, "like Monet forever painting lilies, Hawks made only one artwork. It is the principle of that movie that men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world. No other director so bridges the contrived plots of genre and the responses of a mature spectator."
As more than one review has complained, Thomson refuses to assign films any comparative critical apparatus--stars, grades, or what have you--besides the occasional "very good." His book isn't much help on Friday night at Blockbuster. (Although, at an extraordinarily well-stocked video store, he might assist you in choosing films by Kenji Mizoguchi, Hou Hsiao-hsien, or Jacques Demy.)
As a thinker on the subject of who stars are and what stardom means, however, he is unmatched. No film critic has pondered the phenomenon of performance as deeply. You may disagree with his willfully extravagant claims: Cary Grant is "the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema"; Robert Mitchum is "untouchable...one of the best actors in the movies"). But Thomson's literary parsing of character and personality will spark equally vigorous counter-arguments in the mind of any responsive reader.
So what does Thomson like? He adores the personal and moral crannies of noir, having penned an original novel, Suspects, that features characters from the genre interlocking in a grand web of family dysfunction. (At the center of this dark universe sits George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart's character in It's a Wonderful Life.) He thinks good acting conveys something authentic to every viewer. Thus, he distrusts Kevin Spacey, "a chronic pretender, a naughty boy, a wicked mimic. He can be our best actor, but only if we accept that acting is a bag of tricks that leaves scant room for being a real and considerate human being." By the same token, he doubts that Jackie Chan "is alive. Is he just on? I see him as the lifelike embodiment of all those comic-book warriors in the video combat games that my 12-year-old son loves."
Flashy technique, in performance as well as direction, leaves him cold. Thomson is a democrat, but not a sentimental one. He dismisses blacklist victim Carl Foreman (a screenwriter and, most famously, the director of High Noon) as "a plodding middlebrow, possessed of dull ideas and rigidly conventional means of expressing them." And he positively hates Charlie Chaplin, "the looming mad politician of the century, the demon tramp. It is a character based on the belief that there are 'little people.' Whereas art should insist that all people are the same size." Thomson especially adores creative work that measures the shades of failure and weakness, or at least the cravings that their possibility creates--which brings us back to Capra's classic, a daydream America parted from its nightmare opposite by the thinnest thread.
Perhaps the best comparison to Thomson is his predecessor as the cognoscenti's film critic, Pauline Kael. Like Greil Marcus, her near-contemporary, Kael craved transport every time out. With a pop (and Pop) sensibility perfectly attuned to new-wave American films of the late '60s and early '70s, Kael both celebrated and explained what was happening to readers who wanted very much to feel in the know. Thomson, by contrast, is a creature of a later era, cool, jaded, and a bit distanced, never able to forget that movies are first and foremost business propositions, and well aware that his audience has lost its innocence to Entertainment Weekly. He seems temperamentally incapable of the raptures that Kael's titles--I Lost It at the Movies or Reeling--suggested.
The flip side of this is that Thomson has succeeded better at keeping his bearings in a Hollywood that often stirs little enthusiasm. Recent product seems not even to deserve a metaphor on the order of churning--maybe "spat out" would better describe films like Formula 51 and Scooby-Doo, which arrive complete with sheepish wink: Surely you didn't expect more than this? The prospect of a critic like Thomson burrowing through such cynical product is more or less depressing.
Yet he keeps on going to the movies. He riffs smartly, if uneasily, on Will Smith's indifference to acting, seeing in him "the first black actor to capitalize on the widespread white realization that you don't have to act to be in pictures....It's a policy that could easily sweep the heights of business and the pinnacles of politics." He adores Philip Seymour Hoffman: "so good that only the best material is going to help build our sense of him." And he cherishes high hopes for P.T. Anderson and Todd Haynes without loading on more significance than either can yet bear.
But despite the industry's recent failure to produce a lot that is worth Thomson's time, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is a great big Borgesian treat, a maze to wander and get lost in. Around every corner there lurks something unexpected: an ambivalent letter/apologia to director James Toback, "the best friend I feel obliged to include"; or a wonderfully expressionist appreciation of Peter Lorre ("the squat, wild- eyed spirit of ruined Europe, slyly prowling in and out of Warner Brothers shadows, muttering fiercely to himself, his disbelief forever mislaid"). I expect to run out of new discoveries in eight years or so, just when this book's fifth edition hits the stands.
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