The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
David Thomson admits that the most misleading word in the title of his latest revision of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film may be the — an emendation from a, which christened the 1975, 1980, and 1994 editions. The denotes comprehensiveness, whereas a suggests that Thomson is just one voice offering his own opinionated history of world cinema in 963 dense pages amid a clamorous crowd. If you don’t like his, a seems to suggest, write your own.
Truly, neither word suits Thomson, an erudite, eccentrically impassioned British-emigre cinephile; a better choice might be my. Thomson’s love for the medium is proprietary, possessive, suffused with an academic’s breadth of knowledge and a fan’s mad crushes. He is by turns analytical and ardent, dryly appalled and moistly enthralled — and his book deserves a home on whatever flat surface is available between you and your DVD player.
Dive in, and agree or disagree with the following. Madonna, Thomson writes in one of his signature death-by-lethal-rejection drippings, ”has her defenders, and I suspect she loathes them even more than she scorns her enemies. She is disappointed about something, and hugely driven by resentment.” Ben Affleck, for whom he professes a ”soft spot,” is ”boring, complacent, and criminally lucky to have got away with everything so far.” Ouch — what does Thomson’s version of a hard spot look like? Ask Frank Darabont, of whose ”Shawshank Redemption” he writes, ”among the young, it often passes for a piece of profound humanism. Times are hard.” And targets are easy, but Thomson doesn’t mind trimming the fat from sacred cows, either. Tom Hanks ”has become the American Actor, rather than someone actually involved in character and story.” Kevin Spacey ”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.” And there’s this, about a late great: ”Sometimes one squeeze of Lemmon is enough to set my teeth on edge.”
Thomson likes some people, too, up to a point, though his beautiful phrasemaking sometimes disappears up its own hindquarters (is Hugh Grant really ”an incipient sneeze looking for a vacant nose”?). He’s partial to gravel-hewn stars like William Holden and Robert Mitchum; he’s tickled by Nicole Kidman’s ”sheer lust for the camera”; and he thinks Philip Seymour Hoffman is ”so good that only the best material is going to help build our sense of him.” But Thomson seems incapable of unqualified praise; he rules by admonition and prescription. Michelle Pfeiffer tends to choose roles ”as if she were Loretta Young rather than Bette Davis,” and Gene Hackman is too often ”asked to deliver little more than a standard version of gruff decency…. He’s more interesting when nasty.” (Look who’s talking.)
Some of the positions above may have made you chuckle; others may have irked you. Doesn’t really matter which, because surely you recognize more than a few of them as precise and true. Thomson isn’t a great critic because he’s always right — he’s often loonily off-base — but because his arguments are steeped in a commitment to and deep understanding of his subject, and catapulted at you so entertainingly that even when you’re infuriated, a listing (”Sharon Stone, see Frances Farmer”) will beguile you into reading more. There’s something inspiring in the hubris of taking on such a monumental task alone; think of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo pulling a ship up the side of a mountain.
Like all buffs, Thomson has his peccadilloes and blind spots. Any critic as dismissive as he is of John Ford, Billy Wilder, and William Wyler risks being labeled too sour for his own good; any critic who calls languorous auteur Jacques Rivette ”the most important filmmaker of the last thirty-five years” is probably, in some small aspect, bananas. Like many British critics, Thomson becomes a bit pious and tentative when writing about African Americans (the word nobility appears distressingly early in his Denzel Washington entry). And like many male critics, he can get embarrassingly ooey-gooey about actresses. Angelina Jolie’s lips — excuse me, her ”carnal embouchure” — he writes, frame ”a mouth made in braille…and it could blind anyone.” (Note to self: Don protective goggles before picking up Us Weekly.) More disappointingly, dozens of entries, including those on Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, would have benefited from fresh approaches rather than just a few remarks appended to pieces that are close to 10 years old.
But there is so much to relish here — from swiftly incisive verdicts (David Mamet ”has not established a character in movies as more than a cold, skilled mechanic”) to essays that will allow you to see Scorsese, Spielberg, and Welles from utterly fresh vantages. Thomson proffers his work as ”your needling, provocative, argumentative companion” at the movies. Actually, someone as prickly and self-certain as Thomson would be a huge irritant beside me in a theater. But at home, I want his book in the next chair at all times.