The New Biographical Dictionary of Film , by David Thomson. Alfred A. Knopf, 963 pages, $35.
It looks unassuming enough, just like any other reference book: weighty, blockish and solid as a brick. The author, too, sounds foursquare: a couple of film biographies under his belt, now occasionally writes for The New York Times ; originally British, now “lives in San Francisco with his wife and their two sons.” He sounds a doughty enough citizen, this David Thomson, and could easily pass for any one of the harmless drudges who litter the world of film scholarship, lining it with their waddings of prose and papery opinions. Until you read the man, that is. Then you hit upon this kind of thing:
“He was the squat, wild-eyed spirit of ruined Europe, shyly prowling in and out of Warner Brothers shadows, muttering fiercely to himself, his disbelief forever mislaid.” (That’s Peter Lorre.)
Or this: “Imagine a film about Harvey Keitel, the actor so good, so persistent, yet so regularly denied at the highest table; ceaseless in his fury, his bitterness, forever hurtling forward in that cold, determined aura that is a mix of menace and resentment. What a role! And De Niro would probably get it.”
Encountering David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film for the first time can be a little disorienting, like coming on a peacock in a coal mine. I can remember when I first stumbled upon it, in a bookstore in London almost 10 years ago. I sat down to find out what he thought about Fred Astaire and Stanley Kubrick. He found Astaire “clinching evidence of the medium’s potential.” On the other hand, all the chilly Kubrick “gives us, finally, is the chance to serve.” I was hooked and haven’t stopped reading the book since, but then Mr. Thomson hasn’t stopped writing it either. He began it in the 70’s, updated it in 1980, then again in 1994, and now-the number of entries swelled to 1,300-it stands before us again, as grand and eccentric as Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, or one of the madder, more imaginary encyclopedias you’ll find in the pages of Borges.
As a work of pure reference, Mr. Thomson’s book is never going to be your first port of call. Some entries boast biographies, others don’t; sometimes you get a filmography, sometimes not. And if it’s the usual wan career overview you’re after-the opinions both thinned by summation and pinched for space-think again. Mr. Thomson writes as if filling the sky. Here is Harry Dean Stanton, his face “like the road in the West.” Here is Sam Peckinpah, “like Monument Valley at magic hour seen in the rearview mirror.” Here, in similarly geological vein, but rather less happily, is Richard Gere, like “a wind tunnel at dawn, waiting for work, all sheen, inner curve, and poised emptiness.”
A great put-down, I guess, although as with the best of Thomson, you do have to guess, for his bejeweled similes often leave you too dazzled to know for sure. What about this, of Astaire, who acts like “a philosopher at a bingo session”? Or this of Hugh Grant: “an incipient sneeze looking for a vacant nose”? The first is praise, the second a put-down, although I had to look it up again to be sure. This is as it should be, of course, for the only real trick with film criticism is to forget about the criticism and tend to your powers of description: successfully evoke, and the judgments will look after themselves. When Mr. Thomson writes that Jacques Tourneur’s ” Out of the Past is terrific-and not good enough: it is like a brilliant palace made of matchsticks, by a prisoner on a life sentence,” you’re halfway to wondering what the prison food is like before you notice what a strange world you have unwittingly entered, where a film can be “terrific” and yet still “not good enough.” What slippery, silver-backed Wonderland is this?
The world according to David Thomson, of course-a fine place to be if you’re Cary Grant, or Robert Mitchum, or Mae West (“intrigue an audience, and then pause, and they are yours forever”), but a harsh and exacting environment for directors, particularly of the young and brilliant variety. Lars von Trier, for instance, is found to be “brilliant in a way that gives that term a bad name.” Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is “beautiful in ways that make beauty the first thing one notices.” This is Mr. Thomson’s way: He leads you up the path with some obvious virtue like “beauty” or “brilliance,” then cuts you loose to fend for yourself. So you think you hanker for “genius”? Mr. Thomson puts the term under house arrest and slaps it in the handcuffs of quotation marks. John Ford, Francis Ford Coppola and Frank Capra, he writes, are “storytellers capable of … well, ‘genius’ is the word Hollywood would use. But that genius is not enough. There is a talent in American films that makes for adolescent attitudes, veiled fascism, and a work that leads one to recognize the proximity of talent and meretricious magic …. There is something in the best of American films that is not good enough, and that is dangerous.”
Cool. I haven’t a clue what he means, but I get the feel of it-the rhythm of that exalted ascent up standards of truly Alpine height. For Mr. Thomson is an unabashed greatness freak, and if he guards the term “genius,” he does so jealously, like a lover. He’s at his most penetrating on the likes of Welles and Mr. Coppola, those great Falstaffian burnouts, scalded by the medium they touched, nursing their wounds in semi-retirement: “As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent.”
There is a lot of Welles in Kane , and a lot of Thomson in Welles, particularly the Welles of the 70’s-the Welles of the velvety voice-overs and amused self-exile. Mr. Thomson is, I think, the last of the great film writers, up there with Graham Greene and Pauline Kael-not least because he has the courage to wonder aloud whether film is greatness’ proper medium, the medium where greatness can truly strut its stuff and get on with the business of being great. How ruthlessly Hollywood cut down Welles and Mr. Coppola, and how accommodating it is to more efficient talents like Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg. Hence the melancholy that envelops the book from its introduction, where Mr. Thomson is to be found wondering “whether I am heavier, or less ‘passionate’-or are the movies less?” Spoken like Norma Desmond herself.
As with Desmond, the pose can’t sustain itself; the melancholy wilts in the California sun. This new volume finds Mr. Thomson grinding his teeth aplenty, but also breaking into a big, bright smile at the thought of Jim Carrey, Wes Anderson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jude Law and Christina Ricci (“our Shirley Temple on leaving the asylum where Frances Farmer was ruined”). Again the snarl and rueful backwards glance at wrecked talent, but nothing can disguise the fun he had writing that. David Thomson is here to sing the multiplex blues-sitting there, at the back of the cinema, amid the torn velour and spilled Pepsi-but this book is the most beautiful of torch songs, and more than bright enough to light up the gloom.
Tom Shone is a film critic for the London Daily Telegraph.