The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Knight Who Says "Nit!"
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 10 2002 3:54 PM

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

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Dear Mim and Dan: 

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I have been leery of participating in this "Book Club," in part out of respect for the sheer scale of David Thomson's achievement; in part because you both have already laid out many of my objections; and in part because the more I read him, the more ambivalent I grow. Had this been called An Autobiographical Dictionary of Film, some of that ambivalence might have been dispelled: I wouldn't have always liked what I saw, but I also wouldn't have spent half the time wondering how this voluminous yet slapdash agglomeration of impressions and opinions could be—with the addition of dates of birth and abbreviated lists of films—passed off as a reference work. Naked, bullying assertions of opinion are routine on Internet bulletin boards (and, of course, in discussions like this one), but I have a difficult time recommending a "dictionary" in which two out of every three assertions I find unsupportable and many of those that I share unsupported. Most entries contain tantalizing and, as Dan has suggested, poetically intuitive ideas, but even Thomson's most interesting formulations usually need to be unpacked. There is in his writing a regal sense of entitlement toward both his subjects and his readers. The implication is that we should treat these little essays as knotty poems whose meanings will emerge with careful rereading and scrutiny.

Before I go on, I need to own up to some negative bias. Some 20 years ago I went to great pains to book Thomson for a lecture/film screening at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard on the subject of Hollywood's treatment of American history. Thomson canceled several hours before the lecture was scheduled to begin—he left a message saying simply that he was unwell. The appearance had been hyped in the Boston Phoenix, to which Thomson was a regular contributor, and it fell to me to cancel the projectionist, return the supporting films I'd taken pains to acquire, and turn away all the people who trekked to the theater. It didn't help that he never called me personally to explain or apologize. When I began to work at the Phoenix myself, I was told that my experience with him was not untypical, but that he was most reliable as a provider of obituaries. If someone like Henry Fonda died, he could give you something clever and elegantly structured in a matter of hours. I know many editors who have been grateful to him over the years for coming to their rescue and filling big holes on short notice. His output makes him the Stephen King of critics—which is both a compliment and a cavil.

Back to the book. Here is Thomson at his best and at his most vexing, on my own favorite living director, Robert Altman:

Perhaps Altman himself hardly knows how far he rejects the well-made movie (in a spirit of innovation) or cannot reconcile himself to its discipline. He is no more articulate in print than he is coherent on-screen. Like it or not, his method and his nirvana lie beyond meaning. Like Renoir, Warhol, and Rivette, he is a filmmaker clumsily or acutely loyal to the camera's power of observation, and is bent on a new way of seeing. Drama—as Hollywood understood it—may have no place in the spectacle; the people may degenerate into shadows, reflections, and a hubbub of noise. It could be so aimless as to be antihuman; or it might embody a sense of people being like atoms whirling around to laws no one knows and thus part of a kind of play or hopeful gambling—as in California Split, among the most passionate of Altman's pictures, and one that sees a kind of philosophy in gentle futility.

There is something wonderful here, no doubt; but I'm not sure Thomson has the right to complain about lack of coherence. His first mistake is to give up too easily on "meaning" and yet keep talking. His second is the flashy, empty grouping of Altman with Renoir, Warhol, and Rivette. His third is the suggestion that because Altman's storytelling seems undramatic, it comes second to "spectacle"—which reminds me of the objections once leveled at Chekhov's dramas, in which the busy but seemingly inconsequential surfaces purposefully masked the momentous forces (often verging on the most outlandish melodrama) underneath. He equates Altman's distance with being "antihuman." But then there is the brilliant "whirling atoms" metaphor and the connection to gambling and California Split—and Thomson seems to have arrived at the very meaning of Altman's method and intent that he claimed was beyond us. No, wait, he stops short: Altman's philosophy, he concludes, is one of "gentle futility."

Gentle futility? I don't see how it's possible to end up with that view of Altman's body of work. Take Cookie's Fortune, in which a seemingly chaotic ecosystem turns out to operate with remarkable efficiency, locating and expelling the germ (played by Glenn Close) that seeks to disrupt it. Altman's methods, mise-en-scène and meanings are one: What appears to be chaos is actually an intricate pattern of flux, leading to resolutions that are as forcefully moral (in the worst cases, as moralistic) as any Marxist parable. Where in the endings of M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or Gosford Park is the "gentle futility"? Even when Altman is depressingly cynical, as in The Player, he does not go gently.

Inevitably, with a work of this size, I will sound as if I'm nitpicking. But there are so many nits to pick that I almost never stopped scratching. There is that unilluminating comparison of Frances Farmer and Sharon Stone. There is that perfunctory discussion of André Bazin with its weird invocation of David Begelman. Perhaps one of you will explain the conclusion, "The Deer Hunter is not politically correct, but it is one of the few American movies that understand the state of outrage and mistake within American hope." The state of mistake? Of outrage within hope?

Many of the essays are misshapen by the laziness of Thomson's updates. Even in previous editions he would establish a superficial frame of reference, then lapse into lists and stray opinions. For this addition, his appendages defuse his arguments still further. Check out his Clint Eastwood entry, which begins in the hagiographic spirit of Richard Schickel and, in light of Eastwood's recent films, slowly morphs into a dismissal (of Eastwood as someone "who could never muster enough interest in his own work") more in synch with Patrick McGilligan's harsher and more convincing biography. The two lines aren't integrated: It's like a Spanish exclamation with one end pointing up and the other down. Most of the updates are along the lines of: "Since those words were written, [the director/actor] has [redeemed/sullied] himself with [movie x], there was a further [improvement/setback] with [movie y], and an uncertain harbinger of things to come with [movie z]."

We could go on and on over slights and omissions. I do not think that Wes Anderson has made his great film yet (I believe he has a great one in him, though, if his admirers stop indulging him), but neither his supporters nor his detractors will be happy with Thomson's cheeky slight. But can Thomson be trusted in any event? I love his evocative dismissal of Abbas Kiarostami, which takes the form of a description and analysis of A Taste of Cherry. But without illuminating his reasons, Thomson prefers Gus Van Sant's To DieFor over Drugstore Cowboy or Mala Noche; announces that Tim Burton's best work is EdwardScissorhands, the film that codified Burton's insular self-pity; and dismisses the "monotonous" objections to that monument to attention deficit disorder, Moulin Rouge, by simply asserting that it's the most "exhilarating" movie musical since The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. John Boorman's TheGeneral is "one of the greatest Irish films," but Thomson doesn't deign to discuss it. Similarly, he says of Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful that "few events so surely signaled the decline of the motion picture as the glory piled on that odious and misguided fable." I agree! But given the magnitude of his disgust, couldn't he bother to tell us why?

Amid paeans to pals like Tom Luddy, he ignores Wong Kar-wai; has an item on Benicio Del Toro but not Guillermo Del Toro; and refuses to grapple with any of the subversive comedies of Albert Brooks—including his near-masterpiece Lost inAmerica—preferring to view him in the shadow of Woody Allen, to whom he bears only a superficial resemblance. Kent Jones at Film Comment steered me to his bizarre dismissal of Mikio Naruse, which is framed as a joke. (He pretends he hasn't seen any of Naruse's films, then owns up that he has but that they're as "ineffable" as anything made by his 13-year-old son, who hasn't made any.) I share his view of Stanley Kubrick's later work as "meretricious, fussy, and detachable," but does he grapple convincingly with Kubrick's champions? (I gave them short shrift, too, in my Slate pan of EyesWide Shut, but my review wasn't part of a "biographical dictionary.") He dismisses Brian De Palma as a technician without feeling (or worse, with misogynistic feeling) and speaks of the nullity of "movie genius … when it has no ideas." But he never seems to understand De Palma's genuine passion for suspense sequences that are worked out like spatial/temporal theorems. Because Thomson styles himself a lover of humanistic realism, I can certainly understand his dislike of De Palma, which leads him to consider the feverishly emotional Casualties of War as "exploitive." But then why does he esteem Ridley Scott's amoral and grotesque Hannibal, which he thought the best movie of its year? Thomson contains multitudes, but they are not large.

Despite his fluidity with subjects like Henry Fonda, Thomson is at his least interesting on actors. This is because, I believe, he judges them principally as emblems (or that overused word, icons). With very rare exceptions (Warren Beatty, perhaps, a pet subject), he has no empathy for their process and seems unable to get inside their heads. He writes about such titanic performers as Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Jessica Lange, Judy Davis, and Diane Keaton at arm's length. (He misjudges their work, too: He thinks Keaton's worst performance, in Reds, was among her best.) Even when he attempts, as with Robert De Niro, to make a case for the actor as a creative force, he is ruinously incapable of getting past his initial thesis (an "aversion to charm") to consider the deliberative nature of De Niro's best performances. (De Niro's deeply sympathetic and measured young don Vito Corleone is dismissed as "actorly.") Because he so rarely warms up to actors, he often projects lack of warmth onto them—as with Fred Astaire, whose reticence he finds chilly. (Does he prefer the more exuberant Gene Kelly? No, Kelly is "cold and aggressive.") Thomson is good on the darker shadings of a Bogart, but because he is so cool to John Huston, he can't bring himself to consider Bogart's seminal performances in The Maltese Falcon and Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Finally, this most bullying (but in a flip, Fleet Street way) of writers complains that Pauline Kael was "bullying … I loved her work, but did not like her much as a person—and I think many felt that way." Many, many did not, although Thomson would hardly be in a position to know. Since he has opened the door to hearsay, I might as well report that an acquaintance who shared a panel with him several years ago described him as "an astonishing asshole." But I suspect that this is not the whole truth about David Thomson: Opinions are so subjective.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. Dan Sallitt is a New York-based filmmaker and film critic. Mim Udovitch is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.

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