The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

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New books dissected over email.
Oct. 8 2002 2:46 PM

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

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Hi, Mim and David!

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Well, I have all sorts of feelings about Thomson's work, and some of them line up with Mim's. But let me try to make a case for him, if only to bring the discussion into a state of equilibrium.

Of all the film writers that I admire, Thomson is surely the one whose work would hold up least well under a word-by-word examination. And it's not because he's a con artist (which you could say of some important film writers, like Godard) or because he's devoid of good ideas.

Partly it's because he's a frighteningly uninhibited writer—frightening, at least, to an uptight, pulled-in type like myself—who has gotten gradually more uninhibited over the years, to the point where I now picture him typing nonstop à la Kerouac and sending pieces off to the editor without a backward glance. He risks embarrassment with almost every sentence, finds it often enough, and doesn't seem to care in the slightest.

And partly it's because he aspires to a world of vibrations and undertones. He seems always to be circling some ineffable idea, trying to lay hands on it with one phrase or another, hoping that the whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts. I think Mailer must have been a huge influence on him. Notice how he loves to create imaginary connections and facts and then ruminate on them as if they were real. The book is shot through with "What if?" conjectures, like his playful joint entry on Frances Farmer and Sharon Stone. ("They never met, and there is only the faintest possibility that they could have been mother and daughter.") Sometimes the associations are evocative, sometimes maddening. I imagine that nearly every actor Thomson writes about would want to throw the book against the wall—he can't resist writing about actors as if they were fictional characters, filling in the back story of their lives out of his imagination.

I can see why Mim was troubled by Thomson saying that Warhol's stars "move with the ponderous shyness of gods at play." Any existing notions we have of gods at play are only going to create confusion here. A few sentences later, Thomson says of Blue Movie, "It bridges the gap between performed and achieved sex and shows that mature people need be no more alarmed by that gap than trapeze artists by the absence of a net." The figure of speech falls apart: It's very easy to imagine trapeze artists being alarmed by the absence of a net. We could find more problems like this without much difficulty.

But I don't think that the phrases are senseless. "Ponderous shyness" is a good description of how Warhol's actors move: They are a little cowed by the recording mechanism; they have no director or editor to get them gracefully from A to B; we hear the creaking of floorboards and springs that most sound-cutters would remove. (They do indeed move like junkies, but Thomson had gone there earlier in the paragraph, and I think he's after something else now.) "Gods at play" isn't the helpful metaphor that we expect from the sentence structure—but it is a new idea that collides dialectically with the earlier one. Thomson is amused by the fact that Warhol's primitive cinema machine has the power to lift these very mundane actors to the same exalted plane of fantasy where Garbo and Gable live. Somehow Warhol's movies, in their people-centeredness, recreate the star fascination of old Hollywood. Even if Thomson's mode of expression can be faulted, his two concepts, put side by side, are a respectable attempt to evoke the Warhol experience.

I was going to say more about Thomson as a film critic because I think some of his strong points are hidden by the very addictiveness that goes with this literary territory. Whereas his weak points are not hidden at all. More on that later, I guess.

Time for a late breakfast. Looking forward to hearing from you both.

Sincerely,
Dan

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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