The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Not Unenjoyable
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 11 2002 2:04 PM

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

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Really? I don't feel the least bit bad taking shots at Thomson, not only because I have no warm personal relationship to this book and not only because I genuinely think he is wrong (wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!), but because he seems like a critic impervious to criticism. All right, I do feel a little bad, as indicated by leading my first post with whatever nice I had to say about his book. Nevertheless, I don't think it's necessarily true that if he edited himself more thoroughly it would take him a lifetime to finish one edition of it. He could, for one thing, let someone else edit him more thoroughly.

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I suppose to a certain degree the viability of this option would depend on whether or not he were indeed an astonishing asshole. Writing can take a lifetime. Thomson's writing does not give the impression of being greatly labored over, but who knows what his first passes at these entries looked like, assuming that those published are not they. Fact-checking on a work of this kind would be a nightmare. But being edited is part of the muddle and peril that goes with wanting to be a comprehensive essayist on pictures.

I did not intend what I said about Thomson's intelligence overwhelming his prose as a compliment. That I didn't is not unrelated to his inability to edit himself. Nor is it unrelated to David's observation that the book might be more accurately described as "autobiographical," which I swear to God was in my notes also. Intelligence is no more of a virtue, per se, than a willingness to embarrass oneself. Thomson's intelligence, like his amusement at pairing Frances Farmer with Sharon Stone, may be fun for him. But what's fun for him still isn't for me.

Any further examples I cited of either Thomson's sloppy thought or his sloppy writing would be, like Thomson's rhetorical questions, superfluous, especially now that David (who is right!) has weighed in with a number of them. To be something of a showoff, as well as stylistically self-indulgent, and if this 83-word sentence is still here, also demonstrably unwilling to recognize the necessity of corrective editorial action, I don't really even feel more than a tiny little bit bad that many of the qualities I disparage in Thomson's work—that he is a showoff, that he is stylistically self-indulgent, and that he does not recognize the necessity of corrective editorial action—are practically the hallmarks of my work. People slap me around on message boards all the time, and while not exactly turning cartwheels when running across their posts (and in fact sometimes responding to them in a blind rage), I don't think they're wrong as often as I think Thomson is.

Rolling around in the muck of this book isn't torture. I would even go as far as to say that it isn't unenjoyable. But the Internet Movie Database is an even more up-to-date source of factual information, it's a click or two away, and it weighs nothing. Pauline Kael's books are around the house, and if I suddenly took a notion to read some movie criticism for pleasure, clichéd as it is, that's to whom I'd go. If I needed a second (or first) critical opinion that was neither available to me through research nor covered by someone whose writing I admire, I might turn to The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. After all, it's here.

But barring that, having concluded this line, Thomson didn't give me much of a reason ever to pick it up again. 

Dan and David—still flattered to be in your company.

Best,
Mim

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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