The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Thomson Is Two or Three Critics in One
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 9 2002 2:29 PM

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

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Hi, Mim (and David?),

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I can feel myself slipping into the role of Thomson's defender in this discussion, especially as I promised that I would talk about those "hidden" virtues today. It is not a role in which I feel completely comfortable.

So I should get it off my chest now that I agree with much of what Mim wrote. I don't care for the stylistic stunt of throwing away Wes Anderson's piece (and I didn't like it better when he did the same thing to Richard Donner, who is not one of my pet filmmakers). I do not see sufficient reason to combine Frances Farmer's and Sharon Stone's entries. I bet that Thomson would argue that there isn't a solid reason and that he doesn't mean us to look for one, that the light provocation of suggesting continuity between the two careers is meant playfully. Still, it seems a showy gesture.

Thomson is forever asking questions he doesn't answer. (My favorite is when he asks rhetorically, "Why Johnny Carson in a book about movies?" then gives a total non-answer in two parts. The answer, of course, is that Thomson wanted to write about him, and that consistency isn't much of a goal here.) I don't really mind the idea of leaving questions hanging in the air, but unfortunately the technique too often comes across as something to fill space and give a little flair to the paragraph, as in the P. T. Anderson entry that Mim cites.

Above all, it's impossible to deny Mim's charge that Thomson spends way too much time telling us how he does his job and sometimes fails to do the job at all because of his pleasure in the telling.

Are some of these problems built into the enterprise? The fact is there are no other enterprises like this, which is a clue that Thomson's virtues and vices might be connected. If Thomson edited himself more thoroughly, maybe he'd be lucky to finish one edition in his lifetime.

A more interesting question: Who in the world would see this many movies and then write this particular book? Almost every other one-person movie reference that I can think of stays pretty close to the surface of criticism: Opinions are tossed off, but only in passing, with little attempt to expand upon or justify them. Despite Thomson's vast film-going experience (and as far as I can tell, he's not just coasting on a movie-mad early adulthood—he covers recent cinema in some detail), he doesn't have the obsessive-compulsive collector's temperament that I associate with the hard-core film buff. If I were guessing just on the basis of style, I'd imagine him a visitor from some other artistic discipline, so taken by the sensory impact of movies that he's ready to expend a few thousand words on whatever piece of fluff he's just seen. This combination of eye-straining completism and dilettantish enthusiasm is uncanny to me.

Another odd thing about Thomson is that he seems to be two or three different critics at once. When he writes about big stars, his fascination with their mythology carries him away: It almost feels as if he's savoring celebrity gossip. Except that the gossip he likes is imaginary! But then, he also goes back into the past and writes detailed, appreciative pieces on nearly forgotten figures: Ann Harding, Eddie Cantor, Nancy Carroll. Reading one of these pieces, you could almost mistake him for an old-time lover of the silver screen, one of those guys who stays away from any movie made after Bonnie and Clyde. (And the essays on all three of those neglected old actors were added to the dictionary in recent years—I'm impressed with this untrendy gesture.)

Then there's Thomson writing on the great directors. A whole other critic emerges: more focused, aware of existing critical trends and his place relative to them. What I really value about this book, as erratic and showy as it might sometimes seem, is that Thomson can make worthwhile contributions to film literature using a format that isn't congenial to serious criticism. For instance, I think that his little 1,500-word essay on Howard Hawks may be the key piece of writing on that very written-about filmmaker. Many critics had already done good work on Hawks, but they had mostly restricted themselves to discussing Hawks' themes and his characters' ethics. It remained for Thomson, in his allusive way, to make the crucial points that Hawks plays with levels of realism ("In that sense Hawks blended classical narrative cinema and cinema-verite. After all, The Big Sleep was like a home movie, made amid the dark interiors of a Warners studio.") and that he worked against the genre elements in his films. It's easy for director study to become flat and predictable: Direction is so mysterious, and the tools that critics have at their disposal often seem so limited. Thomson's intuitive approach can look scattershot and sloppy, but he doesn't simplify difficult issues or pretend they don't exist, and that gives him a leg up on many theorists.

Best,
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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