The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
Hi, Dan. I loved what you wrote; David, where are you? I miss you.
Hm. To aspire to a world of vibrations and undertones and to live in it are not the same thing. Kerouac really did live in that world, and it's a nice place to visit. Thomson lives in a world that takes you to his disordered office floor, where one day photographs of Frances Farmer and Sharon Stone ended up side by side. Another stylistic quirk of Thomson's, illustrated by this particular entry, is the posing of questions to which he does not provide illuminating answers. "Why put these two together?" he asks at the beginning of Farmer/Stone. His essay on Paul Thomas Anderson is not entirely without merit (although it is wrong). But for me it dropped precipitously through the office floor when he asks but does not answer this question: "He is drawing fire on his own vulnerabilities. But is there any other way?"
Because, you know. If you grant the premise that Anderson has the vulnerabilities that Thomson says he does (the Reader's Digest version of which would be that he is self-indulgent in his work, his approach to the film industry, and his life—a premise that I would not grant) there are tons of other ways. He could drown in his own (presumed) vulnerabilities. He could confront them. He could run from them as if pursued by sporting gods menacingly wielding tridents. He could pin the tail on them. He could wrestle them to Thomson's office floor and increase the disorder there. He could play Twister with them. He could cease to make movies and just walk away from them. It is a superfluous question. Thomson has already justified in what specific way he thinks Anderson draws fire on his own vulnerabilities, and why.
Likewise, to ask, of Farmer and Stone, "Why put these two together?" and then answer, basically, "Crawl with me around my office floor" is not so much playful as it is a waste of space. And no, I am not forgetting that I am the person who spent more than 100 totally off-point words yesterday describing how I picture gods at play. Yes, yes, yes, after Thomson kicks his way through the shoe-sole-level piles of research that he has accumulated in the course of writing this book and seeing there the pictures of Farmer and Stone, he continues, "I thought I saw some useful pattern that concerns the muddle and peril of wanting to be a beautiful blonde in pictures."
The problem is that the pattern he then traces is not useful. It is not really more complex than that both actresses were beautiful blondes in pictures. He does not establish that Farmer's hair color or her beauty are what put her in peril. Or muddle. Neither does he establish those things about Stone. Had he said that he thought he saw some useful pattern that concerns the muddle and peril of being an intelligent beautiful blonde in pictures, the rest of the entry would have made some sense. And the absence of an explicit discussion of whether the muddle and peril of wanting to be a beautiful blonde in pictures remained static or changed between the late '30s, when Farmer did most of her work, and the '80s, when Stone did most of hers, would undercut it. He did make me want to watch Farmer's movies. But so would the mention of her name.
I agree that 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." No doubt. His amusement is, I am sure, fun for him. But not for me. I would say that Warhol's primitive cinema machine has the power to lower Garbo and Gable to the same squalid plane of fantasy on which his very mundane actors live by pointing up the voyeurism inherent in watching movies. This is sorta-kinda covered in Thomson's essay. But even if he thinks that Warhol's subject was "looking," as he says, rather than voyeurism, as I would say, he does not make me care. You did, because you expressed the thought better than he does.
In most of these entries, I miss the telling detail—the description of Thomson's office floor, the accidental pairing of Farmer and Stone, and the joint entry to which it led are revelatory of nothing other than Thomson's work methods. I read it and think: Come on, buddy, do your job, don't tell me how you do it, rather than: Wow. There is inherent muddle and peril in wanting to be a beautiful blonde in pictures. Who, given the omnipresence of the theory that this was the exact dilemma that constrained and eventually undid Marilyn Monroe, would have thought? I would also say that a writer whose weaknesses are apparent and whose strengths are hidden is … what is the phrase I am looking for? Oh, right. A bad writer. Which Thomson actually is not. He is intelligent (though wrong). In fact, his intelligence so overwhelms his prose that he is practically in danger of being squashed flat by it, as if he were Wile E. Thomson recently in receipt of a delivery from the Acme Intelligence Company. His passion for movies is abundant and abandoned. Just not in a way that invites you to share it. His ego is big enough for two or more. But it is not welcoming.
He is not uniformly ungenerous. He is generous to Warhol (though wrong). His entry on Wes Anderson, to return to the pages dealing with young directors named "Anderson," is, in full:
Wes Anderson, b. Houston, Texas, 1970
1994: Bottle Rocket(s). 1996: Bottle Rocket. 1998: Rushmore.2001: The Royal Tenenbaums.
Watch this space. What does that mean? That he might be something some day.
This is kind of a hat trick. Ungenerous to Wes Anderson, ungenerous to the reader, and even ungenerous to Thomson, because he does not give himself a ghost of a chance to aspire to the world of vibrations and undertones, let alone to get there. He is all overtone here. Willingness to risk embarrassment is not a virtue, per se. It is a fine thing in karaoke.
Even if Thomson feels that Anderson does not deserve better than this (and he is wrong, wrong, wrong!), he could, at a minimum, write: "Watch this space. What does that mean? That he might be something some day. Until then, he will remain the director who, in making Rushmore, provided the opportunity for a soundtrack that is one of the finest compilation CDs in rock history." It's equally disdainful. But it gives.
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.