The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Touch Football Among the Gods
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 8 2002 1:58 PM

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

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Oh, hello there, Dan and David! Good morning! I'm flattered to be in your company.

With regard to The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson, as he writes in the first sentence of his Julie Andrews entry, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nuthin' at all—so Thumper is taught in Bambi."

So: I hope this finds you both well.

Best,
Mim

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Oh, OK, I do have something nice to say about the book. But first something necessary, which would be a brief description of the work in question: It is an updated edition of a compilation of short essays on actors, directors, and others—Jack Warner, Pauline Kael, and so forth—whose impact on movies is or has been significant, organized alphabetically by surname. On its back jacket, which quotes many people whose opinions I respect praising the book and/or its author, Laura Miller describes it as "more than a little addictive." I agree. This is kind of faint praise—I think reference works in general are addictive. Two that I recommend are The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and A. Cuddon's A Dictionary of Literary Terms. But it is praise. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is a book that is hard to put down (and at 963 pages, when you did it would land with a thud and your downstairs neighbors would bang on their ceilings with a broom).

In addition, I have some things to say that, while not especially nice, are not nasty. Thomson's assessments are blatantly subjective, which I like. I rarely agree with him, and his use of the first-person is infrequently leavened with modesty. But being wrong (from my point of view) and being arrogant are not necessarily bad attributes in a critic. They are bad attributes in a person seated next to you at a dinner party. In criticism, being wrong and arrogant are positive qualities if they prompt the reader to think.

My (usual) disagreement with Thomson hardly ever prompts that kind of thought. I don't disagree with him violently enough. I just don't agree.

In writing about Andy Warhol, for example, Thomson starts by saying that Warhol's "blank, friendly inertia … does not fit the thousand-word introductions to significant moviemakers of our time. He would not see any difference between such essays and the brochures for motorcycles, the rapturous endorsements of cosmetics, or the interminable monologue of any person trying to hold back silence." This is a little self-regarding, insofar as it suggests that Andy Warhol might find in Thomson's work an occasion for his own. And, if seated next to Thomson at a dinner party when he was making this assertion, it might prompt you to knock your wineglass into his lap.

Mainly, though, it is wrong, and so obviously wrong that it is not interesting to dispute it. Warhol would see the difference. Because there is a difference, and he was not an idiot. If what Thomson means is that the difference wouldn't matter to Warhol, he should say so. And then explain himself, because he would still be wrong.

As it is, I spent more time disagreeing violently with Thomson's stylistic bag of tricks and his deployment of them—absolutely unfairly, because very few authors could write hundreds and hundreds of 1,000(ish)-word essays, the difference between which and brochures for motorcycles would be glaringly evident to anyone, without revealing their formal limitations. I couldn't, and this isn't false or cute modesty.

Actually, given the format, Thomson's stylistic range is impressive, another nice thing I think I have to say. But his use of language is frequently lax, and it hurts him. In the Warhol entry, he says that the stars of Warhol's films "move with the ponderous shyness of gods at play." You could say they move that way. Or you could say they move like JUNKIES, since that's what more than a few of them were. But primarily, this is the thought it prompted: In what polytheistic religion would gods move ponderously and shyly when at play? I picture Valhalla in its leisure moments as happily engaged in a game of touch football, like so many Kennedys on the lawn. The Dalai Lama seems like he would make a very decent shortstop and even if lacking the fundamentals would be neither ponderous nor shy. Greco-Roman gods would probably have some elaborately self-devised form of play in which, if you can turn into a bull before being speared by a trident, you are not counted out. It is obviously an advantage in any sport involving catching or throwing to have 18 arms.

In short: It is a cumbersome thing to say. It impedes the development of Thomson's thesis into the middle of which it lurches. It distracts the reader. It is not insightful. It is not provocative. It's just there. And it's annoying. 

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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