Book review: ‘The New Biographical Dictionary of Film’ by David Thomson
Film both mimics our dreams and provokes our fantasies. The idea that an individual’s relationship with it might be a narcotic, a heady mood or attitude, an atmosphere that changes speed and temperature but can never be escaped is central to David Thomson’s “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” an ongoing work that first appeared in the mid-1970s. Now in its fifth edition, almost 1,100 pages and with 130 new entries, this mad and magnificent opus finds cinema’s Dr. Johnson disenchanted, wondering if anybody cares about film history anymore and even if the medium will continue to command a backward survey.
While the Web, as Thomson notes, supports almost infinite access to visual material, it promotes a kind of blurred and hyperactive viewing: "[W]ith so much more to see, I wonder if people are watching as closely as once they did.”
Thomson is a great rhapsodist of how film acts on his, and therefore our, imagination. His métier has never been the straightforward movie review. He’s written fiction as though it were criticism (his lovely, haunted novel “Suspects,” for instance) and his criticism often soars toward the fantastical.
Watching a movie on an iPad or phone screen with headphones (a high-tech return to the form’s scrambling origins in the peep show) is probably anathema to this most classical of cinephiles, and it may be, as he suggests, that the intense experience of watching bright moving images in a big dark space will prove to have been bookended by D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 and James Cameron’s “Avatar” in 2009, two huge spectaculars that resemble each other in many ways, not least in that both pictures crystallized huge technical advances at a time when the business model of the entire industry was being thrown in the air.
Close viewing, and the insights that spring from rapt attention, are what Thomson’s criticism is all about. Despite its seemingly straitlaced A-to-Z format, the “Dictionary” is oddball and Borgesian, finding imaginative ecstasy in its encyclopedic tendency. The book crackles with epigram while often reaching for meanings that endow familiar subjects with a new reality.
Here’s Thomson on Robert Mitchum: "[F]or a big man, he is immensely agile, capable of unsmiling humor, menace, stoicism, and above all, of watching other people as though he were waiting to make up his mind.”
On Charlie Chaplin: “the demon tramp … is a character based on the belief that there are ‘little people.’ Whereas art should insist that people are all the same size.” On Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood”: “It was very hard to think of another picture that had so caught the recklessness of the later nineteenth century and the ghastly awareness of the loss of God or gods.”
Thomson has turned his pursuit of taste and reactions in the dark into a form of intellectual and emotional autobiography. Voyeurism — beauty and sexuality allowing themselves to be observed by the camera and by us, the viewers — inevitably plays its part too. Thomson reveals his soft spots for Debra Winger and Meg Ryan, his shameless adoration of Angie Dickinson and his (now somewhat modified) swooning over Nicole Kidman. Angelina Jolie in “The Changeling” is “as bad as anybody has been.”
Such headlong caprice almost demands dissent, but the “Dictionary” has always been a springboard for debate as much as an instructive tool.
Thomson has lived in America for many years now, and perhaps it’s greater proximity to film’s collaborative process that caused him to expand the “Dictionary” from its original concentration on performers, producers and directors. Some screenwriters have been added, and I long for the day when he writes about a publicist such as Pat Kingsley.
Thomson, soon to turn 70 and with more than a score of books to his credit, is warning us not to expect another edition of the “Dictionary.” Then again, in the last year alone he’s published a study of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and short biographies of Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. For somebody who protests that film criticism is beleaguered, he’s doing a pretty good job of holding the Alamo. With the so-called death of cinema really part of a wider technological revolution, what Thomson fondly thinks of as “Hollywood” may be dying, but film is just morphing.
One hopes he’ll never stop buttonholing us about it. I have two copies of his “Dictionary” in my office, another on the shelf by my bed, a further three (!) in the living room. And that’s just the fourth edition. It’s an essential, loony, irresistible book, and scarcely a week passes when I don’t submerge myself for an hour or two in its labyrinthine marvels.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of “A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming-of-Age.”