The recently published fourth edition of David Thomson’s seminal The New Biographical Dictionary of Film reminds us that he is an uncommon critic. In last November’s Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Schwarz described Thomson as “probably the greatest living film critic and historian,” who “writes the most fun and enthralling prose about the movies since Pauline Kael,” whose judgments “can be exasperatingly wrong.” That seems about right. Most cineastes can fill a commonplace book with Thomson lines they wish they’d written, and can’t soon forget the many for which they hate him.
Here he is on Kevin Spacey: “He can be our best actor, but only if we accept that acting is a bag of tricks that leaves scant room for being a real and considerate human being.” On Susan Sarandon: “She seems to be looking for dignity now—and sooner or later dignity means plastic surgery.” On Quentin Tarantino: “In so many ways, he is the epitome of that brilliant, remorseless, empty-life student that every film teacher has tried to avoid.”
And here, from the introduction, is Thomson on himself: “...this is a book, and I think I have learned that I love books more than films.”
What he really loves is having the discussion, getting himself and his readers worked up. On the page, he’ll be a curmudgeon or a flirt, but he won’t be disingenuous; Thomson extends himself to movies with the hope of intimacy, and complains most—and most eloquently—when they refuse rapport. In the veil of goading film-buff gossip he drapes rigorous, humane and essential questions about the cinema craft: “Jarmusch has a rare feeling for urban desolation, for loneliness, and the sweet, whimsical overlap of chance and companionship. It is gentle, offbeat, and poignant—but does it make whole films?”
Really, it’s Thomson’s willingness to essay on such inquests so sportively, not his demonstrably encyclopedic knowledge, that brings the book to 963 pages and gives you the feeling that none should be skipped. A shorter version, then called A Biographical Dictionary, not The, first appeared in 1975, and subsequent editions have gradually built the authority for which Thomson is now revered and reviled. Some have said he might as well just call it the Autobiographical Dictionary. They’ve got a point, but Thomson still wants readers to have some work and some fun cut out for them.
He regularly contributes to a variety of periodicals in England and the United States—the New York Times, Salon, The Independent, The New Republic, and Movieline, among others. He is the author of 16 other books, many about movie people, and about movies and people; he’s also interested in the American penchant for exploring frontiers of landscape and self, a myth in which he also participates.
Thomson lives with his second wife, the photographer Lucy Gray, and their two young sons, Nicholas and Zachary. We spoke recently in their book-lined San Francisco home, which is just around the corner from a small cinema.
Can you tell me about your early life, your formative experiences of being a reader and a viewer?
I was raised in South London. I’m sure I went to movies before I could read. My parents discovered that I loved movies. If you wanted to deal with me, you could take me to a movie. The Olivier Henry V was important to me. A lot of kids were taken to see it after the war. It was regarded as a standard of national pride. But generally, I saw children’s films. I>Lassie, and that sort. Much more child-appropriate films. I think for years, I had read pretty standard children’s books. My parents pumped a few classics into me, like Treasure Island. Robert Scott’s journal of his travels had particular fascination, because his house was nearby. The first author beyond a strictly children’s author I discovered was Conan Doyle. I’d say I was at first not very discriminating. I just read for the pleasure of it. My family helped me read newspapers too, from a young age, and I’m glad of that. I believe it’s very important. I read a lot. I was an only child so I had a lot of time to myself. My early friends were more interested in sports—reading wasn’t a shared experience. But in high school, I found reading and move-going companions. I knew that the world of film and the world of books were important to me. I belong to both of them, and I feel torn because of that.
You’ve said that your interest in films as a youngster may have led you astray from a higher calling. Can you elaborate?
I had been to a school [the Dulwich College preparatory academy] that regularly sent people to Oxford and Cambridge. I did indeed win a place at Oxford to read history. But I had become increasingly disenchanted with academic life. Well, I heard about a nearby film school [the London School of Film Technique], and that appealed to me. I was warned that this particular college was not accredited; my schoolteachers were against this. But I finally opted to go to film school, and consequently was never awarded the university degree.
So has your professional life turned out to be much different from the one you might have expected?
Thank God. Always. I think all I’ve learned is that you don’t know what you’re going to do, and thank God that’s true. I tried to get into the film business in Britain at a very bad time. Instead, I got a job as a proofreader for Penguin, then a staff job there, and spent seven years in publishing. I learned so much about books and writing. Years later, an American college opened up in England, and that led to me coming to America. When I left England, I felt, “Well, you’re off in the world now.” Tiny changes can have enormous importance. There are people who settle in life very early. I’m very happy living here in the way we’re living, but I think I could be as happy living elsewhere.
Who are your models, your mentors?
As a teenager, I loved reading American literature. I realize now that it was also out of a wish to know more about America. I would read Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, with great eagerness. Later it was Gore Vidal, Mailer, Joan Didion. My favorite writer of all time is probably Nabokov. A very dangerous writer to adore—you go through a phase when your head is so full of his style that there’s no room for your own. With the filmmakers, it’s Renoir, Hawks, Godard. I find their worldviews very interesting.
Are there some movies or people that have been difficult for you to write about?
Two directors I always find very challenging are Bresson and Buñuel. There are a whole set of stylistic assumptions that they’ve made before you begin. You’ve got to begin with a basic education. They are still two of the greatest. You just feel you want to do justice. I just did the liner notes for the DVD of [Bresson’s] Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, and it was a tough task. It took me a long time.
It does seem that there’s a surplus of criticism and commentary now. Have the duties or the priorities of film writers changed during your lifetime or career?
We have fallen into a monstrous fallacy, that every newspaper in the country should review every film that opens. Why should Jackass be reviewed? I’ve never been that comfortable being what you’d call a film reviewer. It seems a little bit narrow to me. I guess, on the whole, people make up their own minds. With most reviews, the main thrust is to make you go see the film. I prefer film commentary that’s to be read after you’ve seen the film, and is more searching. I like when I have the chance to say something about a larger world. The original edition of the Dictionary was written entirely in England on English experience. Now the book is the work of an American. With the first edition, I didn’t know more than two or three people. Now I know many of them and have seen them work. It’s a more professionally knowing book. Which may mean it’s got more gossipy stories, and also more insight.
The first one was written in the early ‘70s. That was a great time. I had a regular experience of going out one night to see a film and not wanting to wait to get home and write about it. Well, not so, now. I hope that this is a passing phase, but I’m not sure that it is. With the newspapers, different places have different aims. The New York Times has very different ideas about what their readers understand. They take the view that their audiences are readers first. But why the book has sold more this time, I don’t know.
It’s considered a reference work and a personal, creative work. Are these descriptions compatible?
It’s an entirely willful, disobedient book. I proposed one kind of book to a publisher. I cottoned on fairly early that you could get the proposal through and then do a completely different book. It is an aggressive but adoring book about these people. It is not intended as a book that lays down the law. It’s intended to draw you into an argument. I would say you can probably skip some entries. But recognize that you live in a world where this is very important. This is a book that tries to understand [the world and cinema] in human terms. Yes, it’s a book you can look things up in. And it’s also a book you can read. As a writer, you don’t want agreement.
That’s what it’s about: getting to that point of natural, passionate conversation, not antagonism. You’re not challenging [readers]. You’re challenging an idea. It is awfully easy to be disdainful. You can do that in a lot of ways. I’m not beyond provoking and teasing an audience. You’ve got to put on your show. Showmanship comes from loving audiences. You get people laughing a bit and you’ll find that they’re starting to think.
You’ve described performers as “actorly,” and I wonder if there is such a thing as “critic-ly.” Have you ever written something you don’t mean?
It’s a good question. If you do it long enough, it can give you a stance that you apply to a lot of other things in life…and you get away with it, although it’s pretty bogus. I think that when someone makes you aware of their process, it can become a problem. Ideally, you should feel like you’re watching a person in life. The temptation is to think that being a critic is a way through life, which it isn’t. I think anyone has written something for effect. You hear a line, it’s irresistible. I can’t think of a writer who hasn’t had that experience. When I was young, I used to write a lot of stuff that should have been thrown straight away. Now I waste less time, and I’m a better self-editor. You’ve got to write a lot before you know what your voice is.
What is the value, to you, and to a culture, of literacy?
I think it’s just vital. I think it’s a scandal that, 100 years after the dawn of film and at a time when we know statistically how much time children spend watching moving imagery, that the educational system doesn’t take on filmic literacy. For instance, classes could ask what is a cut and what does it do, as they ask what is a sentence and what does it do. Yes, literacy has declined. And you’ve got children who are terribly vulnerable to what they see on the screen. I think the school should spend much more time examining how we think we know. How do we think we understand? I think those are huge issues.
I’m very interested in film as an influence on behavior, in how films affect the way people regard love and truth and violence. It’s something I’ve been trying to explore for a long time: the degree to which films have been making a dream landscape for all of us. The degree to which many people walk around today in life as if they half hope they’re being photographed. Everyone is a little bit of an actor nowadays. The people as a whole have turned into ghosts that are imitating people in films. Nobody in this country has any politics anymore, and I think it’s connected. We’ve given up the responsibility of being ourselves. Generally, I think film is much too complicated to be just worshipped. I find that very disturbing.