David Thomson’s most well known creation is his The Biographical Dictionary of Film. In this book, the British film critic covers a wide of film personalities, composing a biographical sketch for each one that serves as a thought piece about the person and/or what they might have stood for. The book is beloved by film critics and film nuts less for its usefulness as a reference book than for its unwieldy oddness.
Thomson uses the encyclopedic format to discuss whomever he wishes for as long as he likes. In my 4th edition (currently there are five) Johnny Carson is given a long entry, despite having virtually no career in film. Wes Anderson is given one sentence. Thomson’s writing has a tone of bitchy all-knowingness that can be irritating and amusing in equal measure. The Biographical Dictionary of Film has always struck me as somehow pre-modern, the work of a bewigged arrogant crank who attempts to corral all of his knowledge in one place with little to no scientific rigor.
Thomson has written many other books, mostly indulging his love of glamorous Hollywood personalities, with biographies of Orson Welles, Nicole Kidman, and Marlon Brando, among others. With The Big Screen, he has written for the first time a full on history of film.
In the Prologue he writes, “This book is an attempt at history, but it leaves many things out, and sometimes moves sideways, despite an overall belief in a steady, forward narrative… it’s the story of the movies, but it begins with still photography and comes up to Facebook and all the screens in our lives today.” The idea of a history of moving screens in general is the book’s main hook as an original approach to film history. It’s also the source of some of the weakest and unrealized writing, signaling Thomson’s awkwardness with anything but an established Western tradition.
More than anything, Thomson appears to be stuck in the art house film tradition of the ‘50s and ‘60s. This dictates his ideals for cinema as the prime populist and artistic medium of its time as well as how he structures film history: narrative film was solidified by D.W. Griffith and perfected by Hollywood, key artistic traditions were started in Europe by the German Expressionists and Soviet Montage, the Italians created Neorealism, the French exploded a self-referential style of cinema with the New Wave and the rest of world followed in the ‘60s. For anyone who has taken a film history class, much of this book will read like a tired retread of received wisdom and a good portion of this reads like the work of a funny and provocative professor finally putting his thoughts to paper, yet still tied to the same syllabus he’s been forced to teach for 30 years.
Thomson is obviously well-versed in this subject matter and some of the chapters have more dynamic structures to give it new energy and life, particularly a chapter revolving around the movie Sunrise, where he covers the life of F.W. Murnau, the tensions between urban and rural life in the early 20th century, erotic ideals, and how all of this was filtered through movies. Occasionally he will jump around to thrilling effect; he compares the portrait of the killer in M to Hannibal Lecter and Dexter; he jumps from Christopher Isherwood’s “I am a camera” to Jackass to Psycho. He can also be strong on US and British television, although I would disagree with his analysis of modern television creators like David Chase as artistically anonymous auteurs. In lesser moments the chapters are structured as a string of biographies, not much different from the dictionary: here is silent film comedy, here are the people who mattered and why and what Thomson thinks about them.
As a whole, one of the worst glaring problems with this older tradition and with this book is Thomson’s almost complete lack of comprehensive interest in world cinema (a criticism that has been leveled at him elsewhere). Besides a one-paragraph apology at the end for directors not covered, there is nary a mention of a director from China, India, South Korea, the Middle East, or Africa. Besides one chapter on Soviet montage and a brief discussion of the Czech New Wave there are no in-depth explorations of film in Eastern Europe.
There is one five page section on Japanese cinema in the ‘50s and ‘60s and half of that is spent discussing representations of Japan in Hollywood movies. Everything else is devoted to the cinema of Hollywood and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. He is also noticeably quiet about issues of race as related to this visual medium, but very loud about sex and violence. By incorporating different ideas and traditions of movie culture, Thomson could have deepened and built on his his history in exciting and valuable ways
On the micro level, the writing is incredibly uneven. One of my favorite parts of the Biographical Dictionary is looking out for Thomson’s idiosyncratic opinions, which can be maddening or enlightening in equal measure, and which gave the book’s its signature offbeat personality. In the context of this book, such opinions can be sloppy and ridiculous and too much of it does not hold up to the lightest critical thinking.
This can range from random asides such as asserting that the light in France “is often warmer, more general and generous; it may even have a touch of democracy to it” to more strident points, such has his attempts to prove that the classic Hollywood studio system was easier on directors than today because Vincent Minnelli died at 83 while Anthony Minghella died at 54.
He often contradicts himself and traffics in nostalgic clichés. He writes, “But in 2011 there were so few movies that dealt with our troubles, or offered a delightful distraction from them. In the ‘30s the movies shared in the nation’s trouble” – which I would argue is wrong about 2011 and if movies in 2011 weren’t dealing with contemporary problems or offering a distraction from them, what were they doing?
Some points I would argue are out and out wrong. He says that “The first significant awareness of toys, clothes, and souvenir memorabilia came with the television show The Adventures of Davy Crockett,” when Walt Disney himself had significantly used merchandising to grow his business in conjunction with the Mickey Mouse shorts and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
And then there are his discussions of “screens”, which becomes more and more tenuous as we approach the modern age. He seems to think that video games are made up of nothing but first-person shooters. He name checks Facebook without any serious discussion of how it is used. Towards the end he writes that, “This is a history of a larger process than ‘cinema is everything,’ and it is a book about worrying over the general impact of moving imagery and our becoming more removed from or helpless about reality.” Worry he does, and little else, about the topic of the affects of media on the brain, asking pop psychology questions (“Does motion picture affect us? How has it lasted a hundred years and more if there wasn’t an impact and an imprint?”) without exploring any answers.
He doesn’t cite and doesn’t appear to have done any research on the copious amount of work that has already been done by scientists and academics and educators and psychologists on the effects of mass media on the brain and development. He doesn’t recognize that video games, iPhones, and especially the Internet might have a tentative connection with the movie house, that they might be separate mediums with complexities not served by a tacked on comments within what is primarily a history of movies.
Thomson’s tries to connect all of these screens together by the concept of emitting light and our wonder at the this light: “So, in the first decades of the twentieth century, people elected to see projected movies in large groups. A hundred years later we are watching images nearly too small to see, in an isolation bordering on secrecy. The question hanging over these changes is whether we ever had a choice, or are we just helpless victims of the light?” This is an awful broad and poetic approach for analyzing how we interact with modern media. The Big Screen proceeds on a downhill trajectory, strong on the classic film and television history for which Thomson has already proven himself able, descending towards material for which he seems totally unsuited.