If you need a clue about what matters to David Thomson, take a look at the photograph on the cover of his mammoth The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. It’s a still from To Have and Have Not of Hoagy Carmichael playing the piano with Lauren Bacall looking on. Many Americans today are unlikely to recognize the film or the actors. But Thomson is not interested primarily in the flesh of the present; he is more concerned with the spirits of the past. Despite new additions to his earlier work, Biographical Dictionary of Film, the New in the current work’s title adds little of substance. Thomson’s work is more like a biographical history of film, with historic film personalities such as Orson Welles and Humphrey Bogart garnering more paper space (as they should), and those like Julia Roberts and Edward Norton getting a few scraggy paragraphs, and the likes of the Farrelly brothers, whatever may be their aesthetic value, getting none at all.
A biographical dictionary, much like a complex machine, has interlocking parts, each impacting the other. The accomplishments of several hundreds of personalities involved in the film world have to be detailed; yet the details cannot be so numerous as to overwhelm the work. In no other work is there a greater need to be prodigious and pithy at the same time.
Thompson’s dictionary-writing skills, constrained by the nature of the beast, are perhaps best suited to the task. His encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood and beyond enables him to channel oceans of information into little streams of thought. At the same time, Thomson is remarkably adept at brevity, though sometimes at the cost of cogency. In this respect, as in the matter of his vast film knowledge, his writing resembles that of Pauline Kael, one of the few film critics, along with James Agee and Graham Greene, included in his book.
The compulsions of concision inevitably require Thomson to make value judgments about actors and directors with minimal reasoning; much like Pauline’s barbs in her New Yorker columns. He berates Roberto Benigni (“I despise Life is Beautiful, especially its warmth, sincerity and feeling, all of which I believe grow out of stupidity.”) Alec Baldwin gets the same treatment (“To these eyes, he’s rarely convincing, or even comfortable.”) And of Emily Watson, he says “In fact, very often during Breaking the Waves, I wanted to get up on screen and wring her character’s neck.”
Like many of the characters played by his hero Cary Grant, Thomson has a certain dry wit that is endearing. Of Drew Barrymore, “I can’t help finding it shocking as well as startling, that Drew Barrymore was born so recently, and yet seems to have been here, and a problem, so long.” And of Michelle Pfeiffer, he notes “She still carries the rather stunned, obedient air of an ex-checkout girl at the El Toro Vons supermarket, as well as the luster of an Orange County beauty pageant winner”.
But Thomson’s endeavors into serious analysis of his subject’s acting and directorial styles involve him in uncomfortable pronouncements on their true nature, as if every actor or director has an inner spirituality that he or she needs to connect with. Both in throwing his bricks and presenting his bouquets, Thomson seems curiously off the mark. His insistence on judging directors and actors by how close they came to being honest to themselves rankles after awhile. Even by the tenuous standards of film criticism, this is pushing the envelope. In the real world, it is difficult to find someone who is honest; in show business, it is all but impossible.
Thomson does his best when he forays into the biography part. In his critic’s hat, he is usually unbearably abstruse and pontifical; but once he gets into his biographer’s garb, the difference is startling; suddenly the interesting little details of the personalities emerge out of the morass, and we can see the human beings behind the names. To borrow Thomson’s favorite theme, the film people reveal themselves truly and honestly in their formative years. The reason is not difficult to discern; by the time we come to a discussion of their aesthetics, they have already been tainted by saturated media coverage, and are mere cardboard cut outs for us now.
Reading Thomson’s work is like talking to a scholarly uncle; the academic talent brings out an exhaustive source of information on film; the relationship brings out an informal tone. The effect of his casual insouciance on contemporary American film personalities is to draw the viewer in. We share in Thomson’s gleeful barbs; a reader-identification difficult for most film critics to achieve.
Despite its title, the book is tilted dangerously towards American and European film personalities. Film industries in places such as India, fast becoming a global phenomenon, have not been included. Indian directors like Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala) or actors like Amitabh Bachhan (named the actor of the millennium by a BBC poll) get no mention (though he covers Satyajit Ray). The nature of a dictionary allows for some omissions, but the prejudice is evident.
There is hope, however, for Thomson faithfully follows the big bang theory of publishing; his book is expanding and is now 960 pages. The next edition of the book will in all probability reach the K figure and it is hoped will be more inclusive than pontifical as a result.
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