David Thomson, or "David Thomson"? Critic or stalker?
David Thomson is often described as a "film critic," but film criticism is not quite what he does. Nor is he a journalist or a biographer or a historian by any traditional definition of those terms. Thomson is a cinephile, a fantasist and an autobiographer, who writes about movies -- and the characters in them, and the people who make them -- as his possessions, imagined aspects of himself.
In the introduction to his best-known book, the idiosyncratic and provocative "A Biographical Dictionary of Film," he admits that, in writing about movies, he is unavoidably writing about himself -- and, indeed, the book might be better titled "An Autobiographical Dictionary of Film." All film criticism (and all writing, fiction or "non-fiction") is to some degree autobiographical, and Thomson has been more aggressive and up-front about his obsessions with his fantasy-objects, from Warren Beatty to Nicole Kidman, than most. But I'm not sure his treatment, or imaginative possession (sexual and otherwise), of his not-at-all-obscure objects of desire is any less tabloid-creepy because it is presented as critical nonfiction rather than as gossip or on some fanatical fan blog, except that Thomson's writing is better.
Last week, Kidman's reps said Thomson had misrepresented himself in the one telephone interview he did with Kidman for his ostensible biography, being sold under the title "Nicole Kidman." From The Daily Mail:
So, if Thomson is going to write about movie-fed fantasies, and he's decided to focus his on Nicole Kidman, what are his ethical responsibilities when it comes to soliticiting her unknowing cooperation in his enterprise? A review in the New York Times, which calls the ostensible biography "a weird and unseemly mash note," offers several quotes from the book, including:
According to the star's publicist Wendy Day: "Nicole has never met David Thomson. She has only spoken to him briefly on the phone about her acting processes and various films.
"He's a well-respected film writer and she accepted the interview only because she was under the impression he was writing a series of film essays."
Thomson also speculates about what might have happened on the set of "Eyes Wide Shut," in this excerpt from the book published in the Sunday Times of London:
“I should own up straightaway that, yes, I like Nicole Kidman very much. I suspect she is as fragrant as spring, as ripe as summer, as sad as autumn and as coldly possessed as winter.... That’s why I’m writing this book, I think, to honor desire."
“Just as I take the breakup with Cruise as the liberating and altering experience in Kidman’s life, so we have to see that Tom was changed, too."
“I dare say she wakes up some nights screaming because she felt it [aging, losing her looks] was about to happen. (Not that I can be there to witness it — or stop imagining it.)
Together, the extended schedule and the natural blood lust of the British press towards celebrities promoted unsubstantiated rumours that Cruise and Kidman required some psychological and sexual education to do their work. The couple successfully sued the Star in relation to these allegations. [...]
A director is an interloper if he is male and his actress is married. He says, I have to talk to you privately, intimately, because I have to talk to you about the way your desires — your desires, Nicole — may merge with and give body to your character. Alas, this has to be done away from your husband. It must be just the two of us. Oh, Tom, I must take Nicole away to somewhere private. This afternoon.
Scott Eyman in the New York Observer puts the book into perspective this way:
The two players took off their robes. They were stark naked. Goba noticed how beautiful she was. Then Nicole asked for a closed set. Kubrick would operate the camera himself. It was just the three of them.
It lasted six days.
Many situations were shot that do not figure in the film. There was a scene in a bath, for instance. There was also a scene in which he administered cunnilingus to her, in some detail, for which she wore a pubic wig. The restraint of the film-making process, its etiquette, is wondrous. I do not mean to suggest that the scene is gratuitous or unnecessary. It is an important part of the arc of the film. Not that it had to be as graphic as it is. Not that it is easy to see why six days were needed to get it all done. [...]
"Eyes Wide Shut" ends with huge uncertainty and the feeling of a psychic load not quite delivered. It’s as if the divorce between the leading players is the ending it needs. I think Kubrick made a film that whispered to Kidman: you are a real actor, a sexual phenomenon — and he is not. Nobody can see the film without inhabiting that dismay. So why should the two central players not feel it themselves?
From all accounts (and I have read only excerpts), Thomson's book sounds like a clip job, pieced together from other press clips, with minimum original research, like so many of those celeb "biographies" that are hastily thrown together to cash in on a star's fame. The difference is that Thomson himself has a reputation as a critic, albeit one who (as Eyman correctly observes) puts himself out there -- and puts his subjects out there, too, so that he can mingle with them.
There’s enough that’s self-indulgent in Mr. Thomson’s book to enable a certain kind of critic—the ones who clutch their pince-nez glasses as they lecture the class—to dismiss it as the equivalent of a hot-sheet special, the effusions of a critic in lust.
But Mr. Thomson has always put himself out there—he’s one of the rare writers who view criticism as an art form in its own right, and every artist has to reserve the right to fall on his face. In this particular book, there’s a dream sequence set in a Parisian bordello that verges on the embarrassing, and there are occasional sentences that could have been lifted directly from Photoplay magazine circa 1938: “It is Nicole’s nature to be sturdy, cheerful, robust, a real person, full of common sense." At these times, the book is simply what my grandfather used to call a “mash note." Mr. Thomson has earned the right to his enthusiasms, if only for his "A Biographical Dictionary of Film," which is never less than interesting, frequently irritating, occasionally maddening—and one of perhaps half a dozen indispensable books about the movies.
Last week I wrote about "Death of a President" and the British tradition of presenting speculative fiction about future events in the form of a documentary. Is that something like what Thomson thinks he's doing here, presenting his speculations about past events, real and imagined, from Kidman's off-screen life (mixed with his own sexual fantasies about her) as a "biography" -- the obverse of Edmund Morris's fictionalized "official" biography of Ronald Reagan, "Dutch" -- a biography presented as fiction? If so, shouldn't "Nicole Kidman" be positioned as criticism/fiction in the form of a celebrity biography, rather than as traditional nonfiction?
How much license does a critic or other kind of writer have over the image of an actor or filmmaker? When it comes to libel law or fair use of a person's likeness, is an actress the same kind of "public figure" as an elected government official like a president? How are Thomson's biographical speculations, mixtures of journalistic sources and fictional techniques, significantly different from James Frey's autobiographical self-inventions in "A Million Little Pieces"? If fantasies about the personal life of an actress are to be considered legitimate forms of film criticism, then on what grounds do we object to reviews in the Los Angeles Times of screenplays, which likewise have a relationship to, but do not actually correspond to, what appears in a finished motion picture?
As you can probably tell, I'm bothered by the ethical implications of this kind of writing about film and celebrities. Thomson has long assumed the role of critic/stalker, a perpetual outsider who imagines himself an insider, who fantasizes himself an intimate of the people he writes about and makes few distinctions between them as movie characters, public figures, or actual human beings. It can be a fascinating approach, and (often at the same time) a horrifying and pathetic one. (I remember an insufferably smug Film Comment piece he wrote about Scorsese in the 1980s that spoke directly to "Marty" in a sophomoric way that made me mildly ill. He has written screenplays, including one -- as yet unmade -- called "Fierce Heat" that, according to his Wikipedia entry, was to have been produced by Scorsese and directed by Stephen Frears. I don't know what it's about or why it was not made [maybe I'll imagine a piece of criticism about it sometime], but Scorsese has made a movie about a Thomson-esque character before: Rupert Pupkin, in "The King of Comedy.")
I've admired Thomson's criticism -- especially his indispensable "Biographical Dictionary" -- for years, but found his "journalism" (particularly his feigned "insights" into how the American entertainment business and culture works) to be superficial and largely based on speculation and wish-fulfillment. Which is why what I've read of, and about, this book has been troubling. This blurb on the Random House site about Thomson's collection, "Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts," nicely summarizes Thomson's fantasy approach to movies:
That's the nice way of looking at it, but there's another side to the coin. It's one thing to imagine alternative lives for dead people or movie characters. But does Thomson have the right to claim anyone and everyone associated with movies as his personal Plaything? What do you think? Anybody read the (whole) book yet?
If most film critics write about movies, David Thomson creates their literary counterpart with essays that are as dazzling, haunting, and moving as the pictures they discuss. In this bravura new collection, the Esquire columnist trains his eye on Hollywood's ghosts, exploring their tendency to rise from the grave or descend from the screen to intimately haunt our lives.
Thomson conjures up Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, and Cary Grant in any of the pictures where he makes every scene look like a lucky accident. With equal aplomb, he imagines a James Dean who survived the car crash and a post-Saturday Night Fever Tony Manero. We learn the "20 Things People Like to Forget About Hollywood" (Number 3: "You Are Their Playthings, Not the Other Way Around"). And on every page of Beneath Mulholland, we are educated, entertained, and enlarged by a book as savvy and incisive as any Hollywood reportage and as lyrical as the best fiction.