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The Return of the Autobiographical Dictionary of Film

newbio-cover.jpgEver since David Thomson's "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" was published in 1975, browsers have said that they love to hate Thomson's contrarian arguments -- against John Ford or Frank Capra, Coppola or Kubrick, for example.¹ Fans and critics can cite favorite passages of resonant beauty, mystifyingly vague and dismissive summary judgments and entire entries in which the man appears to have gone off his rocker. And that's the fun of it.

To be fair, Thomson broke faith with (or has been suffering a crisis of faith in) American movies at least far back as "Overexposures: The Crisis in American Filmmaking" (1981), and he's been writing about his crisis ever since. To put it in a sentence that could serve as the ending of one of his entries: I am willing to believe that he loves (or once loved) movies even if he doesn't like them very much. (Wait -- how does he conclude the Katharine Hepburn piece? "She loved movies, while disapproving of them.")

When I encountered the first edition of this book, the year I entered college, I immediately fell in love with it because it was not a standard reference. It was personal, cranky, eloquent, pretentious, pithy, petty, ambitious... It was, as I think Thomson himself suggested in the foreword to the first or second edition (this is the fifth), more accurately titled "An Autobiographical Dictionary of Film." Many times over the years I have implored my employers or partners to license digital rights to Thomson's book so that it could augment and be integrated with other movie databases and references (at Cinemania, FilmPix,, but we've never done it. What, they would ask, is the "value-add"? (Really. Some people used to talk that way.) As a reference, its coverage is too spotty (Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia is much more comprehensive but also has loads of incomplete filmographies), as criticism it's wildly idiosyncratic (nothing wrong with that) and as biography it's whimsically selective and uneven, leaving as many holes as it fills.

All that, of course, goes with the format -- and the personality that fills this particular volume. But as much as we may say we love to "argue with" Thomson (in our heads), and he may encourage us in that regard when pushing the book, his mini-essays don't really offer much of an opportunity to do that. The best we can do is to believe that we agree or disagree with him, for reasons perhaps neither of us can articulate.

For example, I think I know precisely what he means when he writes of one of Andrei Tarkovsky's films, "For this viewer, there is something tyrannical about it that spurs irreverent thoughts of resistance." Well, I often feel that way while watching Tarkovsky, a director I have to work hard to appreciate because I don't feel much of a temperamental affinity with his films. (Also, he makes Michael Haneke look like a cut-up.) So, to me, Tarkovsky often seems less a visual poet than a dour tyrant. But that, too, is personal -- and maybe it has to do with my own experience in 1983 of sitting there in a stifling hot Sheridan Opera House in Telluride while the Russian artiste did, in fact, lecture the audience about his artistic superiority to American cinema before premiering "Nostalghia," a film to which I remain less than receptive, perhaps as a consequence.

My point is that while Thomson is able to identify a tone he detects in Tarkovsky's work ("something tyrannical"), he doesn't end up having much to say about it. So, the reader may say, "Yes! Me, too!" or, "No! Absolutely not!" or, "What?" -- and that's pretty much the extent of the "argument." (If argument is what you want, "Biographical Dictionary" really should be a web site, with comments enabled and a full-time moderator to shut out the trolls, the ignoramuses, and the unintelligible.)

The hardback edition of "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film" (it lost the scrupulous indefinite article "A" some years ago) features a familiar image from Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" on the jacket. Thomson's entry about Anderson is mostly about "Magnolia" ("his most youthful and indulgent film -- with "Hard Eight" his "best and most austere" -- no direct mention of "Boogie Nights" (1997) or "Punch-Drunk Love"), then concludes with a paragraph about "TWBB":

In advance, there were very few coherent ideas as to what "There Will Be Blood" was or was trying to be. And on first viewing, it was not easy to grasp just how audacious the film was. It was alleged to be a version of Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil!," and there was a sense of the desert geology being carved up by ant-like men that was both epic and comic, and which reminded one of "Greed" more than "Giant." It was a parable about capitalism, piracy, and initiative, and it was in that breadth that some people saw and felt a genuine extension of "Citizen Kane," in the sense that it was a film about how America was made. The film had its crazy aspect, and an unwavering interest in nobility. 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. It was a great film and the plain impact of a major director, even in the brief history of a very threatened medium.

There's a lot in there, and you can pick and choose what you want to take from it. That's the limitation -- and sometimes the beauty -- of the capsule style. Although the first sentence seems to be an attempt to circle back to the opening of the entry (which asked how a poster could possibly suggest what "Magnolia" was like, or about), I'm not sure what else Thomson was trying to say about "TWBB" with it. Is there any good way to form "coherent ideas" about a complex movie -- what it is or is trying to be -- "in advance"? Should there be? Or was he merely saying that he had expected something sui generis before he'd seen the picture?

Certainly the one thing you could take away from "TWBB" on first viewing is that it's "audacious." And I'll take some of Thomson's other images, too: the ant-like men, epic and comic, carving up the desert geology, the sense of recklessness... I'm not sure how we get from the movie's "crazy aspect" to "unwavering interest in nobility" in the same sentence, but if this is just a list, then those qualities are worth checking off. And by the time we get to that last sentence, I'm again not quite sure what he means (why that last phrase?), or how/if the rest of the paragraph supports it, but I'm willing to take him at his word. (Personally, and I've written about this extensively, I think Daniel Day-Lewis's hambone performance may be the one thing that prevents it from achieving the greatness Thomson claims for it, but he doesn't mention the film's performances here.)

Again, that's a limitation of the "dictionary" guide format, even one as idiosyncratic as Thomson's. Insights, opinions and generalizations are intermingled, leaving you to perhaps nod your head if you've seen the movie he's talking about, or shrug your shoulders if you haven't. Or the other way around.

Here are a few little nuggets I appreciated during a recent leaf-through. Though I don't necessarily go along with all of them, I think I can understand where he's coming from:

On the Coens' "Miller's Crossing": "Yet it had an emotional core that burned through the serpentine plot; here was a film about the difficulty, and nearly the shame, in admitting feeling."

On Christopher Nolan: "... Without meaning to be crushing, I have to say that his work [since 'Memento'] has already become progressively less interesting.... Alas, Nolan's pictures have grown very large, and portentous.... Nolan has a dark vision, but the pictures carry no pain."

On "Zodiac": "... one of the great films about paranoia..."

On Wong Kar-Wai: "He is masterly. Yet he is also, for the moment, able to suggest that in being a Hong Konger or Asian or alien, he is freed from the need to involve us or move us. But suppose Hong Kong has no other desire than to be as lovely and empty as the standard of iconography in Western music videos and fashion magazines?"

On Judd Apatow: "Judd Apatow may have problems, and it may be that he's not in the best position to work them out. But don't doubt the man's talent, don't take lightly his own claim -- that no one has influenced him more than John Cassavetes."

On Alan Parker's "Shoot the Moon": "... well acted, and deeply anguished -- but its final bout of violence seems just a way of ending the show."

On George Clooney: "... he has a lot of the material it would take to be the most interesting and equivocal actor of our time. Everything except the parts? And everything except the innate anxiety that cannot quite trust his own image.... What Clooney lacks is the unease, the dissatisfaction with himself that would permit the heights of drama or comedy in any relationship. His being pleased with himself comes in advance of our response, and takes the edge of decision away from us. But it is his own safety net, too, and it is the sign that he is not quite ready to let himself be vulnerable." [This was written before 2010's "The American."]

On "Million Dollar Baby": "The story... is one of the most daring if crude sucker-punches in movie history -- how far it was due to Haggis or to Eastwood is an open question." [Thomson means this as a compliment.]

On Dustin Hoffman: "No one seems more retired while still working."

On Adam Sandler: "Adam Sandler is an industry. On 'Anger Management,' he earned $25 million against 25 percent of the gross and was plainly the lead player in the film that also included Jack Nicholson. It was a pretty good way to waste a couple of hours -- if that's what they're showing on your aircraft. In other words, at that great peak, Adam Sandler was a mild, passing entertainment if you were eating your lunch, speaking to friends, and even looking out of the window at rather more majestic views..."

On Guillermo Del Toro: "Del Toro is a writer as much as a creator of warped visions, and that is how he has had such a profound influence on the way Latin American cinema has come to enrich the dying strain of fantasy in American pictures."

On Kevin Smith: "This is the authentic voice of a generation still in love with movies, but certain that -- so far -- they have been prettified junk. What it means, I think, is that Smith's biggest peril is seeing something that isn't junk, getting the message, and trying to grow up."

On Abbas Kiarostami: "But, humbly, I suggest that Godard and many others did it, in another age, with more humor, intellect, beauty and terror. Kiarostami is a fascinating figure. He represents a country that may be regaining its imagination. We need to attend. But if this is modern movie mastery, then our medium is gone and this is funerary art."

Thomson's entry on Lars Von Trier begins with a quotation from the filmmaker:

"There is only one excuse for having to go through, and force others to go through, the hell that is the creative process of film," wrote Lars Von Trier in what, in 1991, was his third manifesto. "The carnal pleasure of that split second in the cinemas, when the projector and the loudspeakers, in unison, allow the illusion of sound and motion to burst forth, like an electron abandoning its orbit to generate light, and create the ultimate: a miraculous surge of light."

Thomson replies:

We could note several things from this -- that one man's carnal ecstasy may be another's imagination; that sometimes there are no excuses; and that the language of self-inducing cinematic exultation is oddly akin to the rhetoric of fascism.

In the previous edition, the entire (cutesy?) entry for Wes Anderson read: "Watch this space. What does that mean? That he might become something one day." Turns out, he was serious. At the time, Anderson had made "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tennenbaums." Now, after "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," "The Darjeeling Limited" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox," Thomson has more to say, and less, concluding that the earlier pictures were the ones he liked: "By contrast [with PTA], WA seems to exist at the far end of a very private, isolating corridor. Watch this space."

So, I suppose there's plenty to agree or disagree with here, if that's what you're looking for. At least the coverage of Kiarostami devotes five full paragraphs to "A Taste of Cherry" before reaching its verdict -- which is unusual. Many of the entries are little more than selected filmographies with a few adjectives thrown in. And there are many unsupported pronouncements, such as "it is a great film" or "his best" or "just awful" or "unwatchable." That's fine if all you're looking for is some kind of consumer guidance based on Thomson's shorthand opinion (he doesn't withhold), but it's not really enough to argue with. There are few cases presented here, but plenty of scattered judgements throughout.

I think I prefer the older entries, which by and large tend to be more substantial, like their subjects -- and not in the early or middle stages of their careers, either. (Howard Hawks, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck -- those Thomson favorites bring out the best in him.) The current edition has 100 new listings, but I'm not sure what they are -- although some have been completely re-written and among the new entries (at last!) is one for Eugene Pallette who, Thomson reports, so feared the nuclear threat of the Cold War that he retired in 1946 and moved to a refuge he built in rural Oregon.

A dictionary of this kind is defined by its choices, so all I can tell you is that among the missing I noticed this time around are: Heath Ledger, Lindsay Lohan, James Franco, Edward Yang, Jill Clayburgh, Chantal Akerman, Paul Rudd, Rutger Hauer, Will Ferrell, Catherine Breillat, Catherine Keener, Catherine O'Hara, Michel Gondry, Arnaud Desplechin, Ryan Gosling, Jia Zhangke, Tina Fey, Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Emmanuelle Devos, James Gandolfini, Gong Li, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ben Stiller, Harris Yulin, Gaspar Noe, Bela Tarr, Hanna Schygulla, Elijah Wood, Lucrecia Martel, Michael Cera, Mathieu Amalric, Bong Joon-ho, Ellen Page, Fatih Akin, Jack Black, Chan-wook Park...

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¹ On Ford: "The Ford philosophy is a rambling apologia for unthinking violence later disguised by the sham legends of old men fuddled by drink and glory. The visual poetry so often attributed to Ford seems to me claptrap in that it amounts to the prettification of a lie...

"It is sometimes claimed that Ford is a superb visual storyteller; that he unerringly places his camera and edits his footage. But the same could be said for Leni Riefenstahl. The glorification of Ford's simplicity as an artist should not conceal the fact that his message is trite, callous, and evasive."

On Capra: "The most odious aspect of these films [of the late 1930s and early 1940s] is the way they bowdlerize politics by suggesting that the tide of corruption can be turned by one hero. Deeds and Smith admonish indolent or cynical government assemblies with a soulful list of cliches that Capra persuades himself is libertarian poetry, rather than a call for unadventurous conformity."

On Coppola: "There is a talent in American films that makes for adolescent attitudes, veiled fascism, and a work that leads one to recognize the proximity of talent and meretricious magic. In all three, the work eventually seeks to hide its profound muddle in hysterical gesture and demagogic assertion. There is something in the best of American film that is not good enough, that is dangerous. The disorder so easily seems visionary. 'Apocalypse Now' was meant as a great film and a big statement; it was destroyed on the size of its hope..."

On Kubrick: "Kubrick signaled his own gravity with years of preparation, endless painstaking in shooting, the courting of serious topics, and pandering to the audience's appetite for sensation and vulgarity in the guize of importance.... [His films] took an increasing ly sententious and nihilistic view of our social and moral ethings, but... are as devoid of artistic personality as the worlds that Kubrick elegantly extrapolates."

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ADDENDUM: @ebertchicago tweeted this clip of Siskel & Ebert discussing what makes a good movie review:

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