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Madness David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

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Madness: David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

The first edition of David Thomson’s magnum opus A Biographical Dictionary of Film came out in 1975, and it was filled with a young man’s strong opinions, flights of fancy, sensitive tributes to people like Howard Hawks, Max Ophüls, Jean Renoir, Carl Dreyer, Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, and surprisingly forceful condemnations of such citadels as John Ford and Frank Capra. In matters of taste, Thomson has been right about most of the important figures in the medium he has spent a lifetime chronicling, at least the ones he comes to praise. The book as it now stands in the just-released fifth edition is over one thousand pages; some profiles have come and gone with the years, while others stand mainly as they were in the original. There are a hundred or so new profiles in this version, and it cannot be said that Thomson has grown mellower with the years; he’s deeply skeptical of the “American New Wave,” as he calls it, which includes, for him, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola, James Gray, Spike Jonze, Richard Linklater and (gulp) Kevin Smith.

Michel Gondry, unaccountably, did not make the cut, but the choices for inclusion in this book have always been idiosyncratic. There are all kinds of British character actors stuffed into this edition (for sheer Dickensian sprawl?), but no entries for Catherine Keener, Jason Schwartzman or Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Mike Myers makes the cut, so that Thomson can worry over American comedy, yet he doesn’t include Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Jennifer Coolidge, Ben Stiller, Anna Faris, Paul Rudd or Owen Wilson. For at least twenty years, Thomson must have heard that he needs to include Béla Tarr, but the maker of Sátántangó (1994) still has no entry, and no doubt Thomson has his reasons for that, yet Douglas McGrath squeezes into the dictionary (Thomson even writes favorably about McGrath’s truly deplorable Company Man {2000}!). This book is Thomson’s kingdom and he is absolute ruler of an ever-bulging collection of titles, careers, narratives, blind alleys, winners, steady workers and flamboyant losers. Even if you don’t know some of the people he’s writing about, the book’s Alice in Wonderland quality can lead you from entry to entry in a kind of fever to find the exit before you stay at the movies all day, or for the rest of your life.

He’s mistrustful of Darren Aronofsky; here he is on Requiem for a Dream (2000): “a study in narcotic breakdown that is as exultant with film’s drug as it claims to be disapproving of those who are chemical.” This is Thomson at his best, hitting the nail on the head in a way that flirts with being flowery but reins itself in toughly at the last moment. On the other hand, he calls Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007), “two pretty awful films, and I see no reason not to say that.” And that’s it. I have problems with those two movies, but a blanket dismissal isn’t exactly helpful; it’s both the limitation of a book like this and also the lure. More unsettlingly, when Thomson slams the recent work of Jonathan Demme and Michael Mann, he goes against all the good things he said about them in their main entries with a few added lines of total condemnation. Have they now betrayed their initial profiles in the book so completely? And where is the update on Mike Leigh, on Atom Egoyan, on Terrence Malick?

I’m always interested in Thomson’s God-like reiteration of certain descriptive words when he falls into a laundry list of career credits for actors; in the midst of a lot of titles that pass by with no comment, an actress is called “very touching” in one film, or an actor is “very good” in another film, or just “good.” These can be a bit mysterious, too; he’s not at all pleased with Cate Blanchett now, even though he made some rather large claims for her in the last edition. He writes that she’s “unbelievable and undesirable” in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2007). That’s harsh, yet I think I know what he means, for this is a criticism of fast impressions, mainly, but they usually hit their target. I haven’t seen Clint Eastwood’s Changeling (2008), but now I have to because Thomson has proclaimed that Angelina Jolie in that picture is “as bad as anyone has been.”

The different editions of this book can lead to pleasurably serpentine profiles; take the entry on Lauren Bacall, for instance. In his youth, Thomson paid tribute to Bacall in much the way he’s gone feverish for Nicole Kidman in recent years, but as Bacall aged and kept working with the same lack of expressivity that had seemed so erotic to him in her Hawks-directed youth, Thomson gets increasingly impatient with her. He wrote a cruel but correct impression of her behavior when she lost her Oscar in 1996, but now, in the final paragraph of this edition, he records how Bacall finally won a special Oscar yet wasn’t allowed on the broadcast itself. “No class!” he harrumphs, as if the spirit of the elderly Bacall herself has possessed him! Then again, further credits can get him into hot water, too. I was never sure why he was so hard on Julie Christie in her entry. (“She is, sadly, obvious in her efforts, lacking in either gaiety or insight and, most serious of all, gawky, self-conscious and lantern-jawed.”) Now that he is an admirer of Sarah Polley, however, he deems Christie “extraordinary” in Polley’s Away from Her (2006), as if through gritted teeth.

Thomson is obsessed with age, especially when it comes to actresses; he’s always worrying that some hot young thing is almost thirty, or another actress is ominously close to forty, or some starlet better get her act together before she hits the dread twenty-five. On Judy Davis: “No doubt, being past fifty shows—but she has been Lillian Hellman, Judy Garland and Nancy Reagan already. Be warned.” I love that, “Be warned,” as if watching Davis even past fifty (and “showing” her age), might be a dangerous thing. Yet his increasingly beloved Meryl Streep “has passed the age of sixty (without letting it look old).” This is an intriguing distinction, and it has to do, I suppose, with genes, diet, exercise and some judicious plastic surgery; we don’t want to look at wrinkles at the movies, apparently, especially if we saw a lot of the wrinkled person when they were young, and most especially if they were especially desirable in youth. Thomson on Catherine Deneuve: “She is still a leading player, very beautiful, but a touch dilute. It’s the loss of youth, of course.”

Some of the entries are set in stone from edition to edition, and that’s fine in most cases, but the entries that are being added on to can get somewhat broken-backed. The Meryl Streep profile, for instance, is a bit of a shambles at this point, mainly because it begins with a false start decrying her move into comedy in the early ’90s; at this point in her already long career, that brief period looks like little more than a detour, but Thomson wrote the original piece in the middle of that period, so the main thrust of it now looks mistaken, or wrong-headed. Which is why, of course, Thomson is hedging his bets with so many of the young directors and performers he’s included this time around; it’s hard and perhaps foolhardy to make big pronouncements about promising film people who have only made a few movies and who might magnify or completely discount what they’ve done so far in subsequent work. Thomson most likely doesn’t have the time to re-write and re-think a lot of the pieces, but he is capable of it; the George Clooney entry has been entirely re-worked and deepened from the smaller one in the last edition. And of course the Nicole Kidman profile has been totally refurbished until it flashes red like the sign above the Moulin Rouge, but the sublime Mikio Naruse still awaits a real profile instead of a short feint at coverage.

Thomson turns with delight to new entries on people he can sum up, like Eugene Pallette, or recommend, like Boris Barnet. Here’s a new, concluding sentence for his Ingmar Bergman entry: “A phenomenal career, in which the famous anguish he suffered seems now like a balmy wind keeping him fresh.” On Aaron Eckhart: “He could pass as Robert Redford’s Mr. Hyde.” On Dustin Hoffman: “No one seems more retired while still working.” On Madonna’s directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom (2008): “It went to TV—to “On Demand”—but there was none.” He tosses bouquets to prickly independents like Viggo Mortensen, Samantha Morton and Ben Whishaw and gives the stink eye to crowd-pleasers like Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. He wonders if Sean Penn will turn into Anthony Quinn (that one has me stumped). Against all reason, he defends Mel Gibson, Kevin Spacey and even M. Night Shyamalan. He thinks Kiefer Sutherland might be “the thinking woman’s Dennis Hopper.” He finally includes Lily Tomlin and is rather hard on her, though she’s central to two classic Robert Altman films and, by my lights, “very good” in The Late Show (1977), All of Me (1984) and Flirting with Disaster (1996).

Thomson has developed a liking for the domineering Frank Langella, and especially a starring vehicle he did in 2007, Starting Out in the Evening: “a great film that slipped by in a time when so many of us were complaining that there were no good films.” This was the same 2007 that saw the release of There Will Be Blood, Zodiac, No Country for Old Men and many, many other worthy films, yet Thomson is hung up on this rather ham-handed, overlong drama about an elderly writer and his involvement with a young female fan. Thomson is sometimes overly skeptical of the new offerings of a still vital medium as that medium moves to TV, DVD and the internet; his book is now overloaded with titles of “indie” films that have never been properly released but still float out there in the ether as rumors, or notions. This is a major book, filled with flaws and triumphs, giggles and tempers, gags and longings and childlike wonder and reprimands and regret. If there is another edition in ten years time, I would hope that Thomson will find it in himself to be less grudging, more open and more intoxicated with the movie-mad delight that still courses through the best of his new entries. These entries add more to the book’s Xanadu clutter, but what could be more movie-like and cheering than that?

The hidden narrative of this dictionary charts the progress of an Englishman who pines for America, becomes fully American, and then becomes disenchanted with this country and its money and its movies until he pines again for cast-off Britain and books. In his introduction, Thomson writes that, “Faulkner, Joyce, Proust, and on and on, have done better than the best movies.” It seems strange to me to use the last fruits of a long-vanished literary modernism as a cudgel to beat the movies, but Thomson has never claimed to be reasonable. Writing about Kevin Spacey’s wretched vanity project, Beyond the Sea (2004), he finds that it is “clinching evidence that this man is mad,” and Thomson has admiration for such madness because he feels it in himself. I’ll end this with my favorite addition to this fifth edition; writing about the composer Michel Legrand, and particularly his musical “roulette theme” for a Jacques Demy/Jeanne Moreau movie, Thomson writes, “I wish whenever this book is opened, the spine played the opening piano from La Baie des Anges. Madness.”

David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film will be released on October 26 by Knopf. To purchase it, click here.