Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Nicole Kidman

The return of David Thomson

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The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Believe it or not, but there’s already a new edition of David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, which I’ve elsewhere called “one of the weirdest books in all of literature,” as well as one of the first ten books I’d bring to a desert island. I’ve written at length about Thomson before, and I won’t repeat myself here, but I’ve only since come to appreciate how deeply his work has influenced the way I write. When you’re talking about pop culture, you tend to assume the voices of the critics whose sensibilities you admire, and this kind of ventriloquism goes through many stages before you can find your own voice. The earliest “professional” movie reviews I wrote, for a website long since defunct, were shaped in equal parts by Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, and Kael in particular pioneered a kind of breathless slangy style—equal parts hyperbole and thorny description—that few subsequent critics have been able to escape. As time goes on, though, I find myself more and more in debt to Thomson, who has subtly changed the way I think about both life and the movies.

Thomson’s central theme—which is stated everywhere and nowhere in his work—is the essential strangeness of going to the movies, which takes shadows on a screen and turns them into men and women who can seem more real to us than the people in our own lives. His fascination with that uneasiness, which the rest of us take for granted, goes a long way toward explaining the odder byways in his career: his novel Suspects, which imagines new lives and a shared history for iconic characters from George Bailey to J.J. Gittes, or Nicole Kidman, a widely hated book that gradually reveals itself as a novel disguised as a confession disguised as a celebrity clip job. That dialogue between Thomson and his readers has reached the point where his more inexplicable opinions and glaring mistakes, like his assertion that Stephen King “didn’t like” the ending to Frank Darabont’s The Mist, are taken as part of his charm. And I like my Thomson warts and all. But if you take nothing but his perversity and obsessiveness, you end up with Armond White, and Thomson succeeds only because he’s also lucid, encyclopedically informed, and ultimately sane.

Film critic David Thomson

Which doesn’t excuse the book’s real flaws. I’ve noted in a previous post that the various editions of The Biographical Dictionary of Film haven’t been revised so much as they’ve accumulated: Thomson rarely goes back to rewrite earlier entries, but tacks on new thoughts and filmographies to the end of each article, so that it grows by a process of accretion, like a coral reef. The way the book preserves all of the author’s original opinions in amber is one of its most idiosyncratic—and frustrating—qualities, but it also leads to a real analytical loss. There’s a tangible difference between Thomson’s pieces on film legends like Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, or Orson Welles, which are finely honed essays that take in an entire life, and the ones that he continues to rework on the fly. The entry on Tom Cruise, for instance, opens by making a case for him as a “very good” actor, then shifts abruptly into disappointment at his “proven traps.” That’s the way a lot of viewers feel about Cruise, but in retrospect, his strengths and weaknesses have always been closely entwined, and it’s easy to wish that Thomson had taken the time to put together a proper reconsideration.

To be fair, browsing through a new edition of the Dictionary can’t help but emphasize its shortcomings and eccentricities: you naturally turn to the latest entries, on figures from Amy Adams to Benedict Cumberbatch to Megan Ellison, or see what Thomson has to say about the recent roles of Denzel Washington or Daniel Day-Lewis, so you end up focusing on scraps and entries that are necessarily unfinished. Now and then, though, I’ll happen across an earlier article and remember why this is still the essential book on film. I’ll look at Thomson on Coppola (“He is Sonny and Michael Corleone for sure, but there are traces of Fredo, too”); on Sydney Greenstreet (“Indeed, there were several men trapped in his grossness: the conventional thin man; a young man; an aesthete; a romantic”); or on Eleanor Powell’s dance with Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940 (“Maybe the loveliest moment in films is the last second or so, as the dancers finish, and Powell’s alive frock has another half-turn, like a spirit embracing the person”). It’s a strange, seductive, indispensable book, and to paraphrase Thomson’s own thoughts on Welles, it’s the greatest career in film criticism, the most tragic, and the one with most warnings for the rest of us.

I love you, you’re perfect, now change

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David Lynch

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What creator just can’t put out work fast enough for you?”

Over the past few days, I’ve been revisiting David Thomson’s Nicole Kidman, one of the weirdest and most unappreciated books of the last decade. On its release, it was widely panned by reviewers and readers alike—it current boasts a pathetic two stars on Amazon—but it’s actually a fascinating work, assuming that you can manage to rid yourself of the notion that it’s a book about Kidman at all. It’s really more about Thomson, or, more accurately, about a deliberately unsettling Charles Kinbote figure who happens to share Thomson’s name, as well as a meditation on how we relate to movies and movie stars. Hence the numerous digressions, the sometimes unsettling fantasies, and Thomson’s habit of imagining roles for Kidman that she couldn’t possibly have played. He also practices a form of counterfactual criticism in which he critiques a movie by inventing an altogether different story that he would have liked to see instead. The book includes extended, elaborate pitches for alternate versions of To Die For and Malice, as well as a take on Eyes Wide Shut in which every female role would be played by Kidman herself. The result is both fascinating and deeply annoying. Even when coming from our most interesting film critic, saying that the only way to fix a movie would be to have the filmmakers go back in time and do another story entirely isn’t particularly helpful.

Yet I’m convinced that Thomson, a very intelligent man who has written novels of his own, is perfectly aware of this, and that his book is really a veiled commentary on how we try to retroactively transmute works of art—and their creators—into the forms that we’d prefer. We’ve all had the experience of watching a film or television show with an engaging supporting character and saying: “I wish the story were about this guy!” Similarly, a movie will often suggest promising detours and directions that sadly aren’t taken, and it’s easy after the fact to observe, for instance, that Argo would have been a more interesting movie if it had probed more deeply into the relationship between reality and cinematic fantasy. Of course, this willfully ignores how works of art, both good and bad, are made. If a writer simply proceeded according to a rational plan, or had the ability to look at his work objectively when he was finished, it might be possible to scrap years of work to tease out the implications of one subordinate thread. In practice, it isn’t that simple. No matter how good the plan is, artists often find themselves proceeding by intuition, groping in the dark, and the story they end up with is both one they’ve chosen and one that was thrust upon them. And this doesn’t even take into account the contingencies and compromises that time, budget, or commercial considerations impose on any work in the real world.

Thomas Harris

Which is all just to say that a solution that may seem obvious to us when we’re watching a story in the comfort of our own living rooms may be anything but obvious to an artist in the weeds. (The reaction to the finale of How I Met Your Mother is only the most recent example of the gap between the creator’s intentions and the audience’s feelings about how the story should have gone.) Yet we still often feel, as fans, that we know better, and this applies to the overall shape of an artist’s career as much as anything else. We want George R.R. Martin to focus on A Song of Ice and Fire instead of wasting his time on Wild Cards, or for Thomas Harris to get off Hannibal Lecter already and give us the great thriller we just know he could write. A long silence or a random side project seems like an affront, or an abdication. Really, though, we have no idea of the real reason. A writer may not be like J.D. Salinger, who evidently wrote every day and locked the manuscripts up in his safe, but what looks like a break is often filled with immense invisible activity: failed attempts, abortive deals, creative dead ends, promising byways, or the general messiness of life. And just as a story is shaped by factors that may never even occur to us as we smugly point out how it should have been, so an artist’s life—which is a work in progress in itself—has a logic that can’t be seen from the outside.

Take David Lynch. For much of the late eighties and early nineties, he occupied a cultural position that no one has managed to fill since. While remaining as prickly, surreal, and inexplicable as ever, he delivered a television series that became a national obsession, lent his name to an entire subcategory of storytelling, and appeared on the cover of Time. His influence has been enormous—you can see it on shows as different as Hannibal and Mad Men—and he still has countless fans. (Years ago, when I tried to attend his reading of Catching the Big Fish at the landmark Barnes & Noble in Union Square, I was turned away because the store was full, which hasn’t happened to me before or since.) But it’s been eight years since his last movie, which in itself reflected a plunge into even greater interiority, freed by digital video and unencumbered by studio constraints. Do I want him to make another movie? Obviously. Would I want it to be more like Blue Velvet than Inland Empire? Yes. But I’m also aware that all the things I love about Lynch are inseparable from the man himself, and that his work has always emerged from unexpected and unpromising places. This still doesn’t stop me from fantasizing about the next turn his career could take, or wondering what Inland Empire would have been if it were an hour shorter. It’s a fun parlor game. But we shouldn’t confuse it with playing the game for real.

Written by nevalalee

April 4, 2014 at 9:56 am

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