Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

On a wing and a prayer

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“It was the greatest career move in the history of entertainment,” David Thomson writes in an entry in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. He’s speaking, of course, of Ronald Reagan:

He was a hugely successful and evasive president, as blind to disaster, inquiry, and humiliation as he was to the Constitution. And he was as lucky as he had been a loser in pictures…To paraphrase Gore Vidal, the wisdom and integrity of someone told where to stand and what to say for twenty years were made manifest. The fraudulence of the presidency was revealed so that the office could never quite be honored again.

When I look at these lines now, especially that last sentence, they can start to seem rather quaint. But Reagan has a lot to tell us about Trump, and not simply because he looks so much better by comparison. “An actor is playing the president,” Paul Slansky lamented in The Clothes Have No Emperor, a book—with its painstaking chronology of the unlikely events of the Reagan Administration—that looks increasingly funny, resonant, and frightening these days. Yet the presidency has always been something of a performance. As Malcolm Gladwell recently noted to The Undefeated, most presidents have been white men of a certain age and height:

Viewed statistically it’s absurd. Why would you limit your search for the most important job in the land to this tiny group of people? But it’s an incredibly common thing. We do a category selection before we do individual analysis.

In other words, we cast men who look the part, and then we judge them by how well they fulfill our idea of the role.

Reagan, like Trump, was unusually prone to improvising, or, in Thomson’s words, “deftly feeding the lines and situations of Warner Brothers in the 1940s back into world affairs.” Occasionally, he would tell a story to put himself in a favorable light, as when he made the peculiar claim—to Yitzhak Shamir and Simon Wiesenthal, no less—that he had personally shot documentary film of the concentration camps after World War II. (In reality, Reagan spent the war in Hollywood, where he assisted in processing footage taken by others in Europe.) But sometimes his reasons were harder to pin down. On December 12, 1983, Reagan told a story in a speech to the annual convention of the Congressional Medal Honor Society:

A B‑17 was coming back across the channel from a raid over Europe, badly shot up by anti‑aircraft; the ball turret that hung underneath the belly of the plane had taken a hit. The young ball‑turret gunner was wounded, and they couldn’t get him out of the turret there while flying. But over the channel, the plane began to lose altitude, and the commander had to order, “Bail out.” And as the men started to leave the plane, the last one to leave—the boy, understandably, knowing he was being left behind to go down with the plane, cried out in terror—the last man to leave the plane saw the commander sit down on the floor. He took the boy’s hand and said, “Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.” Congressional Medal of honor posthumously awarded.

Reagan recounted this story on numerous other occasions. But as Lars-Erik Nelson, the Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News, subsequently determined, after checking hundreds of Medal of Honor citations from World War II: “It didn’t happen. It’s a Reagan story…The president of the United States went before an audience of three hundred real Congressional Medal of Honor winners and told them about a make‑believe Medal of Honor winner.”

There’s no doubt that Reagan, who often grew visibly moved as he recounted this story, believed that it was true, and it has even been used as a case study in the creation of false memories. Nelson traced it back to a scene in the 1944 movie Wing and a Prayer, as well as to a similar apocryphal item that appeared that year in Reader’s Digest. (The same story, incidentally, later became the basis for an episode of Amazing Stories, “The Mission,” starring Kevin Costner and Kiefer Sutherland and directed by Steven Spielberg. Tony Kushner once claimed that Spielberg’s movies “are the flagship aesthetic statements of Reaganism,” and this is the most compelling point I’ve seen in that argument’s favor.) But the most Trumpian aspect of the entire incident was the response of Reagan’s staff. As the Washington Post reported a few days later:

A determined White House is searching the records of American servicemen awarded the Medal of Honor in an effort to authenticate a disputed World War II story President Reagan told last week at a ceremony honoring recipients of the medal…The White House then began checking records to document the episode. Reagan is said by aides to be certain that he saw the citation exactly as he recounted it. The citations are summarized in a book published by Congress, but none of these summaries seem to fit precisely the episode Reagan described, although some are similar…The White House is now attempting to look beyond the summaries to more detailed accounts to see if one of the episodes may be the one Reagan mentioned. “We will find it,” said Misty Church, a researcher for the White House.

They never did. And the image of White House staffers frantically trying to justify something that the president said off the cuff certainly seems familiar today.

But what strikes me the most about this story is that Reagan himself had nothing to gain from it. Most of Trump’s fabrications are designed to make him look better, more successful, or more impressive than he actually is, while Reagan’s fable is rooted in a sentimental ideal of heroism itself. (It’s hard to even imagine a version of this story that Trump might have told, since the most admirable figure in it winds up dead. As Trump might say, he likes pilots who weren’t shot down.) Which isn’t to say that Reagan’s mythologizing isn’t problematic in itself, as Nelson pointed out:

[It’s] the difference between a make-believe pilot, dying nobly and needlessly to comfort a wounded boy, and the real-life pilots, bombardiers and navigators who struggled to save their planes, their crews and themselves and died trying. It’s the difference between war and a war story.

And while this might seem preferable to Trump’s approach, which avoids any talk of sacrifice in favor of scenarios in which everybody wins, or we stick other people with the cost of our actions, it still closes off higher levels of thought in favor of an appeal to emotion. Reagan was an infinitely more capable actor than Trump, and he was much easier to love, which shouldn’t blind us to what they have in common. They were both winging it. And the most characteristic remark to come out of the whole affair is how Larry Speakes, the White House spokesman under Reagan, responded when asked if the account was accurate: “If you tell the same story five times, it’s true.”

The low road to Xanadu

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Orson Welles in Citizen Kane

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote of Donald Trump: “He’s like Charles Foster Kane, without any of the qualities that make Kane so misleadingly attractive.” If anything, that’s overly generous to Trump himself, but it also points to a real flaw in what can legitimately be called the greatest American movie ever made. Citizen Kane is more ambiguous than it was ever intended to be, because we’re distracted throughout by our fondness for the young Orson Welles. He’s visible all too briefly in the early sequences at the Inquirer; he winks at us through his makeup as an older man; and the aura he casts was there from the beginning. As David Thomson points out in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film:

Kane is less about William Randolph Hearst—a humorless, anxious man—than a portrait and prediction of Welles himself. Given his greatest opportunity, [screenwriter Herman] Mankiewicz could only invent a story that was increasingly colored by his mixed feelings about Welles and that, he knew, would be brought to life by Welles the overpowering actor, who could not resist the chance to dress up as the old man he might one day become, and who relished the young showoff Kane just as he loved to hector and amaze the Mercury Theater.

You can see Welles in the script when Susan Alexander asks Kane if he’s “a professional magician,” or when Kane, asked if he’s still eating, replies: “I’m still hungry.” And although his presence deepens and enhances the movie’s appeal, it also undermines the story that Welles and Mankiewicz set out to tell in the first place.

As a result, the film that Hearst wanted to destroy turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to his legacy—it makes him far more interesting and likable than he ever was. The same factor tends to obscure the movie’s politics. As Pauline Kael wrote in the early seventies in the essay “Raising Kane”: “At some campus showings, they react so gullibly that when Kane makes a demagogic speech about ‘the underprivileged,’ stray students will applaud enthusiastically, and a shout of ‘Right on!’ may be heard.” But in an extraordinary review that was published when the movie was first released, Jorge Luis Borges saw through to the movie’s icy heart:

Citizen Kane…has at least two plots. The first, pointlessly banal, attempts to milk applause from dimwits: a vain millionaire collects statues, gardens, palaces, swimming pools, diamonds, cars, libraries, men and women…The second plot is far superior…At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any apparent unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances…In a story by Chesterton—“The Head of Caesar,” I think—the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth.

Borges concludes: “We all know that a party, a palace, a great undertaking, a lunch for writers and journalists, an enterprise of cordial and spontaneous camaraderie, are essentially horrendous. Citizen Kane is the first film to show such things with an awareness of this truth.” He might well be talking about the Trump campaign, which is also a labyrinth without a center. And Trump already seems to be preparing for defeat with the same defense that Kane did.

Everett Sloane in Citizen Kane

Yet if we’re looking for a real counterpart to Kane, it isn’t Trump at all, but someone standing just off to the side: his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. I’ve been interested in Kushner’s career for a long time, in part because we overlapped at college, although I doubt we’ve ever been in the same room. Ten years ago, when he bought the New York Observer, it was hard not to think of Kane, and not just because Kushner was twenty-five. It recalled the effrontery in Kane’s letter to Mr. Thatcher: “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” And I looked forward to seeing what Kushner would do next. His marriage to Ivanka Trump was a twist worthy of Mankiewicz, who married Kane to the president’s daughter, and as Trump lurched into politics, I wasn’t the only one wondering what Ivanka and Kushner—whose father was jailed after an investigation by Chris Christie—made of it all. Until recently, you could kid yourself that Kushner was torn between loyalty to his wife’s father and whatever else he might be feeling, even after he published his own Declaration of Principles in the Observer, writing: “My father-in-law is not an anti-Semite.” But that’s no longer possible. As the Washington Post reports, Kushner, along with former Breitbart News chief Stephen K. Bannon, personally devised the idea to seat Bill Clinton’s accusers in the family box at the second debate. The plan failed, but there’s no question that Kushner has deliberately placed himself at the center of Trump’s campaign, and that he bears an active, not passive, share of the responsibility for what promises to be the ugliest month in the history of presidential politics.

So what happened? If we’re going to press the analogy to its limit, we can picture the isolated Kane in his crumbling estate in Xanadu. It was based on Hearst Castle in San Simeon, and the movie describes it as standing on the nonexistent desert coast of Florida—but it could just as easily be a suite in Trump Tower. We all tend to surround ourselves with people with whom we agree, whether it’s online or in the communities in which we live, and if you want to picture this as a series of concentric circles, the ultimate reality distortion field must come when you’re standing in a room next to Trump himself. Now that Trump has purged his campaign of all reasonable voices, it’s easy for someone like Kushner to forget that there is a world elsewhere, and that his actions may not seem sound, or even sane, beyond those four walls. Eventually, this election will be over, and whatever the outcome, I feel more pity for Kushner than I do for his father-in-law. Trump can only stick around for so much longer, while Kushner still has half of his life ahead of him, and I have a feeling that it’s going to be defined by his decisions over the last three months. Maybe he’ll realize that he went straight from the young Kane to the old without any of the fun in between, and that his only choice may be to wall himself up in Xanadu in his thirties, with the likes of Christie, Giuliani, and Gingrich for company. As the News on the March narrator says in Kane: “An emperor of newsprint continued to direct his failing empire, vainly attempted to sway, as he once did, the destinies of a nation that had ceased to listen to him, ceased to trust him.” It’s a tragic ending for an old man. But it’s even sadder for a young one.

Astounding Stories #14: The Heinlein Juveniles

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Have Space Suit—Will Travel

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

“There is a major but very difficult realization that needs to be reached about [Cary] Grant—difficult, that is, for many people who like to think they take the art of film seriously,” David Thomson writes in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. The realization, he says, is that along with being a great movie star and a beloved style icon, Grant was “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.” There’s a comparable realization, I’ve decided, that has to be reached about Robert A. Heinlein. As well as being a cult figure, the first science fiction writer to break through to the mainstream, and an object of veneration for countless fans, he was also the best writer the genre ever produced. And believe me, I know how boring this sounds. Frankly, I’d love to come up with a contrarian stance—that Heinlein is interesting primarily for his historical significance, that he’s revered mostly out of nostalgia, or that a handful of masterpieces allow us to overlook the fact that much of what he wrote was routine. But none of this is true. Of all the science fiction writers I’ve read, Heinlein is consistently the most compelling author, the most interesting thinker, and the most versatile artist. He’s the one writer of his era who could seemingly do anything, and who actually did it over an extended period of time for a big popular audience: great ideas, meticulously developed science and technology, worldbuilding, plot, action, character, philosophy, style. Heinlein was given what the sports writer Bill Simmons likes to call the “everything” package at the car wash, and he more than lived up to it. To a very real extent, Heinlein was the golden age of science fiction, and it’s hard to imagine John W. Campbell doing any of it without him.

This doesn’t mean that Heinlein was a perfect writer. For all the smart, tough, attractive women in his fiction, most of them ultimately come across as desirable fantasy objects for a certain kind of man. (The one really likable, compelling female character in his work, aside from Podkayne of Mars and Hazel Stone in The Rolling Stones, is Cynthia Randall in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.”) He never entirely lost the didactic streak that undermines his first unpublished novel, For Us, the Living, even if he advanced so rapidly in craft that it didn’t really matter. His late novels are a mixed bag, but they were never anything less than intensely personal, and they could hardly have been written by anyone else. And it goes without saying—or maybe it doesn’t—that merely because Heinlein was the strongest writer, sentence by sentence, in the history of the genre, it doesn’t mean that he was right about everything, or even about most things. As you read his stories, you find yourself nodding in agreement, and it’s only later that you start to raise reasonable objections. A novel like Starship Troopers is so cunningly constructed around its central argument that it can take you a while to realize how completely the author has stacked the deck. Heinlein liked to say that he was only trying to inspire people to ask the right questions, which isn’t untrue, although it seems a little disingenuous. He’s the most interesting case study I know on the difference between artistic mastery and good advice. They aren’t always the same thing, but they aren’t mutually exclusive, either: they coincide some but not all of the time, which is why the reader has to pay close attention.

Tunnel in the Sky

If I wanted to give a new reader a showcase for Heinlein’s talents, I’d probably start with his early, wonderful novella “If This Goes On—,” but I’d also consider recommending a few of his juveniles. These are the twelve books that he wrote for Scribner’s between 1947 and 1958, and although they were originally intended for young adults, they exemplify most of his strengths and almost none of his flaws. Heinlein explicitly conceived them as an updated version of the Horatio Alger books that he had loved growing up, and his pedagogical tendencies are both fully indulged and totally charming. The moral precepts he’s trying to inculcate couldn’t be more straightforward: “Hard work is rewarded.” “Studying hard pays off, in happiness as well as in money.” “Stand on your own feet.” And because he saw a strong technical education as the royal road to the stars, these books amount to the best propaganda imaginable for a career in the sciences. They’re filled with the kind of lectures—how a spaceship works, the physics of zero gravity, the design of a spacesuit—that most writers are rightly discouraged from including, but which many readers like me secretly crave, and Heinlein serves them up with great style. There’s no question that they inspired countless young people to go into science and engineering, which makes me regret the fact that he deliberately excluded half of his potential audience:

I established what has continued to be my rule for writing for youngsters. Never write down to them. Do not simplify the vocabulary nor the intellectual concepts. To this I added subordinate rules: No real love interest and female characters should only be walk-ons.

You could justify this by saying that these books were marketed by the publisher toward boys anyway, and that most of them wouldn’t have patience for girls. But it still feels like a lost opportunity.

Of all the juveniles, my favorite is Tunnel in the Sky, which starts out by anticipating The Hunger Games or even Battle Royale, moves into Lord of the Flies territory, and winds up as something unforgettably strange and moving. But they’re all worth reading, except maybe the aptly titled Between Planets, a transitional book that plays like Asimov at his most indifferent. Rocket Ship Galileo sends Tom Swift to the moon; Space Cadet looks ahead to Starship Troopers, but also Ender’s Game; Red Planet is terrifically exciting, and provides the first instance in which the adults take over the story from the kids; Farmer in the Sky is flawless hard science fiction; Starman Jones and The Rolling Stones come the closest to the ideal of a boy’s book of adventure in space; The Star Beast is uneven, but appealingly peculiar; Time for the Stars is a great time-dilation story; Citizen of the Galaxy has a lot of fun updating Kipling’s Kim for the future; and Have Space Suit—Will Travel begins as a lark, then grows gradually deeper and more resonant, to the point where I’m halfway convinced that it was one of Madeline L’Engle’s primary inspirations for A Wrinkle in Time. Heinlein’s uncanny ability to follow his imagination into odd byways without losing momentum, which is possibly his most impressive trick, is never on greater display than it is here. The best sequences, as in Starship Troopers, often take place in what amounts to basic training, and many of the juveniles fall into the same curious pattern: after a hundred fascinating pages about the hero’s education, there’s a sense of loss when the actual plot kicks in, as when Rocket Ship Galileo settles for a third act about Nazis in space. We’ve seen most of these crises before, and other writers, as well as Heinlein, will give us plenty of space battles and close escapes. But we’ve never been educated this well.

My great books #7: The Biographical Dictionary of Film

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The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film is one of the weirdest books in all of literature, and more than the work of any other critic, it has subtly changed the way I think about both life and the movies. His central theme—which is stated everywhere and nowhere—is the essential strangeness of turning shadows on a screen into men and women who can seem more real to us than the people in our own lives. His writing isn’t conventional criticism so much as a single huge work of fiction, with Thomson himself as both protagonist and nemesis. It isn’t a coincidence that one of his earliest books was a biography of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy: his entire career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, in which Thomson, as a fictional character in his own work, is cheerfully willing to come off as something of a creep, as long as it illuminates our reasons for going to the movies. And his looniness is part of his charm. Edmund Wilson once playfully speculated that George Saintsbury, the great English critic, invented his own Toryism “in the same way that a dramatist or novelist arranges contrasting elements,” and there are times when I suspect that Thomson is doing much the same thing. (If his work is a secret novel, its real precursor is Pale Fire, in which Thomson plays the role of Kinbote, and every article seems to hint darkly at some monstrous underlying truth. A recent, bewildered review of his latest book on The A.V. Club is a good example of the reaction he gets from readers who aren’t in on the joke.)

But if you leave him with nothing but his perversity and obsessiveness, you end up with Armond White, while Thomson succeeds because he’s also lucid, encyclopedically informed, and ultimately sane, although he does his best to hide it. 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 to the end of each article, so that it grows by a process of accretion, like a coral reef. The result can be confusing, but when I go back to his earlier articles, I remember at once 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”). Or, perhaps most memorably of all, his thoughts on Citizen Kane, which, lest we forget, is about the futile search of a reporter named Thompson:

As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent…Kane is Welles, just as every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before death.

It’s a strange, seductive, indispensable book, and to paraphrase Thomson’s own musings on Welles, it’s the greatest career in film criticism, the most tragic, and the one with the most warnings for the rest of us.

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November 10, 2015 at 9:00 am

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.

In praise of David Thomson

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The publication of the fifth edition of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the best book ever written on the movies, is cause for celebration, and an excuse for me to talk about one of the weirdest books in all of literature. Thomson is a controversial figure, and for good reason: his film writing isn’t conventional criticism so much as a single huge work of fiction, with Thomson himself as both protagonist and nemesis. It isn’t a coincidence that one of Thomson’s earliest books was a biography of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy: his entire career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, in which Thomson, as a fictional character in his own work, is cheerfully willing to come off as something of a creep, as long as it illuminates our reasons for going to the movies.

First, a word about the book’s shortcomings. As in previous editions, instead of revising the entries for living subjects in their entirety, Thomson simply adds another paragraph or two to the existing filmographies, so that the book seems to grow by accretion, like a coral reef. This leads to inconsistencies in tone within individual articles, and also to factual mistakes when the entry hasn’t been updated recently enough—like the article on George Lucas, for instance, in which the latter two Star Wars prequels still evidently lie in the future. And the book is full of the kind of errors that occur when one tries to keep up, in print, with the vagaries of movie production—as when it credits David O. Russell with the nonexistent Nailed and omits The Fighter. (Now that this information is readily available online, Thomson should really just delete all of the detailed filmographies in the next edition, which would cut the book’s size by a quarter or more.)

And then, of course, there are Thomson’s own opinions, which are contrarian in a way that can often seem perverse. He’s lukewarm on Kurosawa, very hard on Kubrick (The Shining is the only movie he admires), and thinks that Christopher Nolan’s work “has already become progressively less interesting.” He thinks that The Wrestler is “a wretched, interminable film,” but he loves Nine. He displays next to no interest in animation or international cinema. There’s something to be outraged about on nearly every page, which is probably why the Dictionary averages barely more than three stars from reviewers on Amazon. And if you’re the sort of person who thinks that a critic whose opinions differ from your own must be corrupt, crazy, or incompetent—as many of Roger Ebert’s correspondents apparently do—then you should stay far, far away from Thomson, who goes out of his way to infuriate even his most passionate defenders.

Yet Thomson’s perversity is part of his charm. Edmund Wilson once playfully speculated that George Saintsbury, the great English critic, invented his own Toryism “in the same way that a dramatist or novelist arranges contrasting elements,” and there are times when I suspect that Thomson is doing the same thing. And it’s impossible not to be challenged and stirred by his opinions. There is a way, after all, in which Kurosawa is a more limited director than Ozu—although I know which one I ultimately prefer. Kubrick’s alienation from humanity would have crippled any director who was not Kubrick. Until The Dark Knight and Inception, Nolan’s movies were, indeed, something of a retreat from the promise of Memento. And for each moment of temporary insanity on Thomson’s part, you get something equally transcendent. Here he is on Orson Welles, for example, in a paragraph that has forever changed how I watch Citizen Kane:

Kane is less about William Randolph Hearst—a humorless, anxious man—than a portrait and prediction of Welles himself…As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent…Kane is Welles, just as every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before death.

On Spielberg and Schindler’s List:

Schindler’s List is the most moving film I have ever seen. This does not mean it is faultless. To take just one point: the reddening of one little girl’s coat in a black-and-white film strikes me as a mistake, and a sign of how calculating a director Spielberg is. For the calculations reveal themselves in these few errors that escape. I don’t really believe in Spielberg as an artist…But Schindler’s List is like an earthquake in a culture of gardens. And it helps persuade this viewer that cinema—or American film—is not a place for artists. It is a world for producers, for showmen, and Schindlers.

And, wonderfully, on what is perhaps my own favorite bad movie of all time:

Yet in truth, I think Kevin [Spacey] himself is the biggest experiment, and to substantiate that one has only to call to the stand Beyond the Sea, written, produced and directed by Kev and with himself as Bobby Darin. The result is intoxicating, one of the really great dreadful films ever made, worthy of an annual Beyond the Sea award (why not give it on Oscar night?), as well as clinching evidence that this man is mad. Anything could happen.

The result, as I note above, is a massive Proustian novel in which nearly every major figure in the history of film plays a role. (Thomson has already written a novel, Suspects, that does this more explicitly, and his book-length study of Nicole Kidman is manifestly a novel in disguise.) Reading the Dictionary, which is as addictive as Wikipedia or TV Tropes, is like diving headfirst into a vast ocean, and trying to see how deep you can go before coming up for air. Although if it really is a novel, it’s less like Proust than like Pale Fire, in which Thomson plays the role of Kinbote, and every article seems to hint darkly at some monstrous underlying truth. (In that light, even the book’s mistakes seem to carry a larger meaning. What does it mean, for instance, that Thomson’s brilliant article on Heath Ledger, in which he muses on “the brief purchasing power” of fame, was “inadvertently dropped” from the fifth edition?)

And what monstrous truth does the Dictionary conceal? It’s the same truth, which applies as much to Thomson himself as it does to you and me, as the one that he spells out, unforgettably, at the end of Rosebud, his study of Orson Welles:

So film perhaps had made a wasted life?
One has to do something.

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