Thursday, August 13, 2009

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

new biographical dictionary of film

I read this book as part of My Friend Amy's "Fifty Books for Our Times" Challenge.  You see, Newsweek recently published a very odd list called Fifty Books for Our Times, and Amy wound up challenging book bloggers to read one book from the list and ask--is this a book for our times?  And why?

The book I chose was the last on the list.  What was Newsweek's justification for picking this tome?

If you don't argue with Thomson on just about every other page, then you aren't paying attention. In a world where film criticism is dying, Thomson make a case for it-eloquently and adamantly.

Film criticism is dying?!  OMG!  Has Newsweek heard of the intranets? 

Based on Newsweek's two sentences, I was expecting this book to be a collection of critical film essays.  But then the book arrived and I was like, "Ohhhh, it's a biographical dictionary."  Art historians use biographical encylopedias (or dictionaries) as resources all the time when trying to trace works by obscure artists.  They usually have place and year of birth/death, major works, and where the artist studied. 

After realizing that, I revised my expectations and thought the book might be very facty and dry.  Not to mention that it's a huge tome--over 1000 pages of entries on actors, actresses, and directors (that's as long as the health care bill!), all listed alphabetically.  I'm sure you're wondering if I read this entire book cover-to-cover.  Uhm, yeah, sure I did.  And while I was at it, I read the dictionary and banged my head against a wall, too.

No, I didn't read the entire book.  But I did read entries on my favorite actors and directors and read some randomly-picked entries.  And what I discovered was that this book isn't dry reading, or a traditional biographical dictionary, but a collection of critical essays organized in an alphabetical format.

Thomson is a great writer, and stylistically his words are beautiful.  That being said, I'm not entirely sure what they mean.  Take, for example, this part of the entry on Luis Buñuel:

And long before Warhol's cinema, the lovers in L'Age d'Or engage us in the epic awkwardness that afflicts love.  Could a film have been banned so long if its power was not in the explosive mixture of style and sense?  Could Buñuel have kept himself from directing for so long if he did not view the medium serenely?  Could assigned projects make so little difference to the art of a director if that art was not within his images?  Could anyone so sustain an inquiry into imaginative life and an unaffected account of externals if he was not a great filmmaker?

Could you get to the freaking point?!?! 

Fortunately, Thomson does have a point, which he gets to eventually, that Buñuel's movies can only be interpreted as a response to bourgeois tradition.  Not exactly a brilliant point, but he did have one.

One of the things that really bothered me about this book is that Thomson is critical of everyone.  I know that as a film critic this is his job (maybe?), but can the guy ever be happy?  With John Cusak, he says, "... when is he going to be emphatically grown up?" and, "Can he look forty?"  With Meryl Streep, he calls her dour and too serious.  The list goes on.  Take, for example, this section from Sir Alfred Hitchcock's entry:  "I do not see how a man so fearful, and so chronically adept at conveying fear, can be judged as a profound artist....  There is an artistic timidity in Hitchcock that, having put the audience through it, must allow them to come to terms with the experience.  But his own personality is withdrawn, cold, insecure, and uncharitable."  He also calls North by Northwest "a brilliant view of a frivolous Cary Grant being sobered by feelings" which an interesting summary.  Yet when he criticizes Hitchcock's later films, mentioning that something like Frenzy is almost a parody of a Hitchcock movie, Thomson never even touches upon the fact that the illness of Hitchcock's beloved wife, Alma, undoubtedly has a strong affect on his later work.

More enjoyably, Thomson fills his entries with gossip, such as Angelica Huston's relationship with Jack Nicholson.  But then he spoils it by asking if she was intimidated by his and her father's, John Huston's, acting skills.  Like what the hell?  I think Thomson might be just a bit of a sexist.

So is this a book for "our times"?  I would say emphatically no.  Thomson's writing style is reminiscent of art criticism of the 1950's--if I had to guess, I would say he's probably a big fan of André Bazin.  His essays sound great, but they don't say much.  Not that they don't say anything, but his criticism isn't precise and clear.  A lot of times it also feels as if he's only criticizing actors or films just to have something interesting to say--Newsweek is definitely right that it's impossible not to mentally argue with him every other page, and the reason for this is because his criticisms do not feel entirely justified, or seem to come out of nowhere.

Furthermore, Thomson's essays on film reflect a very singular viewpoint:  that of a white male.  While reading this book, it feels like the theory and criticism of the 1970's and onward has completely passed Thomson by without much acknowledgement by the latter.

Don't get me wrong--this is probably the most entertaining dictionary ever written.  It's a good book, and one every film buff should definitely take a look at; because if you don't enjoy it, at the very least it'll give you something to think about.  But does it reflect our times, and do I think it will hold influence over future film criticism?  I don't think so.  If this is modern film criticism, then yeah, it is dead.  This book doens't reflect the work of Laura Mulvey's article on visual pleasure, Mary Ann Doane, or Slavoj Žižek, and it doesn't reflect the current theories and practices of film criticism.

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