As an artistic medium, which is a distinction lost on most filmgoers, film is particularly needy of critical clarity. If this has been slowly, often painfully, realized over the years – at the expense of too many fortunes and reputations – it is no thanks to the hangers-on of the medium, who are in it for ephemeral fame or simply the vicarious thrill of rubbing up against, even in effigy, the likes of Jack Nicholson and Nicole Kidman. It is these particular people who are always there to remind us that it’s only a movie. Whether chastening or maddening, every film enthusiast must contend with the prevailing uninformed attitude that L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960) and Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1956) and Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955) are only movies. Yeah, and Herman Melville was a fishmonger.
In 1971, the University of California Press published Georges Sadoul’s by-no-means-comprehensive Dictionary of Films. It was just about all that Sadoul, then a pre-eminent film critic, could handle. And he pulled it off splendidly. The following year, his Dictionary of Filmmakers was published. (Alas, both books were “updated” by the often antithetical remarks of a Canadian writer named Peter Morris.) If nothing else, Sadoul proved that it could be done and that it was worth doing.
After 30 years and four editions, David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film (or Cinema in Britain) at least demonstrates that perseverance has its rewards. It was an audacious undertaking when Thomson began it – an assemblage of what appeared to have been innumerable jottings, many of them doubtless written in the dark. Which is why they often seem disjointed and discontinuous, as if the person who wrote them had to pass through several sensibilities before finding the wherewithal to put them together in one volume.
A second edition followed five years later. 14 years had to elapse before the third edition hit the bookshelves, requiring extensive revising and expanding (not to mention shelf re-enforcement). The fourth edition may as well be the last, even if it probably won’t. It has not grown in erudition or in taste. It has merely grown heavier (1). But its size makes it the perfect coffee table book. And if it is far less informative that Leslie Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion (which contents itself with the compiling of data rather than prickly opinions), it is incomparably more entertaining – in ways that Thomson surely hadn’t intended.
For, indeed, “unintentional” would seem to be the overall effect that Thomson has on this reader – either unintentionally funny/serious or unintentionally unfunny/frivolous. As for his outrageousness (one of the book’s biggest selling points), I’m afraid that Thomson was being quite deliberate. No other critic, attempting to cover as much territory, is so erratic in his opinions. He is off the mark when it matters the most and when it matters the least. And he is so wildly inaccurate with his opprobrium that his approval quickly develops into a kiss of death.
Of the numerous examples I could cite, I will limit myself to the ones that do the most undeserved damage to genuinely deserving work (2). Fellini: “This quartet [I Vitelloni, La Strada, Il Bidone, Cabiria] needs to be put firmly in its place. They are slick, mechanical stories, feeding on superficial feelings and uncritical of sentimentality or grand effects. As to style or creative intelligence, they do not begin to intrude upon the achievement of La Signora Senza Camelie, Le Amiche, much less the films Rossellini was making at the same time.” (3) That last sentence represents a favorite tactic of Thomson’s – the snobbish dismissal of one critical reputation in favor of another. For instance, Kurosawa – according to Thomson – is good, but not as good as Mizoguchi: “Rashomon is a simpleminded proof of an idea that informs many films . . . whereas Ugetsu simply incorporates the principle that people see events differently.” That Mizoguchi could not even have conceived a film as strikingly dynamic as Rashomon is, I guess, beside the point.
De Sica: “He stands now as a minor director.” No wonder, since Shoeshine, Bicycle Thief, Miracle in Milan and Umberto D are, for Thomson – if for no one else – “schematically contrived.” On Claude Autant-Lara (surely the most underrated French director of its Golden Age), he is unnecessarily snide: “He is the sort of director to film classic novels for educational television, adept at glossing meaning and arranging furniture.” And there go, at one unfair swipe, priceless film adaptations of Radiguet, Colette, even of Stendhal.
Of Julien Duvivier: “During the 1930s he was very successful commercially: Poil de Carotte, Pepe le Moko, and Un Carnet de Bal are all blandly proficient works.” Need I point out that these three films became instant classics and have made countless “favorites” lists ever since? Or is that the reason Thomson hates them? He adds, petulantly, that “It is hard to feel warmly toward a director reluctant to celebrate beautiful women.” Whatever on earth that is supposed to mean, Duvivier’s films are often monuments to earthy, genuine women – Vivian Romance, Mireille Balin, Marie Bell.
Further in, Thomson upbraids too many filmmakers for their ignorance and/or maltreatment of women. He has a special circle of hell reserved for Lina Wertmuller and her fabulous films of the ’70s, and takes up the altogether safe argument that she was a woman-hater. Then he pokes fun at her politics. Once more, he points out, her success – as if anyone put her up to it – would have better served the likes of Chantal Akerman, Stephanie Rothman, or Yvonne Rainer. Brave of Thomson to drag such names out of obscurity, except none of these presumably more deserving women filmmakers is otherwise mentioned in his Dictionary.
There are further howlers. “Les Enfants du Paradis is a lesser film than The Golden Coach, which balances stage and reality.” Whatever Thomson means by reality, the Carne/Prevert masterpiece is a deliberate celebration of the artificiality of the theater and the impossibility of reconciling its artifice with life. Truly the unhappiest of men is the dreamer, Baptiste, who worships his ideal Garance, even as several other men make love to her.
There is also a pervasive enmity against Charlie Chaplin that arises throughout Thomson’s writing. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate why he detests Chaplin, only to make one wonder why on earth anyone else should. He even wonders at one point (and I am not making this up) if there is perhaps more than a coincidental resemblance between Chaplin and Hitler.
Lately, Thomson is even including some well-known critics, only to misinterpret both their lives (the proper subject for a Biographical Dictionary) and their work. For Thomson, James Agee – a marvelous writer and “amateur critic” (his own words) – is “far from reliable.” Yet Agee is a perfect antidote to Thomson: “Black Narcissus is that rare thing, an erotic English film about the fantasies of nuns.” For Agee, the same film provoked this response: “Barring perhaps one in any hundred who willingly practice it, I think celibacy is of itself faintly obscene, so I admire still less the dramatic exploitation of celibacy as an opportunity for titillation in the best of taste” (4).
Thomson continually expresses contempt for the international “arthouse” circuit, without acknowledging that it managed, for a few decades, to help sustain film art and expose audiences that would never otherwise have seen a film by Bergman or Fellini or Godard to some of the more challenging – if salacious – films of the 50s and 60s. (Hilariously, Bergman’s magnificent Gycklarnas Afton [The Clown’s Evening/Sawdust and Tinsel, 1953] was renamed The Naked Night for the American art-house audience. As more than one critic has since observed, the latter actually a better title for that harrowing film, which – true to form – Thomson doesn’t even mention.)
On more than one occasion, Thomson even outrageously belittles cinematography: “The image is so fundamental and so wonderful in and of itself, but it is a given: every day, all over the world, millions of people take wonderful or useful pictures. Is it so remarkable that a few hundred people do it for movies?” Take that, Gianni Di Venanzo, Kazuo Miyagawa, and Raoul Coutard! His impertinent question begs an inescapable answer – “indeed it is.”
And he quixotically insists that films can only be fully experienced in the original context of a darkened, big screen movie theater. Not having the connections that Thomson has had, I can say wholeheartedly that the advent of video and DVD has been a godsend, after spending most of my teens and twenties chasing after films from theaters to auditoriums to classrooms (and even a few operating theaters now and then). It was an impossible task, in those days, to take in every film worth seeing. If you had told me then that it would be possible some day to own a pristine copy of Fellini’s Il Bidone (1955) or Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1929) (5) I’d have said you were crazy.
But there are sins of omission as well. Again, to cite only the worst transgressions, how to account for the conspicuous absence of people such as Emilio Fernandez (1903– 1986), who, aside from his unforgettable portrayal of the Federalista Mapache in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, directed some of the most luminously beautiful Mexican films of the 1940s? (6) Or the unequalled scenarist Jacques Prevert (1900–1977), who was at least as responsible for the “poetic realism” of 1930s French Cinema as the rather commonplace director Marcel Carne? Or Jan Troell (1931–), the Swedish director, writer, cinematographer and editor of masterpieces of epic naturalism (7) and the only true heir to the legacy of Victor Sjostrom? Or Hiroshi Teshigahara (1927–2001), whose modernist fables of the ’60s are among the defining works of latter-day Japanese film? And, just to include my short list, what about Jean-Jacques Annaud, Jiri Trnka, Jean Epstein, Mario Monicelli, Claude Goretta, Kaneto Shindo, Pietro Germi, Bernhard Wicki, Yves Robert, Shohei Imamura? Then there are those splendid shooting stars – all the homo unius libri who made a single film worthy of immortality and then disappeared, such as the Frenchmen Serge Bourguignon and Alain Jessua, the Italians Vittorio De Seta and Mauro Bolognini, the Russian Joseph Heifitz, the Czech Ivan Passer? Any cineaste worth his weight in celluloid knows full well who these people are and how integral they are to any recognizable overview of the medium. Surely Mr Thomson, fastidious buff that he is, has heard of them? But such omissions are glaring, and perhaps attest to some of the severe holes in Thomson’s necessarily selective moviegoing experience. Against Thomson’s experience of sheer numbers of films, I am just as happy with my own haphazard, parochial and entirely leisured exploration of the phantasmagoria of film history. It has, at the very least, allowed for some experience of life to sneak in during the intermissions.
Of course, the law of averages being what it is, no single critic could possibly be wrong all of the time. In this respect, Thomson sometimes emerges as a usable critic when his idiosyncratic prejudices somehow converge on a justifiable opinion. I applauded, for instance, his refreshing disrespect for Sergei Eisenstein – that purveyor of Socialist propaganda in the name of montage. He manages to defuse the current specious adulation of John Ford, who rivals D.W. Griffith for sheer pious stupidity. And he is a perceptive (if troubled) Antonioni fan. He also manages to do a few other worthy filmmakers similar justice: Marcel Ophuls, Carol Reed, Sam Peckinpah, Jerzy Skolimowski (even if he neglects to mention his splendid adaptation of the Robert Graves story The Shout ), and one of my international film heroes, Dusan Makavejev.
But there is one further flaw in Thomson’s book – his prose. It should become obvious to anyone thumbing through this Dictionary that it is when he is at his most passionate that Thomson is most embarrassingly bad as a writer. Here is on Juliette Binoche: “How many ways are there of watching her grave face? Are the cheeks carved by love’s gaze? Did that hair fall on her head like night? And the eyes…are they part of her life, or their own living creatures? And yet…if only this magnificent, melancholy, and nearly stunned woman had just a touch of…Debbie Reynolds.” (The ellipses are Thomson’s.) His metaphors are at best far-fetched and at worst meaningless. When he writes that Warren Oates “has a face like prison bread,” he is obviously assuming that the reader, like him, has no idea what prison bread looks like. Harry Dean Stanton “is among the last of the great supporting actors, as unfailing and visually eloquent as Anthony Mann’s trees or ‘Mexico’ in a Peckinpah film.” (I’ll just leave that one alone.) And, occasionally, Thomson baffles even himself: “The Shop Around the Corner may be as sweet and light as an Esterhazy honey ball – whatever that is.” Then you come across this gem, embedded in his paean to Howard Hawks: “The dazzling battles of word, innuendo, glance, and gesture are Utopian procrastinations to avert the paraphernalia of released love that can only expend itself.” Thomson describes a paper written by Pasolini in 1965 as “esoterically argued and barbarously worded”. He could as easily have been describing his own book.
I have called this essay Confessions of a Film Hater for many reasons – some less obvious than others. There has been a conspiracy afoot for decades which suggests that there is no such thing as high art and low art, and it is usually invoked to the disadvantage of only one thing: art itself. Beauty cannot be redefined by accommodating its opposite – it can only be cheapened, vulgarised. And art can only be made meaningless when it is equated with nonart, with lower forms. Thomson insists that melodrama is where film is at its best. When he obliquely praises Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) (so obliquely that he nearly breaks his neck), Thomson gives the game away: “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.” Never mind the fuss, the Ten Best lists, the Golden Palms, Golden Lions and Hollywood’s own Golden Bowling Trophies. There is a wind – and Thomson has done nothing to dissipate it – that howls that same, tired, stupid phrase, It’s only a movie.
- Much of the expansion, which has become unfortunately necessary for Thomson by now, is actually unwelcome. Surely Thomson would have been pardoned for not giving Ben Affleck a nod.
- I write this mindful of the case of Charles Thomas Samuels, an academic, but challenging, film critic, who committed suicide in 1974 – partly because “he thought he had ‘killed’ others in his reviews”(John Simon, “Foreword”, Mastering the Film and Other Essays by Charles Thomas Samuels, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1977, p. ix). Thomson is in a far better position to “kill,” but he obviously derives some satisfaction from it.
- I found Thomson’s panning of La Strada particularly inexplicable, since it was the very film that demonstrated to me, at the age of 13, that film was capable of being an art.
- James Agee, Agee on Film, Modern Library, New York, 2000.
- It wasn’t until its release on DVD that I had my first opportunity to see Dreyer’s wonderful film.
- Thomson dwells (which is his wont) on the beauty of Dolores Del Rio without even noticing her career in Mexican films – Flor Silvestre (1943), Maria Candelaria (1944), etc.
- Here Is Your Life (1966), The Emigrants (1971), The Flight of the Eagle (1982), et al.