Don’t let the word “dictionary” in the title mislead you. If you’re looking for a good film reference book, then this definitely isn’t it. What you’re probably looking for is something like Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia, which is brimming with raw information. Then there’s the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) which has every film fact known to humankind (but be careful — they make mistakes). As far as the bare facts go, David Thomson’s book is relatively spotty. It’s also immensely entertaining, insightful, frustrating, obtuse and fiercely, though often eloquently, opinionated. More a book for connoisseurs than beginners, it’s best appreciated if you jump into it armed for argument.
Thomson is a transplanted Englishman, a novelist and biographer, as well as a film essayist who wrote the best book ever written about Orson Welles (Rosebud), one that makes compelling reading even if you feel that you’ve read everything you need to know about Welles and then some. His Biographical Dictionary first appeared in 1975 and this new updated edition is its fourth appearance. Actually, “expanded” would be a better word since updating isn’t one of Thomson’s prime concerns. You wouldn’t know that there had been a recent renaissance in Asian and Iranian films if this book were your only guide, and the new directors and actors who have gained entry seem to have been chosen on a whim rather than any desire to be significantly au courant.
Thomson’s method is to give each entry an evaluation that can be short or long depending on what he feels it deserves. For actors, writers, cinematographers, etc., a (sometimes partial) list of the relevant movies is worked into the body of the assessment, while director entries are headed by complete filmographies. Since the entries are rather compacted, Thomson often adapts an aphoristic approach, making him consistently quotable.
Two random examples — On Ben Affleck: “...boring, complacent and criminally lucky ...” On Robert Altman: “Like it or not, his method and nirvana lie beyond meaning. Like Renoir, Warhol and Rivette, he is a filmmaker clumsily or acutely loyal to the camera’s power of observation, and is bent on a new way of seeing.”
(Incidentally, the canonization of Jacques Rivette is one of Thomson’s pet projects. It’s because of him that I hunted down a tape of Celine and Julie Go Boating a few years ago. An initial viewing has led to disappointment. But few films when initially encountered can live up to extravagant, let alone intelligent, praise. I’ll have to watch it again, with adjusted expectations.)
Although the tilt of the book is toward the past, Thomson is not one to rubber-stamp the canon with conventional huzzahs. For example, he doesn’t much care for John Ford, and he doesn’t care with some intensity. After disdaining Ford’s boozy “mythology of complacency and sentimentality” (“complacent” and “meretricious” are favored Thomson put-downs), he adds, “The glorification of Ford’s simplicity as an artist should not conceal the fact that his message is trite, callous and evasive.”
He’s ambiguous about Hitchcock, very smart about Godard and positively worshipful when it comes to Howard Hawks and Kenji Mizoguchi (Kurosawa gets a mild drubbing mainly because, as the longtime Japanese director of choice on the art house-revival circuit, he has overshadowed the superior, in Thomson’s opinion, Mizoguchi and Ozu).
This is all very cranky and flavorful (and occasionally witty), and not entirely without utilitarian purpose. If Bresson or Godard, for example, puzzle you, then Thomson can shed some light. When it comes to actors from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, he tends to be inspired. He loves movies but will brook no conventional wisdom, being too busy constructing a personal hierarchy.
More assertive than authoritative, this so-called dictionary is more like a writer’s diary, a lifetime’s accumulation of critical notes and perceptive appreciations, made by a movie fan obsessed with his subject, but not blinded by love.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.