I shoplifted the first edition of David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film when I was 14. A hungry and somewhat indiscriminate book booster, I had no idea what manner of lexicographic monster I had crammed into my jeans. In fact, for a reference volume, the title’s irritatingly imprecise A was not promising, and at first thumbing it appeared less helpful in consultation than Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion or Katz’s Film Encyclopedia, copies of which I’d already stolen.
Actually, what I’d happened upon in my literary scarfing was, for a budding cinephile, the equivalent of a father-son brothel trip, a navy stint, or, certainly, a postgrad degree’s worth of film-school classes. Innocence was gladly bartered for a fluid, sensibly framed confrontation with the mature world—as it is and isn’t represented in movies. Is Thomson’s tome, now in its fourth edition, the most essential book about cinema in English? Probably, if at least as a tenderfoot’s boot-camp indoctrination into the ways and means of film culture. No other single volume provides as thorough a 4-D vision of the omnifarious relationship between film history and viewer.
So of course we may take a cudgel to its ribs, as I have since age 14. Start with that A—Thomson’s semi-disingenuous hope that other writers might build their own, particularized cathedrals to the 20th century’s reigning pop-art medium allowed his own proud subjectivity to run wild in the aisles. He may’ve autumnally swapped the pesky article for The New, but having begun the argument, he has no shelter from the hailstones of reason. Which figures to include, if you’re addressing over a century of international art in less than 1000 pages? Thomson has, finally, included Hou Hsiao-hsien—whom he fruitlessly compares to Ang Lee, and into whose work he seems to have barely dipped—but there is no note of, deep breath, Wong Kar-wai, Chantal Akerman, Takeshi Kitano, Mikhail Kalatozov, Victor Erice, Tsui Hark, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jan Nemec, Krzysztof Zanussi, Gianni Amelio, or Manoel de Oliviera. (Instead, let’s see: Rebecca DeMornay, Johnny Carson, Harmony Korine, Frank Darabont, James Foley, Haley Joel Osment . . . ) Stunningly, Thomson is unembarrassed to admit that he’s familiar with only one film each by Sokurov and Kiarostami, and that he’s never seen anything by Soviet icon Lev Kuleshov, whose key films are readily available on video.
The swiftest complaint you can make is that Thomson simply does not see enough international movies—not enough to fulfill his own book’s basic ambition. Most of the omitted big dogs listed above have deep, well-distributed careers going back decades, and to suggest that Thomson needn’t familiarize himself with them is tantamount to excusing Helen Vendler from having never read Proust.
Well, Thomson is only one man, and if dozens of Biographical Dictionaries had manifested, each would surely have similar craters of discernment. The good arguments begin when Ford, Chaplin, Fellini, and Kubrick feel the bottom of Thomson’s boot, and concise, definitive cases are made for Feuillade, Sirk, Rivette, Minnelli, Antonioni, Keaton, and the American-period Lang. Thomson’s bullshit-free reputation surgery can permanently mutate how you see a film or filmmaker—a childhood favorite of mine, The Quiet Man, became forever unwatchable in a post-Thomson universe. At the same time, I’ve always felt Thomson short-shrifts Wyler as he splooges all over Hawks, that the Arthur Penn, David Cronenberg, and Rene Clair movies he describes must be fundamentally different than the ones I’ve seen, that his assault and battery on Tarkovsky is at loggerheads with his ardor for Murnau, Mizoguchi, and Theo Angelopoulos. But drawing these auteur reckonings out of the flood, seeking out their historical context in other entries, and finally either picking them into feathery pieces or submitting to their ineluctable common sense—that’s the BDOF in action.
Ever the Bertrand Russell of Anglo-American film criticism, capable of producing and sustaining a comprehensive saga of the art and business—a cinemiad—Thomson has labored at including producers, writers, moguls, and even agents, but his snarkiest writing is reserved for actors. Warren Oates “has a face like prison bread”; Michelle Pfeiffer “carries the rather stunned, obedient air of an ex-checkout girl at the El Toro Vons supermarket.” Linda Darnell “exists imaginatively as the loose-living sister of Gene Tierney, a girl bruised by experience but still making up her lips till they bulge with prospects.” Julie Christie is dismissed as “gawky, self-conscious and lantern-jawed,” Robert De Niro “seems as averse to charm as a lurcher dog,” and resists sentiment: “Has he ever kissed a girl on screen without eating her?” As for James Cagney, just “watch him listen to other players and you will realize how often other actors cruised.” This isn’t just observant critical prose—it’s a cinephilic passional, the conversation of a life in the thrall of lantern light.
When Thomson published a second edition in 1981, I stole that one, too, at the ass-end of my youthful book-thieving career. In an ideal world, of course, Parker Tyler, Andrew Sarris, Robin Wood, Manny Farber, Penelope Gilliatt, and Raymond Durgnat would have written alternative BDOFs, I would’ve sharked every one of them, and the roar of the debates would have been deafening. Indeed, the notion of a powerful, serious, retrospective film culture—the kind that spawned Thomson’s project to begin with—might’ve survived.