Thursday, June 09, 2011

Book Review at Barron's Magazine


A brief excerpt from the Siren's brief review of David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, at Barron's Magazine this week.


The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fifth edition, is more accurately a long, melancholy love story: Boy (author David Thomson) meets movies, gets hitched to movies, spends rest of life veering between passion and petulance, always craving reassurance that his love object is worthy of the care he's lavished on it...The entries that pulse with life are the ones written in the first flush of love and discovery, such as those on Howard Hawks, Luis Buñuel and Cary Grant, or those updated with rekindled ardor, like the one on director Max Ophüls. There are living filmmakers who earn Thomson's admiration, but the author brings his greatest passion to the cinema of the past.


It is, in fact, better to be a dead person in The New Biographical Dictionary, in which even the most treasured working directors can disappoint—such as Baz Luhrmann, wildly overpraised in the past but here found guilty of Australia, a movie journey that even Thomson refuses to make...Actresses, for their part, dismay him by turning 30 or passing 40. At times, Thomson seems to mourn their lost beauty more than they do themselves. Even their efforts to stay in shape can displease him, as he describes how Jodie Foster sometimes looks "sick from exercise," or says young Leslie Caron had "the face of someone who has been doing exercises: tight, preoccupied and dull."



The Siren's own favorite review of this latest edition came from Dan Callahan, at Slant Magazine.

23 comments:

Trish said...

I have a copy of the 1975 edition, from one of those mass market book clubs. Movie-mad teen that I was, I read it from cover to cover again and again. Absolutely loved Thomson's way with words, although I imagined him to be a cranky old grouch. Not so apparently. I've never forgotten how he described Victor Mature as "terrible", which I thought was mean, and described Angie Dickinson as his favourite "actress". Now, I love Angie for her glamour but I've never, ever thought of her as an actress...

Looking forward to the update!

Karen said...

young Leslie Caron had "the face of someone who has been doing exercises: tight, preoccupied and dull."

I'm not even sure it's possible to list all the levels on which I disagree with that statement.

X. Trapnel said...

Thomson shall always be my first and last film "reference" book, not for settling arguments but for starting them. It's good that Dan Callahan (unlike other reviewers) pointed out the weirdnesses in the Bacall entry, but Thomson on Bogart is still for me the most wrongheaded and paradoxical entry in the volume, mainly because the self-conscious superiority he attributes to Bogie is quintessentially Hawksian (see especially the scene in THAHN wherein th Wal-Mart Victor Laszlo goes on about Harry Morgan's cool courage as B more or less nods assent). Bogart rarely indulged it in his post-Casablanca films.

X. Trapnel said...

Thomson says somewhere that he doesn't "get" Leslie Caron. I can't "get" enough.

Trish said...

His comments about Leslie Caron are borderline offensive. Imagine being married to this guy.

Yojimboen said...

Leslie Caron is a Dancer. Dancers do not exercise; Dancers ‘take class’. Martha Graham called all Dancers ‘Acrobats of God’.
Mr. Thomson will never understand what that means.

X. Trapnel said...

A concordance to the work of David Thomson would show that the two most obsessively deployed words are "dismay" and "ordeal" (perhaps his typewriter has a special key for inserting them complete).

Yojimboen said...

I’m familiar with that keyboard, X, - very popular in the UK. Of course, it is the only model available in Calvinist countries (chief among which, Scotland). The Scottish model has a third key which, when typed, delivers complete “Oh, God! Another day!”

X. Trapnel said...

This reminds me of the most English moment in Philip Larkin's collected letters: "You've bought an electric typewriter? How very bold of you."

barrylane said...

Just because this guy did the work, and expresses himself fairly well, is no reason to validate any of his comments. Not the ones we agree with, or their opposing number. Not Thomson, not Pauline, not any of them. They are after all, just articulate fans unable to do it themselves.

X. Trapnel said...

I don't think we're obliged, least of all by Thomson to validate his judgments. We all love smacking critics around (when they have the temerity to disagree with us), but they really are necessary to the life of art and culture, particularly in societies--like ours--that don't value either very much. Recall as well that many artists, composers, novelists, poets, and filmmakers ghave been practicing critics.

"Nobody ever built a monument to a critic."--Jean Sibelius

Casey said...

Thomson is a gifted writer, but a lazy one. He difinitely knows how to put a sentence together, and he can be very funny, but I get the feeling that he holds more respect for his own cleverness than for the movies he's writing about. The most glaring example for me comes from an eariler edition. He included an entry on Naruse even though he'd never actually seen a film by the director. The entry is about how he looks forward to one day seeing a movie by the Japanese master. I hope he took the trouble to actually watch some of Naruse's work before bringing out the updated edition.

DavidEhrenstein said...

"It's important to stress that Clooney behaves as if he is 'George Clooney'—suave, contented, immaculate, his own pal—while Cary Grant never once in his life was persuaded that he was 'Cary Grant.' "

That's because George is a much less complex person, and far from conflicted as Cary Grnat was (poor bunny.)

Mythical Monkey said...

I find Thomson helps me triangulate on what I really feel about a given actor, director or film, by forcing me to argue with him in my head, usually as I try to parse why he loves Hawks but trashes Ford as a myth-maker and Wilder as a cynic, or loves Cary Grant but takes Bogart to task because the man wasn't equal to the screen image. And his musings about actresses at times border on the creepy.

In some respects he reminds me of a fanboy who over-praises what he likes and over-criticizes what he doesn't, and I certainly wouldn't recommend him to a casual fan looking for an introduction to film history, but for a fanatic, he's one of those indispensable voices that makes movies fun.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Can't comprehend his problem with Leslie Caron. I was looking at Merchant-Ivory's Le Divorce just the other day and she's quite teriffic in it.

She won my heart years ago in Chuck Walters' Lili. She was interviewed for a book about Walters that is coming out from some University Press presently.

Trish said...

I don't have my tattered Thomson handy, but has he never seen "The L-Shaped Room"?

The Siren said...

In fairness to Thomson, he goes on to say that in Gigi & after, Caron became very good-looking--but he still wasn't big on her acting.

I also heart Leslie Caron. In just about anything. The L-Shaped Room she's particularly terrific in.

Thomson is such an odd duck. My favorite (if that's the word) entry was the one on Kiarostami, where he offers qualified praise for most of the essay, then says if this is mastery, then "our medium is gone and this is funerary art." So, "Guy's pretty good, but on the other hand, he's the death of cinema, there's that little caveat." I suppose I should have been outraged (or depressed) but I thought it was hilarious.

But as with all critics who write well, there are sentences in Thomson that I cherish, that just NAIL the topic.

So Mythical Monkey, I completely agree!

X. Trapnel said...

The entry for Mario Lanza belongs in every anthology of English-language humor.

WV: cherini. Sounds like a Lanza serenade to Kathryn Grayson, J. Carrol Naish on the accordion.

Bobby Wilson said...

Check out this new indie film:

http://xfinitytv.comcast.net/movies/Jelly/155899/1464430233/Jelly/videos

Steve Paradis said...

Does he still compare the wartime work of Veit Harlan to Frank Capra, and suggest that if the Nazis had won, it would have been Capra who had been tried? Apparently unaware that the Nazis never bothered with trials in occupied countries.

But it's hard to get angry with Thomson, pipped at the post at least twice--"Scott's Men" being blown out of the water by Roland Huntsford, and his Welles biography obliterated by Simon Callow's scholarship and style.

And while there are still copies of "Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes" floating around--it makes that mash note he wrote to Nicole Kidman look positively Jamesian--he must live in terror of it being produced at a book signing.

Mary said...

He can do the work, he's written scripts that have been made into films. He also does his research, as I can attest on SHOWMAN, THE LIFE OF DAVID O. SELZNICK. I was his second research assistant, and we dug for facts people had never heard of before, and he found very obscure people that Selznick had befriended that never even worked in the film industry, so don't say he's lazy. I'd like to be that lazy, turning out a multitude of books, articles, and appearances in a year, making the rest of us look like slackers.

LA said...

Marvelous review, Farran. You must be a critic's critic: You write well, too!

The Siren said...

Larry, thanks so much, and thanks too for the lovely mention on Twitter. It is very much appreciated!