The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Fifth Edition, Completely Updated and Expanded
1088 pp., 45.00
Stranger in a Strange Land: Jeffrey Overstreet
The Postgame Show
Editor's Note: In this issue, we feature a guest column by film critic and novelist Jeffrey Overstreet. You can find his film review archive at lookingcloser.org.
If I had my way, every movie would come with a warning stamp: "Viewer Discussion Advised." Consumer culture provides us with myriad moviegoing choices, but it rushes us from one experience to the next. The post-viewing conversation is a rare event. We swallow our meals without chewing them, and that can have serious consequences.
My passion for the "postgame show" developed simultaneously with my love for cinema. Growing up in a conservative Christian community that frowned on movies and moviegoers, I watched Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert engage in epic, emotional arguments about the very movies I was not allowed to see. Those compelling discussions taught me that art was meant to be taken seriously, and that excellence mattered. Now, I work hard to find the civil, substantial conversation that Siskel and Ebert once modeled for America. The show's first reboot was shallow, but previews of another reboot are promising. Do we have attention spans to engage in anything more than a quick star-rating on Netflix?
I think we do—and that's why I'm overjoyed to be holding a copy of the massive fifth edition of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, by the British film scholar David Thomson. As conversation-starters go, there's no better kindling. Since it first appeared in 1975, Thomson's idiosyncratic guide has been an essential reference. This new edition has almost a thousand entries, 300 of them new.
Arranging his thoughts by biography rather than by film title, Thomson is able to teach us about films we already know even as he inspires us to look up others by the same artists. Further, he includes biographies of off-screen personalities important to movie lovers—like film theorist Andre Bazin and film critics Pauline Kael and James Agee. Thomson can characterize a director in a line: "Hal Hartley is offbeat enough to be one of his own characters." And he's careful to weigh both strengths and weaknesses. "[Fred] Astaire is not a great dancer so much as a great filmed dancer …. He lends himself to the detachment of cinema because he is a rather cold, even indistinct personality who celebrates the spirit of elegance as channeled through elaborate, rapid, photographed motion."
Razor-sharp reviews are often commentaries on both the filmmaker and the audience. Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude "has a few moments of bitter glee, and a very pleasing, distant contempt for the middle class that explains its subsequent cult status: it allows establishment kids to scorn their affluence and status without risking either." Sometimes his conclusions are startling. Would you believe that Mrs. Soffel features Mel Gibson's strongest acting?
Instead of interpreting the movies, Thomson typically focuses on artists' strengths, weaknesses, backgrounds, and motivations. Some entries read more like psychoanalysis than film criticism. The entry on Lawrence Kasdan considers Grand Canyon's strengths (it "caught the mood of L.A. in the age of Rodney King") and weaknesses (it's "an unconscious record of Hollywood's pious liberalism"), all in service of underlining what Thomson calls Kasdan's "deep disquiet." That's not to say he hasn't studied the films carefully. In his wonderful entry on Robert Bresson, he writes, "Bresson's world is one of faces, hands, detached views of human activity. They surpass beauty, in both intention and effect, and stress necessity."
Even when Thomson praises critical favorites, his opinions are distinctly his own. Writing about master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, he notes, "Some critics have tried to illuminate his films by reference to Buddhism, Japanese pottery, domestic ritual, and haiku. All are worth considering. But the most useful point to make is that Ozu uses a minimal but concentrated camera style." And sometimes, he throws in delightful trivia. Remembering actress Delphine Seyrig, he reveals that "her breathless playing in the seduction scene" of Truffaut's Stolen Kisses "was aided by the practical measure of running up two flights of stairs immediately beforehand." Fantastic. Now I want to see Stolen Kisses.
When he's impressed, he can be quite poetic. James Agee, says Thomson, "wrote like someone who had not just viewed the movie but been in it—out with it, as if it were a girl; drinking with it; driving in the night with it." Then he confesses that he's dreamed of Agee and Pauline Kael "snarling at each other, like the characters in The African Queen." You won't get eloquence like that from Wikipedia. But be warned: When describing someone who fails to impress him, Thomson can be downright nasty. And yet, even in harsh criticism, Thomson admits these things aren't written in stone. At the end of his analysis of Wes Anderson (his work "seems to exist at the far end of a very private, isolating corridor"), he says, "Watch this space." He wants us to check upcoming editions as Anderson's vision, and Thomson's interpretation, continue to evolve.
It's no surprise that most women included here are great actresses rather than directors or writers. Katharine Hepburn "is so remarkable, she may have given the misleading impression that Hollywood is interested in old people." He wants to see Sigourney Weaver do more comedy. And he's prone to swooning over iconic beauties. Audrey Hepburn is praised for her "untouched glory," "an outrageous purity," a "perfection" surpassing Princess Margaret or Grace, ringing "as true as a small silver bell." He concludes that "The great women of the fifties had a character that is in short supply now." Of Emmanuelle Beart, he says, "Many men have tried to justify her extraordinary calm beauty and their helpless watching with the possibility that she is also a great actress." And he sticks up for Nicole Kidman, in spite of her many hecklers.
You'll probably jot down a wish-list of additions for the next update. Mine includes animator Hayao Miyazaki, the great Edward Yang, and the dynamic duo of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. How about two pages on Roger Ebert? I also hope to see more female directors in the next edition. Surely Mira Nair deserved an entry as soon as Monsoon Wedding arrived. How about Kelly Reichardt, director of Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff?
There are errors as well as omissions. In more than one entry, Thomson credits In America to Wim Wenders instead of Jim Sheridan, probably mistaking it for Don't Come Knocking. He promises that Philip Seymour Hoffman "will be in Empire Falls," which was released in 2004. He calls The Ice Storm and Ride With the Devil the "best work" of Ang Lee, then concludes saying, "Lust, Caution … may be his best film." (Surely Lee's most famously controversial film, Brokeback Mountain, deserves at least one line!)
I'd love to go Siskel-and-Ebert with him over a long list of points. Sure, take the easy shots at George Lucas' ineptitude with actors, but why write off the Star Wars saga without any respect for the power of myth? Of Krzysztof Kieslowski, my favorite filmmaker, Thomson writes, "To see a Kieslowski film for me requires a steeling, as if I were going into torture or church." I'd have thrown the book across the room, but it would have broken something.
These provocations are, in a way, a strength of Thomson's work. We're always aware that we're engaging with a passionate and educated human being. Isn't that more interesting and rewarding than marketing-driven Netflix summaries? Many see critics as long-winded snobs out to spoil people's fun. Some may be. But great critics are cinema's most inspiring enthusiasts, inviting us into a fuller experience. The New York Film Festival hosted an event in Thomson's honor this year, inviting him to speak and show whatever movie he liked. Ever the evangelist for great art, he chose Jonathan Glazer's overlooked masterpiece, Birth.
I'm grateful to Thomson for enhancing my enjoyment of films. Whether his opinions make me smile or want to smash things, I'm learning to look closer, cultivating an appetite for beauty and revelation instead of disposable thrills and sensation. Thomson's extravagant, three-inch-thick contribution deserves the weight of the paper on which it's printed—every time you lift and open the book, you must immediately respect the gravity of the situation.
The best thing I can say about Thomson's writing is this: Whenever I opened The New Biographical Dictionary of Film to check a fact or capture a quote for this review, I became distracted, browsing for the better part of an hour, laughing, grumbling, and learning—my curiosity and my love for movies rekindled.
Oh, yeah: Four stars.
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