The Reel Deal for Film Buffs

Critic David Thomson's essays about movies are mostly challenging and passionate -- whether or not you agree with him

By Thane Peterson

The fourth edition of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Alfred A. Knopf, $35) just came out, and you have to marvel at the energy and audacity of its author, David Thomson. First issued in 1975, this tome has grown to 963 dense, information-packed pages of biographical essays. Far more than a dictionary, it's essentially one man's personal take on film around the world and throughout history. Thomson, who's also a novelist and biographer, has seen thousands of movies and seems to have a nuanced critical position on most of them.

I found myself dipping into the book repeatedly, setting it down, and then picking it up again when I began wondering what he had to say about, say, director Steven Spielberg, or actresses Kate Winslet and Nicole Kidman. Just about everyone I was curious about is in the latest version of the book -- including Sissy Spacek and a few other glaring omissions from the last edition, which came out in 1994.


  The book is ideal for people (like me) who are interested in film and want to fill in some of the gaps in their knowledge. Thomson takes up most of the familiar great figures of film history -- from popular actors like John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn to directors like Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock -- and usually finds something original to say.

Like any good critic, Thomson has a personal pantheon of heroes. But even with the people he deeply admires, like Renoir and Hitchcock, he can be sharply and informatively critical. He makes the case, that only a handful of Hitchcock's movies -- Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds -- are really great. He dismisses others, including university film society staples like Torn Curtain and Lifeboat as "thumpingly bad films."

The book is weakest when dealing with the young actors and directors who are coming into their own. Thomson has added about 300 new entries to the 1,000 or so in the 1994 edition, but his heart often doesn't seem to be in it. He's complimentary of some of the rising young stars, such as Reese Witherspoon, Halle Berry, and the director Paul Thomas Anderson, and sharply dismissive of others -- notably Ben Affleck, whom he calls "boring, complacent, and criminally lucky."


  Too often, however, Thomson's new items are cursory and uninformative. The one on Catherine Zeta-Jones basically tells us she's Welsh and married to Michael Douglas and lists her films. He offers no critical assessment of her acting at all.

Some of Thomson's revisions are just as lame. To his credit, the book is sufficiently up-to-date to include information on the Oscars announced earlier this year -- no small feat considering the amount of information he had to juggle. Yet, while he reassesses Berry in light of her stunning, Oscar-winning performance in Monster's Ball, he mentions Denzel Washington's Best Actor award only parenthetically.

Thomson focuses most of his critical attention on Washington's work in Malcolm X, which I agree is still the actor's greatest role so far. But Malcolm X came out a decade ago, and readers get only a sketchy assessment of Washington's great work since then in such films as Hurricane and his not-so-great work in films like Training Day, the one for which he won the Oscar. Reading Thomson's little five-paragraph essay, you get the feeling that the critic simply hasn't gotten around to really assessing Washington's career.


  Thomson seems happiest when he's challenging the received wisdom among art-house film buffs. In one of the book's longer essays (two pages) he lavishes praise on Spielberg, calling Schindler's List "the most moving film I have ever seen." Far from being put off by the commercial success of Spielberg's movies, Thomson argues that the director proves that "cinema -- or American film -- is not a place for artists."

Rather, "showmen and producers" like Spielberg who can "deftly organize the elements of roller-coaster entertainment without sacrificing inner meaning," as Spielberg did in Jaws, are the real models for how to make excellent movies under Hollywood's financial pressures. He contends that Spielberg "has never had a significant or prolonged failure" in his 25 years of movie-making -- hardly a judgment many art-house critics would agree with.

Thomson also has a contrary take on some of the most admired figures in world cinema. An example is his essay on the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, one of Spielberg's heroes and a man many consider to have been one of the greatest directors of all time. Thomson's main complaint is that Kurosawa almost exclusively made films about "battles and their context."


  Eyebrows would be raised, Thomson contends, if a great American director had such a limited range. Maybe, but limited range doesn't come up as a fatal flaw in Thomson's essay on the American director Sam Peckinpah. Far from it -- Thomson greatly admires bloody Peckinpah Westerns, such as The Wild Bunch.

Thomson's saving grace is that even when he's being cranky or wrongheaded, he's usually interesting. For instance, I strongly disagree with his contention that the much-admired Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is overrated. But Thomson's gloss on Kiarostami's great movie, A Taste of Cherry, which won the 1997 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is still fun to read. He gets so pumped up by the memory of the movie's conclusion -- in which the suicidal protagonist is revealed to be an actor in a Kiarostami film -- he blurts out: "The ending is exhilarating and wondrous."

You have to love a critic who's that passionate about the work of a director whose reputation he's attempting to deflate. After all, it's the appreciation of those wondrous moments that keep us all going back to the theaters.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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