One hundred years of celluloid : Biographical Dictionary Of Film David Thomson Andre Deutsch £25
Anthony Quinn explores a fabled reference book for film buffs
Yet here it is, revised, revamped and - a small but significant difference renamed. It is no longer just a dictionary of cinema but of film, which means that its scope extends to films made for television. This of course includes the much-abused genre ofTV movies, but it also makes room for British television, where achievements in recent years have dwarfed most of what our cinema has to offer. Thomson salutes, inter alios, Stephen Frears, Dennis Potter, Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke (whom he calls "a genius of TV"), reminding us that, however ailing the national film industry, there has never been a want of interesting writers and directors. These are among the most welcome of the 200 new entries in a book which remains as perverse, maddening and compulsively readable as it must have seemed 25 years ago. Those might be odd words to use about a dictionary but then for a dictionary this is a pretty odd book.
Ostensibly it follows the principles on which dictionaries are founded. Its entries - on actors, directors, writers, producers - are alphabetically ordered, and compress a good deal of factual information into an easily referenced space. Where it departsfrom traditional practice is in Thomson's passionate, idiosyncratic editorials. Like that other great bizarre work of film reference, Pauline Kael's 5,001 Nights At The Movies, the book has to be judged in terms of wit and ardour rather than accuracy; it is not a guidebook so much as an entertainment, nuttily inspired and thrillingly unreasonable. Thomson hopes that the book has "force, energy and emotional exactness - and that such precision of feeling still counts for something". It has, and it does.Above all else, he pays attention. Who else has noticed the "spinsterly charm" of Anthony Perkins, or, in Psycho, the details of his "sidling walk, incipient stammer, chewing jaws, and snake-quick smile"? Has anyone b etter described Richard Gere's screen presence - "the warm affect of a wind tunnel at dawn, waiting for work, all sheen, inner curve, and posed emptiness"?
Leone's "dollars" trilogy is likewise caught in darting impressionistic strokes - "studies of face masks looming up, gross and hysterical with detail, in sunblanched CinemaScope frames and drugged revenge plots" - while Peter Lorre's weird charm is accorded an equally weird tribute: "he came very close to the nature of film with his extraordinary combination of impact and nonsense. He hardly seems dead, just as it is difficult to believe he was ever clinically alive. He was Peter Lorre, and that was something no one else was capable of being".
Has Thomsom changed much in the intervening years? Not really. As an adoptive American (he was born in London) he now appreciates It's a Wonderful Life as one of the great national treasures but likes Frank Capra "less than ever". He is still madly ambivalent about Peckinpah and Robert Altman ("so much facility, so little faith") still has little time for (but plenty of opinions about) Chaplin, Hitchcock and John Ford. And he is still definitive on Renoir, Bresson, Hawks, Wilder, Keaton and, as much as anyone can be, Welles - "the greatest career in film, the most tragic and the one with most warnings for the rest of us". On the new generation of actors that have sprung up since the second edition, the book is somewhat thin. He has certainly kept a close eye on the actresses who emerged during the Eighties, and you will find golden opinions on Michelle Pfeiffer, Madeleine Stowe, Holly Hunter, Juliette Binoche, Winona Ryder, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sharon Stone, whose smart, Lombard-style w it Thomsonpraises heartily (he fears, with good reason, that she she will never find a worthy director). He is, however, neglectful of many actors who have come of age in the same period. Where, for instance, are Alan Rickman, Willem Dafoe, John Cusack, Matt Dillon, Robert Downey Jr., Nicholas Cage? And surely Thomson is the man best able to explain the terrible decline of Mickey Rourke.
These are statutory complaints, of course: it becomes almost an obligation to point out omissions when discussing a book of this kind, even when its author openly avows his subjectivity. Thomson would not be the critic he is if he wasn't deeply eccentric, so at least some of the time you just have to bite the bullet. I heard my own teeth grinding when he described three (three!) of David Hare's movies as "unsurpassed in Britain in those years". I think he seriously underestimates De Palma - how can you talk about him without once referring to Blow Out? - and seriously overrates, of all people, John Cleese "There is nothing funnier than a huge man trying to inspire order in the world . . . one of the screen's great explosive clowns". I don't agree with that at all. He's too awestruck by tough guys like Robert Mitchum and John Wayne. And his "reading" of Madonna is, in a word, barmy.
But enough: these objections are merely footnotes to a project that deserves the most heartfelt recommendation. What I will take away from this book aren't verdicts but vitality of thought and language, and flashes of descriptive magic (Warren Oates, with "a face like prison bread"; or George Sanders, "Nabokov pinned helpless in Locustland"). Besides, what would be the point of reading a critic with whom you were in complete agreement? He is David Thomson, and that's something no one else is capable of being.
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