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When David Thomson published the first edition of his masterpiece, A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema, in 1975, he was living in Sussex and had never met any of the people he was writing about. Of course he hadn't. There wasn't time. He mordantly observed that the book could have been titled "Ten Thousand Hours in the Dark".
And that was in the days before VCRs, let alone DVDs. To see an old movie, you would have to go to the National Film Theatre or track down an obscure double bill in one of the surviving picture palaces that still showed such things, or wait for them to show up on television.
Over the years, the Dictionary changed and grew in successive editions. With its success, David Thomson changed too. He moved to California, he got to know personally many of the entries in the book, and his attitude to cinema developed as well. In the introduction to the 1994 edition, he confessed that he saw fewer films now and would as soon "go for a walk, look at paintings, or take in a ball game". By the time he introduced the 2002 edition he was admitting that "I think I have learned that I love books more than films".
Thomson has also grown to be interested in movies in a different sort of way. In his history of Hollywood, The Whole Equation, he is really for the first time more interested in the movie process, the technology, the audiences, the meaning, the private lives of the stars, than the films themselves. He devotes a whole chapter to Chaplin, which discusses in detail Chaplin's memoirs, his sex life, his business dealings with much attention to budgets and grosses. He goes off at a tangent about whether the films of that period can really be described as art, when you compare what was being produced by novelists, composers and painters at the same time. But in a 20-page chapter, he only devotes a few perfunctory lines to describing a Chaplin film.
And yet, Thomson being Thomson, he still manages to capture Chaplin's style in a couple of brilliant phrases: "He's like the x that can function on both sides of an equation, dancing, stumbling, skidding from one side to the other. Chasing himself with attention."
Unwary film students who pluck this "history of Hollywood" off the shelves expecting a sober account of the subject are in for an enormous shock. Thomson circles round certain subjects - the movie Chinatown, the story of Louis B Mayer and his son-in-law, David Selznick (creator of Gone with the Wind), and F Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon - and swoops on them again and again. Then on page 371 you come to this sentence: "I have nothing to say about Star Wars." Of course, David Thomson saying nothing about Star Wars has its own eloquence, but readers may wish he had tried. (You need to turn to the entry on George Lucas in the Biographical Dictionary to see what he really means.)
Much of the book has the hallucinatory quality of a dream. A chapter called "Our Town", ostensibly about the architecture of Southern California, also discusses audiences' identification with movie characters, the cultural meaning of guns, the life and death of Jean Harlow, the contrasting lives of Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn (because they happened to die a few weeks apart), the relationship between Hollywood and the Los Angeles prostitution business, the relationship between Hollywood and the therapy business, Marlon Brando's discourtesy to Rod Steiger during the shooting of On the Waterfront, Brando's fees between 1947 and 1992, the financial situation of Joe Gillis (the screenwriter played by William Holden in Sunset Blvd), followed by a very detailed account of the financial situation of an equivalent screenwriter in the present day.
The effect can be almost farcical at times. Half-way through the book, I thought we had reached the Second World War when a paragraph begins, "By the end of the twenties...". In the next paragraph we're in the middle of the Twenties and on the next page back in the19th century. If this is history, it's history as written by Laurence Sterne in collaboration with Lewis Carroll.
Yet, self-indulgent and self-absorbed as this book is, Thomson manages to convince us that maybe this is the way that Hollywood has to be written about. Because what Thomson found when he actually went to California, and writes about absorbingly here, is that Hollywood was drenched to an almost unimaginable degree in money and sex. When Birth of a Nation was released, in 1915, the revenues were so vast that they funded the creation of almost an entire industry and also a culture of larceny that continues to this day.
Nobody has ever been able to work out where the money went, but only a tiny percentage ever reached its creator, D W Griffith.
Just as Dorothy Parker said that the only -ism Hollywood understood was plagiarism, nothing in the industry has been as creative as its accounting. Thomson cites the recent example of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which cost $5m to make, took in $240m at the US box office alone, yet according to the books ended up "losing" $20m.
And sex. Producers, directors, actors have been drawn to Hollywood by the creative possibilities, by the money - but maybe sex outweighed any of that. For much of its history, Hollywood has been like the biggest brothel in the world, controlled by a small group of men. Thomson suggests that this sexual control, a culture of casting couches and office blow-jobs, even permeates the image of women we saw on screen: "How do you think lip gloss got invented?" he asks rhetorically.
Thomson can be wonderfully subtle and perceptive about this slippery subject: the industry and the inspiration, beautiful films produced by cruel or greedy or insane men. "Being true to yourself is not enough," he says about the weird skills required of a producer. "You have to keep faith with mixed motives."
The book is full of these perceptions: "the most special effect in movies is always the human face when its mind is being changed". Or, describing the weird appearance of Robert Redford, "youthfulness, which is not the same as youth".
I was taken aback when he described Gone With the Wind as "the movie of movies", but then comes the sucker punch: "so long as you don't have to sit through it again". As a sane, sober history of Hollywood this is an abject failure, for which we can all be grateful.
Sean French's novel 'Start from Here' is published by Picador; 'Secret Smile' (Penguin) is the latest novel by 'Nicci French'
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