Tuesday's Book: Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and its ghost s

Thoughts on Hollywood and its ghosts by David Thomson (Little, Brown pounds 20)
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
In 1975, David Thomson became that rare thing, a cult movie critic, when he published his Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema. He described it (jokily? nervously?) as "the enormous, chronic, and purposeless expression of its author's obsession" and wondered whether it shouldn't have been called "Ten Thousand Hours in the Dark".

Thomson was an obscure British academic who had never been to America. Then, presumably as a result of his book's success, he moved there, over the rainbow like Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Unlike her, he stayed there, having left a British family behind and started an American one. By the time the revised edition of the Dictionary appeared in 1994, he confessed to being an American citizen who had met more than 100 of the entries featured in his book.

The American Thomson has been changed by emigration. In this book he analyses the movie industry, writes snippets of autobiography on themes that relate to particular films, constructs imaginary lives for dead stars or for film characters after the film has ended. In his more self-indulgent moments, it seems that Thomson has managed to maintain his obsession with cinema while losing interest in the business of watching films.

He fantasises quite amusingly about James Dean surviving his car crash and living to an old age which results, among other things, in Paul Newman being deprived of a crucial starring role and ending up as a car salesman, and Ted Kennedy becoming President. The title essay is a rather familiar meditation on the squalor and glamour of a highway running through Los Angeles. That anybody could care about what happened to the John Travolta character during the course of Saturday Night Fever seems unlikely enough. That Thomson could write a short story about what happened to him afterwards seems downright scary.

He is most convincing when tied to actuality. He writes an authentically depressing profile of Robert Towne, the author of Chinatown. One of the great screenwriters, Towne's career has largely consisted of quick rewrites of other people's films (he wrote key scenes in The Godfather and Jaws) while his own most cherished projects have been taken from him and ruined.

Best of all are the individual perceptions dotted through the book: on Meet Me in St Louis as a film where nothing happens, on the killings in The Godfather, on the absurd climax to A Few Good Men. But there aren't enough of them.

Maybe Thomson has grown up. On the evidence of this book, "Ten Thousand Hours in the Dark" has become "A Few Hundred Hours in Front of the Video with My Son". He is probably a happier man, but it is our loss.

Sean French

Comments