Here is David Thomson on the Berkeley-born Ben Affleck: "Boring, complacent, and criminally lucky to have got away with everything so far." On Susan Sarandon: "She seems to be looking for dignity now -- and sooner or later, dignity means plastic surgery." On Quentin Tarantino: "In so many ways, he is the epitome of that brilliant, remorseless, empty-life student that every film teacher has tried to avoid."
And here is Thomson -- a screenwriter, novelist, journalist, film-studies instructor, editor, and New York Film Festival judge -- on himself: "I have learned that I love books more than films."
Movies might not be worth seeing anymore. But what happens when they're no longer worth reading about? Part of what makes the recent fourth edition of Thomson's big and still-seminal book, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, better than the previous editions is the sense it gives that no more editions are forthcoming, that seminal books about film have themselves become extinct.
Lament is the doomsday weapon in many critics' arsenals, but Thomson, who lives in San Francisco, is not merely a critic.
"I've never been that comfortable being what you'd call a film reviewer," he says. "It seems a little bit narrow to me. I prefer commentary that's to be read after you've seen the film, and that's more searching. I like when I have the chance to say something about a larger world."
This at least should sustain him, and us, for a little while longer. What Thomson really loves, more than books and movies, is engaging a reader in conversation about them.
On the page, he'll be a cad, a curmudgeon, or a flirt, but he won't be disingenuous. "Showmanship," he says, "comes from loving audiences." In the guise of goading film-buff gossip, he drapes his cinema studies with rigorous humanitarian questions: "[Jim] Jarmusch has a rare feeling for urban desolation, for loneliness, and the sweet, whimsical overlap of chance and companionship. It is gentle, offbeat, and poignant ... but does it make whole films?" On Kevin Spacey: "He can be our best actor, but only if we accept that acting is a bag of tricks that leaves scant room for being a real and considerate human being." On Matthew Broderick: "Can his looks ever really give the impression of being lived-in?" Really, it's inquests such as these, and not Thomson's clearly encyclopedic knowledge, that bring the book to 963 pages and suggest that none should be skipped. "Yes, it's a book you can look things up in," he says. "And it's also a book you can read."
Born in London in 1941, Thomson has written more than a dozen other books, but the evolving quarter-century reign of the Biographical Dictionary is what makes his name most familiar to readers. "The original edition was written entirely in England on English experience," he says. "Now the book is the work of an American. With the first edition, I didn't know more than two or three of the people in it. Now I know many of them and have seen them work. It's a more professionally knowing book. Which may mean it's got more gossipy stories -- and also more insight."
An early fondness for cinema led Thomson astray, as he puts it, from a higher calling. He went to film school instead of Oxford. Unable to get much purchase on Britain's film industry, he worked as a proofreader for Penguin, which led to seven educational years in publishing. He crossed the Atlantic to teach at Dartmouth in 1977, then arrived in San Francisco in 1981.
In a way, he'd been waiting nearly all his life to get here.
"As a teenager, I loved reading American literature. I realize now that it was also out of a wish to know more about America," he says. "I would read Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, with great eagerness. Later it was Gore Vidal, Mailer, Joan Didion." (The latter, a novelist-turned-screenwriter, is also a former Daily Californian staffer.)
Now here is Thomson on us: "Many people walk around today in life as if they half-hope they're being photographed. They've turned into ghosts that are imitating people in films." He connects this tendency with American political apathy. "Nobody in this country has any politics. We've given up the responsibility of being ourselves." He has written personally and ingeniously about America's myths of frontier exploration, and the risk of lost self seems always to have intrigued him.
Thomson thinks much of his own early work "should have been thrown straight away," but now he is better at editing himself. "You've got to write a lot before you know what your voice is."
And he knows. Sometimes lilting, sometimes blunt, it's a voice that leaves Thomson's opinions in scathingly little doubt.
"I think film is much too complicated to be just worshipped," he sighs. "I find that very disturbing."
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