The Book Club

Confession …

Well, we’ve all taken our shots now at Thomson’s unruly opus. I’ve been feeling a little bad about sitting in judgment of a book that’s meant so much to me over the years. Did I mention that A Biographical Dictionary of Film has been sitting on my night table, next to Sarris’ The American Cinema and a very few other books, ever since it came out in the Untied States in 1976? No, I guess I didn’t. Maybe my greater affection for the book has something to do with my tastes running two times out of three with Thomson instead of against him. (Hey, David—that weird entry on the great Naruse is actually pro rather than con, if you read carefully. Not that that justifies the comedy routine.)

Thomson’s style changed after the success of the first edition. You could see his writing become subtly self-enclosed—he seemed to feel ratified, licensed to be himself to the nth power. Most of the problems I have with his prose date from the release of the revised edition in 1981. David is on target about how Thomson feels no need to harmonize the layers of commentary in each entry: He doesn’t mind documenting the evolution of his thought as if he were publishing a series of diary pages. Sometimes I wish he’d been explicit about it: “Fall 2001. Suddenly I feel that Melanie Griffith begins to become an institution.”

When the book came out, it functioned for many of us as an extension of the film canon. Thomson threw attention toward a number of little-known filmmakers, giving film buffs a harvest of new titles for their must-see lists. Michael Powell, for instance, wasn’t highly regarded in the United States when Thomson first promoted him; I think Thomson’s piece played a part in the Powell revival here. Many other directors are just as obscure today as when Thomson first praised them—Hugo Fregonese, John Farrow, Robert Hamer, Andre Delvaux—but I’m sure glad he pointed me in their direction. (I notice that Delvaux’s entry is one of the ones cut for space in the new edition. Too bad.) Thomson may not be quite the frontier scout that he was in his youth, but he still makes a few offbeat recommendations, and I know I’ll check out the next Axel Corti or Christopher Hampton film that pulls into a revival theater.

And so, with that geeky confession, I say goodnight. It was great fun, Mim and David.