Like a perennial political candidate—the Ralph Nader of movie reviewing—David Thomson becomes the most resented man in film criticism every four years, or however often he publishes an update of his unwieldy Biographical Dictionary of Film. (The newest edition, the fifth since 1975, weighs 3 pounds, 9 ounces.) Just a glance at this reference work, organized into idiosyncratic, lofty judgments on the careers of celluloid personages from Bud Abbott to Terry Zwigoff, can drive the on-deadline weekly reviewer to dark thoughts about his own futile typing. Those who struggled to fill column inches with opinions about the Benicio Del Toro vehicle The Wolfman will feel a spasm of envy when they happen upon Thomson’s entry for supporting actress Emily Blunt and see the entire movie dispatched with a one-word verdict: “dumb.” It doesn’t help that it is the right word.
But it’s no use begrudging Thomson, not when you can read him instead. Every responsible critic—and any dedicated moviegoer—needs a set of thinkers to clarify and challenge their gut reactions from the dark, and for years Thomson has been my indispensable goad. (For some reason, he’s especially useful on comedy: His indictment of Woody Allen is so damning it immediately calls for a retort in defense, and his observations on Judd Apatow’s Funny People make me want to revisit that movie, cloying as the ending is.) His biographical capsules often blossom into poignant essays—his paens to Cary Grant or Pauline Kael can make you cry with their sensitivity, partly because they don’t avoid harsh words—and are studded with priceless anecdotes: I am so happy to know that when Greta Garbo jilted “The Great Lover” John Gilbert at the altar, “Louis B. Mayer nudged the actor and said, why worry, you can always fuck her.”
As a bonus, Thomson’s estimations regularly pinpoint exactly what makes an artist interesting. Consider this sentence from his entry on Gus Van Sant. “But he decided to make Portland his base, and his Paris: there is something sublimely casual and confident in the way My Own Private Idaho moves from Portland to an empty road in Idaho to ‘Rome.’”
If you own a previous edition of the Dictionary (especially the 2004 tome), this new iteration is probably unnecessary: A proper British curmudgeon, Thomson is convinced the best days of cinema have long passed, and each revision is painting another coat of polish on the still-growing fingernails of a corpse. (Yet he dotes upon the recent work of Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coens, and finds Avatar a non-entity, so his instincts are still keen.) If you don’t possess one yet, you’re in for a happy Christmas with a delightful companion—you’ll need a bigger stocking, though.
READ: The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is available for $40 at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 226-4651.