Monday, August 13, 2012

Some Arguments I Have with David Thomson’s ‘New Biographical Dictionary of Film’

David Thomson is a man after my own heart in that he’s deeply, deeply engaged in film. And it’s often a joy to read what he’s written because he’s such a wonderful stylist. But it is my humble and respectful contention that his opinions are cock-eyed - not just wrong but crazy-wrong - about a third of the time. Here are a few of his more ridiculous proposals:

1) Celine and Julie Go Boating is ‘the most innovative film since Citizen Kane’, La Belle Noiseuse is ‘a masterpiece’ and Jacques Rivette is ‘one of the great directors’.

2) Tony Richardson was a ‘wretched film director’. (I think Tom Jones is over-rated and whilst I haven’t seen many of his later films, it’s true that they don’t look promising. But Look Back in Anger and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner are excellent films and The Entertainer is a very good one, so to call him ‘wretched’ is far too harsh).

3) Samuel Fuller’s films are ‘staggering visual achievements’. (Visually speaking, he’s one of the dullest directors to have ever lived!)

4) Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road is ‘one of the best films of the seventies’. (It’s one of the worst).

5) Chaplin (1992) is ‘dire’.

6) Nicole Kidman ‘in her ambition and emotional energy’ is ‘a liberated force’.

7) ‘East of Eden is Kazan’s best film’. (It’s very dull).

8) The Color Purple is ‘a flat-out bad film’. (He ranks it alongside two Spielberg films that really are bad - Always and Hook - but that is preposterous).

9) Billy Wilder was ‘a heartless exploiter of public taste who manipulates situation in the name of satire’.

10) Johnny Depp (who to my mind has only made three good films - What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood and Donnie Brasco - and whose decline into ever more shockingly bad work over the last decade is one of the all-time Hollywood horror-stories) is ‘gentle, benign, nearly mystical and entirely enterprising’ and an actor who ‘admits no barriers’. Thomson also says ‘Depp has studiously avoided blockbusters and cast his lot in with more adventurous projects’. Fair enough, this was just as Depp’s ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ era was beginning - the first Pirates film (2003) is the last listed in the filmography here - but what an incredibly ironic statement when you think of what’s happened since then.

On the other hand I’m glad to say David Thomson bucks the trend of critics and is skeptical about Tarkovsky; he uses the words ‘tyrannical’ to describe the Russian director and ‘simple-minded’ and ‘mediocre’ to describe some of his most acclaimed works. And he does call Heat (1995) ‘one of the best-made films of the decade’. As I said, it’s only about a third of the time that he gets things horribly wrong…

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