Only eight years ago, upon the publication of the third edition of his "A Biographical Dictionary of Film," David Thomson used that book's introduction to make note of a curious consistency. "The versions of this book have been written in longhand... In other words, no computer, no database." Now, there is a fourth edition-- expanded and retitled "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film."
Only eight years ago, upon the publication of the third edition of his “A Biographical Dictionary of Film,” film critic and historian David Thomson used that book’s introduction to make note of a curious consistency. “Despite technological changes in the last 20 years,” he wrote, “the versions of this book have been written in longhand, with references to books, magazines, catalogs, notes… In other words, no computer, no database.” Now, there is a fourth edition of Thomson’s tome — spruced up, expanded and retitled “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.”
The author’s low-tech approach may have contributed to some factual problems here. But there is still much more good than bad about the new edition. Having swollen to nearly 1,000 pages, its more than 300 new entries range from the inevitable (Michael Bay) to the long overdue (Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-Hsien) to terrific young talent working in front of the camera (Edward Norton, Reese Witherspoon) and behind it (Michael Winterbottom, David Fincher).
Thomson has also turned more attention than ever to cinematographers, production designers and even other critics (Pauline Kael and James Agee among them). The new pages are strewn with vintage Thomsonisms: Samuel L. Jackson is “Morgan Freeman cut directly with Eddie Murphy”; “Cast Away” is “an abominable FedEx promo.” On the subject of Wes Anderson, only this: “Watch this space. What does that mean? That he might be something one day.”
In reading the book, one marvels at what a difference eight years can make.
When Thomson last published, there was barely an Internet Movie Database (and, for most, barely an Internet at all), whereas now that very Web site has invaded the author’s stridently anti-technological sphere, and done so to a fault. For even the casual reader of this “New Biographical Dictionary” may take pause at Thomson’s assertions that James Cameron is at work on “Terminator 3,” that Tony Richardson’s “Blue Sky” has never been released and that Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Destinazione Verna” (a film that has never been made) “has hardly been seen.”
There is more: non-existent films are credited to the resumes of Sidney Lumet, Robert De Niro, Richard Harris and others. These are factual oversights, easily traceable to hoax Internet sources that should never have gotten past a first-year copy editor, let alone Thomson. (As Thomson himself has written, “Movie reference books have one essential level of data: the credits on pictures.”)
Left in, they help bolster the criticisms of those who claim that Thomson does not see or know enough about contemporary movies, and is therefore too quick to leap to the “cinema is dead” pulpit.
Most distressingly, they are interruptions that may impede readers unfamiliar with the supreme pleasures of Thomson from discovering them, especially as Thomson has hinted that the “New Biographical Dictionary” may be the last.
Thomson is a powerful antidote to the lip-service, hype-mongering celebrity journalism that has increasingly come to pass for film criticism in America. Even better, he is a magnificent prose stylist, so clearly in love with movies and so alive to their possibilities.
His “Biographical Dictionary” (however misnamed and occasionally misinformed) is more than mere film history, but a series of interlocking adventures in the dark, carried along on a tide of memories.