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Review by Alex Grant

Acclaimed British film scholar David Thomson this week had published his Fourth Edition of his durable 1975 A BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM, a grandly erudite and infuriatingly opinionated tome of 963 pages. For me it is still the film "Bible" in the English language [ New Testament].Thomson has updated the 1994 3rd edition with 300 new entries., He has spent 27years on this worthy undertaking.An outspoken humanist in the F.R.Leavis British morality-literary tradition, and a hopeless romantic akin to fellow scribe Robin Wood, sans the trappings of gay liberation, Thomson shares a sophisticated world-view with the late great Anglo-Swiss film scholar Raymond Durgnat. As often as not in THE NEW BDF the author winnows the wheat from the chaff leaving in his threshing wake spun-gold kernels of wisdom.Strongly partisan he respects filmmakers who have no ideological axes to grind, whose work fully reveals the ambiguity, richness and complexity of our lives as we experience them within our souls, daily and inevitably. Our constant awareness of the deaths, the diseases, the corruption, the hypocrisy, the remorse that swirl around us – our grandeur as thinking, feeling persons and our pathetic pettiness.

A thoroughgoing admirer of Jean-Luc Godard, of Howard Hawks, of Kenji Mizoguchi, of Max Ophuls, of Nagisa Oshima, of Yasujiro Ozu, of Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and Raoul Walsh Thomson can also applaud the genius of David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE and the discipline and bravura of Paul T. Anderson’s HARD EIGHT [SYDNEY] made when the director of MAGNOLIA was barely 26,Thomson has contempt for that lamentable Danish opportunist Lars von Trier, for the asinine abjectly schmaltzy uberclown Roberto Begnini and especially for that soulless bean-counter and pedestrian purveyor of CGI claptrap George Lucas, a latter-day mega-mogul of barren recycling.Thomson declares in THE NEW BDF # 4 a powerful allegiance to many actors and directors of ‘colour’ including Hispanics – even J-Lo, Jennifer Lopez. Yet in a dazzling capsule commentary on the wit of Samuel L. Jackson the author errs in listing both THE 51ST STATE and FORMULA 51 as films the star has appeared in in 2001 and 2002. These are one and the same film of course.

Such minor errors seldom are to be found although the demise of Dean Stockwell is not recorded and there is NO distaff director known as Amy HerKerling! Thomson positions the influx into Hollywood of new black thespians with astringency, navigating the shoals of racism with aplomb in pinning down Angela Bassett, Halle Berry and Ving Rhames. Athough, as before, he provides pride pf place to performers and directors paying scant attention to composers, editors and writers Thomson is at his astutest in depicting the whims and wantoness of producers. Today everybody and his dog wants to produce a film, even bland Ben Affleck and the effulgent Liz Hurley have done so. The writer’s principal forte is his apt deflation of the oversized reputations of the "auteuriste" theory of the Sixties, the notion that a film director operated solo in giving vent to his world-view like a painter or a poet. The majority of the more plausible auteurs were the fast and furious "B" movie directors – NOT the Henry Kings, the David Leans, the George Stevenses, the William Wylers and the Fred Zinnemans, BUT the Andre de Toths, with whom I collaborated in the late ‘70s, the Byron Haskinses, the Phil Karlsons, the Joseph E. Lewises the Rudolph Mates and the Edgar G. Ulmers.Men often European émigrés who could think fast on their feet and who were acutely aware of the tensions of post-war U.S. affluence and the criminal conspiracy that was [is –think of ENRON/ Dick Cheney/ George W. Bush/ Kenneth Lay ] AMERICA.

There is a fistful of much-hyped modern "auteurs" such as the late ornate seer of synchronicity Krzyztof Kieslowski and the austere soft-touch emperor of improv Mike Leigh who get up Thomson’s nose, inflaming his inner skeptic. He freely admits to having a blind spot for the stream of agit-prop blue-collar films of the unsinkable Ken Loach. Thomson vigorously applies the bastinado the the feet of those smirking, smarmy show-offs the Brothers Coen, Ethan and Joel. And rightly so. Plagiarists of an unwholesome stripe the Coens have ripped off systematically in chronological order of their feature films Jim Thompson, Chuck Jones, Dashiell Hammett, Nathanael West, Fritz Lang, Raymond Chandler (TWICE !! } and David Mamet. At least they purloin their fake pearl strings from the best…..BUTonce a thief, ALWAYS a thief, boys!

Thomson has the good grace to pay homage to THE X-FILES’s Dr. Dana Scully, Gillian Anderson for her piercing role in Teremce Davies’ THE HOUSE OF MIRTH. Few outstanding newcomers slip his net. The author is at his best delivering memorable eulogies to the enduring males of post-war U.S. cinema – Glenn Ford, Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Widmark, the first and last named still among the living.These men personified natural authentic maleness. They were always simply "there" on screen., dominant icons who grasped that the camera wants less not more that stillness always trounces busyness, that being triumphs over acting.Thomson also thoroughly appreciates the women who must constantly go to war with ageism implicit in the fate of actresses – feisty females like Gloria Grahame, Jessica Lange, Ida Lupino, Kim Novak, Jane Russell and Susan Sarandon. The European actress is encouraged to flourish in middle and old-age – Nathalie Baye, Geraldine Chaplin, Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, Lena Olin, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompspn, Live Ullmann and Alida Valli.

At his most waspish the author of THE NEW BDF a man who does NOT suffer fools gladly tramples upon the pretentious slackness of Dustin Hoffman, director Neil Jordan, and Sam Shepard yet he entirely overlooks Antonia Bird the Britisher who fashioned the delirious masterpiece RAVENOUS, and he neglects its star Guy Pearce [L.A.CONFIDENTIAL, MEMENTO].

Thomson is very accepting of a wide array of contemporary actors who daily maintain their artistic integrity in defiance of an appallingly false, flaccid, frail and faltering film industry world-wide – Drew Barrymore, Cate Blanchett, Sandrine Bonnaire, Vincent D’Onofrio, Kirsten Dunst, Brendan Fraser, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and veterans Gabriel Byrne and David Strathairn. He mistakenly almost deifies Nicole Kidman and her trashy camp catastrophe MOULIN ROUGE. Now that I resent, total kitsch on the hoof. Although the author constantly harps on the imminent collapse of cinema as we used to know it, Thomson’s faith in youth, Eros – Melanie Griffith just keeps on going seductively like The Energizer Bunny – and in the unbearable lightness of "show-biz"always gives his pessimism pause.

Any cineaste who has yet to delve into Thomson’s THE NEW BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM has a treat in store. It should be compulsory reading for the shallow sensation-sniffing poseurs who are driving the VIFF event swiftly into a well deserved oblivion. They can read THE NEW BDF and weep. BUT they’re probably to proud to admit their ignorance of this rssential reading.

© Alex Grant. October 2002

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