Diving into a 1168 page reference book in the age of the internet, might seem like an outdated notion, but don’t let the title of “The New Biographical Dictionary Of Film” fool you. More than just a dry, Wikipedia style encyclopedia of film talent, critic and acclaimed writer David Thomson brings his own unique wit, style and flavor to each entry, offering his own opinion on a director’s career or actor’s canon. The ‘Dictionary Of Film’ isn’t just something you have on a shelf waiting for the rare moment when you’re not near a computer or phone and you need to look something up. Thomson’s depth of knowledge make the voluminous book one you’ll want to keep nearby, turning to first for its insights, perspective, the dashes of added detail and context, and just the plain pleasure the verve of his writing style brings.
The sixth edition of “The New Biographical Dictionary Of Film” hit store shelves earlier this spring, with Thomson adding over 100 new entries, including capsules for Amy Adams, Casey Affleck, Steve Coogan, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Shannon, Kristen Stewart and many, many more. Having finally had a chance to dip into the latest edition, we conducted an email interview with Thomson about his latest tome, the state of criticism and cinema, and where he sees the future of movies headed. Read on below. Note: Questions have been slightly edited for clarity and flow (and answers are presented unedited).
In an era when information about actors, directors and more are available with just the click of a mouse, how do you hope people will use and interact with your book?
The ‘Dictionary’ has always been not just a work of reference, but a critical history of film. It offers personal verdicts on creative figures, along with an historical survey of what has happened in the medium. In other words, it is assembled like an encyclopedia but written as an opinionated and provoking work of criticism. That combination is unusual, and it takes getting used to, but the purpose of the book is simply to urge people to see more films, and to think about them more deeply. So it’s important that its range is international and historical. It is also a book written with pleasure and intended to be read for enjoyment. We don’t normally expect style, humor and polemic in a work of reference, but the ‘Dictionary’ depends on those things. So it’s a bedside book, a labyrinth which — once a reader enters — it may be hard to escape. It’s argumentative, educational and fun (I hope). In other words, it is a book.
This is now the sixth edition of your ‘Dictionary Of Film.’ What surprises you each time you revisit it?
That I am still doing it, still alive and still loving it. Thus there are ways in which the book is also a huge, untidy autobiography and even a novel about a man trying to write this book. I am amazed too and fascinated by the way a great and unprecedented popular art has broken up into so many sub-forms. In so many ways we live in an age in which a great ice-mass is breaking up. It’s true, literally, with ice and weather systems. But it’s a valid idea culturally. So the seemingly solid thing called “the movies” has fragmented to become so many other things. Once we looked at motion pictures and codified stories. Now we realize we have been looking at screens, many of which are icicles instead of ice bergs. That development surprises and arouses me. I see a ‘Dictionary’ now that could and should take on so many other media.
Have you ever heard from anyone in the book about their particularly entry? Who had the most difficult career to summarize in brief?
Yes, in different ways from many people. Amusement, anger, complaint,correction — and a joined argument.
I think the hardest career to describe — because it may be the most symptomatic — is Jean-Luc Godard. No one is such a master of the changing ice. With an entry like his I feel the urge to write a book. I don’t really like him but I think he is the spirit of film.
You mention that the Dictionary serves as vehicle that will hopefully get people to see more films. Are there filmmakers or a particular era that you personally would like to see get more attention either critically or with a broader audience?
American comedies of the 30s — screwball, especially. Classical Japanese cinema. French film of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. British film of the ’40s. In general, I fear younger audiences have come to believe that a picture has to be recent to be any good — that is a nonsense.
As you’ve written about movie stars of yesteryear and today, have you noticed any changes in the trajectory of how a “star is made”?
Yes, stars are made in so many other media — like sport, politics and mere celebrity — so movie stardom hardly exists in the original sense. And it may come and go very fast. For example, Lindsay Lohan was a star of celebrity for a couple of years. It’s over now. She is a prematurely middle-aged lady, apparently bewildered by the storm that passed through her.
Do you think American cinema will ever return to the auteur celebrated “golden age” of the ’70s?
No, but there’s no need. It has had many periods. They come and go and cannot be repeated. The drabbest thing about American film is its attempt to remake the past. It never works, though it has become a curse in the business. It is like trying to refreeze the ice. But there is no reason why other “golden ages” will not appear — we have had one recently in long-form television narratives.
You mention in the introduction to the latest edition that you’ve come to acknowledge television as a cinematic medium. Was there any particular show that changed your mind?
It’s logic that TV extended movie[s]. I always hated the Hollywood snobbery against TV. We have neglected that history just as once we neglected the history of movies. Long ago, I put a long essay in the ‘Dictionary’ on Johnny Carson which was a way of saying — look, this is a star personality such as the movies can’t dream of. Far and and away the best American movies of the last ten years have been on TV.
Does 3D have a place in cinema’s future, and you believe it can be an artistic benefit to a film?
Yes, 3D has a place and sooner or later someone is going to seize it artistically. I wasn’t crazy about “Hugo” but it did show a genius being woken up by that new opportunity. Meanwhile, 3D is at the service of commercial idiots who are scared of 2D and never see that it can do 3D.
What impact has the passing of Roger Ebert had on film criticism and journalism? Can he be replaced?
Roger Ebert was one of the nicest, warmest and most generous of people — he was also probably the last film critic who was in any real way known to the general public. I don’t think he was a great critic because in his fame he met and knew many movie people. He liked them and he felt drawn to be generous. I’m not sure good critics can or should bother about being liked.
What is the role of film critics and film writers going forward as the medium now finds a multitude of avenues beyond the theatre, with lines blurring between “movies,” television and more?
We need people who can write well about what film and screens are doing to us — that is more important than thumbs up or thumbs down. If we stop discussing and questioning our experience, we will cease to be creatures who value and have experience.
Francis Ford Coppola recently said that he believes that “live cinema” could be the next revolution in filmmaking. What do you think the next big change in cinema will be?
Abandoning the notion of “cinema,” and seeing that the fragmentation is an explosion, that kids with their phones are film-makers, and it’s all out of control. It’s wildly exciting and very frightening.
In an era where blockbusters are king, what gives you hope about the future of cinema?
Ignore the blockbuster. They are kings of a defunct weather system. Notice instead the mass of good small films — “Ida,” “Locke,” “Stories We Tell,” [the film of Michael] Haneke — of very ambitious pictures, like “Third Person,” of the TV series and the profusion of bits and bites on places like YouTube.
If “the movies,” as we have known them over the past 100 odd years, are becoming fragmented as you describe, do you think the medium has another 100 years in it? If so (or not), do you think it will have the same impact culturally or artistically?
Go back 100 years — to “Birth of a Nation” — and the changes have been immense. As a rule, change gets faster, so in the next 100 years the shifts will be enormous, and beyond prediction. I think we are near the end of movie theatres, and at the dawn of people owning or using a diversity of small screens. Culturally and politically, the prospects are not cheerful. But looking at our world on screens is our only hope for understanding and dealing with that world. It’s up to us — and that’s why knowing the history is so important. The potential for the screen as a kind of drug, or thought control mechanism is very close and worrying. And as our world gets more fragmented and alarming — as the ice turns to flood — [the] pressure for some force is very great. Our liberties and our existence are all at stake. We may trade in the liberties for survival. Look at the movies of Fritz Lang.
Was there any subject, when writing the Dictionary, that you found yourself growing more appreciative of just in summarizing their work, life and career?
I still admire anyone who tries to do good work and who hopes to make audiences look at their real world.
“The New Biographical Dictionary Of Film” is now in stores.