Sunday, February 21, 2016

Movie-ing 2

That Bowie bio and that Ray Davies memoir are gonna have to wait, because I've found something better....
David Thomson's NEW BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM (Sixth Edition, 2015) is 1,150 pages of film biographies, accomplishments, opinions and trivia, and it is the best reference book I've read since Richard Cook and Brian Morton's great PENGUIN GUIDE TO JAZZ (1992).
Back in the day, English film critic Leslie Halliwell used to come out every year or two with an updated HALLIWELL'S FILMGOERS' COMPANION, a huge book full of lists of movies alphabetized by actor, director, writer, etc. -- a constantly updated look at what was happening in movies and who did it. Halliwell died in the 80's or 90's, and it looks like Thomson took over for him.
But Halliwell used to just list movies a person helped with, then add a brief description of their career, maybe a quote or a funny story or great lines from their films. Thomson does all that and more, including an ongoing narrative complete with completed films and dates of release, plus opinions about the person's work, details about their background, and a critical overview.
And Thomson ain't shy about expressing his opinions.
And it's clearly Thomson's book and no one else's -- he includes entries on overlooked figures, people who helped him gain a growing appreciation of films, folks I guarantee you've never heard of, people probably nobody but their FAMILY has ever heard of.
And he makes it all informative, funny, charming, sometimes moving.
Thomson has little use for most of the films released in the last decade or so. And I'm OK with that.
He may be a little too convinced of the greatness in films of the past. I'm OK with that, too.
He adores actors and actresses -- the longest entry I've found so far is on Cary Grant. The entry on James Stewart's pretty lengthy, too. And Thomson goes on for a couple pages on novelist, screenwriter and critic Graham Green. Critic Pauline Kael gets a nice write-up.
Thomson can be brutal on directors. Nobody's more to blame if a movie goes bad than the director, right? So Thomson can go on for pages about Howard Hawks, John Ford, Frank Capra, Sam Peckinpah (both positive and negative). But when he comes to a current director like Richard Donner (SUPERMAN, the LETHAL WEAPON movies), it only takes him three sentences to sum-up Donner's work.
If you're a movie fan, this is great stuff. You're sure to learn a lot, and look at some actors and films in a new way. And Thomson isn't afraid of the dark stuff -- like, for instance, how Jean Harlow died. Or Joan Crawford's later years. Or Orson Welles's career. And there are others that are just as tragic, that seem just as large a waste of talent.
Not everybody in current films is bio'd in here, not every actor or director mentioned gets a write-up. That would need a book twice as big. But it'll keep you busy for awhile if you're a movie fan.
And the unique, personal way Thomson's written it is a good model for me as I work on my strange-music review book (up past 32,000 words now).
If you're a movie fan, check this one out. You'll hardly ever hear me say this: This book is WORTH $30.
And by the way, apparently Thomson has been doing these dictionaries and updates since 1976....
Rock and roll could use an encyclopedia as detailed, well-written, and open as this one is.

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