As hard to put down as it is to pick up, David Thomson’s 1,000-plus-page The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is exactly what its title indicates and so much more.
Brief biographical essays of crucial actors, directors, writers, cinematographers, producers and studio heads are the book’s foundation, but what makes TNBDoF compulsively readable is Thomson’s writing, his informed and occasionally cantankerous views on the people and movies that comprise roughly a century’s worth of cinema.
Conflicts will arise while reading TNBDoF, often in the same entry; the Coen brothers passage alone generated about a half-dozen arguments. Yet Thomson is such an incisive essayist that his observations ring with clarity even when you disagree with him (though I wonder if he’s given The Big Lebowski another chance).
David Thomson is one of the great writers on film, and his knowledge is formidable. Born in London in 1941 and a cinephile since youth, he has seen a conceivably unhealthy number of films and is the author of mounds of thought-provoking commentary for The Guardian, The New Republic, The New York Times and others, as well as dozens of books. Thomson’s masterwork, however, is TNBDoF, the most human chronicle of cinema.
Epic though TNBDoF may be, this triceps-building tome can be a swift read; it’s easy to lose hours in its pages.
First published in 1975 as A Biographical Dictionary of Cinema, TNBDoF is now in its sixth edition (it was last updated in 2014). Incidentally, 1975 was a pretty good year for movies: Amarcord, Dersu Uzala, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Picnic at Hanging Rock…
Global in scope, TNBDoF embraces international figures in a way that few other cinema histories do (one noteworthy exception is Mark Cousins’ sublime documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey). Some of the best films and most significant technical innovations, after all, were made outside of Hollywood, which itself was built largely on the labors of immigrants.
High standards. Though Thomson’s tastes are diverse, and he enjoys his share of commercial concoctions (he is a particular fan of well-crafted “screwball noir” like To Have and Have Not), he is harsh in his evaluation of what he views as lesser works by otherwise gifted filmmakers and performers. And he has loftier expectations for the likes of a Paul Thomas Anderson (“no other American director working today has such sad, tender, and smart ways of looking into the depths of society”) than he does a Michael Bay (who makes “noisy garbage”).
I first encountered TNBDoF many editions ago while in film school, where I used the book primarily as a research reference, though one item often led to a string of others and to me abandoning the studies at hand. I am in the midst of reading it cover to cover, but I still find myself flipping, following the strands of cinema’s past.
Jumping around is encouraged, and the cumulative effect is a fragmented narrative that provides a rich understanding of where cinema has been and hints at where it may be headed. In his introduction to TNBDoF’s fifth edition, Thomson calls it “a book that is pledged to believing in what was once a mass medium, as well as in the archaic marvel of books, where one entry will lead you to another—as in a story.”
Kevin Jackson, a British author and broadcaster who has also written extensively on cinema, considers TNBDoF a “miracle” and a “monument.” In his contribution to the British Film Institute’s 2010 Sight & Sound top five film books poll (in which Thomson’s TNBDoF took first place), Jackson asks: “How could anyone … have seen so much, understood so much, remembered so much at such a young age… and then written about it in a prose style of such idiosyncratic verve, lyricism and aphoristic pith?”
Like this, on James Cameron and the future reputation of Avatar: “…it will be remarked that the film has social and racial attitudes that Griffith might have endorsed—though I suspect he would have winced at the dialogue.”
Movies—how they are made and consumed—are evolving at a faster rate than any time in history. “Yet somehow, with so much more to see,” Thomson writes in the fifth edition’s introduction, “I wonder if people are watching as closely as once they did.”
Not just for movie geeks, TNBDoF has much to offer casual film fans. Some of the stories behind movie stars and filmmakers are as captivating as their performances and films (see the sad and sordid tale of Frances Farmer, whose career Thomson intriguingly links to Sharon Stone’s, or how Minnesota-bred cartoonist Terry Gilliam came to join Monty Python’s Flying Circus).
Orchestral minds behind some of the great movie scores are arguably given insufficient attention in TNBDoF, though Bernard Herrmann has a deserving entry (which begins after a droll preface that includes Thomson pleading guilty “to any charge that ‘subsidiary’ arts have been poorly treated in this book”). Thomson does note the “extraordinary skill or trick in writing snatches of music that enhance the mood and life of a film.”
Perhaps more than any other art form, movies are self-referential, which Thomson frequently and slyly acknowledges throughout the book. In Faye Dunaway’s entry, for example, Thomson describes Chinatown’s Evelyn Mulwray as “a woman from a Lubitsch film, condescending to appear in a George Raft picture.”
Quaid(s): Dennis has an entry.
Randy does not, despite his supporting roles in more salient films.
Some notable names, in addition to film composers and Randy Quaid, are missing from TNBDoF. How could there not be? However, Thomson does not consider the book a comprehensive volume: “…some filmgoers and filmmakers want to know the outline of our great history,” he writes in the introduction to the fifth edition, “and I hope that this book is a step towards that.” It is a giant leap, regardless of omissions.
To read The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is to time travel through cinema’s storied past and gain greater appreciation for the powerful magic that can be conjured from shadows and light.
Unknown or barely remembered names and movies are given color and context.
Vital but overlooked figures and works are given a new pulse and perspective (for instance, Thomson asks us to reassess the films of Alexander Dovzhenko in comparison to those of his better-known countryman and contemporary Sergei Eisenstein).
Where you go after you finish TNBDoF (or while you’re reading it, for that matter) is up to you. Thomson unlocks many doors.
X does not mark a spot in TNBDoF, the only letter without an entry, but the book itself is buried treasure for those seeking new experiences. My viewing list has grown into a viewing notebook.
Young as art forms go, cinema in recent decades has grown to include increasingly personal visions that have inherently smaller audiences, although Thomson still doesn’t hold the best movies on par with great paintings or music or literature, and he doesn’t seem sure this shift is entirely positive. “You see,” he offers in the fifth edition introduction, “the everyone-ness is vital. If the story is for you alone, or for me, then Faulkner, Joyce, Proust, and on and on, have done better than the best movies.”
Zoom out. Fade to black.