Like Dracula: David Thomson

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

No event exists without the process by which it is apprehended and understood. It is irrelevant and impossible to refer it to an absolute standard like realism because the means of measurement cannot be extricated from the observation. The relationship between the real and the surreal is not distinct but blurred
David Thomson, Movie Man

The cinemas alone stayed open, twinkling with lights and turning the night into dark velvet. The cinema comes to life with dark—like Dracula.
—David Thomson, America in the Dark

It all begins in the dark. This is a point of crucial poetic and philosophic importance for David Thomson; he is obsessed with the fact that the delicate interplay of light and dark images on the screen, as produced by film and projector, is possible only after a room has been completely darkened and a shaft of light sent streaking across that room to illuminate the screen. Illumination occurs elsewhere. For the adolescent David Thomson, sitting in a cinema in South London, it strikes him while watching and rewatching Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The realization that an intelligence guiding the camera was commenting on movie-viewing itself—a man sitting in the dark, watching people move in a box—was a stimulating experience, and Thomson works with the tangled mesh of art, life, observation, and participation in his three books Movie Man (1967), A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1975), and America in the Dark: Hollywood and the Gift of Unreality (1977). The very private relationship he maintains with films, even when he expands his notions to include theories and pronouncements on all society, is passionate and idiosyncratic (need I add, subjective?). Thomson refuses to be pinned down or to wear a label; humanist, auteurist, structuralist, whateverist, he remains doggedly an individual, exploring his personal contact with movies—with prejudices, usually acknowledged, but always with a real determination to get at the roots of the power that has hold of him: cinema.

The title Movie Man, says Thomson, has four meanings which may merge into one: filmmaker, actor, character, and viewer. What kind of Movie Man is Thomson himself? To plug him into any of these categories is too easy an answer; Thomson is more of a compleat Movie Man, one who has been shaped and formed by the films he has seen all through his life, one whose subsequent viewings and analyses of life and film are colored by the cinema that made up his past. “My years in the garden of Hollywood have left me with a passion for films, only lately tempered by a compassion for the society that has been made by them.” Thomson suggests that movies sparked his imagination at the same time that they increased his unsociability. The retreat into comfortable warm darkness can steer one away from the absurd difficulties of society. I suspect that Movie Man Thomson sees the world in terms of frames, performance and mise-en-scène, and I wonder what kind of film he would make. The open, healthy, warm films of Renoir that he admires so much (for good reason—and with also perhaps a longing for fullblooded life as seen in these films?) would seem to be beyond his experience, and he might be nearer to a movie that examined cinema in the manner of Vertigo, or Truffaut’s or De Palma’s films. Certainly self-commentary runs through Thomson’s books just as self-criticism runs through Godard’s movies.

But Thomson is a writer, after all, and how does his cinematic outlook affect his writing style? Look at the chapter on “Orson Welles and Citizen Kane in America in the Dark. It is a beautifully composed essay, at once assimilated into the body of the book and yet somehow sticking out (Kane itself is a sore thumb of a movie). The bold opening sentence—“Citizen Kane grows with every year as America comes to resemble it”—is followed by an essay that grows organically out of this notion of the interweaving of life and art, with the biography of Welles flowing quite naturally into the film, and reality and fiction becoming richly muddled in the process. Because Thomson is more interested in intriguing questions than in tying things up in neat bundles (appropriate, since Kane has pieces of itself flying all over the place, unresolved but enlightening, with the Rosebud revelation merely a buoy for us to hold on to in the storm of the film), the analysis raises tantalizing prospects and makes us think. Thomson manages to move his ideas to their reasonable endpoint: Rosebud. Then, after saying that Rosebud is only “a pretext,” he concludes his essay with this paragraph:

“Perhaps moments before the film begins, an old man, alone, sick, and world-weary, telephoned a library and asked the night staff, courteously, to find him a word—he directed them by numbers that came into his head at random—the third floor, the fifth room, the second stack, the third shelf, the tenth book, the seventh page, the thirteenth line, the second word … ‘“Rosebud,” sir,’ came the reply and the man rang off, having something to say and hoping that meaning might gather around it.”

Now that is a magnificent capper for the piece; it is sly bombast worthy of Welles himself. I would contend that this essay is cinematic because of the perceptive, withdrawn observations and the dramatic style and structure of his narrative, all rolling up to that thumping ending. At any rate, Thomson’s sense of drama is undeniable. His biographical sketch of Mickey Rooney comes immediately to mind. At times it may seem a trifle overblown, but then that’s what Rooney’s career has been, and Thomson uncovers and promotes some invaluable thoughts about the faded star. The first paragraph is breathtaking, and I must reprint it just to give an idea of Thomson writing when he is red-hot:

“Do you laugh or cry for Rooney? Is it possible within a brief article to convey the dementia of his life and career, and yet suggest his spasmodic ability to transcend vulgarity and make it into an astonishing portrait of the all-American boy hero in which the motor is accelerating by some geometric progression? Mickey Rooney is important, and yet he is ridiculous; it is in the pitch of his absurdity that he is significant. One feels like a coroner presented with a cadaver, shot through the head, poisoned, thrown off a cliff, and with a bad heart. Rooney could have died long ago from sheer disbelief; he lives on. It is all very well for Yeats to say ‘the centre does not hold’ and believe that such a verdict is sufficient. Rooney has been an exploding galaxy all his life, endlessly fragmenting; but against all laws he still holds together. Let us try to pick out some of the principles of survival.”

There follows an eight-part article—part biography, part analysis, part filmography. Part eight, the conclusion, consists of this: “A suggestion: Fool to Orson Welles’ Lear in a version adapted so that the two are revealed to be long-lost twins.” This is just vigorous, provocative writing, building up for that little bombshell and then releasing it quietly as the article ends. I put the book down, laugh with the beauty of the piece, and then wonder why I didn’t think of that.

The subjectivity of the Biographical Dictionary makes for some very exciting reading. One can always sense when his juices are really flowing; with the people who interest him the most—say, Peter Lorre, Howard Hughes, Vincent Price, Roberto Rossellini—Thomson crackles along, every adjective placed effectively, with imaginative suggestions and powerful recollections, pleasantly persuading us to agree with everything he says. He is so on-target in these pieces that a kneejerk reaction is avoided when I run up against something I disagree with. Instead, I am more willing to hear him out, and many of his observations in these pieces—Ford, Chaplin, Capra, for instance—will be very helpful in getting a fuller picture of the artist. That is, Thomson’s assertions may be rejected, but they will be remembered.

There are times in the Biographical Dictionary when Thomson seems a bit unfair, if only because of his personal bias. For instance, his entry for George Cukor is respectful, acknowledging that Cukor is one of the world’s finest directors and skimming briefly over some of the main themes in his work. Compare this average piece with the entry for Vincente Minnelli—much more insightful, much more enthusiastic, all put across in about the same amount of space. These are minor quibbles since it is unlikely any encyclopedist would manage to survey every film personality with the same degree of depth. Still, the proclamation about Cukor—“It is a body of work that will improve with age, overshadowing many directors more highly rated today”—should be convincingly backed up. There are only a few disturbing examples of Thomson apparently approaching certain artists with his mind already made up. He is put off by Chaplin’s self-pity and Ford’s sentimentality, and by the fact that both men created worlds of their own imagination. (Curiously, these worlds are widely different, although Thomson jumps on them with equal relish—Ford’s community and Chaplin’s solipsism.) Both pieces are angry in their determination to bring down icons of the cinema, and both pieces suffer from that closed-minded drive. Monsieur Verdoux “by far” Chaplin’s best film? The Searchers the only Ford film of worth? That he singles out these films as fine while dismissing the rest is almost a rebuke to the auteurists, who would insist that all the films of an artist are worthy of consideration.

Thomson never fesses up to being an auteurist, and that is as it should be—even if he shares some key auteurist enthusiasms (v. his championings of Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann, et al.). The effort to remain nondogmatic produces a critical persona that is shimmeringly changeable, that is open to all kinds of cinematic adventure. He is willing to admit the changes of opinion that come with time: the Biographical Dictionary is much sterner with Hitchcock than Movie Man is, and in America in the Dark he admits his gradual (and slight) lessening of enthusiasm for Anthony Mann. A sense of humor also helps keep Thomson moving and alert (as in the outrageously calm tagline of John Barrymore’s bio, coming after a list of titles of his last, lacklustre movies: “He died, of course.”). His wit can be devastating when subtly introduced. The humor has developed since Movie Man, which seems a much heavier book than America in the Dark. Was Thomson concerned back then with establishing himself through a kind of personal manifesto? Or has he come into the full courage of his idiosyncrasies?

Movie Man is particularly valuable in the way that it establishes many of Thomson’s causes, such as his attack on those who would argue that documentary is superior to fiction film, or vice versa. Thomson instead wonders how far that difference exists at all—for instance, the quote that begins this paper, and this statement:

“The cinema has nothing to do with the camera being unable to lie. It goes beyond lies or truth in any absolute sense, recognizing only the event and the observer, depending upon the quality of the process of observation and taking its moral direction by the consequences of the observation.”

Thomson’s fascinating theories of cinema acting are also worked out in the first book. That he prefers Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum to Laurence Olivier and Peter Sellers underlines his ideas about the intermingling of reality and artifice: “The barrier of the screen certainly gives the impression of acting, but what we are seeing in the cinema are people.” This concept—that an actor will carry the same identity from film to film, without impersonating someone else, chameleonlike, but rather having that identity tested by the different films—necessarily runs through the Biographical Dictionary. We know the actors/people almost exclusively through the roles they play/are, and must draw our conclusions about them from the evidence of their work. Initially we may be surprised when Thomson hails Cary Grant as the most important cinema actor—and yet, how many of us have really always preferred Grant (and Stewart, and Wayne, and Cooper) over the posturings and accent games of the more theatrical performers?

That’s the key to Thomson’s amazing perceptiveness about the cinema: he can define it (or more precisely identify it, since it has already defined itself) as being just exactly cinema—not someone’s ideas of what movies should be, but what film is to us, how it is separate from other artforms, from other ways of life, and how it nevertheless feeds into and grows out of those other ways and forms. Thomson has the ability to evaluate what the movies do to people, and to him most especially—“the activity of sitting in the dark and ‘believing in’ the images is complex and delicate and demands a philosophical agility that few filmgoers could articulate.” He does not merely have the ability to watch movies well; he has the gift of reporting on them with clarity and passion. His life has been molded and guided and enlightened by movies, as he beautifully relates in the opening pages of America in the Dark—remembrances that are recognizable to any real film devotee, and that immediately form bonds between Thomson and us. I was another of those people in the dark, and now I can realize, as Thomson did, that the dark served both to join and to separate the people sitting in it.

Thomson can be such an intoxicating writer because he can be so easily identified with; he reveals so much of himself, either purposefully or inadvertently, that we really come to know him. As he says near the end of the Biographical Dictionary:

“But Warhol might respond to this book if it were described as the enormous, chronic and purposeless expression of its author’s obsession. It is the difference between calling the book ‘A Dictionary of Cinema’ or ‘Ten Thousand Hours in the Dark’. Nearing the end of the task as this is written, I must assure readers that the latter title seems in some ways more appropriate. The comprehensive survey has not escaped being about myself.”

Just as Thomson is fascinated by films that confront their medium—Jimmy Stewart watching different screens across his courtyard—so he is selfconsciously concerned with the difficulty of writing about movies, writing about writing, and writing about himself.

Copyright © 1980 Robert Horton

A pdf of the original issue can be found here


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