Mad Monk

Jenny Diski

  • The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson
    Little, Brown, 963 pp, £25.00, November 2002, ISBN 0 316 85905 2
  • Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from the ‘New Yorker’ by Anthony Lane
    Picador, 752 pp, £15.99, November 2002, ISBN 0 330 49182 2
  • Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film by Peter Wollen
    Verso, 314 pp, £13.00, December 2002, ISBN 1 85984 391 3

I think it is two years since I’ve been to the cinema. This is something of a mystery to me, like love gone wrong: in fact, it is love gone wrong. Was the love misguided in the first place, have I simply aged out of the way of love, or has the beloved altered beyond all recognition? Naturally, lovers whose love is depleted are inclined to think the last: it makes them feel better, less fickle, less hopeless, that the loss is not their own fault. But it’s always best to doubt such self-serving conclusions. Generally, things are one’s fault, unless it can be positively proved otherwise. Anyway, sit me in front of Bringing Up Baby, The Wild Bunch or The Conversation and I’m ravished. It’s not the films I love that I’ve fallen out of love with.

So, the cinema. I don’t go any more. Not for lack of opportunity: there is an excellent cinema barely five minutes away with multiple screens and a grown-up programming policy. I’d be free to go in the afternoon all alone (an old movie-going treat) or in company of an evening. But I don’t. I notice a film that I think might be good, and then shake my head at the idea of actually going to see it. The risk of disappointment is too great: I would rather wait until it comes out on VHS or DVD and buy it or rent it from MovieMail. That way, when it turns out to be, at best, only half-good, I won’t have got cold, or wet, or cross with myself for being too demanding or not demanding enough. What a way to be a film-lover.

Films were everything to me in my teens. I’d bunk off school to get to the first afternoon showing of the first day of or Pierrot le Fou, hunkering down in the red plush seats of the Academy cinema, along with, though at a proper distance from, a couple of severe film buffs, a woman in dark glasses trying to distract herself from an affair gone wrong, an Oxford Street shopper in from the rain and a pervert or two hoping for some Continental movie action. I spent whole days and nights at the NFT catching up on what I’d missed in previous decades (Bogart weekends, seven hours of Les Vampires, an all-night marathon screening of the Apu trilogy), and every Hollywood musical and melodrama shown on TV was another opportunity to fill in the gaps. Watching movies of any kind in any way was the purest pleasure. Good, almost good, bad. I dreamed that one day it would be possible to own films and watch them at home. Be careful what you wish for.

Partly my reluctance to go to the movies comes from a newish but unshakeable sense of the absurdity of sitting in a darkened room with dozens or hundreds of other people, all facing in the same direction. I imagine the roof being taken off the cinema and a baffled child giant looking down on us and wondering what kind of thing the human race could be. But minor psychoses aside, the terrible thing is that I don’t miss going to the cinema. Audiences chatter, eat, drink, wander about and are reliably over six foot when they sit in front of me – it was always so, but now either they do it worse and taller, or my tolerance threshold has sunk to sea level. What I do miss however is wanting to go to the cinema. Only very rarely in the last decade or so (the reissue of Nights of Cabiria, Happiness, The Usual Suspects) have I felt that the movie I was seeing was worth putting up with the irritation and effort of going out. Am I feeling the way people feel as they get older about a world that no longer seems to be addressed to them? Movies, after all, aren’t made with me in mind any more. Do I just resent that, or does it really make for poorer movies?

There is one reliable cinematic pleasure that remains to me: I indulge in reading about movies with undiminished enthusiasm. David Thomson has written about his disappointment with contemporary cinema, about how the franchise movie and the blockbuster are killing Hollywood and his hopes, and because I am one of the legion of Thomson’s devoted fans, it cheers me up to hear it. If he thinks so then it’s not just me feeling jaded: maybe there is an objective difference (or else we are of a similar age and therefore suffering from the same nostalgia syndrome). In a review (in the New Republic) of Anthony Lane’s book Nobody’s Perfect, Thomson, aged sixtyish, compares a non-exhaustive list of the movies available for Pauline Kael to review in the 1970s with those reviewed in the New Yorker by Lane, aged between 30 and 40. Here’s his 1970s list: Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather (1 & 2), The Conversation, McCabe and Mrs Miller, California Split, Nashville, Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, Carrie, The Fury, The French Connection, The Exorcist, Klute, The Parallax View, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Annie Hall, American Graffiti, Star Wars, Harold and Maude, Two-Lane Blacktop, Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, Badlands. These are the movies reviewed by Lane that he lists: Indecent Proposal, Sleepless in Seattle, Speed, Wolf, Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, Braveheart, The Bridges of Madison County, Crash, Con Air, Contact, Titanic, Godzilla, Ronin, Meet Joe Black, The Phantom Menace, Gladiator, Mission: Impossible 2.

A couple of interesting films in the second list, and a couple of uninteresting ones in the first. It’s not quite fair because Thomson has left some seriously good movies out of the later list (for example, LA Confidential, The Usual Suspects, Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould), and a few others (Nil by Mouth, The English Patient, The Truman Show, Shallow Grave) that someone might feel it was worth crossing the road for; but in general his argument that Lane’s evident talent has had little to work on and is condemned to dissipate itself in being wickedly witty about lousy films holds true. (Not that wickedly witty doesn’t provide great pleasure. On Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal: ‘The whole thing needs a leading man with snap and vim, instead of which it gets Woody Harrelson. Admittedly, it’s an awful part, which calls for little more than unfocused emoting, but then Woody trying to emote looks like anyone else trying to go to sleep. At one point, he has to give a lecture on the inspiring joys of architecture, rising to the contention that “even a brick wants to be something.” He should know.’) Thomson’s point, in his review, is avuncular, if a little smug: Lane, who has claimed Thomson as a mentor, is suffering from being born too late.

Thomson is besotted with the cinema: Lane would be if he could. As it is, he is largely obliged as a film reviewer to keep his pen poised for deadly lines (on The Bridges of Madison County: ‘There’s a hunk of baloney devoted to Africa, all about “the cohabitation of man and beast”, but worse is to come: at one point … Clint Eastwood wears a pair of sandals. Whatever for? You don’t see the Dalai Lama packing a .44 Magnum’). As if he knows the world of contemporary film isn’t enough to detain him, a third of Lane’s book consists of literary essays, and another third is devoted to profiles of a few directors mostly long gone and others not notable for their movie credits – Karl Lagerfeld, Walker Evans, Ernest Shackleton and Lego. In Thomson’s view film ought to be enough to detain a film-loving writer, but it isn’t. Perhaps Lane is merely keeping his options open and, who knows, doesn’t want to be a writer exclusively on film. The diversity is admirable, but it blurs the focus of Lane’s book.

Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, first published almost thirty years ago and now in a revised fourth edition, is constantly proclaimed a cult book, and movie-lovers await new editions in the way Star Wars fans anticipate back stories. It functions like a prototype of hypertext. You check out one entry and find you have to follow up others each of which gets you fanning the pages to find further references. Try ‘Cary Grant’ and see if you can manage not to read about Hawks, Hitchcock, Hepburn, Mae West, Capra; except that having got to the Hawks entry, you are deflected on to Elisha Cook, Montgomery Clift, Boris Karloff, and each of those will send you off on another mystery tour … I have spent whole days leafing through names and chasing the shadows disappearing through Thomson’s pages. If someone could only make it into a film, then cinema would have achieved its apotheosis. Actually, Thomson himself has already turned it into a novel, Suspects (1985), which pretends to be a biographical dictionary of an array of fictional characters from great movies: the likes of Richard Blaine and Ilsa Lund, George Bailey, Travis Bickle and Norman Bates, who turn out, in the interstices of the entries, to have entangled lives and a dark plot all of their own. If only Howard Hawks wasn’t dead and had made a movie of Suspects we could all die happy and go to deconstruction heaven.

Though the characters in the Biographical Dictionary would claim not to be fictional, they are utterly at the mercy of Thomson’s wayward and wonderful opinions and his ornate and seductive prose. Philip French considers Thomson’s prose too baroque and his opinions not disinterested enough for his taste. But if you were in the business, you would be furious at being left out of the Dictionary, even though the risks of inclusion are great. Thomson quotes from Lars von Trier’s third manifesto:

There is only one excuse for having to go through, and force others to go through, the hell that is the creative process of film. The carnal pleasure of that split second in the cinemas, when the projector and the loudspeakers, in unison, allow the illusion of sound and motion to burst forth, like an electron abandoning its orbit to generate light, and create the ultimate: a miraculous surge of life.

Thomson concludes: ‘We could note several things from this: that one man’s carnal ecstasy may be another’s imagination; that sometimes there are no excuses; and that the language of self-inducing cinematic exultation is oddly akin to the rhetoric of fascism.’ Sheer joy. And as for Roberto Benigni’s god-help-us-all Oscar-winning La Vita è Bella:

Despite the enormous effect Bambi had on me as a child, I have had difficulty digesting Thumperism – I mean, the philosophy that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say nothing at all … There are candidates for honest bad-mouthing, reaching from one’s relatives to the alleged leaders of your world. And there is Roberto Benigni.

In spite of loathing Benigni’s previous efforts Thompson would have been inclined to omit him from the Dictionary, but:

Then came the thing called La Vita è Bella. I often echo that sentiment myself, but if there is anything likely to mar bella-ness it is not so much Hitlerism (I am against it), which is fairly obvious, as Benigni-ism, which walks away with high praise, box office and Oscars. I despise Life Is Beautiful, especially its warmth, sincerity and feeling, all of which I believe grow out of stupidity. Few events so surely signalled the decline of the motion picture as the glory piled on that odious and misguided fable. I am sure Mr Benigni is kind to children and animals. I am prepared to accept that he is a model citizen and a good companion. Still, Life Is Beautiful is a disgrace.

Thomson’s views should be available to any off-planeters who happen to find themselves viewing la vita through Benigni’s sickly viewfinder.

Not that my devotion to Thomson’s Dictionary depends only on those of his opinions I agree with. The Piano, a film I abominated, ‘is a great film in an age that has nearly forgotten such things … The sense of place, of spirit and of silence is Wordsworthian … No one has better caught the mix of sensitivity and ferocity in the human imagination.’ An imaginary argument ensues on reading this, which Thomson wins (even though he’s quite wrong) because he loves films better and is a more generous person than I am.

French is right: Thomson has no distance from film. He responds directly to what he sees and puts it down on paper. It sounds most of the time as if he really minds. That’s what makes reading him so exciting. Here’s where Lane’s excellent wit and easy prose fall short of Thomson’s passion. When Lane writes of his admiration for Titanic, you do a double-take, and instead of having an argument, pass on, shaking your head and wondering if his other judgments were as solid as they seemed to be. If Thomson had liked Titanic (he didn’t), I’d have bothered to stop for a fight.

In Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film, Peter Wollen makes no mention of Titanic, and one would rather hesitate to mention it to him. He writes as an academic, which does not mean he loves film any less than Thomson, but does mean that his love isn’t as evident. His essays sometimes cover the same ground as those of the other two, but he is not doing the same thing. When he writes of Howard Hawks it is not with the perplexed adoration of the Thomson who would take ten Hawks movies to his desert island and let the rest of the directors go hang, even though Hawks’s macho values worry him: ‘a moviemaker for boys never quite grown up’. Wollen writes an informed and magisterial article about why it took so long for the mandarins of film criticism to admit Hawks to ‘the canon’, but it’s much less a piece about Hawks’s movies and their understated qualities than a historical overview of the debates between critics writing about Hawks.

Similarly, Wollen’s essay on Hitchcock is written ‘against compartmentalisation’ with the purpose of discrediting the idea that the director’s oeuvre can be neatly divided into his English and American periods. He argues that in 1919 Hitchcock was working for the American-owned and managed studio Famous Players-Lasky and that in his Hollywood years a class-conscious Englishness is central to his work. You feel that it is a contribution to a debate about Hitchcock that you haven’t been part of but which must have been going on somewhere, between critics, and Wollen argues his case efficiently, but it doesn’t make you rush to your video shelf to check the movies out. He writes careful, well-ordered pieces: on Blade Runner and its relation to economic writings on the World City Hypothesis, or on the importance of the canon and the necessity of it being rewritten from time to time. ‘Looking back on those years, I can see now that “auteurism” was the last major and explicit attempt to rewrite the film canon.’

We are in a different realm of film-writing from both Lane and Thomson: a world where a debate is going on between cognoscenti far away from Hollywood, even though Wollen has the Chair of the Department of Film, Television and New Media at UCLA, and even though he, of the three writers, is the only film-maker. Yet he is the one who seems to have kept his gloves on: the other two appear to have rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty. It’s a different way, perhaps, of loving movies, but he never, as Thomson does often and Lane does sometimes, finds himself day-dreaming his way through the screen into the movie, like Buster Keaton does in Sherlock Jr. Wollen keeps his place in the auditorium; but then someone’s got to stay there and keep watch.

Thomson, on the other hand, for all that he might tick Lane off for dangerous slickness, is himself sometimes at the mercy of his own writing talent. Mind you, his apparent deviations from the point have a mad method to them. He riffs with an almost crazed meticulousness about Hoagy Carmichael as Cricket in To Have and Have Not: ‘He sits at a piano that manages to be set aslant to everything else in the world. He has white pants (they might be cream or ivory) with a dark stripe in them, and it could be crimson or dark blue against the cream (this is Martinique light). And in the shirt there is the same pattern of vertical dark striping on a pale ground, except that the stripes are twice as regular.’ But from that beginning he gets to the heart and soul of Hawks’s movie. He rants about Madonna; after a list of her various film involvements up to Dangerous Games, he writes: ‘The burden does not lighten … then all the ads said she was Evita – no matter that she managed hardly any emotional involvement, and again seemed incapable of understanding the nature of acting. Still, nothing before had been as fatuous as The Next Best Thing.’ He rambles about Kim Basinger: ‘I don’t always “get” Kim Basinger. I mean, why did she ever buy that small town in Georgia, and why is she virtually the only actress who’s ever been sued successfully for getting out of a movie (Boxing Helena)? Why marry Alec Baldwin? Is she, even, that beautiful? Well, the paper didn’t catch fire, so I’ll press on.’

Thomson refuses to line up with the Hitchcock devotees (Lane among them):

The method, despite its brilliance, is equally private and restrictive. To plan so much that the shooting becomes a chore is an abuse not just of actors and crew, but of cinema’s predilection for the momentary. It is, in fact, the style of an immense, premeditative artist – a Bach, a Proust or a Rembrandt. And beside those masters, Hitchcock seems an impoverished inventor of thumbscrews who shows us the human capacity for inflicting pain, but no more. Such precision can only avoid seeming overbearing and misanthropic if it is accompanied by creative untidiness. In the last resort, his realised blueprints affirm film’s yearnings for doubt and open endings.

Contentious? Irritating? Dubious? Yes. What a relief to have something gristly to gnaw on. Thomson urges Lane to give up his Atlantic-hopping and move full-time to America if he really wants to be ‘more than a brilliant movie reviewer’: ‘It is the best advice I can offer. And I think it might be fun – as in fun to run a newspaper, the sport that made Charles Foster Kane famous, and that destroyed him.’ The romanticism oozes out of Thomson, but I see him more as a mad movie monk, huddled decade after decade over his ever-expanding Dictionary, scratching his illuminated prose in the flickering light, murmuring to himself about distant memories, cackling at his own jokes and wondering why there is such a shortage of young fellows willing to join him in the monastery.