Mapping the Stars.
I wonder what sounds can be heard in David Thomson’s apartment late at night? Click clack? Or Tick Tap? Does he punch out concise yet intricately personal critiques on an old German typewriter like Woody? Or touch the wide flat keys of his Mac Book Pro tenderly like a blind man caressing braille? Or perhaps he doesn’t have an apartment in which to perform fierce articulation. Maybe he hunkers over a modest pine desk in a cramped study of a 9-bedroom estate to coax out soft, silent sabotage on fragile filmmakers who, before reading his evaluations rethink most of their angles and some of their cuts…
When I read Thomson’s summarized critiques of filmmakers and actors in his text The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Thomson 2010) I am instantly struck by a casual and self-assured voice. Like Vincent Vegas’ dismissal of ‘getting to know you chit-chat’ (Tarantino 1994) I find myself allowing Thomson to lick my cigarette and explain how things stand in a progressive discussion of cinema history.
Thomson’s approach to film criticism is familiar, though not because we’ve glanced over similarly styled texts prostituted between glossy images of an emaciated Cameron Diaz sporting a designer watch (with a value to match that of a half-yearly Third World grocery bill), and the Top 100 Greatest Movie Sidekicks articles (which always read like the same shit wearing a different tie).
No, Thomson’s criticisms speak to their reader honestly and directly, exfoliating the burnished strips of unwarranted adulation and weak opportunities to name-drop that seem to populate the commercial realms of contemporary film review. Thomson presents his resolution in stout and tasteful paragraphs, immediately introducing his individual subjects with all the acquainted insight of a beloved Keeper of the Movie Zoo; the kind of cinematic democrat who shares intimate, professional relationships with all his Termites and White Elephants. Thomson’s true literary gift is passing on his long-standing, studious relationship with his film subjects to his reader in a language they can easily absorb. He makes it possible for readers to involve and assert themselves and further a personal understanding of the varied forms and styles of cinema.
Like The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, I write this essay with both budding, and deep-rooted film lovers in mind. If, like me you’re repulsed by the more commercial critics (let’s call them ‘movie reviewers’) who get hard for the latest computer-generated glitch-fest and go soft over masculine narratives swinging bags of sentiment that have been punched more times than a dead cow in Rocky (Avildsen 1976), then make a space on your lap and engage yourself with a brand of film criticism that treats you like a fellow admirer rather than a generic wad of toilet paper on which the ‘Empirical’ film journalist wipes their bullshit.
Thomson’s writing has a full-bodied flavour, balancing the literary palate with compressed insights into broad subjects. His language compliments the fresh pine scent of the paper on which it is published, with contemporary knowledge and doesn’t neglect the cinematic genealogy of the actors and filmmakers he discusses. This structure works to eliminate wasting the writer’s words and a reader’s time. An invested reader will navigate Thomson’s text like a racecar driver shifting gears, finding that the language introduces and maintains the kind of informative pace that enables one to consume large amounts of text and digest all the information minus hiccup or pothole. This is largely because Thomson offers his readers sharp and personal opinion, but also provides them with a generous yet, concentrated list of films that both complement and disfavor the subject’s performance or creation. Think of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film as a compressed 1001 Movies You Should See Before You Die (Schnieder 2103), sculpted into succinct and articulate essays without generic taglines and bourgeois film promotion under a heading ominously reminding one of their short time on this Earth.
Thomson’s criticism is like fine wine. Growing rich with complexity as it ages, yet also adhering to a simplistic formula of telling it the way it is. His writing communicates a disinterest in pampering readers with heady introductions, lengthy paragraphs full of refashioned generic syntax, and conclusions that only succeed in promoting the low-caliber pun in the introduction. No, Thomson offers his readers something more; an intimate discussion concerning the locations of a mutual adoration. Reading his critiques is like receiving a map personalized by a long lost friend, plotted with figurative and enlightening riddles to help you in your quest for cinematic gold.