Steve Fesenmaier (
Wed, 25 Dec 2002 17:38:54 -0800 (PST)

a review by Steve Fesenmaier -

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

I finally received my copy of David Thomson's newest version of a
standard reference book on film. Some people believe he is the best
living film critic/author. I was not that familiar with him, so I bought
a copy. I first looked up my friend Les Blank - no entry. Then I read
his evaluation of Lars von Trier - he totally negates everything the man
has done, a man who has changed the face of cinema during the last
decade. He does list "The Turning" as a film starring Gillian Anderson.
The director, Lou Puepolo, was a guest at WVIFF one year. Then I read
his entry on hometown director Henry King, famous for "Tol'able
David."(1921) Another blast, put-down, the opposite of what other
experts like Kevin Brownlow have written. I also read his piece on James
Agee and for the first time ever I saw in print what is the truth about
WV's most famous film, "The Night of the Hunter." The truth is that Agee
did write a screenplay for the film, but it wasn't used. And as Ross
Spears told me during a visit to Charleston, when I gave him a copy of
David Martin's poster honoring the death of Davis Grubb, " Agee died
early because he was so crushed that Laughton had refused to use his
screenplay." Thomson does say that Agee won a Pulitzer three years after
his death for his novel, "A Death in the Family." I also have to note
that this book also does not give much credit to Errol Morris, one of
the few documentary filmmakers in the volume. He compares him to Chris
Marker and Ken Burns. Pare Lorentz, one of the greatest documentary
filmmakers ever, is not given an entry. He does discuss Richard
Barthelmess, the star of "Tol'able David," praising him while missing
the real meaning of the film. He spends a little bit of space on Werner
Herzog, praising his early career but lamenting his post-Aguirre films
and failing to mention Les Blank's "Burden of Dreams." He writes a bit
praising John Sayles, but as usual, has more negatives than positives. I
was surprised to read his entry for Barbara Loden, director of one film,
"Wanda" which he largely pans. The single most positive entry is to Tom
Luddy, his longtime friend. [ I can claim that I was kicked out of
Luddy's house in 1978, the summer before I moved to WV, for daring to
speak while watching a TV show with some of his friends. I made a
comment to an Andy Warhol star who was there along with editors of a
French film magazine. We were all watching Kurt Russell in "This Is
Elvis." I was staying in a room rented by Les Blank. Latter I went to
his film festival, Telluride, but he never once spoke to me. I had known
him for years, even sending him a copy of Abel Gance's "Napoleon" that
he latter screened for Coppola. He is indeed very bright, but I think
that he and Thomson both should be forced to wear a sign on their heads
- WARNING - TOTAL FILM not attempt to speak to me unless you
are very rich or very famous!] This book has to be the most cynical,
uptight, self-contained film book I have ever read. On the back jacket,
one critic calls this book, " This dictionary could be declared the best
book on the movies ever written in English..." In my opinion, the best
book in English on film is still Amos Vogel's "Film as A Subversive
Art." [ I met Vogel once at the First NY Conference on Film Exhibition
at Saratoga Springs. I had written him a letter, praising the book. He
told me that it was "the best letter I have ever received in my life.
Vogel founded the NY Film Festival, Cinema 16, etc., etc.] I think that
I may have to write my own dictionary. The author even admits in his
short preface that he now loves books more than movies. As I once wrote
Andrew Sarris at the Voice, and apparently he took my advice, "If you
hate movies so much, why do you bother writing about them?"