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Meaning and the Movies

In a new book, film critic David Thomson shows himself at his best -- and worst

It's an old joke, told by people who don't write criticism, that those who do are failed practitioners of the art they critique. With London-born film critic David Thomson, who now lives in San Francisco, we get a specimen for whom the stereotype may be true. Many of his articles for Movieline, Esquire and Film Comment, as well as books like Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes, are made up of fragments of would-be screenplays. These attempts at fiction, however imaginative, are often arch, strained and only half-funny. The fact that Thomson is also an erudite, insightful and almost wholly original critic of cinema makes him a frustrating case: a writer whose best qualities appear side by side with his worst.

That's plain to see in Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and its Ghosts, a collection of essays from the past two decades that is trying reading for any but the most faithful Thomson fans. And indeed, Thomson (who's also known for his books Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles and Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick) has many followers, highly placed and otherwise, who enjoy his blurring of fiction and fact, his melding of lives on-screen and off. He acknowledges the difficulty of this hybrid of styles in the book's uncharacteristically sober introduction:

"Indeed, I can easily imagine a posthumous publication of this book with a sad, but not unrelieved introduction from some friend bound to say, Thomson's chronic pursuit of half-lives, or less, of ghosts and fabrications, was his own habit. It makes for challenging reading, for we must pick our way between criticism and fiction, an objective style and its haunted undertone, as if a movie was not something for us to weigh and inspect but a version of weather that has warmed us over the years or let a damp achiness into our bones."

Thomson makes clear with lines like these that his ambitions are closer to mid-century literary critics such as Leslie Fiedler and Randall Jarrell than to those of an ordinary film critic. In most of his essays he attempts to consider the big picture, to puzzle out America by staring longingly at its movies. But even here, two pages into the text, the author has already referred to himself in the third person. This should serve as a red flag, fair warning of the self-absorption to come.

Some of Thomson's essays are full of self-conscious commenting on his own writing; others aren't as funny or clever as he seems to think they are. An essay called "The Shortsighted Voyeur," about a woman across the way whom he sometimes glimpses longingly through the San Francisco light, begins as an imaginative musing on Hitchcock's Vertigo, the quality of the air in California and the nature of cinema. But Thomson goes on far too long and tries for too much, as in his assertion that "the relationship (or the figment of it) that I have with the woman across the way is very like the political discourse of this country." Huh? And he lapses into the kind of humor for which he's ill-equipped, ending the essay with a goofy, imaginary conversation with the woman in question.

"Suspects," a collection of short, presumably humorous bits on movie characters (Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever, Elliott from E.T., Connie Corleone from The Godfather) and how they fared after the credits rolled, is less funny than similar efforts in Mad magazine. "James Dean at 50," a promising essay about a Dean that survived his fatal car crash, sputters similarly, despite some good lines about how Dean's survival blocked Paul Newman's Hollywood career.

"Ask the Anaconda," a fake interview with a Norma Desmond-like actress in Benedict Canyon, and "Beyond Hara Kiri," an imaginary diary recounting the author's plunge into the world of film studios, are equal parts corny and tedious.

What's especially frustrating about Thomson is that when he's good -- when he puts aside his glibness and self-regard -- he's great. His essay on Mulholland Drive, that winding path named for the water baron who also inspired the film Chinatown, captures Los Angeles's atmosphere, both natural and moral, and the drive's otherworldly vistas. It's a risky, high-wire piece of writing, and it works.

Similarly, the piece on Garbo, "Garbo at 75," explores not only the actress's life and legend but the strange cultural force that stars exert in American culture. "The star knows that she is a latent force that works in the mind of audiences she will never meet," he writes. "Enigma is the most natural role for such a figure; she is like the goddess of some intense cult who only needs to be seen to be believed. Thus all her creative energy, all her soul, rises to the level of expressive appearance."

But many of Thomson's musings on celebrity culture, which may have seemed groundbreaking in the '80s, now seem trite; celebrity has so dominated our own decade that reading past articles about it is like reading an 18th-century science-fiction novel about skyways and motorcars. Beneath Mulholland also includes essays about L.A. and Hollywood, some of which are insightful, some of which are aptly satiric and all of which are heavy-handed.

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