April 21, 2019

Hollywood's Closeted Sexuality

“”We all of us sleep with strangers in our heads,” David Thomson declares near the beginning of Sleeping With Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire. That sentence as aptly describes the physical experience of dreaming as it does the omnivorous nature of sexual fantasy. Much of Thomson’s work over a career now into its fifth decade—he’s 78—has dwelled in the ambiguous space where dreams, fantasies, and movies overlap. To call the London-born, San Francisco–based Thomson a film critic isn’t quite right. Nor does the label of film historian fit, exactly, though his knowledge of the cinematic past is certainly formidable in its depth and detail. Rather, he’s an autobiographical essayist who approaches movies as a psychic toy set to be dismantled and rearranged according to the dictates of his own voluminous memory and florid imagination.

Thomson, the author of more than 30 books—including biographies of David O. Selznick and Orson Welles and monographs on Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, and Gary Cooper—has been called the greatest living writer about film. He’s also been dismissed as a loquacious show-off in love with his own meandering voice. When the latest edition of his best-known book, the monumental and monumentally weird The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, was released in 2014, I allied myself more closely with the former camp than the latter. This labyrinthine reference work can be infuriating, but it is a one-of-a-kind compendium of thumbnail biographies of performers, directors, writers, and the occasional cinematographer or costume designer. Thomson sums up not the life or career of particular creators, but his impressionistic experiences with their work.

Thomson’s approach to the collective psychosocial phenomenon he sometimes designates simply as “movie” (“ ‘movie’ was a place people longed to be”) is guided by a deep-seated critical principle: Desire is a form of understanding. At its best, this method inspires passages of lively first-person prose. The lengthy dictionary entry on James Dean, Thomson’s generational compatriot and one of his favorite actors, includes a sense memory of the plush pile carpets and easy-to-evade usherettes at the Granada Theatre, in the South London district of Tooting, where he sneaked into a showing of Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. His commitment to letting himself love what he loves and hate what he hates can make for soaring arias of praise as well as scathing dismissals. Sarah Polley’s direction of Julie Christie in Away From Her “has shown us that certain characterizations in fiction may be as far-reaching as explorations into space, higher mathematics, or the genome project.” The Danish provocateur Lars von Trier is “brilliant in a way that gives that term a bad name.””

Read more

JJ Editor's Daily Picks

"After five years of war with the Islamic State, the biggest problem for the winners is coping with the losers. The aftermath has produced one of the world’s most perplexing postwar challenges..."

"What do we mean when we say that the “soul of the city” is under threat? Often, it’s really about politics, nostalgia, and the fear of community change."

"...the pendulum of history never stops moving. Indeed, one of the few constants of history is unceasing change. While we seem to be heading in one direction, we must remember that there will surely be pauses, turns, and reversals."

""Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé," premiered early Wednesday and it was the fulfillment of all the ancestors' hopes and dreams. Beyoncé also dropped "Homecoming: The Live Album.""

"Seven in 10 adults ages 18 to 34 received financial support from their parents in the last year, including more than half of those in their early 30s. Almost three in five millennials said they couldn’t afford their lifestyles without the support."

"Social media influencers have helped turn public lands into tourist-infested swamps. And one cantankerous man is fighting back."

"One particular myth that attached itself to Ledger was that his death was somehow a result of immersing himself in the character of the Joker."

"In 2018, for the second year in a row, American publishers released fewer translated titles: 609 books were published, down from 650 in 2017 and the industry high in 2016 of 666."

"Egg freezing had become so routine among my single peers that when I hit 35, I never thought twice. Here’s what I wish I had known."

"When it comes to Passover cuisine, most home cooks know to avoid wheat, oats, rye, and other forbidden ingredients. But what consumers might not realize is just how much cotton they eat during the holiday."

"A masked figure looms over your recumbent body, wielding power tools and sharp metal instruments, doing things to your mouth you cannot see."

"Passover is a holiday that commemorates the Jewish people escaping slavery in Egypt. It is often referred to as the “festival of freedom.” My Passover in prison was at a place called the Wallkill Correctional Facility..."