Benjamin Schwarz on David Thomson: A defense of Orson Welles [Chicago Reader blog post, 1/12/07]

A footnote to the following (February 7, 2018): I now regard Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane as the best of all the Welles biographies to date — at the very least, the most thoroughly researched. — J.R.

Film Benjamin Schwarz on David Thomson: A defense of Orson Welles

Posted By on 01.12.07 at 03:30 PM

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I sent the following letter to the Atlantic last August. I’m not surprised it wasn’t published. But I can’t resist reproducing it now that Benjamin Schwarz, the magazine’s literary editor and national editor, has shown further signs of his David Thomson idolotry while writing about Cary Grant in the current issue. This time Schwarz calls Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fourth edition, the “finest reference book on the movies.” (He also offers some other debatable critical judgments, such as calling Sylvia Scarlett “a mess of a picture” rather than an exciting forerunner of the French New Wave in its daring mix of genres.) But before getting to his assertion about Thomson’s book, let me reproduce my letter:

“It seems sadly characteristic of the mainstream reviewing of film books in general and those about Orson Welles in particular that nonspecialists routinely take precedence over specialists — and that biographers who forgo original research for the sake of speculation or invention, and even admit to doing this, can be deemed superior to actual scholars, at least if their biases match those of the reviewers.

“I assume it’s on this basis that Benjamin Schwarz, in the course of reviewing Simon Callow’s Orson Welles: Volume II: Hello Americans, can deem David Thomson’s Rosebud —- a book that to my knowledge isn’t taken even halfway seriously by any Welles scholar including Callow (who doesn’t mention it once in the combined 1,147 pages of this book and its predecessor, The Road to Xanadu) –  ‘the most astute assessment of Welles’s work and personality.’

“As a Welles scholar and critic, and the editor of This is Orson Welles (which Schwarz calls both ‘penetrating’ and ‘tendentious’), I can’t claim to be disinterested. But I’m not asking for Thomson or Schwarz to convert to being simple fans or apologists. It’s legitimate to criticize Welles if the criticism is based on something other than mythology or mere hunches. So it seems reasonable to ask for some clarification about where Schwarz’s judgments are coming from.

“My own conviction is that Welles’s life, working methods, career, and work have all created ideological disturbances that continue to resonate in our culture, and that it’s the job of writers like Thomson to settle such disturbances with satisfying (‘astute’?) ways of characterizing Welles. So I’d like to better understand the basis for Schwarz’s judgment.

“To be fair, Schwarz also calls Rosebud ‘uneven,’ ‘idiosyncratic,’ and ‘superbly written,’ none of which I’m quarreling with. But what does he mean, exactly, by Welles’s ‘work’ and ‘personality’ — or by his assumption that he and Thomson are qualified to arrive at meaningful conclusions about them? Substantial portions of what I consider Welles’s major work remain difficult or impossible for most people to see — including not just Chimes at Midnight but also Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind, not to mention such earlier works as The Fountain of Youth, Othello (with Welles’s original sound track), and Filming Othello. Thomson not only hasn’t seen Don Quixote or The Other Side of the Wind (which is perfectly excusable); he’s explicitly stated that he has no desire to —- and he shows no interest or even awareness about Othello’s separate versions. Filming Othello (mistitled The Making of Othello in Rosebud) receives a passing slam but no description or analysis, while The Fountain of Youth, a 50s TV pilot, is similarly dismissed as inconsequential without even a reference to its innovative style and method of storytelling. Are these the sort of assessments that Schwarz believes that other writers about Welles should be emulating? If so, why?

“As for Thomson’s treatment of Welles’s personality, he never met the man. Yet this doesn’t prevent him from arriving at conclusions about, for instance, Welles’s class and racial biases, backed up by nothing but wild suppositions and flatly contradicted by the statements of many people who actually knew Welles. What lessons, according to Schwarz, should these people be taking from Thomson about such matters?”

“Yours sincerely,

“Jonathan Rosenbaum”

Now, an addendum on the subject of A Biographical Dictionary of Film: rather than focus on its omissions and denials, which I’ve already done elsewhere, I’d like to raise my eyebrows at the notion that the book, whatever its merits as criticism, is any kind of reference book at all. Apart from skeletal and often incomplete filmographies, its facts are few and far between.

 

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Comments (19)

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Nice article Jonathan. In my country (Montenegro) we call people like Thomson a ‘skriboman’ (from ‘scribo’=write, and the word ‘maniac’). It means that he writes tons of books but not because of the appreciation or even interest in the subject but for the number of books he can “proudly” say he has written.

Posted by Enki on 01/12/2007 at 4:06 PM

I enjoyed your article very much. Lamentably, David Thomson’s books seem have sold well. I’ve gotten into several debates on film websites with folks who’ve been misguided and misinformed by Thomson and other authors of his ilk.

Posted by Oscar on 01/12/2007 at 6:18 PM

David Thomson may be prolific, but never once have I considered him an accomplished writer. His underlying superficiality is readily apparent to me (his recent book on Nicole Kidman reads like a Kitty Kelly hit piece), and ROSEBUD in particular paints a distasteful image of Welles (Thomson’s broad characterization turns Welles into a definable character rather than a unique individual). Only the amount of pages Thomson has published can be said exhaustive, while his second-hand information is anything but. It’s almost a crime that he neglects THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH as nothing of interest (since it was a “failure”), as I regard it the best work I’ve seen (for American television). I also despise the prevailing school of thought that Orson Welles made CITIZEN KANE and everything which followed is “lesser” work (and, therefore, not worth watching). The unavailability of several of his key works only encourages this horrible misconception. Thank you for posting the letter here Mr. Rosenbaum. I always enjoy your comments on Welles.

Posted by Andrew on 01/13/2007 at 2:06 AM

It seems to me that the definitve Orson Welles biography has not yet be written, but considering the complexity and mercurial nature of the subject such a task might be impossible. (William Mann’s remarkable Katharine Hepburn biography makes me wish he would take a crack at it) Why hasn’t Criterion taken up the cause of Chimes at Midnight, The Fountain of Youth, The Other Side of the Wind or Don Quixote? For that matter, when is Warner Home Video going to release The Magnificent Ambersons in an addition worthy of its centrality in the film canon?

Posted by Craig on 01/13/2007 at 7:49 AM

I completely agree with what Mr. Rosenbaum said. Getting through “Rosebud” was one of the most tedious experiences I’ve ever had reading a book on a subject I love, Welles. Once it became apparent how little he had to say it just seemed pointless to continue. I’ve had the opportunity to ask other people who’ve written about Welles what they think of “Rosebud” and from Michael Wilmington to Robert Carringer, none had kind things to say.

Posted by Matt on 01/13/2007 at 8:34 AM

I think “This Is Orson Welles” is pretty durned definitive. Thomson’s book mostly aggrivates me for its glossing over of key figures and function as a podium / platform for its author to spout hyperbolic personal slants, not criticism. That said, I enjoy his writing. Haven’t given “Rosebud” a shot since I read “This Is OW” beforehand. Also, “TIOW” soured me on Pauline Kael for a while when I was nothing but a proselytizer for the genius of Welles. But, thankfull, that has passed and I find myself reading her pieces (when I get my hands on them) with a good deal of pleasure. Finally, Thomson is hosting Thursday nights at the PFA this semester and I will probably be attending the PIERROT LE FOU screening to hear his take on it as well as bask in the great print the PFA owns. When I think of why movies were made widescreen I think of seeing PIERROT at the PFA and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA in 70 at The Castro. And, more recently, MIAMI VICE with the sound up to 11.

Posted by Ryland on 01/14/2007 at 12:26 PM

James Naremore’s The Magic World Of Orson Welles is a terrific Welles book. I don’t know about definitive, but it’s pretty close.

Posted by Sean on 01/14/2007 at 7:57 PM

While I think agree with most of your points, Mr. Rosenbaum, I find your style of writing very indirect and obtuse. Perhaps the reason The Atlantic has not printed your letter is because nobody could possible make sense of it. I’m still not sure how to read this sentence, for instance: “My own conviction is that Welles’s life, working methods, career, and work have all created ideological disturbances that continue to resonate in our culture, and that it’s the job of writers like Thomson to settle such disturbances with satisfying (‘astute’?) ways of characterizing Welles.” Perhaps you could begin by explaining what, exactly, an “ideological disturbance” is.

Posted by Sirk on 01/15/2007 at 12:43 PM

I assume that by “possible” in your first paragraph you meant “possibly”–otherwise no one could possibly make sense of your second sentence either. An “ideological disturbance” is something ideological that’s disturbing. Example: Orson Welles being in many people’s opinion the greatest American filmmaker, yet unable to direct an American film for the remainder of his life after Touch of Evil, i.e. for almost three decades. If you’re in many ways an industry apologist and industry flack like Thomson, who supports the status quo (that’s the ideology of his Rosebud–the unadmitted but implicit backdrop to his assumptions in that book), you gotta blame somebody for this disturbance, so why not blame Welles? That lets Thomson’s pals and employers off the hook, giving the film industry a clean bill of health and thereby eliminating (or “settling”) the ideological disturbance.

Posted by Jonathan on 01/15/2007 at 8:30 PM

It’s been my unfortunate conclusion these days that Rosenbaum is apparently content to go on being asleep at the switch – to forego the intense scrutiny he usually brought to bear in favour of a haphazard, indifferently argued version of same (i.e. his knee-jerk half-dismissal of “Children of Men”) or a veil of (his considerable) intelligence draped over party-line acclaim of certified critical darlings, his reviews of “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” being his latest, and laziest, examples. What’s particularly troubling to note in his piece on “Iwo Jima” is his evident “conversion” in regards to Eastwood – a shift in thinking that I think has more to do with (here it comes again) laziness rather than concerted critical re-evaluation. Four years ago, Rosenbaum was severely critiquing what he assumed to be the ideological foundations of “Mystic River” (assumptions which I disagreed with, I might add – my own considerable problems with the film came from different directions), and the implications of hailing Eastwood’s brand of “classicism” – three films later, Eastwood is suddenly “one of the finest directors alive.” Now, the latter declaration need not necessarily negate the previously voiced concerns, but in Rosenbaum’s case those concerns seem to have evaporated entirely. For a critic who once sought to productively problematize the critical and audience reception of films, which is particularly vital in this era of distressingly predictable groupthink (and equally distressingly predictable contrarianism, Rosenbaum’s verdicts these days are distressingly unproblematic, in his eyes at least.

Posted by Andrew Tracy on 01/16/2007 at 11:54 AM

Hi Jon Jim Emerson is killing you for you’re review of “Letters From Iwo Jima.” Here is a link to his piece about you on his blog. Please respond. http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2007/01/gasp_choke_as_film_critism_lay.html#more

Posted by Josh on 01/16/2007 at 12:09 PM

I guess if he’s killing me I’m dead by now. But seriously, I don’t think it’s worth responding to. Jim Emerson can’t even quote me correctly–claiming, for starters, that I called Shigehiko Hasumi a “close friend” (which I never would have done) rather than simply “a friend”. He’s the former president of Tokyo University as well as one of the best film critics writing anywhere, and I guess I’m guilty of not having browbeaten him for elaborations after he was kind enough to answer my email. And, for whatever it’s worth, according to him, Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, far from being “little known in Japan” (as Bruce Wallace is quoted as saying in the L.A. Times, with Emerson’s apparent approval), is, along with Baron Nishi, “quite well known by Japanese people.” Of course I could have asked Hasumi to elaborate on that statement too, but I didn’t–guilty as charged. But I’d rather believe what Hasumi says than what Bruce Wallace says.

Posted by Jonathan on 01/16/2007 at 2:02 PM

How did my comment end up over here? Oh well… Jonathan, I don’t think Emerson’s attempted dismantling of your review is that pertinent, but then I also don’t think what you wrote about “Iwo Jima” goes very far in justifying your “Masterpiece” rating. You’ve shown considerable ambivalence towards Eastwood in the past, which seems to have, as I said, evaporated almost completely. If this is not so, I’d like to hear any elaborations on your review, as I think most writing about the film thus far – from all corners – has rarely strayed outside of polite acknowledgements of its “empathy” or whatever. I was left quite indifferent, myself (despite some affectingly played scenes), so any further insights you could provide would be most welcome. As to “Pan’s Labyrinth”, well, I’ve had my say on that elsewhere (www.reverseshot.com), but I was most surprised to read the de rigeur “fairy tale for adults” line in your review. For someone who has so consistently pointed out the rank immaturity of so much of what passes for “seriousness” in film culture, I’d like to know which adults you had in mind in this case.

Posted by Andrew Tracy on 01/16/2007 at 3:19 PM

To answer your last question (about all I have time for, really): me. And it’s perfectly legitimate for anybody to disagree with me, for God’s sake. As for Eastwood, just briefly, I’ve never minced words about my unbounded admiration for BLACK HUNTER, WHITE HEART and MILLION DOLLAR BABY, and my misgivings about MYSTIC RIVER (mainly about how it was being received) had virtually nothing to do with Eastwood’s chops as a director.

Posted by Jonathan on 01/16/2007 at 9:26 PM

Jeez. I meant WHITE HUNTER, BLACK Heart. Which just goes to show what a bad idea it is to post too much too quickly.

Posted by Jonathan on 01/16/2007 at 9:31 PM

Jonathan, I agree with your post here 100%- and with a very large part of your writing in general – however, when I read the last paragraph of your letter I was immediately reminded of a review of yours I read several years ago in which I felt you were guilty of the exact same accusation you direct here at Thomson. Namely, in your review of Ray Carney’s “Cassavetes on Cassavetes” and several other books on the same (http://www.cineaste.com/cass.htm), you begin the piece by actually laying out three straight paragraphs describing how you never met Cassavetes. (I must say, I’m not sure how interesting this fact is; I personally never met the man either and I seem to know thousands of others who are in the same boat.) Nevertheless, despite the fact that you never once met him, you decide to label him an “anti-intellectual” and a “macho bully”(and rather than test these uppity, second-hand assumptions yourself, you actually use them to justify your decision NOT to meet him!). Later in the review you throw another jab at Cassavetes by including a remarkably irrelevant remark he once made about Socrates – viz. that Socrates is an “asshole” – suggesting that the comment is “glib” and “just plain yahoo stupid”. (For the record, I have a B.A. in Philosophy and count myself as one of many who hold the same opinion of Socrates; if you don’t believe there’s a basis for calling him an asshole, just read through Plato’s “Dialogues” to see Socrates in all his harassing, self-gratifying glory.) And finally, worst of all, you suggest that there were “messy details” in Cassavetes’ life that his family tries to cover up; and what do you base this extremely serious insinuation on? Solely on the fact that he was a “heavy drinker and carouser”. Needless to say, I find it shameful that you slung such completely unnecessary personal insults, which are – to borrow your language – “backed up by nothing but wild suppositions and flatly contradicted by the statements of many people who actually knew” Cassavetes. It should also be said that in your review you continually put down Cassavetes for being incoherent and inarticulate, and I’m not sure why. I and many people I know have listened to him speak and read his spoken words, and find him on the contrary to be quite coherent and articulate. In any case, although your review almost made me swear off reading you forever – just as you say elsewhere you almost swore off Cassavetes after seeing HUSBANDS – my frustration subsided and I obviously did jump back on your bandwagon. Oh, and please don’t think I’m a devotee of Ray Carney. He’s a self-important hack. P.S. Any news on whether the script for A WOMAN OF MYSTERY will ever see the light of day?

Posted by Adam on 01/17/2007 at 8:16 PM

How should I know? I never even met the man.

Posted by Jonathan on 01/17/2007 at 8:47 PM

While it must be admitted that your comments and letter taste of SOUR GRAPES, (like most of your book “Essential Cinema”)any criticism of the totally overvalued and pointless David Thomson are always welcome. Keep it up, Rosie!

Posted by Michaela Dobbes on 01/19/2007 at 11:30 AM

 David Thomson is such a tremendous fraud as a film writer, that he’s not even worth the space you have given him on this blog! Anytime he writes a huffy dismissal of a film, it means he HASN’T SEEN it. It’s both disturbing and hilarious that Thomson would title a book “Have You Seen?” when HE hasn’t seen half the films he writes about!

Posted by Petey W. Straw on 07/26/2009 at 6:45 PM

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