(20/10/06) – David Thomson is one of the stars of a generation of film critics whose output was relevant both to the public and the industry. Known for his Biograhical Dictionary of Film (first published in 1975), he turned the lexicon format into an art form when he wrote Suspects in 1985, a novel constructed like an encyclopaedia about Noir film characters for whom he imagined full life stories that stretch beyond the end of the films in which they originally appeared. It’s an imaginative exercise in playing god with celluloid ghosts and it reflects Thomson’s esoteric interest in film as a world with its own ontological rules, one that may well come to life when we go to sleep. Suspects, the product of a deliciously febrile imagination, is being re-released this month via No Exit press. Kamera caught up with Thomson for a chat about his book.
David, tell us how the idea for Suspects came to you.
I was asked to do a Dictionary of Movie Characters. But that was too large a topic. Also, I felt that different genres might not work together. Each genre is a different dream. So, I limited it to characters from film Noir. Then, as I drew up a list and thought about them, I began to see that some of them might have known each other. In other words, a larger web – a novel – began to contain them (though loosely – not everyone fits in). This all happened gradually. It took a long time – and a really long time for all the planning to shape up. To some degree, both ideas remained as I worked: the encyclopedia and the novel. I had this image of a library, where the characters resumed their life after ours. But the Biographical Dictionary of Film had already made me see the inadvertent beauties in alphabetical order.
One of the interesting and original ideas in Suspects is how the encyclopaedia format lends itself to intertextuality. Would you agree that the meaning of Noir as a genre/aesthetic is in the sum of all its parts? If so, would that apply to other genres as well?
I think that was the whole point: the way in which Noir represents a new appreciation of modern history as much as an interest in a certain kind of fiction. It’s a way of reading everything. Yes, I think you can apply it to other genres, but it may be that Noir is especially responsive in that it turns on suspicion and paranoia. You see, the title of the book was always meant to be the noun and the verb. So we are all suspects because someone suspects us. In the end, we suspect ourselves – are we guilty of some crime we have forgotten?
How did you conceive each entry in terms of the biographical details given to each character?
I looked at the films closely to catch little throwaway details that are given. But I was also prepared to invent certain things in order to fit the characters together. You see, I have always played a game with myself: what happened to characters after the film ended – I want to keep the characters alive – and that means extending the dream.
If you had written a sequel to the book to include characters from films made after 1980, which ones would you have included?
I think I would have gone for the films and the directors who really make me think about the larger life of their characters – so, David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson, for example. I think it worked very well with characers who are vivid, but who could be living under false pretenses – secret lives. Magnolia has a rich supply of those people and i think Anderson’s world is full of mysterious pasts that people are trying to escape. That’s where Noir is so modern: it’s so close to witness protection – of spies living under cover – of people leading secret lives under false identity.
As the introduction of the book says, Suspects is an examination of how movies affect the way we think and how film shapes our memories or even stand in for them. Do you think contemporary cinema still has such power or has it been lost?
I think these days we find it harder to make films that make a natural contact with that mythic world, ‘the movies’. We’ve moved on. The status of movies is changing. It has to happen. But it’s easier now to see a great treasury of mythic movies, all resembling each other. It’s also a question of the way one actor could play so many different but memorable characters.
On a similar topic, how influential film critics are these days in your opinion?
I fear that film criticism is not terribly influential or much followed these days. We don’t seem to have so many films that arise from the sub-conscious. It may be that we dream less about movies nowadays.
Suspects is out now. Available exclusively from Borders/Books Etc until December and everywhere else thereafter.