The Big Screen: The Story of Movies and What They Did To Us
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 608 pages, $35)
By David Thomson
Oh, to be David Thomson!
Love him or hate him, you gotta admire the prickly-sweet film historian’s ballsy approach to criticism. His renowned reputation for unabashedly opinionated prose precedes him, and they are indeed in fine form in his voluminous account of the history of film: The Big Screen: The Story of Movies And What They Did To Us. It is, as the name implies, a history of the motion picture industry—from its inception to Inception—a sweeping, rhapsodic account of the film industry’s raucous, rowdy beginnings and an inspired study of its place in 21st century culture. Thomson is legendary for his copious compendiums–his Autobiographical Dictionary of Film being required reading for film students everywhere. But his latest work (it was released in late 2011) is perhaps his finest achievement to date: it is an exhaustive history lesson under the guise of page-turningly good literature. As Thomson himself writes, “This book is a love letter to a lost love, I suppose. It has the semblance of being a history, but it might be a novel.” This is certainly the case, and from Eadweard Muybridge, to Louis B. Mayer, to John Ford and Francois Truffaut the protagonists (and villains) of this epic story are filled with life and vigor–they bounce off Thomson’s pages. And what sets this apart from being simply a very well written, entertaining history, are the questions it asks: history is often comprised of when and how things happened.
Thomson wants us to question why it happened–and what this history about who we are as a culture, and where we are headed.
Thomson has the most uncanny way of getting right into the marrow of a matter, infusing life and freshness into even the most elementary of things. Film students everywhere know, for example, the importance of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde in the dawn of New Hollywood filmmaking. But Thomson dips his pen into an inkwell of poetry, and in his hands this Hollywood revolution actually feels revolutionary. “A Hollywood window opened as many moguls took their big sleep. The owners and the new corporations in American pictures were less likely to grasp the power and the knack of movie making … the new leaders would treat pictures as actuarial studies. A sensation was at risk of being organized. So in history, we have to see how this pivotal moment of Bonne and Clyde had glimpsed the exit sign as well as the modern orgy.” This orgy, he explains, is the whole reason people go to the movies in the first place: to “behold an orgy of their own desires burning on the screen.”
Thomson is not necessarily an auteurist, but the directors of classic American and French cinema shaped his love of film, and this book acknowledges his belief in the authoritative stamp of ‘director.’ He provocatively champions their creative visions as what ultimately transformed business into art. Even in Hollywood’s golden age, when many studio directors were cogs in the factory wheel, Thomson speaks of the battle for creative rights between director and studio. These early innovators may have been at the studio’s bidding, but as Thomson points out, still created unforgettable films of artistic merit and lasting social relevance. Thomson spends a great deal of time, in fact, contemplating directorial aesthetics and sensibilities, examining the subtleties of their craft from David Lynch’s belief in the “unconscious medium of imagery” to the poetic brutality of Martin Scorsese’s great gangster pictures that are “executed with the precision of a surgeon at the scene of a massacre.”
He writes, “I have tried to show how our attitudes to love, identity, desire and responsibility have been shaped by moviegoing. These topics come together in the large subject of acting: of whether we are ourselves or someone playing ourselves. And whether the movies have been good for us.” Which is the crux of what Thomson’s book: The Big Screen is meant to make us consider film’s impact and, what he calls, “our becoming more removed from or helpless about reality.”
Thomson’s is a reflective attempt to comprehend the movies’ place in the 21st century and beyond–when one can only imagine what form the ‘screen’ will then take. And in Thomson’s writing, one senses an almost wistful melancholy.
He calls it a love letter to a lost love, and the past-tense in the title, ‘what the movies did to us,’ is a statement in itself that the film industry as we knew it in the 20th century is indeed a thing of the past.
I for one hope against hope that Thomson’s love letter is far from over– and the story of the movies is one that will never truly be finished.