DAVID THOMSON CONCEIVED his new book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, while riding the BART train from San Francisco to Oakland. He counted how many in the crowded car were focused intently on tiny screens or “dreaming to the sounds coming through their earpieces. There was no talk and little noticing.” This is nothing new to anyone who’s traveled mass transit anywhere in the world — except for the screens, those glowing portals to another world. They’re the glaring difference, and they led Thomson to wondering where all this publicly private viewing might be taking us.
But not before he recapitulates where it all started — at the movies.
At 70, the British-born film writer, historian, and critic — considered by many the best at what he does — has written 23 books that include biographical appraisals of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, and a quirky homage to Nicole Kidman. His The New Dictionary of Film, now in its fifth printing, proves definitively that a dictionary can be a pleasurable read.
In his introduction to The Big Screen Thomson writes, “this book will exult over great films (and urge you to see them), and it will worry, too, over the ways in which the multiplicity of screens now are not just metaphors for our isolation and feeling of futility in dealing with the world, but a fuel for that helplessness.”
Worry he does, but, like a manorial host with time on his hands, he also takes us on a tour through the things he loves most, continually making new discoveries, rethinking questions to which we long ago found answers — answers, however, that have been dulled by assumption. What’s a story? Is it the organization of chaos? What’s a screen? A source of revelation, a frame of reference to elements deliberately omitted, or something to hide behind? Or all these things and more? For all their evocation of time, space, motion, light, texture, and form, movies, Thomson tells us, are really “about their own imagery.”
The author’s philosophical asides are never far removed from the terra firma of actual history. He reintroduces us to the eccentric Anglo-American Eadweard Muybridge and his 1870s zoopraxiscope, whose technique of converting still photographs into moving images was called by the French Lumiére brothers “an invention without a future” before they, and Thomas Edison, took it up on their own. Right behind them were the early moguls — Louis B. Mayer (nee Lazar Meir), Adolph Zukor, Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, William Fox, the Warner Brothers, and Harry Cohn — each born in Eastern Europe, Russia, or Germany, and all of them Jews who everlastingly shaped the business of the movies.
Thomson is both dutiful and expansive in his coverage of the landmark film developments in Russia, Europe, and Japan (no mention of Latin America and Australia, though) and the great visionary directors Fritz Lang, Serge Eisenstein, Ingmar Bergman, and Jean-Luc Godard, among others, who shaped the medium and extended its possibilities. He talks about the stars, like Chaplin, Pickford, Buster Keaton, James Stewart, Jack Nicholson, and even the James Bond heroes who made moviegoing an act of projection for the audiences. As Thomson says, “They aid our dreaming. Their stars tell us we can transform ourselves.”
He reminds us that if we’re looking at movies, as opposed to film or cinema, we’re also ...read more