Strangers on a Train: Film Americana

January 6, 2013   •   By Lawrence Christon

The Big Screen

David Thomson

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 looking at an American phenomenon. We still export, far more than we import, to countries hungry for Americana, its movie heroes and heroines, and the latest in film technology. A great many artists — like Chaplin, Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, and Roman Polanski — internationalized their success by coming to the U.S.

Through two world wars and the Great Depression, and the confusion and anxiety that followed, our movies have been both an escape and an expression of the country’s struggle to define itself. Thomson shows us how film noir, with its sharp contrasts between light and dark and its tough, cynical loners who manage to keep their code in a world without honor, express the condition of dread so rampant in the postwar years. “Maybe,” Thomson says, “the deepest significance in noir is a disquiet over film itself and the ways in which it has enacted and armored our detachment from the world.”

For all his formidable erudition, Thomson remains always an engaging, stylish writer, allowing himself room for anecdote and speculation. What would The Godfather have become if Ryan O’Neal, who was up for the role, had been cast as Michael Corleone? Contrary to popular belief, Frank Sinatra’s career-resurrecting role as Maggio in From Here to Eternity happened only because Eli Wallach, whom the producers wanted, was unavailable. No mafioso held a gun to Fred Zinneman’s head to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Did you know that director David Lean was a Quaker? And that he started his legendary career as an office boy working for Noel Coward?

The Big Screen takes us through the careers of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Billy Wilder, making longer random stops along the way: we see Howard Hawks (who liked sexual heat on film but was incapable of it in real life), Roger Corman and the breaks he gave to young artists starting out (like Francis Ford Coppola), and British comedy from Morecambe and Wise to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It stops for a long look at Brief Encounter and its summing up of postwar England’s view of divorce — a look that lingers on the stoic misery of Celia Johnson as the woman who can’t follow her heart.

The book also considers the powerful influence of the Actors Studio, The Method, and how its best practitioners, like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, changed American acting and had their perfect guide in Elia Kazan (lesser actors have made the Method an irritating cliché). Thomson also pays tribute to the great MGM musicals. He makes the case that, more than any influx of gangsters, it was Hollywood that created Las Vegas.

Thomson covers of the rise of the superagent, the actor as independent businessman, and the breakdown of the studio system and the ratings codes that preceded the breakdown of the audience. We read of the death of the great pioneers and the industry takeover by lawyers, accountants, and corporate profiteers. He wonders why he can’t stop laughing at the gross stupidity of Jackass. He considers the phenomenon of Adam Sandler, as well as that of Deep Throat.

He defines on-screen sex as “the voyeuristic privilege” and “the eroticizing of looking.” Nor does he ignore what went on off-screen. “There’s no need to be blunt about it, or too censorious, but we are talking about a way of life in which the not inconsiderably ugly Louis B. Mayer […] may have been getting midafternoon blow jobs from studio talent,” he writes, encouraging us to imagine a place where sex is a chief commodity, where actors and actresses “have to kiss rapturously for thirty-seven takes at a time and are inclined to get a little horny, though the actress may know that later that evening the director, too, wants to go over a few lines as closely as possible. Sexual possibility, the teeming virtual promiscuity behind a straight face, and actual sleeping around, are all in the air.”

Hooray for Hollywood. Or maybe not. No other place has shown better that it is possible to have too much of a good thing, as the brief, tormented career of Marilyn Monroe demonstrates. Marie Schneider, the ripe, concupiscent stranger in The Last Tango in Paris, about whom critics rhapsodized, became a semireclusive drug addict and lived like a ruin until she died in her 50s. Stardom itself, Thomson observes, “sucks the life out of people.”

Nor does Thomson overlook how the movies underline the inherent ontological tension between desire and dread. The desire comes from wanting to be like the people up there on the screen, or maybe wanting to have sex with them; the dread comes from surrendering oneself to the dark, from witnessing what we shouldn’t, from seeing one’s fears borne out or uncovering fears you didn’t know you had. Going to the movies over a lifetime will inevitably remind us that not all transformation is for the better.

Thomson has lived in San Francisco for many years, but he still tends to look at the world through British eyes. He sees the spirit of the Angry Young Men like John Osborne and Harold Pinter as part of a liberated postwar England and its brightening color scheme —out goes the Celia Johnson’s drab coat and in comes the Day Glo mini. He also sees that the 1960s, bracketed by political assassination and riven by the war in Vietnam, was principally an American decade in which the boomers drifted to Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury, protested in big cities and university sit-ins, and overturned the culture with a rock sound track that circled the world.


By the early 1950s, the TV set was replacing the radio as the familial hearth, and the movie industry was already seeing its ticket sales decline. Thomson takes us on a tour of those early days, appreciating the extravagant talents that created The Jackie Gleason Show, Your Show of Shows, and The Tonight Show. And he gives lengthy coverage to the phenomenon of I Love Lucy, even suggesting, (after reading Susan Sontag) that it contained the seed of the contemporary reality show — we all knew that Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s dynamic echoed the real lives of Lucy and Desi Arnaz, excepting Desi’s boozy womanizing. Thomson overlooks, though, culture-gulch Sundays in which arts shows like Omnibus, The Seven Lively Arts, and televised concerts by the NBC Symphony Orchestra flourished, before Sundays surrendered to the armies of the NFL. And there’s likewise no mention of the great live drama produced by writers and directors like Paddy Chayevsky and Sidney Lumet, who went on to prominent movie careers.

Thomson instead focuses on one figure he sees as transformational — William Paley.

Planning to go into his immigrant father’s cigar business, young Paley bought a struggling radio station, the Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting System, in 1927. Paley didn’t care about broadcasting. He cared about using the radio to sell cigars. Sales doubled. A huckster was born.

Paley dropped the word "Phonograph" from the CBS monogram and went on to make financing deals with various movie studios. But this was during the Depression, when the value of stock swaps plummeted. Advertising became the main source of CBS’s revenue, so much so that other networks followed suit. Here we see the origin of today’s constant commercial interruption, what Thomson calls “the demented noise of the pitch.” Watching network TV we are never free of people trying to sell us something whether we need it or not, people who, like Campbell Scott’s ad adman in Roger Dodger, tell us, “My job is to make people feel bad about themselves.”

Not every other country has done this. Thomson mentions how the BBC offers uninterrupted, commercial free programming, including largely unbiased news reportage, based on a public licensing fee.

Meanwhile, Americans have been investing in a corporate-owned sales medium that every year gains more of its intrusive power to mediate reality: you have to wonder what that does over time. John F. Kennedy is considered our first TV president, but it was Ronald Reagan who fully grasped the propaganda potential in his own image:

Think of all the times Reagan passed in front of our cameras with a wave and a grin and a quick one-liner, and realize how far that flourish had become a gloss for public behavior in fifty years of silly movies. I don’t pass judgment on his presidency […] He cheered us up, just as he had often lifted a picture with brisk good nature. Even the people who know the damage of his administration conclude that he was a good guy, a nice fellow, because that was all he had ever set out to play […] He was determined at all times to resemble himself, to be like Ronald Reagan.

Could that have been the point of our capitulation, our enslavement to a condition that led to playwright Howard Korder’s line, “We chose to live the movie instead of the reality”?


And then came the architects of the multiple screen. They were:

kids on the sofa who knew no other entertainment [than TV] and were captivated by a home screen and the prospect that it could reach anywhere. Why not dial up any show, any page of any book, and all the data in the world? These kids grasped the power of the new medium, its surreal poetry in going from one channel to another, and they began to wonder about "the next big thing." Larry Ellison was born in 1944, Steve Wozniak in 1950, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in 1955. Of the four, Wozniak was the only one who graduated from college: the others were too busy watching and thinking.

These days, one way or another, most of us are on that BART car to Oakland. Anyone who’s been around long enough may recall Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond who said, “The movies are still big. The pictures got small.” And so it may go for we who live in an electronically wired global village, which, for all the good it can bring, is also an illusory realm in which loneliness is banished and everyone is your friend — except the strangers packed around you.

“Facebook,” writes Thomson, “is an evolved movie system: it involves us looking at screens and converting our desire into a fee payment or surrender to ads. Its aura of youthful generosity and utility belies how easily it could be turned into a system of surveillance and control.”

Now our favorite medium grows sinister. It may just be watching us back.

Thomson reminds us that movies are wonderful, miraculous, infinite in their capacity for depicting human relationships, human nature, nature itself. But something has happened, beginning probably in the late 1940s when, as Thomson says, “American victory hardened into empire, so the uninhibited element of fantasy fed into the American soul.” The media have followed suit. The Truman Show spawns the Kardashians. On the heels of any violent catastrophe or burst of gunfire from that quiet neighbor or moody schoolkid, the reporter’s mic will thrust into a bystander’s face and almost always draw this response:

“It was like a movie.”