Starting with cinema’s earliest days and concluding — forebodingly — with the advent of digital technology and the attendant shrinkage in screen size and attention spans, Thomson reflects on how moving images have held us in their sway for more than a century, reflecting our times but also shaping them in terms of behavior, values and aesthetic expectations.
Thomson, whose previous books include a biography of Nicole Kidman and his definitive “Biographical Dictionary of Film,” writes as an unabashed but somewhat wary fan: “The Big Screen,” he says in the prologue, is intended as “a celebration . . . mixed with skepticism and some regret.” That tonal admixture works best and most persuasively in the book’s first section, called “The Shining Light and the Huddled Masses,” wherein the author dexterously leads readers through cinema’s beginnings, brilliantly encapsulating the moguls, mavericks and masters who created the visual grammar we still speak — and which still speaks to us — today.
Calling upon a virtually bottomless store of cinematic legend and lore, Thomson reintroduces us to some familiar names — Louis B. Mayer, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton — while lifting up some titles that may have fallen into undeserved obscurity, such as F.W. Murnau’s 1927 silent classic, “Sunrise,” a film about sexual temptation that was suffused, Thomson writes, with “the glow of desirability” and pointed the way to a new era, not just of entertainment but of broader social norms and mores.
Writing about European and American films of what’s commonly considered cinema’s Golden Age, Thomson weaves together the impulses of an emerging art-form-cum-business-model and the larger society that both demanded and submitted to the illusions it was peddling. His observations, as always, are invaluable, from noticing how film noir related to the “women’s pictures” of the 1940s to his concise, sophisticated morphology of the war movie. Equally satisfying are Thomson’s felicitous articulations of what’s most ineffable about the filmgoing experience, such as when he describes director Josef von Sternberg’s skill at lighting and cinematography: “No one knew more about luminous passivity, the capacity to let the camera in past your eyes.”
About half of “The Big Screen” is taken up with the period beginning in the late 19th century (with the still photographer Eadweard Muybridge) through World War II. The rest of the book is presented in three sections in which Thomson contemplates the films of the 1950s and ’60s; the careers of such game-changers as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola; sex, violence and television; and the deleterious impact of digital technology on filmmaking and film watching, a development he decries as threatening a new form of technological fascism.
The proliferation of screens, he writes, has “distanced us; it has made us feel powerless, helpless and not there.” Comparing the coming age to Europe in the 1930s, he predicts that our device-driven era will be “as deadening as the shopping malls of Americana, the nullity of so many of its schools, the unending madness of its advertising, and the stony indifference of technology.”
These sections are full of Thomson’s trademark insights and astute connections. Who knew, for example, that Prescott Bush (patriarch of the political dynasty) helped William Paley form his CBS television network or that “I Love Lucy” owes a debt to German expressionism, in the person of renowned cinematographer Karl Freund, whom Desi Arnaz hand-picked to film the show? But these nuggests lack the cohesive force and flow of the first half of “The Big Screen,” and Thomson’s increasingly ominous tone — while understandable — begins to feel wearyingly overstated.
As someone who fears for the future of cinema, Thomson joins a chorus that includes critics David Denby and Andrew O’Hehir, both of whom have written recently about the demise of film as a medium and a culture. It’s true that globalization, the disappearance of celluloid, the fragmentation of audiences and the onslaught of ever-smaller screens give purists genuine cause for alarm (as does the new super-high-definition video version of “The Hobbit,” as cheap and cheesy-looking an example of “progress” as has ever been foisted on spectators in the name of innovation). But in the discussion of the cinema’s present and near future, a few key players are either given too-short shrift or are left out of Thomson’s analysis, including James Cameron, Christopher Nolan and the artists of the Pixar and Judd Apatow ateliers.
Then again, despite its subtitle, Thomson makes clear that “The Big Screen” is meant to be less a rigorously comprehensive, regimented account than a reflection of his own tastes and preoccupations — his dreads and desires, to borrow from the title of his final chapter. As just that, his book is as emotional as it is intellectual, as moving as it is illuminating. It doesn’t take full agreement with Thomson’s premises or conclusions to derive pleasure from the intellectual vigor and passion of his writing, not to mention the several overlooked masterworks he recommends along the way (new to my wish list: a seven-hour film called “Hitler: A Film From Germany,” by Hans-Juergen Syberberg).
With any luck, in a few years’ time Thomson will feel compelled to publish a revised edition of “The Big Screen,” in which celebration hasn’t been completely overtaken by regret.
is The Washington Post’s chief film critic.