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.