The Big Screen by David Thomson

The Big Screen by David Thomson

‘This book is a love letter to a lost love, I suppose’, David Thomson tells us in The Big Screen, his impressive but flawed history of the movies and the impact of the moving image on society.

This resigned, regretful but still-lustful sentiment gives a sense of the famously uneasy relationship that Thomson has with the medium on which he is considered one of the world’s foremost writers.

Thomson was long in thrall to ‘The Movies’, with all the trappings that went with the big-time Hollywood and French classics of yesteryear. His boyish love of this particular history shines through in enlivening spirit in The Big Screen.

The Big Screen’s problem lies in Thomson’s attempt to go beyond this and locate his favoured type of movie within what he calls a wider ‘history of screens…from Muybridge to Facebook‘. In this vain attempt to make his effort comprehensive and modern, the decidedly old-school Thomson veers dangerously close to seeming a little redundant.

Much of this weighty tome is a clean, thorough and, at times, provocative ride through what Thomson calls ‘the normal history’ of cinema: film as art, film as a business and film’s famous people who made modern celebrity. In fact, it’s as good a run-though the familiar in film as you’re likely to find.

Thomson gives detailed readings of the accepted pioneers and geniuses of cinematic art, including D.W Griffith, Hawks, Capra, Lubitsch, Lang, Welles, Godard, Truffaut, Hitchcock, Coppola and Scorsese. Without doubt, Thomson has a great eye, and is a wonderfully gifted writer about the act of watching beauty on screen.

The Big Screen by David Thomson review
The Big Screen
by David Thomson
595pp, Allen Lane, £25

The film business is well explored. Studios and producers get plenty of attention. As do numbers: gross earnings, production costs, shoot lengths, opening weekend takings – it‘s all here. Movie stars also get their share of screen-time, with interesting explorations of the appeal of Gable, Grant, Monroe, Clift, Eastwood and key others, as well as a nod to Sandler.

But, of course, Thomson is unwilling to settle for just ‘a normal history’.  And the bonus material is where the book’s very best bits, and its faults, can be found.

Thomson comes into his own when he wanders into film opinion rather than film fact. He always has an interesting take on a film, and this is aided by a wonderful turn of phrase (Pretty Woman is ‘indefensible as a work of art, but what a show, what an extraordinary metaphor for a daft society – and what a face!’). Thomson’s musings on Chaplin v Keaton, sex and violence in Blue Velvet, and murder and voyeurism in Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho (including Douglas Gordon’s stunning 24hour version) are particular highlights. Thomson at his loosest is Thomson at his best, and you find yourself wishing he’d cut himself a little more slack in this fact-heavy 595-pager.

One digression that doesn’t work is an excruciating, and unintentionally revealing, passage in which Thomson tells us about playing The Clock on two projection screens next to each other, one showing the film from the start and one showing it from the end going backwards, so they met in the middle. Thomson humbly tells us that his film experiment ‘may be the most exciting film show I have ever seen’, it was the like of which his students ‘had never witnessed before’. Yep, for sure they hadn’t.

Another time interesting conjecture tips over into grating assertion is when he tells us that if The Godfathers I and II were ever to be a proper critique of America then they needed Michael killing Kay, bringing the outrage they currently lack. Well, er, thanks, but I’m happy to side with the genius director on that one.

But the major problems arise when Thomson moves away from his specialist subject.

Thomson keeps returning to his thesis that people’s increasing obsession with screens – tv, mobile phones, the internet, DVDs, video games, pornography – is both devaluing the moving image and offering people a way of avoiding reality.

Thomson keeps returning to his thesis that people’s increasing obsession with screens – tv, mobile phones, the internet, DVDs, video games, pornography – is both devaluing the moving image and offering people a way of avoiding reality. Thomson, who admits he has scant knowledge of many of these mediums, offers nothing new to this now well-trodden and increasingly tedious debate. Watching him scramble around looking for an interesting opinion on ‘new’ technologies is entirely depressing. Certainly, he gets nowhere near the considered ‘theory of screens’ we’re promised in the foreword.

Another startling flaw of The Big Screen is Thomson’s blind spot around much of world, independent and modern cinema. He gives apology for not giving due space to the likes of Satyajit Ray, Kiarostami, Yimou, Tarkovsky and Haneke, but this mea culpa doesn’t let him off the hook.

In claiming to be the story of film, this book really does need to offer more on the off-the-beaten-track and the foreign-language pictures of both yesteryear and today. An appreciation of Winter’s Bone offers a rare, and very welcome, reference to something that’s low-budget, made by a female director, and has been released within the last twenty years.

Often, as Thomson waxes lyrical about yet another over-familiar sacred cow of movie history, you find yourself yearning for the leftfield choice you’d get from Mark Cousins, the crazy spaghetti western Alex Cox might pick, or even some banging on about an obscure horror flick that Mark Kermode might provide. The feeling lingers that Thomson hasn’t tried particularly hard to find a replacement for his lost love.  He’s happy playing the jilted lover with only photos for memories.

It’s the pictures that got small, Thomson and other notables would say.  But, really, film – and our way of seeing the world, no less – has just moved on.