The story of the movies is the story of — fill in the blank. America? Our lives? Modernity itself? Any of these would be an overstatement, but a provocative one; and after all, the movies themselves encourage, even demand, provocative overstatement. It must be their oversized images, the vastness of the emotions they, and we, project onto the screen. (Put aside the fact that the screens are getting smaller. I’ll come back to that.) So David Thomson’s The Big Screen is a big book about a big subject — a big-picture view of the big pictures — and its subtitle makes a big promise.
In fact, Thomson has been working for years on the fulfillment of that promise, on telling the story of the movies. His compelling, highly readable, and highly opinionated body of work includes The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood; Have You Seen…?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films; Biographical Dictionary of Film; and Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts — as well as biographies of figures including David O. Selznick, Orson Welles, and Gary Cooper. He’s also written whole volumes on key films: Hitchcock’s Psycho, Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, and many others.
The Big Screen begins not with Thomas Edison or the Lumière brothers, but with the photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge is most famous now for having invented stop-action photography and for using it to prove that a galloping horse sometimes lifts all four legs off the ground at once. But he matters for other reasons, too. For Thomson, Muybridge’s photographic series provoked and relied on a kind of fascination with the image that was something new, something whose relation to desire and voyeurism would be essential to motion pictures:
He shot people, but he also shot light, air, and passing time. He took special pleasure in the splay and splash of water poured out of a jug or tossed on a little girl. The wonder of seeing the commonplace in the light was more thoroughly celebrated by Eadweard Muybridge than by anyone before him. It’s still the case that his sequences fill viewers with awe and excitement, no matter that they have no story or purpose. The pictures feel ravished by the play of light on ordinary physicality and by the tiny, incremental advances through time.… Take whatever example you like from subsequent cinema, and its inheritance from Muybridge can be felt — take Astaire and Rogers spinning together in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” in Follow the Fleet (1936); take the door closing on John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers (1956); or think of that instant from Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) when the still picture of the young woman comes to life briefly and she looks at being looked at.… Before the official invention of the movies (though many were on that track, and Thomas Edison took note of Muybridge’s work), so many elements of cinema had been identified: time, motion, space, light, skin. And watching.
Watching, and the close connection between watching and desire, are the twin themes Thomson returns to again and again, particularly in the context of the films he considers at some length. These include F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), and David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Sunrise is one of the greatest of silent films and remains, to this day, a nearly unanimously acknowledged masterpiece. Thomson sees it as a precursor to film noir, and although he sees noir as being about more than crime — “Noir meant an existential agony; not just the underworld as metaphor for human fate” — Sunrise does have a crime, or at least a contemplated crime, at its heart: it is about a husband who plans to murder his wife, though he does not go through with it and, in the end, falls back in love with her. In finding ways of being cinematic that previous movies had not managed to discover, Sunrise implicates us, as watchers, in an unprecedented manner:
The husband goes to meet the City Woman in a marsh, with the moon hanging in the night sky like a scaffold. The marsh is a set with an atmospheric richness and botanical detail not attempted in America before.… The marsh is a state of mind; the lighting is mannered, moody, and strictly controlled. You feel you are there, hesitant and anxious to see what will happen — whereas with so many American silent films, we are witnessing a tableau, a staged event, limited to a single emotional attitude. It is the difference between feeling you are at the theater and inhabiting the lifelike illusion of the movies.
Citizen Kane, too, can be viewed as an early noir, both visually and in terms of theme. “While the work of a young man full of vitality it seemed, the film comes out of the depth of despair and solitude, when very little in the American movie had suggested that that was where America wanted to be,” he writes. “Kane had gone awhile under the working title American, but no one then anticipated that that word could be a synonym for personal disaster.” One of the personal disasters Thomson has in mind is, of course, Welles’s career, which, for all its accomplishment, seems somehow as if it ought to have been even more spectacular than it was. (It would have helped, of course, if RKO had not butchered Welles’s second film, The Magnificent Ambersons — a film rumored to have been, in its original cut, a greater masterpiece than Kane — and dumped the excised footage into the Pacific.)
Part of what noir does is to put the audience in a disturbing and threatening complicity with its flawed protagonists, so that Citizen Kane is another film that puts us, as watchers, in a unique, not entirely comfortable, and perhaps not entirely innocent position:
Kane is a closed-room mystery; just as we alone hear the dying word Rosebud, so we are the only ones left at the end to see the name burn off the sled from Colorado. What does that make us? Charlie Kane’s faithful? The ones who will not give him up? As a device and a narrative ploy, it seems to suggest that the story feeds on itself.… In all that Pauline Kael wrote about the film…she said it was a masterpiece, but a shallow masterpiece. And as the film stays imprisoned in first place, I wonder whether that doesn’t confirm something dazzling but shallow about the whole medium.
In Brief Encounter, written by Noël Coward and directed by David Lean (who would eventually move on from this and other tiny, precise, intimate films to sprawling, imprecise epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago), Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey meet in a train station, fall in love, and spend the rest of the film successfully but reluctantly suppressing the urge to leave or cheat on the spouses to which they are faithfully but unhappily wed. The film is both touching and exquisitely tense; Thomson writes that at times “it seems nothing less than a film about hysteria and the dysfunction between a stiff upper lip and a mind turning to jelly.” Lean and Coward invite us to contemplate our position as observers of the characters’ emotional affair by turning them into watchers, affording Thomson the opportunity for a bit of entertaining riffing:
So what do Alec and Laura do on their Thursday afternoons in Milford? They take a genteel lunch together and then go to “the pictures.” Their cinema seems crowded. They rock with laughter at Donald Duck. She is bored by a “noisy musical.” And they watch Flames of Passion — a silly Hollywood product (no details supplied) — before they walk out. What they need to see is Un Chien Andalou (or Blue Velvet), but such programs could not come to “Milford.”… Celia Johnson’s large eyes are naked to our scrutiny, but that’s as far as that word could go — all of which leaves our imagining more intense.
The insertion of a reference to Blue Velvet, David Lynch’s lurid and perverse 1985 masterpiece, into a discussion of David Lean’s polite-on-the-surface 1945 chamber piece, is a way of reminding us that the movies have always (well, since Sunrise, at any rate) attempted to pierce the skin of propriety and to seek out the secret heart that beats with a more frightening, primal, and human rhythm underneath. (Blue Velvet, too, takes place in a society — in this case, small-town USA — that is, on the surface, squeaky clean to the point of banality.) It’s also characteristic of Thomson’s writing style: there is a lot of skipping around in time, and also in conceptual space. The reader thinks Thomson has ignored Georges Méliès — we get to Fred Astaire, more than 100 pages into the book and seemingly several decades too late, with barely a mention of him — but then, just as we are prepared to fire off a stormy protest letter on Méliès’s behalf, we get to a chapter called “France” that skips back several decades to start the story of the movies all over at very nearly the beginning. A paragraph near the beginning of his discussion of Jean Renoir provides a good representative sampling of a writer who will confine himself neither to a single historical era nor to a single framework of ideas:
Jean Renoir was born in Montmartre in 1894, the son of Pierre Auguste Renoir, so he was looking at [his father’s] pictures in the late 1890s without quite realizing he had posed for them. His father had noticed him, seen the opportunity of a picture, and taken it — he had snapped it. This was before the boy could read. And in the 1890s, photography began to be a mass practice. Now it affects all of us, nearly all the time. Parents snap their children with cell phones and hold the bright pixels up to the infant’s gaze, like a mobile to play with. “There you are!’ they say, before the babies possess these words. There we are. It begins to become a basic form of identity, the level at which existence registers. We are our image. Our reality has been split, and that may be as significant as the more famous bifurcation of the atom.
What have the movies done to us? What are the consequences of our having become so fixated on images, so attuned to the visual, to the immediate? Thomson’s passion for the movies can be felt on every page of this book, but this does not mean that he is entirely comfortable with the fact that the movies and their offspring — television, commercials, video games, pornography, Facebook — have made us the creatures we are.
I have tried to show how our attitudes to love, identity, desire, and responsibility have been shaped by moviegoing.… The influence of our movies is not just a cultural sidebar, like an evening a week set aside for fun. It was the engine of our time, the signal of so many screens to come; it is a model for how we look and decide, whether we participate or are content to be spectators.
Of course this “engine of our time,” is constantly evolving. We used to go to the movies in groups, forming impromptu communities bound together by a common experience and shared delight. (A movie theater is one of the few places where mind reading is possible: look at the screen and you’ll know what is in the heads of the people around you.) But “theatrical performance of a movie is a sentimental stronghold,” Thomson admits, “and we know it will pass away.” Moreover, all this has happened, in its way, before. Regarding the ascendancy of television at a time when movie attendance was starting to fall off, Thomson writes:
The black-and-white imagery of [Sunset Boulevard] was luminous and state of the art, but we the people were preparing to look at a tiny, warped image in which the grain (the wavering lines) was hideous and tiring. You see, we have been this unbelievable way before and demonstrated that technology impresses us more than pleasure or beauty. We are not huddled for nothing — we are stupid, too, as we insist we are making progress.”
Above all else, The Big Screen is the story of the rise and decline of an art form that once played a central role in human life. “This book is a love letter to a lost love, I suppose,” he admits at one point. You’ll probably want to keep two notebooks handy while reading this particular love letter (and I hope that by now it is clear that I think you should read it): one to write down the passages that you’ll want to quote to your friends, one to keep track of the movies — there will be several dozen at the very least — that you will want to add to your Netflix list or (better!) seek out at your local video store. Thomson’s writing will make you want to go to the movies, even if it is richer, deeper, and smarter than any of the films that are likely to be playing at a theater near you. His passion for film, his ideas, and the books in which he expresses his passion and ideas are still big as ever. It’s the pictures that got small.