In Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen’s character relates how he hit rock bottom. He botches a suicide attempt and, having alarmed neighbours with a misfiring shotgun, he takes to the streets and walks for hours. Eventually he shuffles into a movie theatre where he watches a Marx Brothers film. Mesmerised by the antics on screen, he forgets his miseries and finds he that is starting to enjoy himself.
The message is that, even in a cruel universe, there are consolations that make life worth living. And among those consolations, movies rank high. At their best, of course, movies are also works of art, and of the medium’s many distinguished critics, none is better informed or more authoritative than David Thomson. Thomson, author of the definitive New Biographical Dictionary of Film and that endlessly pleasurable inventory Have You Seen? spoke to me from his home in San Francisco about his new book. Part film history, part thesis, part love letter and lament, The Big Screen is both all and none of these. He is quick to admit that his is an opinionated rather than an objective history. It is also a delightfully sly method of establishing a canon. He is tough on Allen, De Sica, Fellini, Hawkes, Spielberg, Tarantino, and generous to Antonioni, Bresson, Buñuel, Renoir and Wilder. Welles remains central; Murnau’s Sunrise is a glory, but for sheer bliss it has to be Fred Astaire. ‘If you want to show an alien civilisation what the movies are about,’ he tells me, ‘you’d show them something with Astaire’. Indeed, the MGM musical and its gloomier twin, film noir, best embody the mix of celebration and unease, the appetite for desire and dread that lie at the heart of this book.
Thomson declares it his ‘central task’ to explore the influence movies have had. Unsurprisingly, given the ambition of the theme, there are gaps. There is little on how cinema changed the way we think about race, though he tells me its record is ‘shameful’. He does not offer much evidence for his remarks on film advertising and violence, and he has a fondness for the rhetorical question. But genuine insights abound, including about the way American movies have enacted the pursuit of happiness (with Marilyn Monroe as perhaps the most tragic example). He argues fondly that we learned ‘how to smoke and kiss and smile from the movies’, and more darkly that, for all the championing of male bravery, there is no matching advocacy for intellectual courage. He meditates on the affectless sex involved in hardcore pornography, and lest anyone doubts the power of Hollywood, he reminds us that one of its actors became President.
‘People ready once to remake the world … instead gaze at screens as an alternative,’ Thomson complains. Rather than participating in life, we have become spectators. This is perhaps to neglect the fact that today people use screens far more interactively; he does, though, acknowledge the key part played by screens in the downfall of the Soviet Union, and by mobile devices in quickening the Arab Spring. And as the looting that attended last year’s London riots revealed, most people don’t seem interested in political change; they just want more screens.Thomson then sets out to develop a theory about screens, fearing that our attraction to them serves to remove us further from reality. First it was the TV in the living room; now it’s phones, iPads, electronic games, all of which neutralise any attempt to protest because they are ‘always on’. We exist in a kind of ‘luminous passivity’, and he finds an emblem for this quiescence in The Truman Show.
‘We used to believe the screen was there just to help us see the pictures … now we guess that all these screens are the real thing … subtle barriers between us and life’. Films are artefacts, he reminds us, a series of tricks on an illuminated screen. ‘You are not watching life. You are watching a movie.’ It is a variation on Plato’s parable of the cave, where prisoners chained in a cave mistake shadows projected on a wall for the real things that pass in front of a fire behind them. Hitchcock’s Rear Window, in which James Stewart spends his time secretly watching his neighbours through their apartment windows, operates as a modern equivalent, as the hero slowly realises the truth of what is really going on behind the screens. It is a neat metaphor, and with it Thomson laments our general failure to engage meaningfully with the real world.
The real agenda emerges late in the book, like a negative from its tray of chemicals. While we might be wowed by Jaws, Thomson worries we are not emotionally involved. Similarly with Pulp Fiction, we come ‘ready to be dazzled but leave [our] feelings at home’. There is, he finally declares, ‘nothing to match motion and emotion running together’. He wants audiences to rediscover the impulse that made then flinch at Un Chien Andalou, and weep at City Lights. For all the debunking of the Italian neo-realists and even method acting as fraudulent and dishonest, what Thomson hankers after, it seems, is authenticity. The implicit conviction is that we should look to movies to tell us something about what it is to be alive in the world.
Thomson reserves particular scorn for the inauthentic: special effects, CGI, franchising and Facebook. He’s upset that today’s movies are consumed like fast food — the screens make them so readily available. While insisting that the movies are illusions, he seems disappointed that people are choosing to view films — and socially connect — at quite such a remove: he thinks we should know better. Though he is excited by the opportunities now presented to break the studios’ grip on distribution, it is perhaps movies’ disposability that concerns him, and the lack of respect for the art form.
In the end, The Big Screen is not quite rigorous enough to be a history, nor fully developed enough to be a polemic. Its tone is too witty and anecdotal, its enthusiasm too uncontainable, its wisdom too distilled for that. No, like any great work of criticism, the book is essentially an education in good taste, and crucially it sends us back to the movies. Thomson’s montage of ecstasies and laments re-awakens in us the thrill and wonder of moving images and the need to know what happens next. In that, it is as close to definitive as any book on film can be. Just as we look at the movies, we should listen to him.
David Thomson’s The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies And What They Did to Us is published by Allen Lane on 11 October.