David Thomson turns his not inconsiderable knowledge of all things movie towards screen history. Not just cinema but screens of all sorts as he sounds off on the effect upon us all of all visual media.
He looks longingly back to the early days of film when the world was both a more innocent & believable place.
The screen has, he tells us, both entertained us & slowly but surely fed us an unreality that has become the norm & isolated us from one another. A trip up any high street or on public transport will quickly illustrate his point.
His huge understanding of cinema history means the reader is given a detailed & fascinating history that starts with that often forgotten but hugely influential figure in modern art Edweard Muybridge. His multi camera photorama's influenced the birth of the moving image & the birth of modern art, (Will Gompertz 'What are you looking at' agrees wholeheartedly).
Thomson offers a very detailed account of what influenced every change in cinema & the influences cinema made upon society in return.
This is not a simple dip into it at your leisure type publication. This will undoubtedly become a 'must have' for all film students and is set to become an essential reference.
Not every 'classic' film & art house director is mentioned but that would be impossible anyway. This is not a who's who nor a list of must haves.
His views on how the increase of pornography & violence has affected society transcends the usual knee jerk reactions and highlights the way expectation has been made to exceed reality & the effect upon us as individuals.
As we are slowly guided through the history of the screen Thomsons sadness at the decline in mass audiences in favour of isolated individuals staring at the latest films downloaded onto a small screen.
Television is included as are all screen technologies. A lot is given just brief page space and Thomsons pet subjects are what really stand out. In particular world cinema loses out most with the output of entire continents looked over. However the attention to detail is astounding and the slow approach from the screens inception to the modern day is uncompromising.
What prevents 'The Big Screen' from being a dry as toast is Thomsons passion for his subject & the sad truth that the overall effect of the screen in all its formats has been far from positive and society has paid a heavy price for their love of make believe 'made real'.
a small handful of B&W photo's are well chosen & avoid cliche. A style the book as a whole adopts. There are so many biographies, histories & '100 best of's..' out there that it takes something rather special to stand out from the crowd and become an instant 'must have'.
That this new volume manages to be so special & is destined to find it's way to the head of every film lovers list is testament to a writer whose long and admired work in the industry has led to much deserved respect.
The notes section at the end where Thomson's references are listed are extensive and extremely useful. They also illustrate a lack of arrogance & willingness to acknowledge others efforts.
The index is vast & covers so many famous & lesser known titles & people that some idea of the cast scope of the book can be seen.
The'...what they did to us' part of the title is the biggest clue as to the direction David Thomson takes with the book. This is personal & while clearly a labour of love, an unerringly honest reflection upon the history of film. Both it's glories and effect upon us all.
Fascinating, informative and superbly well written. This is a must have for all cinephiles & would be social commentators alike.
on 29 October 2012
David Thomson writes well about film. That's a given for anyone familiar with his large body of writing on the subject. But this sizable new book, which has been dubbed a love letter to the movies, is not so very different from his fairly recent history of Hollywood, The Whole Equation.
Plenty of film buffs will agree with Thomson that the recent story of cinema is one of decline. The atmosphere of this book is one mainly of nostalgia. My own view is that this line of thinking is invalidated by any familiarity with recent films that have been made in languages other than English. Thomson shows he knows a lot about previous ages of foreign language filmmaking, but this book shows little awareness of current developments in that area.
Another cavil is that Thomson's tendency in his film writing is to be biographical, to write about the personalities within the film industry more than about their product. There's a gossipy, personal quality about this, which is certainly engaging, but I left this book, as with several of Thomson's previous books that I'd read, thinking that he is more interested in characters than in film as a form of art.
In short, this is a book that movie-lovers will find stimulating, as it always bubbles with ideas, but the subtitle "The story of the movies and what they did to us" strikes me as inaccurate. I don't think Thomson has a sufficiently wide-ranging sense of the social impact of cinema.
Having previously read, although not recently, several histories of the cinema this is the most complete, extensive and knowledgeable work of all. One was more limited and concentrated primarily on the period from the introduction of the 'talkies' in 1926, although they were still far from the norm two years later, and through to the mid- or late-60s when that book was probably written. Another was less a written history than it was pictorial and included photographs of just about every major star and many lesser-known stars of their day, many of whom are now almost forgotten. Neither of those books, or any other seen, was then aware of the forthcoming home entertainment revolution that so affected traditional cinema in many different ways, from reducing its income by the closure of many cinemas, by the reduction of audiences, and from the ready distribution of DVDs and Blu-ray disksand their player systems.
This book commences its history far before the dawn of the cinema and looks at the efforts of Muybridge in analysing human and animal movement. His were not the dream of presenting a moving image of some description as an entertainment but primarily to disprove some commonly-held beliefs about motion, especially in respect of horses. It was Muybridge who was able to prove that a fast-moving horse can have all of its hooves in the air at one time, if only very briefly. Those efforts, initially with paper negatives, led to others experimenting with strips of paper and film until Lumiere developed a usable system. That was the birth of the cinema as we may recognise it today.
This is a history that is not a chronological study but it examines different aspects of the cinema and does not limit itself to either the British industry - the author is British-born but now resides in the USA - or to the American Hollywood alone but looks at other some other countries' film industry too. However, two areas not well covered are those of Southern Asia, especially India and its "Bollywood", China and Hong Kong and especially the Kung Fu films once associated with them, or the South-American scene which, especially in Argentina, is rising rather quickly to prominence in the Spanish-language world. There are others, not internationally distributed in the traditional sense but still quite large and extensive; the Pinoy/Tagalog movies from the Philippines are sold wherever there are Filipinos and that includes not only the UK, USA and Canada but Australia and many parts of the Middle-east.
The book examines some of the industry's best-known stars, the directors and many others involved in the industry but does so by stepping sometimes forwards and backwards at others. It is not extensively illustrated and those it has are either movie stills or lobby cards and posters from the early days until the more modern era.
If you are interested in the cinema primarily as a visual art and not from the technical aspects of shooting and production or distribution, advertising and the other more ephemeral aspects, then this book will be an excellent choice. Well-written, knowledgeable and extensive it will not be easily bettered.
The reference section at the end is large and extremely extensive. It includes a page-by-page list of quotations and references, broken down on a country-by-country basis and includes a huge Index with mentions of just about every actor, director or other involved person ever mentioned within the main sections of the book.
Recommended, despite some exclusions and short-comings.
on 4 July 2014
i was so sad when this ended (it was a bit rushed at the end too) - well-judged assessments, and mini-stories of people involved as he moved region by region and era by era - a true lover of film, and a light engrossing author - i was sorry to finish it.
Setting out to produce a 'history of cinema’ in around 500 pages was always going to be a challenge and although author, and noted film critic, David Thomson regards his work as more of a novel than a 'history’ of film, it is difficult to envisage anyone else providing quite such a compelling read on this subject. Indeed, the man’s opinions and prejudices will no doubt provoke much heated debate, but what shines through undimmed here is Thomson’s obvious love of his subject, his account being written in something of a rambling, unsystematic style thereby making it all the more endearing and stimulating (although the book is structured in an approximately chronological order).
There are many intriguing and insightful views and analyses on display here, covering past, present and potential future trends in cinema, and ranging over areas as diverse as the impact of social media, pornography, TV (HBO, etc), special effects (CGI) and Hollywood conservatism and 'infantilisation’ (who does have the royalty rights for Marvel comic characters?), as well as a particularly fascinating section where Thomson provides a comparison (principally from a 'media presentation’ perspective) of two major 20th century figures, Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan! In the end, of course, everyone will have their points of issue with Thomson – for me, there is rather too much here on Lucille Ball and not enough on 'indie cinema’ or the Japanese masters, not to mention oversights of Kieslowksi, Haneke, Wong and Kiarostami (although Thomson does acknowledge these latter omissions). What remains, however, is Thomson’s unfailingly passionate and rich interpretations of his beloved subject.
Along with Peter Biskind’s take on the 1960s/70s Hollywood 'bratpack’ in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, I would rate Thomson’s book (which, of course has a much wider scope than Biskind’s) as one of the most compelling I have read on the subject of cinema.
It's hard to see this not becoming a standard text for film studies. On just about every page there is something to think about. I particularly enjoyed the discussions of screen and audience. I was a boy in the 1960s and can remember standing in long cinemas queues for popular films. It's hard for today's young film "consumers" to realise that not that many years ago, the only ways to see a movie were a) in the cinema and b) wait for it to be shown on television. No VHS video, no DVD, no downloads. And the cinema auditorium itself has changed so much. So many smaller auditoria with smaller screens, rather than the mass audience being thrilled of amused together. Today too "the big screen" has partly given way to the "small screen" of portable devices, and film consumption is very different. All of this is thoughtfully considered. This book is not a film almanac or gazeteer - no doubt there will be favourite films of yours of which you'd like to see more discussion in the book. But there are other books for that. This text (subtitled The story of the movies and what they did to us) is more properly a kind of historical consideration belonging to what has been called the history of ideas. I used to teach a basic Film Studies unit (indeed, I wrote the current version of the Unit in the Scottish Qualifications Authority catalogue) and on reading this book, I kept wishing that I still had a film class, so that we could talk about some of the ideas.
David Thomson is sometimes referred to as the world's best (or greatest, or most famous) film critic. He is really more of a film writer, who does criticism (or "reviews") as a part of that. A Londoner who long ago fled to California, he has written over 20 film books of various kinds. He is a witty writer with some refreshingly idiosyncratic views.
I usually like to get a flavour of the writer's particular likes when reviewing film books, and Thomson's choice of "top ten" films, as part of Sight and Sound magazine's recent critics' poll, reveals nothing later than 1986 (Blue Velvet) and a particular fondness for films from around 1940. Most of his choices are among my favourites too.
The Big Screen originated, we are told at the back, from a suggestion of a one-volume history of film. It is actually more, and less, than a history. More, because Thomson devotes many pages to other types of screen, whether TV, computer, or mobile phone, and to the effect of film on the wider society. Less, because he has chapters on specific subjects within film history (noir, war movies, Renoir and Welles, the cinema of several countries such as France and Italy, various Hollywood "movers and shakers") and tends (inevitably perhaps) to gloss over some other topics. There is far too much gossip about the sex-lives of actors; I am of the same generation as Thomson (he was a year below me at our South London school) and I find such gossip tedious and unnecessary. That's why I mark the book down to 4 stars (though 4.4 might be better if it were an option).
Thomson is truly a mine of information and of insights; for example he gives a convincing explanation of why Americans, even cineastes like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, refer to the famous Italian film Bicycle Thieves by the total mistranslation "The Bicycle Thief". For movie buffs like myself this is a book not just to read but to keep for future reference, despite the aforementioned reservation.
This book will be around for a long time, it will be on film students must read list for years to come and be devoured by all who have more than just a passing interest in the movies. Gathering rave reviews from all quarters 'The Big Screen' helps cement David Thompson's reputation as the greatest living writer on film.
Subtitled "The Story of The Movies and What They Did To Us" this narrative is a journey through the complex history of the movies starting basically with the photograph and in a mainly chronological fashion brings us up to date including movie and film technology of all screen sizes and media.
From the days of the packed cinema, audiences bedazzled and entranced by the stars, who in some cases were really larger than life, offering us a chance to escape reality and in some instances being subliminally fed propaganda of one form or another. In the USA the power of the studios and a few moguls who controlled the mainstream culture of a nation for several decades. Now compare that to today where much movie and film viewing is undertaken in the darkened room of a house or apartment as powerless citizens look to find a moment of happiness, fantasy or escape in front of their DVD player and TV.
Have the movies lost their power since those earlier times when they transformed us and our perception of the world and each other. With mass communication the world is a much smaller and some would say, a better understood place,do the movies still have the same pull and persuasion?
Thompson's tale takes us around the world and across many medias to discover if movies take us out into the world or just mesmerize us - that is the author's question. His passion, his encyclopedic knowledge, the warmth, the humour all shine through his writing. This book, all 500 plus pages of it, is the art of the storyteller, not the documentary maker or the historian as you would probably imagine. Copious and comprehensive notes at the end round off this fine volume.
Unlike many 'experts' or 'professionals' in one subject or another, Thompson does not overwhelm the reader with facts and figures nor does he avoid issues such as sex, pornography and violence and his attitudes to these are anything but politically correct or knee-jerk.
I am a keen movie watcher, especially sci-fi films, political movies and for some reason, Brazilian movies, and I found the book absolutely fascinating, easy to read, rarely flags (even in parts that you may find not so interesting)and kept me going most nights until well after usual lights out time.
Highly recommended, if not essential, for any serious or not so serious fan of the movies and a fabulous gift for either sex.
"The Big Screen" is a beautifully readable meditation on movies and moviemaking, from their beginning to [almost] the present day. Subtitled "The Story Of The Movies And What They Did To Us", it's written from the viewpoint of the moviegoer but informed by the understanding and knowledge of one of our most noted film critics. David Thomson was born in Britain but has lived in the US for years, giving him a transatlantic viewpoint whcih takes in the art of the filmmaker in both its European and Hollywood variants.
Rather then move chronologically, he traces the story of film and its impact within social history both sides of the pond through a series of thematic chapters which deal with differeing aspects of film, spotlighting a few especially iconic or meaningful titles, referencing many others. He's particularly great on Hitchcock, his chapter on film noir is a marvel, and his study of David Lean's 'Brief Encounter' points out imagery and layers of meaning I'd managed to miss, although I must have seen the film a dozen times.
Efficiently indexed, it's a great resource for any student of film but its language - though never dumbed down - is so informally conversational that it can be read right the way through like a work of fiction. A great read.
on 6 December 2013
I'm always enthusiastic when David Thomson brings out a new book, he is the indispensible film writer of our time. So i'm saddened to say that the first 140 pages of The Big Screen were actually a little boring. Maybe the wierd feel of the outer cover of the paperback was a warning?
The problem for me was that he was describing a general history of the movies and unfortunately it wasnt adding anything new. Most of it has been covered before, many times, in other books and also in DT's own Biographical Dictionary - except it's now organised into chronological order, which is useful but not indispensible.
For me, the first time that the book comes to life is with the Renoir chapter. It's a detailed analysis full of depth and insights that only he seems able to give us. I was equally enthralled by the the chapters on Syberberg, Reagan, Orson Welles, Speilberg and Lucas. These sections of the book reminded me why i was reading.
But then i remembered the premise of the book - 'The story of what the movies did to us' - and i wondered why, after the introduction, doesn't he touch on it again until the last few chapters and then fails to elaborate on his initial thesis.
So, i'm left wondering why he has written this book? It's too small for a comprehensive history of the movies, though it does cover directors that other books neglect. He has written other books that are devoted to individual directors (The Biographical Dictionary of Film) and individual films (Have you Seen). It's too divergent for an exploration of what the movies did to us, and those ideas have been better explained in his articles for The Independent, The Guardian and The New Republic over the last 15 years, if like me you have read every single one of them! So, apart from the pleasure gained from reading Thomson's writing, what was the point of writing this book?