The Big ScreenWhen I was halfway through reading David Thomson’s new book, I saw Vincente Minnelli’s musical The Band Wagon (1953) in Potsdamer Platz, Berlin. It felt like a perfect David Thomson moment. The Band Wagon immerses us in a Technicolor fantasy full of lights and legs. It asks us to look at terrific things – Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire’s moves, their snazzy clothes and shiny shoes. It’s a film about remaking yourself and about remaking a show, which hosts a conflict between high art (imbued with a European sensibility) and an American commitment to commercial entertainment. Befitting a quintessential Hollywood tale, The Band Wagon has a Germanic heart – “Ich liebe Louisa, Louisa liebt mich,” sings the man born Frederick Austerlitz – so watching it in what was once the glamorous centre of German film seemed ideal. Potsdamer Platz today may be a facsimile of urban space where the nods to Marlene Dietrich (a limp plaza) and Billy Wilder (an overpriced bar) are utterly without glamour, while the legacy of the Cold War there is turned into tourist fodder (the chance to have your passport stamped by a fake soldier), yet the area still conjures thoughts of vital events – both cinematic and world historical. Nothing, moreover, could detract from the grip The Band Wagon held on the audience that night. When the film finished, rapturous applause followed. The cinematic screen had again exerted its magic spell.

It’s easy to become intoxicated by such associations and allusions when absorbed in a David Thomson book. As its subtitle suggests, The Big Screen is interested in what the movies “did to us”. Perhaps, though, we should also consider what reading Thomson continues to do to our thinking. Suddenly, shifts from MGM musicals to international conflicts seem obvious; star biographies become spookily prescient. Reading Thomson, links between films and places, plots and events, characters and actors flow easily, whether they are profound or silly, instructive or simplistic – just like the movies themselves. He leaps from image to image, genre to genre, in an endless flow of connections and screen memories. Watching The Band Wagon in Potsdamer Platz with Thomson in mind, it felt as if Minnelli’s film somehow contained cinema’s entire history. It’s the kind of sensation Thomson himself is keen to promote: “I have always been intrigued by the idea of screens retaining something of the spirit of all their films, of their all being there at the same time – it’s a version of consciousness” (p.12). Or, as he puts it in more erotic terms later in the book: “the screen is a place where all films live anyway. And they are fucking each other all the time” (p.139). Thomson’s prose, like the feelings it describes, is undoubtedly rapturous. Yet, how far should we trust his rapture – or, indeed, cinema’s?

The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)

The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)

Like much of Thomson’s work, The Big Screen is caught between two contrasting academies. On the one hand, he is resistant to how cinema has been treated by universities. Thus, this is a history of film which avoids any sustained engagement with film theory. Equally, while Thomson makes frequent recourse to the Oscars, his critique holds an ambivalence that the film industry – epitomized by the Academy Awards – disavows. This is a highly personal, and deeply conflicted tale of what watching thousands of Hollywood movies can do to your notions of morality, desire and history. It’s also a history of film that deliberately wanders out of the cinema to consider novels, paintings and broader cultural developments.

Still, in many ways, The Big Screen remains a very conventional history of cinema, which stops at the established milestones of the medium. Thomson starts with Eadweard Muybridge, whose blend of émigré enterprise, voyeurism, technological innovation and domestic chaos (he murdered his wife’s lover and got away with it) offers a model for the book’s treatment of other essential cinematic figures. Thomson takes cinema’s legends seriously. He likes to impart meaning to the myths. “You may feel this is more gossip than film commentary” (p.172), he admits, but it is often biographical links, rather than formal analysis, that glue together the disparate strands of his narrative. From Muybridge, Thomson moves on to discuss Griffith, Chaplin and the Hays Code, with extended trips to Weimar Germany (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Fritz Lang and the emergence of Leni Riefenstahl) and the Soviet Union (Pudovkin, Vertov and a brilliant section on Eisenstein in Hollywood). The middle of the book, which Thomson claims is “a kind of movie, or a montage” (p.11), though this description seems merely to entail shorter sections and no delineated chapters, covers the 1950s – from the birth of television to the arrival of Godard. In the latter half of the book, there’s coverage of New Hollywood in the 1970s and blockbuster franchises, summaries of leading European auteurs, and a tired conclusion on contemporary cinema and the triumph of HBO. Brief case studies on Debra Granik and Clio Barnard hint at a more intriguing future, especially when their work is closely followed by consideration of Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, aging men with nothing left to say or show.

Thomson is a critic inclined to bold assertions and grand narratives. Here again, he wants to capture “the whole equation,” to borrow the Fitzgerald phrase he used as the title for a previous history of Hollywood, a book which shares many of the ideas and themes of The Big Screen (1). Thomson asks us to consider some important questions. What are the purposes of movies? How much does narrative matter? How much should truth matter? There are plenty of great lines. Riffing on the end of film, he quips, “it turns out Kodak was only a moment” (p.3). Later, he remarks: “Mussolini and Joe Pesci is one of the meetings that demand computer-generated enactment” (p.222). There are also many astute critical judgments coupled with superb descriptions: “Keaton’s quiet is as stricken as ruined philosophy” (p.30), he writes of the silent star, while Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957) is said to look like “the hide of a crocodile in moonlight” (p.285).

Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

Given the book’s overwhelming ambitions – it’s intended as a history of cinema and its effects that also encompasses “a theory of screens” (p.12) – what truly captures Thomson’s imagination? There are several recurring themes in The Big Screen: the light of Los Angeles, murder in the movies (the subject of his next book, apparently), car crashes, sex, gambling, and money. Indeed, Thomson’s relentless attention to production costs and box-office takings reminded me of Andy Warhol’s diaries, in which every cab fare (including tips) is recorded. Despite the occasional trips to Europe (and, very briefly, Japan), the book is mainly interested in American movies and how they shaped American national identity. Thomson’s America, though, is – like The Band Wagon – formed around transatlantic travels. Thus, Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) is “both American and German” (p.33), and Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) “is American, of course, but it is intensely Germanic” (p.56).


Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)

Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)

Above all, Thomson is interested in looking, and looking rapturously. His history of cinema is obsessed with erotic glances and uninhibited staring. He wants to know what all those on-screen caresses have done to our ideas of desire, given “what furtive, naughty dreamers we are in our dark” (p.32). He is eager to probe Ingrid Bergman’s sex life and to find out if Muybridge slept with the women he photographed. For Thomson, people go to the cinema “to be voyeurs in the dark beholding an orgy of their own desires burning on the screen” (p.32). Unsurprisingly, then, The Big Screen contains analysis of pervy classics like Pandora’s Box (Pabst, 1929), Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1968), Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960), Blow-Up (Antonioni, 1966) and Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986), as well as anecdotes about Cecil B. DeMille directing Gloria Swanson in the bath, issuing the commands: “Prolong it! Relish the smell of the rosewater. More rapture” (p.41).

Yet, Thomson’s approach to cinematic spectatorship is deeply problematic. Rather than interrogate the forces driving voyeurism and the implications they hold, especially in terms of gender, he seems content to simply repeat, and revel in, many of the most troubling clichés of cinema: “isn’t looking at pretty women (from the safe dark) a terrific kick in movie-going?” (p.40) His fascination in the choice that Sunrise sets up between domestic married life and the allure of the dangerous “City Woman” establishes a (false) dichotomy in female identity Thomson is happy to maintain throughout the book. Astonishingly, despite his oft-claimed interest in the screen gaze, he finds no room to even mention Laura Mulvey. Given his own assumptions regarding gender, it is somewhat hypocritical to hear Thomson complain of “Godard’s misogyny” (p.333) and “Scorsese’s lack of interest or achievement with women on-screen” (p.479). When it suits him, Thomson is happy to criticise how certain directors have treated women; but when his own approach veers on the creepy, he simply claims it’s the nature of the cinematic medium (2). Of course, this is not a new criticism of his work, especially after his salivating biography of Nicole Kidman (3).

His rapture spent, The Big Screen ends on a rather somber note. Cinema matters a great deal to Thomson, and though he attempts to understand the impact of other screens – from computer games and Facebook to the structures dominating public spaces like Potsdamer Platz – there is no hiding his sadness at the decline in film’s cultural status: “The influence of our movies is not just a cultural sidebar, like an evening a week set aside for our 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” (p.414). One of the many things the movies did to him was inspire marvelous, impressionistic observations on life and art. Yet, if we really want to think about how cinema became “a model for how we look,” and what costs this brought with it, we must do more than slap our “naughty” selves on the wrist.

David Thomson, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did To Us (London: Penguin, 2012).

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  1. David Thomson, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).
  2. See, for more damning evidence on this topic, the excellent review by Jenny McPhee, ‘Hardly a Female in Sight: David Thomson’s The Big Screen’, Bookslut (March 2013): http://www.bookslut.com/the_bombshell/2013_03_019918.php
  3. David Thomson, Nicole Kidman (London: Bloomsbury, 2006).