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The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies
 
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The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies [Kindle Edition]

David Thomson
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Veteran essayist Thomson’s thoughtful new book is not just the story of traditional cinema; the “screen” of the title refers not only to the silver screen of the movies, but also to television and beyond. Early on, he draws a fascinating parallel between the viewing experience of Edison’s nickelodeon, a single person watching a short film loop through a viewfinder, to the way we now watch YouTube-length clips on our computer screens, whether tablet- or smartphone-size. But does the vacuum of “watching alone” merely stimulate our proclivity for fantasy and illusion? How has 100 years of watching movies affected our ability to handle realities outside the screen? Every page is studded with provocative questions meant to goad readers into rethinking common assumptions. For much of the book, he co-opts the approach of his earlier tome, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2010), sketching thumbnail portraits of dozens of historical figures: Eadward Muybridge, John Ford, Ingrid Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Lucille Ball, George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, and others. The way he strings these cameos together thematically rather than chronologically will prove maddening to anyone wanting a straightforward history. But if the most important quality of a book about the movies is that it triggers a craving to reexamine the movies themselves, then Thomson’s book is a spectacular success. --Rob Christopher

From Bookforum

This is Thomson at his best: holding his jewels, singly, to the light and finding unglimpsed facets. If you haven’t seen, say, Boudu Saved from Drowning or A Man Escaped or Hiroshima mon amour or Sunrise or Metropolis, The Big Screen will make you want to. And even if you’ve seen them, you may want to go back, because a movie is no longer quite the same once it’s been viewed through Thomson’s exacting lens. It is, in fact, this fine analytical grain, coupled with Thomson's penchant for eccentric judgments and rhetorical excess, that make him so ill suited to the historical-survey format of The Big Screen. The obligations of chronology force him into bizarre conjunctions, yoking noir to the musical and Max Ophuls to Robert Bresson. —Louis Bayard

Review

There are always irreverent arguments about the status of filmmaking in David Thomson's writing: "Story ideas hang around in Hollywood longer than some marriages or buildings." Or "It would be said of British cinema that it was nothing until a band of Hungarians took it over." This goes alongside his real passion for the art: On Sweet Smell of Success - "The film was shot in a glittering harsh black and white by James Wong Howe and looked like the hide of a crocodile in the moonlight." On Colonel Blimp - "There is one scene of Deborah Kerr with auburn hair and in a cornflower blue dress, in shadow and firelight, that must be among the most romantic shots made during the war. No one in Britain before had seen that you could make a film because you were crazy about a girl." David Thomson is, I think, the best writer on film in our time. If Have you Seen? was his most succinct and entertaining book, The Big Screen is a large and vivacious map on the history of 'the screen': beginning with Muybridge and then tracing careers ranging from Korda to Renoir to Hawkes to Mizoguchi, to David Lynch and Tarentino, then swerving over to television shows such as I love Lucy and The Sopranos. He has found and created a marvellous plot for the history of film with insights and revelations on every page, as well as a few mcguffins. He is our most argumentative and trustworthy historian of the screen -- Michael Ondaatje Equal parts shaman, shrink and cinematic preacher, Thomson has seen more films than we ever will. Typically eccentric, this is not simply a history of film, but an attempted autopsy ... Beginning with Edward Muybridge's sequential photographs, we travel on the generous, excited surge of Thomson's prose through the commotion of early Hollywood, sprawling out nation by nation around a world awakening to cinema ... A devilish, dazzling, out-there divination ... [full of] awe, poetry and witty iconoclasm ... Criticism is rarely this passionate and brilliant. You come away wanting to watch it all. On the biggest screen you can find Empire Thomson has composed a grand aesthetic, spiritual, and moral account of cinema history assembled around the movies and artists that have meant the most to him. As Thomson reconstructs film history, movies bring us close to reality and deliver us into ecstatic dreams. A pungently written, brilliant book -- David Denby (Author Of Snark) Fascinating ... a loose-limbed, conversational narrative, moving fitfully through time, dawdling over directors and films that interest ... crackling with ideas and vivid impressionisms ... Thomson's stylish prose, simultaneously erudite and entertaining, captivates as it informs ... Buffs and casual fans alike will enjoy this extra-large serving of popcorn for thought Publishers Weekly A great critic cuts both ways-he nudges you into reconsidering the films you love, as well as the ones you dislike. David Thomson's sensual prose has always amplified the imagination of a great critic. In broad outline, The Big Screen is a history of the movies, a wide-ranging task which usually carries with it a certain amount of connect-the-dots tedium. But Thomson's emphases are typically fresh and often ecstatic, even when he's disparaging a film you love. Nobody does it better -- Scott Eyman (Author Of Empire Of Dreams And Lion Of Hollywood) Subtle, erudite and entertaining Economist

About the Author

David Thomson, one of the great living authorities on the movies, is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fifth edition. His books include a biography of Nicole Kidman, a biography of Orson Welles, and The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. His latest work is the acclaimed Have You Seen . . . ?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. Born in London, he now lives in San Francisco.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

THE BIG SCREEN (A Cheap Form of Amusement)

In 1911, William de Mille heard that a promising Canadian stage actress lately seen in The Warrens of Virginia (1907) was making the mistake of her life. He told the impresario David Belasco, "The poor kid is actually thinking of taking up moving pictures seriously...I remember what faith you had in her future...and now she's throwing her whole career in the ash-can and burying herself in a cheap form of amusement."

The actress was eighteen, and for the moment she was Gladys Smith--but the name Mary Pickford awaited her, along with perhaps the greatest success and fortune any woman has yet achieved in the movies. William was the older brother of Cecil B. DeMille and as disapproving as possible of Cecil's own urge to give up theater for this new, trashy sensation. Fraternal superiority seldom works. C.B. was on his way as not just an epic figure in the business being made but also, he hoped, an immense force for good and improvement. (The de Milles were the sons of a preacher who had become a playwright. Around the turn of that century, there were so many new technologies winning the minds of people.)

The longing for improvement and the fear of waste and worse--it is a pattern still with us, and maybe it speaks to the medium's essential marriage of light and dark, or as Mary Pickford put it in her autobiography (published in 1955), Sunshine and Shadow. Light and dark were the elements of film, and they had their chemistry in film's emulsion. They had a moral meaning, too. But not everyone appreciated that prospect, or credited how it might make your fortune.

At one of their first film screenings in Paris, in the 1890s, the Lumière brothers told Georges Méliès, a stage magician captivated by what the cinematograph might do for him, to put away his money: "It is an invention without a future." Yet Thomas Edison, a businessman to be sure, wrote in Moving Picture World, a trade paper, in 1907, that "nothing is of greater importance to the success of the motion picture interests than films of good moral tone." But Dr. Anna Shaw, a "feminist reformer," believed that a policeman should be posted everywhere movies were shown because "These places are the recruiting stations of vice." In Boston, a girl, Irene Mayer, realized that her father, Louis B. Mayer, was in the picture business and doing so well that they were about to move to California! But years later she was still asking herself, "How could a man of my father's innate conservatism have chosen show business?"

Her answer was that Pop was "as emotional as he was"--a simple statement that requires constant examination. My experience with movie people is that nothing is more pressing or perilous in their lives than their headstrong identification with the emotion in the stories they tell. Other people in Mayer's life might have put it differently. Louis B. Mayer, once known as Lazar Meir, and born outside Kiev in 1885, was a small bull of a man who had grown strong heaving scrap iron. He was barely educated, yet he would be a shaper of minds. He was conservative but outrageous, high-minded and given to low blows, a pirate and a prison guard. As the dominant power at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for over twenty-five years, Mr. Mayer felt he owned the souls of his stars as well as their moving photographs on seven-year contracts. He had a cruel side, a violent temper, an unbridled ego. In urging his own properties to be "good," to respect their mothers, their Americanness, and his advice, he could move himself to tears. His daughter Irene admitted that she regularly confused him with God, and hardly noticed that she didn't believe in a god. Some observers decided Mayer was a fraud, the "greatest actor on the M-G-M lot." This misses a more disarming truth: he cried real tears; he was moved by his own dreams. There are still people who think they run the media who are swept away by that great hope.

When Mayer was an infant still, his father, Jacob, took the family to England simply to escape pogroms and poverty. That setting forth showed some means as well as the courage that every emigrant requires. Jacob was in the scrap business, but he could not prosper in England. So in 1892 they all moved on to St. John, New Brunswick, the town where Louis Mayer was raised.

Similar stories could be told about most of the founding fathers in the picture business. Adolph Zukor (the future chairman of Paramount) was born in Hungary in 1873. Samuel Goldwyn was from Poland, born in 1879. Carl Laemmle (the founder of Universal) was born in Germany in 1867. William Fox was born in Hungary in 1879. The eventual Warner brothers (Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack) had their family origins in Poland. Harry Cohn's father, Joseph, was born in Russia--and Cohn and a brother would form Columbia, the company that employed the logo of the famous statue holding a torch up for those huddled masses, beckoning them into movie houses.

They were all Jewish. The only native-born Americans among the movie pioneers were Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille, and maybe that's why that pair worked together to make The Squaw Man (1914), allegedly the first feature-length picture produced in Hollywood. The Jewishness cannot be underestimated. The people who established the business were outsiders, anxious to be regarded as Americans, as well as people who had suffered every kind of ethnic prejudice from disdain to pogrom. When Victor Fleming (born in Pasadena) took over the directing of Gone With the Wind in 1939, he barely disguised his dislike of Jews (such as David O. Selznick, who produced the picture). So movies were made into a business by people who had recently escaped their own huddled masses, from families that did not always speak English. Against that set of anxieties, these early moviemakers were accustomed to storytelling, sentimental narrative theater, broad comedy, and the miracle of wondrous things never seen before: the dream that comes true. California was the embodiment of that change in life, the steady sunshine that followed European overcast.

By 1899, Louis Mayer was in St. John still, and Canadian (his father had taken citizenship), a teenager in the scrap business. It was in 1904 that he crossed the border and went to Boston. His purpose was to observe the familial duty of getting married. The Mayers had learned of a Margaret Shenberg, the daughter of a kosher butcher in Boston ready to be wed--letters and photographs had been the means of courtship (you can marry a photograph; at the movies you can fall in love with it). Margaret, according to their daughter, was "astonished by his single-mindedness and ardor." But others reckoned Mayer simply wanted to get to America.

This ardor, ambition, and naïveté fell on moving pictures. In 1907, Mayer learned he could purchase a six hundred-seat burlesque house in Haverhill, Massachusetts, the Gem (known locally as the Germ), for $600. He moved his family from Boston to Haverhill, refurbished the house, called it the Orpheum, and opened for business at Thanksgiving, with "clean, wholesome, healthy amusement." On Christmas Eve he ran a double bill, two-reeler films (twenty to thirty minutes each) of The Passion Play and Bluebeard--Christian salvation and mass murder.

He had two daughters by then, and a rapidly growing business. "Never mind now," he told his family, "this is short. It is the future that counts; the future is long." He bought other theaters. He had an orchestra at the Orpheum. He hired live acts, too, and even a little bit of opera. The family moved back to Boston, and in March 1912, Louis Burrill Mayer took American citizenship. He elected to move into distribution, and for $4,000 he got the New England rights to DeMille's The Squaw Man. Then, in 1915, with money acquired from a syndicate, he put up $20,000 to get the New England rights to The Birth of a Nation. For everyone in moving pictures it was the turning point.

With Mayer, we are talking about a businessman, albeit one obsessed with the value of content. David Wark Griffith, who conceived of The Birth of a Nation, and made it, deserves to be considered an artist, even if the thing his film gave birth to was more a business than anything else. He was also someone who developed a future technology that would restore the past.

Griffith was born on a farm near La Grange, Kentucky, in 1875, the son of man who had fought all through the Civil War for the Confederacy and been wounded twice. David was a country boy, in awe of a father who had difficulty expressing love. He was wistful and dreamy, and in his autobiography he recalled this childhood feeling about media to come: "I have thought what a grand invention it would be if someone could make a magic box in which we could store the precious moments of our lives and keep them with us, and later on, in dark hours, could open this box and receive for at least a few moments, a breath of its stored memory." He was in love with nostalgia, and blind to the astonishing dynamics of the future he helped create.

The father died when Griffith was ten, and the family was left poor. The boy grew up tall and handsome, albeit with a soulful expression, and in Louisville he took up acting and singing. He joined a theatrical company; he had parts, and for a few years he was a touring actor--who never seems to have impressed anyone who saw him. He wrote stories, poetry, and plays--one of them, A Fool and a Girl, was produced, and flopped. He applied to the Biograph movie company in New York as an actor, and when they deemed him an unimpressive performer, they asked was he prepared to "direct."

In 1908, directing was still a stooge's job. In the mass of very short, sensationalist movies (many of them just ten minutes, few more than twenty), the stress was on getting an adequate camera exposure (catching the light), having enough action (to avoid boredom), showcasing prettiness  in its human forms (the embryonic age of stardom), and being wholesome. If you fee...

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