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The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies Hardcover – October 16, 2012

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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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 16, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374191891
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374191894
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.8 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #601,486 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Mark Phillips on October 17, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition
The book is excellent. Thomson's style makes it an easy read. His wealth of knowledge and insightful subjective responses are fun to read even when I disagree with him.
If you love films, as I do, then experiencing Thomson's knowledgeable passion is a great experience.

But I urge you to think twice about the Kindle edition.
For a book that is so rich in reference to so many films, I need an index so I can quickly access Thomson's comments on individual films.
There is no index in the Kindle edition!
There is a comment that it can't be indexed to the hard cover edition. That's understandable and normative.
But it is also normative to have an index that references the pages in the Kindle edition.
Absent an index, I returned my Kindle copy and chose to deal with the physical weight of the hard cover edition.

Of course if you don't care about having an index the Kindle is fine.
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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful By W. Rodick on October 28, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This is a true history of film. Right from the book's first chapter I am hit by the little vignette of Eadweard Muybridge, a man who died in 1904. He was the brains behind those first pictures that proved a horse was off the ground when trotting. At these fledgling stages of films science and fiction are separate. That the same man killed his wife's lover adds extra spice. That he had previously suffered a head injury, like your loving reviewer, put my enjoyment of reading this vast, fascinating text into overdrive. And it has not stopped.

The author writes this history by giving the main players real character. Whether that is the ego of Louis B Mayer or the non-Jewishness of Cecil B. DeMille or the 18 year old Gladys Smith who gave up the theatre in 1911 to get into 'moving pictures.' The stories are woven into a narrative that always includes you. Its about you and the screen. That is what made Mary Pickford.

Fascinating to understand how the role of director was initially 'a stooge's job' became the central figure and now is once again peripheral in the making of film. As Mr Thompson rightly asks: do you know who directed which episode of The Sopranos?

The gift season is nearly upon us once again. This is a book for reading, not just for owning or to refer to or to look at. Like The Second World War I devoured recently this is real history. Captivating in a prose style akin to a novel replete with long sentences and the occasional jump-cut. It is not glued together reportage of quotes and stories. The narrative thread is the screen. From the silent to the one in your pocket. Highly recommended. For you.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Moody on February 4, 2013
Format: Hardcover
It cannot be that David Thomson will ever write a book this compendious again. He is the author of other huge tomes, and every one of them is valuable, readable, and a song of his desire and love for movie.

For he calls the entire genre "movie," and he is right in that, as he is in so much else. The main thing he is right about is that the screen is no longer limited to the ones found in picture palaces. For even there the screens have gotten smaller. As they have in the parlors and pockets of millions of people, watching whatever they watch on gadgets. Watching not just movies, but always watching screens. And this is what he means by The Big Screen. Screens have gotten bigger as they have gotten smaller. Screens have proliferated. The big ones have given birth to the little ones, and they to littler ones still. Screens are pandemic.

Thomson has the world history of film at his fingertips. Movie has been and remains his lifelong love. This accounts for more than a career. It is a response to a gift. Not just the gift of perspicacity -- a good teacher, which he is, may have perspicacity -- but the gift of the violin of his prose, which provokes that sweetness of mind that enables one to look at movie as lovingly and as ruthlessly as he.

The size of the book should not put anyone off. It should lure them, as a big garden lures. For Thomson is not a scrunched up scholar. His prose is not pasty. He does not have a tub to thump. He is certainly not a theoretician -- heaven forbid -- indeed, he has nothing theoretical to say at all -- or a statistician -- his style is open and lyrical. He is not an intellectual, thank goodness. His response is always personal. His thought is felt. His conversation with us is his experience, not his ratiocination. You can enter in.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Clay Stafford on February 21, 2013
Format: Hardcover
A comparative history of moving images from around the world by one of the film world's best living film authorities. Great prose. Reads like a personal conversation. Reflective. First film book I've read that ties in everything from Eadweard Muybridge (what an odd man) to today's videogames, commercials, and cable TV while at the same time giving significant thought to not `what happened' or `when it happened,' but `what does it mean'? You don't have to be a filmmaker to appreciate it; it's written for all of us who live in a world of tiny, private screens, for all of us who sometimes feel the tail might be wagging the dog. I liked it because it made me ask the question, `Why do I watch?'"
- Clay Stafford, author and founder of Killer Nashville
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