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The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies Hardcover – October 16, 2012
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*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
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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Then I pretty much skipped the next hundred as Thomson takes us into 1930s Hollywood and French and English films I never heard of. I'm sure I skimmed another hundred pages out of the remaining three hundred. I go to fewer movies than average, I suppose. If you were only half-literate in Edouard Manet, say, you could be swept along on a book about him with the help of some reproductions of his paintings, but not so much in a book about movies.
Sometimes you get a few pages about one film. TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. But nothing about the story of Hawks and Hemingway agreeing that Hawks would do a film on Hemingway's (self-chosen) WORST novel. Or maybe Hawks chose it.
Casablanca, Godfather, Chinatown, Spielberg, Lucas. I LOVE LUCY. These and others also get more than drive-by treatment. Thomson writes some wonderful passages. For example, he has a few great paragraphs about whether violence in the movies has any responsibility for violence in the culture. He's a philosopher of the meaning of the viewer in the dark, the screen. He makes some great observations about Ronald Reagan and politics. (FYI he calls Reagan a bit player, but the guy had the first million dollar contract, according to a book I read about his screen career. This was before the war. His best performance--I don't mean being president!--is in KING'S ROW. Worth checking out.)
Anyway a mixed bag, and an unusual experience to be skimming over prose that is just fine except you haven't got the reference point. The Wall Street Journal had a review of this book that tempted me. I'm not sure you can call this a book for a general audience.
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grew from experimental roots in the 19th...Read more