David Thomson explores film's past, present and future in a sprawling work of criticism
In a series of essays on directors, actors and the classic movies they created, David Thomson’s magisterial book “The Big Screen” illuminates the role that cinema has played in shaping society.
As the title indicates, Thomson is not only interested in writing a retrospective history of a medium that has been diminished by the rise of digital upstarts like YouTube and Hulu. He is also eager to explore what this proliferation of new screens, across everything from the computer monitor to the iPhone, means for the future of film.
Though Thomson believes film is an aspirational art form, one that has encouraged viewers to emulate the magic of movies in their own lives, he also sees a pernicious influence in the ubiquity of blood-drenched entertainments.
Perhaps most provocatively, he told TheWrap that he believes that film and its fetishistic embrace of guns bears some responsibility for the shootings in places like Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn.
The historical scope of “The Big Screen” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35) is daunting, ranging from the photographic iconoclast Eadweard Muybridge to Martin Scorsese’s recent 3D fable “Hugo.” Yet Thomson, whose “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film” is a must for film-buffs, makes a literate, witty tour guide.
“The Big Screen” is the kind of book that will leave readers overstuffing their Netflix queue, thanks to the author’s trenchant analysis of lesser known films including Vittorio De Sica’s “Shoeshine” (1946) or Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped” (1956) or reappraisals of critically maligned works like Scorsese’s musical “New York, New York” (1977).
Thomson (below right) spoke with TheWrap about why he believes movies could be poised for an artistic resurgence and how the cinema has shaped everything from how people smoke to the way they dress.
Why did you decide to write a sprawling history of an art form that many argue is in decline?
I felt the relationship between society and the medium was going through an extraordinary change. It was time for someone to try to convey what has happened to film and what it has done to us.
I’m lucky enough to have two generations of children. The first generation of my kids watched movies in much the same way that I did, but this generation has a completely different attitude. It’s not just that they watch stuff on much smaller screens, they also believe going to the theater is sort of silly.
Yet you seem more optimistic than some of your fellow film critics who have all but declared movies dead?
People have been writing obituaries for the movies ever since the medium began. I have been gloomy in the past about the state of cinema, but I have reached a point where I have decided to be hopeful, because I think optimism is a generating fuel in the world.
The age of movies I had grown up in is dead and it’s futile to try to bring it back, but it might be possible that a new age is coming along in which extraordinary things will be done. So this book is a record of my regret, but also of my openness to the things to come.
What gives you hope that we could see a resurgence in bold and ambitious filmmaking?
The medium now is accessible to young people in a way it never was. The dream of making a movie is no longer blocked by what it costs. Now people are making movies on household equipment without spending a fortune. Not all or even many of them are good, but some are.
In the wake of the mass-shooting in Newtown, Conn., groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) have blamed movies for inciting violence. Your book documents the rise of violent entertainment, do you think the NRA has a point?
In ways that the NRA could not begin to understand, we have reached a point where we have to recognize that perhaps nothing had made the gun more popular in American than the movies.
The media have made the gun an American right, so that an amendment to the Constitution that is strangely worded is taken as a device for there being virtually as many guns as people.
Are there any films in particular that you think dramatize violence in a dangerous way?
The genres of action and violence pictures. The way that figures of moral rightness in films for decades take up guns or fists to settle an issue has fed into the culture and made us believe that this is how arguments get settled.
It cannot be pinned on any one film, but we get in the habit of watching terrible damage without intervening and we become connoisseurs of blood. Violence put in a proper dramatic use can be an essential work of art, and I think films like “Bonnie and Clyde” did that, but the relationship of media and violence cannot be ignored.
Beyond our tortured relationship with guns, how else have the movies impacted our day-to-day lives?
In countless ways. The whole sense of life being a story. The way in which we are encouraged to be actors playing ourselves in own lives. The way we dress, the way we talk, things as trivial as smoking, all have been effected by movies. The whole notion of pursuing happiness and getting to achieve dreams comes from the movies.
You spend almost as much time dissecting the career of Tim Van Patten, the director of such HBO shows as “The Sopranos” and “Game of Thrones” as you do talking about Quentin Tarantino. Has he become the equal of movie directors that are household names?
Show me an episode of one of those shows and I couldn’t guess which ones were directed by Tim Van Patten. He does not work in a personal style, whereas with a Tarantino film, there is an imprint of a personality there — a signature in a way that derives from auteur theory.
You can argue that [Van Patten] is the most successful director of the modern age. He has directed a ton of stuff that has done very well, and he did it efficiently. There isn’t personality there, but maybe it moves us into an age beyond auteur theory into a time when instead of the director, the nature of the technology is the defining principle of the art.
Has television supplanted movies?
I wouldn’t say it has supplanted film, although I know for myself and for a lot of people who regard themselves as movie buffs, I am more excited to know what HBO is doing than I am to hear about what the studios are up to. If you want to look for real quality, it’s hard to argue there’s not a golden age going on in television.
What about the transition to mobile devices. Do you think something is lost when movies move away from a public space like a theater to a smaller screen?
I think that’s one of the most distressing things about it, because the small screen is much closer to loneliness.
If movies are threatened by the advent of new technologies, why don’t they become more experimental in how they tell stories, similar to the way painting responded to the advent of photography by becoming more abstract?
Filmmakers are not doing as much as they could or should be doing to change that. I think “The Sopranos” is a good example of a new approach to narrative. There was all this chatter about how it should end and how it would end, but I don’t think [creator] David Chase wanted to solve the problem, so he just ends the show in an ambiguous way.
It’s hard to experiment in telling stories in open and more lifelike forms in movies, because you have these commercial people who say, “do it the old way so the audience feels comfortable and reassured.”
How about your own work. Why did you decide to structure “The Big Screen” as a series of portraits of filmmakers and films?
Before I even told the story, I made a list of the people and events I thought were important. Of course there are people like Paul Thomas Anderson who aren’t in there or who get squeezed like Ernst Lubitsch, but what I really wanted to do is give people a list of films they might like to see and might not have heard of. It’s not so important that a.) is a great film and b.) isn’t, but it is nice to see a.) and b.) and why not c.) and d.) while you’re about it.