From Big Screen to Small

David Thomson’s Moving Images

Dec. 11, 2012
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  David Thomson is among the preeminent film critics of our time. The British expatriate, living in San Francisco, has written several big doorstopper books on movie history. His latest, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), continues along the thought-provoking lines of his massive New Biographical Dictionary of Film and his bulky Have You Seen?... A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. Thomson is a well-informed curmudgeon, untethered to any blinkered academic cultural theory and uninhibited by the marketing-entertainment complex that commands the heights overlooking the mainstream.

The Big Screen is on one hand a subjective yet broad account of the medium we are still pleased to call film, from its antecedents in Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horses through Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. “People still dream about Alien; they are forgetting Prometheus,” Thomson acutely observes.

But The Big Screen is also a meditation on the impact of moving imagery. From the advent of television through the triumph of handheld devices, these increasingly pervasive veils of illusion have left us “more removed from or helpless about reality.” Thomson takes the self-serving optimism of Mark Zuckerberg to task. Perhaps Facebook “connects” us, yet we live in a time when the public’s willingness to grasp complex economic and political issues has withered. It’s not an age of profundity, and even sustained narrative might be in danger.

The genius of The Big Screen is its location of film within the larger deluge of moving images, including television shows and TV ads, pornos and video games. Aside from the rise of programs such as “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” on cable, the endless and growing tsunami of images is largely pernicious in Thomson’s sharp analysis. Too many fantasies of easy gratification can be disorienting, especially if the reality of hard choices is kept outside the frame. And make no mistake: motion pictures rule from a multiplicity of platforms. Professional sports seem to exist primarily for television and Thomson understands why. The living room couch offers a better visual perspective than a stadium seat.

Our vision of reality, as seen through the screen, has gotten larger and smaller. What to make of the fixation for snapping photos on cell phones, even of one’s own crimes? What perspective do those pictures give us? Has life been reduced to a series of cheap sets? Thomson has no doubt that occasional masterpieces of film will still be produced—he cites such recent examples as There Will Be Blood and The Lives of Others—but the audience may well be limited to aficionados, much like opera or ballet. Perhaps the future will resemble a line Thomson quotes from Don DeLillo’s White Noise, the one about people “taking pictures of taking pictures.” Maybe we’re already there.


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