Storytelling in a dark room


The author looks back at the people behind the productions of more than a century.

A treat for the film fan who already knows his Murnau from his Eisenstein, David Thomson’s reflections on movies and their impact is a tart challenge to people who think the cinema began with their first box of popcorn.

As Thomson notes, his look back at more than a century of movies is personal and reflective. It is indeed full of opinions, but none that demand agreement to the point of being a turnoff. “They are there,” he writes, “to urge you into your own.”

The Big Screen is dense with movie stories that serve as history as well as the basis for discerning film’s ongoing impact. It’s fitting that Thomson explores the lives and works of inventors, directors, actors and producers given that cinema itself is driven by narrative.

F.W. Murnau was a German filmmaker (the vampire film Nosferatu, 1922) brought to the United States by studio chief William Fox to keep up with the studios that had German geniuses of their own. The result was Sunrise (1927), a silent made at the dawn of the talkies that still draws a top spot in “greatest film” lists. Murnau had little time to enjoy his success, dead in a car accident three films and four years later.

Success in America eluded Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who drew Hollywood’s attention after combining art and politics in movies like Strike (1924) and Battleship Potemkin (1925). For months he knocked around town, playing tennis with Charlie Chaplin, watching Greta Garbo work, even palling around with Rin Tin Tin. But he never could get a project going with patron studio MGM — its brand of entertainment not being Eisenstein’s stock and trade.

Good storytelling about the movies cannot overlook American figures like Orson Welles, Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder or fine foreign directors like Ingmar Bergman and Francois Truffaut. Or those modern marvels Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

Thomson casts a quizzical light on those two kings of contemporary Hollywood, willing to acknowledge their talent for making popular entertainment but not at all sold on their impact on culture and film. He writes that the second half of the Lucas’ Star Wars series “reduced movies to the level of fast food, filling stations and those ads that are so familiar that we chat along with them.”

Thomson’s reflections begin to turn dour after they pass the movies of the 1970s. Or is it that moviemaking began to lose its colorful backstories and became more about colorless deal-making and commerce?

Near the conclusion of The Big Screen, Thomson writes, “This book is a love letter to a lost love, I suppose.” Not that there are no longer movies he thinks are worth seeing. It’s just that how we see them, how they see us, and how we live with all kinds of screens have changed the entire movie experience.

For better or for worse? Read The Big Screen and discuss.

Douglass K. Daniel reviewed this for the Associated Press.

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