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Book Review: David Thomson's 'The Big Screen'

Thompson on Hollywood By Aljean Harmetz | Thompson on Hollywood December 31, 2012 at 1:55PM

In the epilogue to “The Big Screen,” his one-volume history of the movies, David Thomson warns the reader: “You should be ready for the loss of theaters and video stores….Be prepared for the word ‘movie’ being replaced by ‘bits’ or ‘bites’ or ‘viddies’ (a term Anthony Burgess used in 'A Clockwork Orange' in 1962).”
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Cover detail of David Thomson's "The Big Screen"
Cover detail of David Thomson's "The Big Screen"

In the epilogue to “The Big Screen,” his one-volume history of the movies, David Thomson warns the reader:  “You should be ready for the loss of theaters and video stores….Be prepared for the word ‘movie’ being replaced by ‘bits’ or ‘bites’ or ‘viddies’ (a term Anthony Burgess used in 'A Clockwork Orange' in 1962).”

David Thomson
David Thomson

Despite its title, Thomson’s huge book is more than a history of what we have watched on the big screen for over a hundred years. He makes a sly case for Tim Van Patten being “the most effective director of his time.”  Van Patten, hardly the first name that leaps into anyone’s mind, has directed “some of the best material of our time, twenty episodes of 'The Sopranos,' more than anyone else,” he writes.  Between the lines is the certainty that movies are no longer relevant in the way they used to be.

“The Big Screen” encompasses everything from random thoughts on Los Angeles light and Muybridge’s murder of his wife’s lover to musings on Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson resisting temptation in "Brief Encounter" and from that English movie to adultery in movies.  It is full of everything that Thomson knows or thinks or feels about movies -- and television and Facebook -- a banquet that is best eaten a little at a time.

Anyone who has picked up Thomson’s “A Biographical Dictionary of Film” knows that, unlike most compendiums of actors’ and directors’ careers, it is a book that can be read for pleasure as well as for information.  The same quirkiness fills the pages of “The Big Screen” which moves back and forth in time as, for example, the German cinema in the 1920s evokes mention of "Psycho" and then of film noir.  Of Fritz Lang’s "Dr. Mabuse" (1922), he writes “The good guys in Lang and a thousand other films are so banal, so bland until they are exposed to the temptation of going astray.”  The comparison is to Edward G. Robinson in Lang’s "The Woman in the Window" (1944.)

This article is related to: Reviews, David Thomson, Classics, The Big Screen


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