David Thomson, the English-born, San Francisco-based film critic, much admired for his elegant, eccentric and helpful New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Have You Seen …? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films and more than a dozen other books, is a pre-eminent example of a critic as soul miner.
While he is exceptionally erudite on film as a social and historical phenomenon, writing about film for him is neither about scholarship nor consumer guide, but an investigation of sensibility and values.
The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies is his history of film; or rather, the title misleads, for as Thomson says in his opening paragraph, his actual intent is to write a history of screens, from early motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge to Facebook. As expected, we get the surveys of the U.S., French, English, Russian, German and Italian cinema, with moments of haiku-like precision on particular films (James Wong Howe’s harsh black-and-white cinematography on Sweet Smell of Success looks like “the shine of a crocodile hide in the moonlight”).
The book’s chief pleasure is in the digressive biographical profiles: the vivacity of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, the cool candour of Slim Hayward, the model for Lauren Bacall’s character in To Have and Have Not; the volatile contradictions of French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.
Less convincing is the theory that film has gone from thrilling possibility to collective feeling to a barrier, that somehow our inner lives are stunted because of too much watching. There’s some Marshall McLuhan here – the idea that the technology extended and eventually distorted our biological urges to stare, as predators or prey, or in Thomson’s words, with desire or dread.
Thomson sees film, especially pre-Second World War American film, as a form of erotic reverie, an orgy, a violent thrill, which was followed by a postwar shift to remorse, neurosis and guilt. There is a lot of invoking of the collective “we,” which invariably turns out to be the perspective of a half-aroused heterosexual male viewer. A woman in black underwear in F.R. Murnau’s 1927 film, Sunrise, is “a gift that says, didn’t you want to see this?” Of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Thomson writes: “The voyeuristic tension of the picture builds so that we desire Janet Leigh and feel her need to be corrected – so the grail of her naked in a shower meets our longing.”
Have we grown numbed or twisted by seeing too much? There has been a host of theories in the postwar years on how technology has changed our social arrangements, but real evidence that people are more alienated, irresponsible or lacking in inner life than in the past is unpersuasive. Thomson’s discussions of small-screen phenomena, from flash mobs organized by cellphone or pervasive online pornography, are fretful, but cursory.
Then again, Thomson is a cinephile, a disposition shaped by nostalgia and melancholy for lost or faded fragments of beauty. The decline in the movie business, which has been ongoing since the late 1940s, has started to look serious.
Theatrical attendance keeps dropping and the cool digital takeover of the dreamy old world of celluloid is pervasive. As Thomson rightly points out, the movies have seen several funerals before, but this may be time for the family to gather around its bedside. His eulogy, even with its excesses, is a knowing and heartfelt tribute to an old love.
Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail.