"The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie," admits Binx Bolling, the hero of Walker Percy's 1961 novel The Moviegoer. It's the same for a lot of us — cinema affects us in ways we don't always understand, and even the worst films appeal to our nostalgia and sense memories in manners that defy the normal rules of taste and logic. (Currently, on my DVR: La Dolce Vita, a classic I know I should see at some point, and Gymkata, a truly terrible 1985 martial-arts flick I've watched a dozen times. Guess which one I'm going to turn on tonight?)
In The Big Screen, British-American film critic and historian David Thomson attempts to answer some fundamental questions about the world's favorite hobby. How do we relate to the movies? "The cinema is the embodiment of 'let there be light,' " he writes. But where does the light come from? Does it illuminate us or blind us?
Of course, these are difficult and possibly even unanswerable questions. But Thomson — arguably the world's most intelligent student of the cinema — proves remarkably up to the task. The Big Screen is beautiful and expansive, "a love letter to a lost love" that has the capacity to change the way we look at film.
Thomson's book is essentially a collection of new essays, covering movies from D.W. Griffith's brilliant but notoriously racist The Birth of a Nation to the critically reviled Adam Sandler "comedy" Jack and Jill. While there's not an even remotely boring chapter in the book, the centerpiece of the volume is formed of two long essays, "Sunset and Change" and "Film Studies," in which Thomson jumps from topic to topic breathlessly, almost suddenly, but with transitions that somehow make more sense than they should.
It's like listening for an hour to a smart, hyperactive friend discuss the art he loves the most; the downloading of information leaves you a little exhausted but mostly elated. Thomson has a gift for making his original observations sound almost obvious — film noir, he writes, "is the one genre that admits we'll lose," and Casablanca is "fake, foolish and fanciful beyond belief" but is still "the best fun."
And while he's unafraid to dive into the canons of some of cinema's most celebrated but challenging directors — Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman are both discussed — he takes a refreshingly democratic view. The Passion of Joan of Arc and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel earn Thomson's thorough consideration, as do The Ten Commandments and Deep Throat. He thoughtfully, if grudgingly, considers the impact of hardcore pornography on viewers ("It resembles a weekend in Las Vegas, and breeds as many dismayed losers") and takes on the mediocre-at-best career of filmmaker George Lucas ("a great entrepreneur, and a marker of industry ... [with a] contented lack of personality").
But all of the history, all of the opinion, is in service of answering those previously stated questions. And these: What does film do to us? Does it isolate us or contribute to a common cultural language? There are no sure-thing conclusions in art, but Thomson's guess is as good as any: We watch movies to see ourselves from unrealistic angles, because we crave the feeling of desire, and we love the artifice, the uncertainty. "It's an impossible venture," Thomson writes, "but it is a legacy of American film — the gift of unreality." Or, in the words of Joan Didion, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Movies, for many of us, are life, and for about 90 minutes, in the comforting darkness of a theater, we can pretend that nothing will ever end.