The Big Screen tells the enthralling story of the movies: their rise and spread, their remarkable influence over us, and the technology that made the screen—smaller now, but ever more ubiquitous—as important as the images it carries.
The Big Screen is not another history of the movies. Rather, it is a wide-ranging narrative about the movies and their signal role in modern life. At first, film was a waking dream, the gift of appearance delivered for a nickel to huddled masses sitting in the dark. But soon, and abruptly, movies began transforming our societies and our perceptions of the world. The celebrated film authority David Thomson takes us around the globe, through time, and across many media—moving from Eadweard Muybridge to Steve Jobs, from Sunrise to I Love Lucy, from John Wayne to George Clooney, from television commercials to streaming video—to tell the complex, gripping, paradoxical story of the movies. He tracks the ways we were initially enchanted by movies as imitations of life—the stories, the stars, the look—and how we allowed them to show us how to live. At the same time, movies, offering a seductive escape from everyday reality and its responsibilities, have made it possible for us to evade life altogether. The entranced audience has become a model for powerless and anxiety-ridden citizens trying to pursue happiness and dodge terror by sitting quietly in a dark room.
Does the big screen take us out into the world, or merely mesmerize us? That is Thomson’s question in this grand adventure of a book. Books about the movies are often aimed at film buffs, but this passionate and provocative feat of storytelling is vital to anyone trying to make sense of the age of screens—the age that, more than ever, we are living in.
In 1911, William de Mille heard that a promising Canadian stage actress lately seen in The Warrens of Virginia (1907) was making the mistake of her life. He told the impresario David Belasco, "The poor kid is actually thinking of taking up moving pictures seriously...I remember what faith you had in her future...and now she's throwing her whole career in the ash-can and burying herself in a cheap form of amusement."
The actress was eighteen, and for the moment she was Gladys Smith--but the name Mary Pickford awaited her, along with perhaps the
“David Thomson is, I think, the best writer on film in our time. If ‘Have You Seen . . . ?’ was his most succinct and entertaining book, The Big Screen is a large and vivacious map of ‘the screen’: beginning with Muybridge and tracing careers ranging from Korda to Renoir to Hawkes to Mizoguchi, to David Lynch and Tarantino, then swerving over to television shows such as I Love Lucy and The Sopranos. Thomson has found and created a marvelous plot for the history of film, with insights and revelations on every page—as well as a few MacGuffins. He is our most argumentative and trustworthy historian of the screen.” —Michael Ondaatje, author of The Cat’s Table
“David Thomson has composed a grand aesthetic, spiritual, and moral account of cinema history assembled around the movies and artists that have meant the most to him. As Thomson reconstructs film history, movies bring us close to reality and deliver us into ecstatic dreams. A pungently written, brilliant book.” —David Denby, author of Snark and film critic at The New Yorker
“A great critic cuts both ways—he nudges you into reconsidering the films you love, as well as the ones you dislike. David Thomson’s sensual prose has always amplified the imagination of a great critic. In broad outline, The Big Screen is a history of the movies, a wide-ranging task that usually carries with it a certain amount of connect-the-dots tedium. But Thomson’s emphases are typically fresh and often ecstatic, even when he’s disparaging a film you love. Nobody does it better.” —Scott Eyman, author of Empire of Dreams and Lion of Hollywood