Friday, February 28, 2014

THE BIG SCREEN

This morning I finished reading THE BIG SCREEN: THE STORY OF THE MOVIES by British film critic/historian David Thomson. Let me state upfront that this is hands down not only one of the best film books I've ever read, it's one of the best books (fiction or non-fiction) that I've read in years. Yes, it's that good.

Thomson provides a history of film here but it's not a strictly chronological narrative of what happened and when. He digresses often and leavens the history with opinions. He leaves out a lot of films and filmmakers, gives a handful of paragraphs to some films, their directors and stars while other films and artists receive multiple pages of coverage. And it's not just film history that Thomson writes about. He makes space for "Muybridge, I Love Lucy, television as a whole, the money and the deals, pornography and video games, the cell phone, streaming, and all the things that make up the shapes on our screens."

That sentence is a guide to understanding Thomson's grand thesis that operates throughout the book. He's as much concerned with the types of screens on which we perceive these images, this interplay of light and shadows as he on the films themselves. Thomson's chief thematic concern is how we watch movies and what that watching does to us.

THE BIG SCREEN is beautifully written and there's not a boring passage to be found anywhere in the 525 pages of text. Thomson's prose is always elegant, engaging and compelling. You can agree or disagree with him about certain films and directors but you can't deny his deep seated passion for film. Thomson made me reconsider films I've seen many times, casting a new light and a fresh perspective on them which makes me want to revisit some of these works with new eyes, understanding and appreciation. He also made me want to see many films that I've never seen (witness my recent posting on Godard's BAND OF OUTSIDERS (1964)). In short, reading THE BIG SCREEN was like attending a two-month (that's how long it took me to read the book) seminar on film history with a very erudite and entertaining scholar presenting the material.

It's been almost  forty years since I took my first film class in the spring of 1975 during my freshman year at the University of Texas. The textbooks we had for that class were dry, pedantic and dull but the films we saw were terrific. Once a week we were required to attend at least one film screening for class. I often attended other screenings of other non-required films if my schedule permitted it. The films we saw were rented 16mm prints, projected on the screen of Jester Auditorium on the UT campus. There was no such thing as home video in any format and the idea of downloading or streaming a film onto a computer or tablet was quite simply the stuff of science fiction.

Reading Thomson's book brought back to me those heady days of adventure and exploration when almost every film I saw was new to my eyes. I was learning both the history of the medium and how to watch a film. The movies, textbooks and lectures back then were of enormous benefit to me. I was a young and eager cinephile and I was falling deeply in love with movies. That love has waxed and waned over the years but it's still there. Reading THE BIG SCREEN recharged my cinematic batteries and rekindled the passion for movies that I've always had. As such, it served as a sort of new textbook for me proving that there's always something new to be learned about the subjects we care most about. I don't know that THE BIG SCREEN will ever be adopted into the curriculum of film schools as a canonical text but it should be. It's that good.

If you love movies, you must read THE BIG SCREEN.

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