The Big Screen
David Thomson's 'The Big Screen' tells the story of the rise and decline of an art form that once played a central role in human life.
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Watching, and the close connection between watching and desire, are the twin themes Thomson returns to again and again, particularly in the context of the films he considers at some length. These include F. W. Murnau's "Sunrise" (1927), Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane" (1941), and David Lean's "Brief Encounter" (1945). "Sunrise" is one of the greatest of silent films and remains, to this day, a nearly unanimously acknowledged masterpiece. Thomson sees it as a precursor to film noir, and although he sees noir as being about more than crime -- "Noir meant an existential agony; not just the underworld as metaphor for human fate" -- "Sunrise" does have a crime, or at least a contemplated crime, at its heart: it is about a husband who plans to murder his wife, though he does not go through with it and, in the end, falls back in love with her. In finding ways of being cinematic that previous movies had not managed to discover, "Sunrise" implicates us, as watchers, in an unprecedented manner:Skip to next paragraph
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The husband goes to meet the City Woman in a marsh, with the moon hanging in the night sky like a scaffold. The marsh is a set with an atmospheric richness and botanical detail not attempted in America before.… The marsh is a state of mind; the lighting is mannered, moody, and strictly controlled. You feel you are there, hesitant and anxious to see what will happen -- whereas with so many American silent films, we are witnessing a tableau, a staged event, limited to a single emotional attitude. It is the difference between feeling you are at the theater and inhabiting the lifelike illusion of the movies.
"Citizen Kane," too, can be viewed as an early noir, both visually and in terms of theme. "While the work of a young man full of vitality it seemed, the film comes out of the depth of despair and solitude, when very little in the American movie had suggested that that was where America wanted to be," he writes. "Kane had gone awhile under the working title "American," but no one then anticipated that that word could be a synonym for personal disaster." One of the personal disasters Thomson has in mind is, of course, Welles's career, which, for all its accomplishment, seems somehow as if it ought to have been even more spectacular than it was. (It would have helped, of course, if RKO had not butchered Welles's second film, "The Magnificent Ambersons" – a film rumored to have been, in its original cut, a greater masterpiece than "Kane" – and dumped the excised footage into the Pacific.)
Part of what noir does is to put the audience in a disturbing and threatening complicity with its flawed protagonists, so that "Citizen Kane" is another film that puts us, as watchers, in a unique, not entirely comfortable, and perhaps not entirely innocent position:
"Kane" is a closed-room mystery; just as we alone hear the dying word Rosebud, so we are the only ones left at the end to see the name burn off the sled from Colorado. What does that make us? Charlie Kane's faithful? The ones who will not give him up? As a device and a narrative ploy, it seems to suggest that the story feeds on itself.… In all that Pauline Kael wrote about the film…she said it was a masterpiece, but a shallow masterpiece. And as the film stays imprisoned in first place, I wonder whether that doesn't confirm something dazzling but shallow about the whole medium.