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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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By Troy Jollimore, for The Barnes and Noble Review

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The story of the movies is the story of -– fill in the blank. America? Our lives? Modernity itself? Any of these would be an overstatement, but a provocative one; and after all, the movies themselves encourage, even demand, provocative overstatement. It must be their oversized images, the vastness of the emotions they, and we, project onto the screen. (Put aside the fact that the screens are getting smaller. I'll come back to that.) So David Thomson's The Big Screen is a big book about a big subject – a big-picture view of the big pictures – and its subtitle makes a big promise.

In fact, Thomson has been working for years on the fulfillment of that promise, on telling the story of the movies. His compelling, highly readable, and highly opinionated body of work includes "The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood"; "Have You Seen…?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films"; "Biographical Dictionary of Film"; and "Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts" – as well as biographies of figures including David O. Selznick, Orson Welles, and Gary Cooper. He's also written whole volumes on key films: Hitchcock's "Psycho," Howard Hawks's "The Big Sleep," and many others.

"The Big Screen" begins not with Thomas Edison or the Lumière brothers, but with the photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge is most famous now for having invented stop-action photography and for using it to prove that a galloping horse sometimes lifts all four legs off the ground at once. But he matters for other reasons, too. For Thomson, Muybridge's photographic series provoked and relied on a kind of fascination with the image that was something new, something whose relation to desire and voyeurism would be essential to motion pictures:

He shot people, but he also shot light, air, and passing time. He took special pleasure in the splay and splash of water poured out of a jug or tossed on a little girl. The wonder of seeing the commonplace in the light was more thoroughly celebrated by Eadweard Muybridge than by anyone before him. It's still the case that his sequences fill viewers with awe and excitement, no matter that they have no story or purpose. The pictures feel ravished by the play of light on ordinary physicality and by the tiny, incremental advances through time.… Take whatever example you like from subsequent cinema, and its inheritance from Muybridge can be felt – take Astaire and Rogers spinning together in "Let's Face the Music and Dance" in "Follow the Fleet" (1936); take the door closing on John Wayne's Ethan Edwards at the end of "The Searchers" (1956); or think of that instant from Chris Marker's "La Jetée" (1962) when the still picture of the young woman comes to life briefly and she looks at being looked at.… Before the official invention of the movies (though many were on that track, and Thomas Edison took note of Muybridge's work), so many elements of cinema had been identified: time, motion, space, light, skin. And watching.

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