The Last Picture Show

Dana Andrews in Otto Preminger’s 1944 film Laura.
Dana Andrews in Otto Preminger’s 1944 film Laura.

The final sequence of Abel Gance’s silent epic Napoléon (1927) unfurls in something called Polyvision: a triptych of screens in which the center panel shows the main action, while complementary or simultaneous action plays out on the side panels. In person, the device can feel more theatrical than cinematic, particularly if you’re lucky enough to have a live symphony orchestra playing along. And yet I can’t think of a better template for the sensibility we bring to watching movies: filtering the main event through the unending stream of images that floods our brains.

There is, in other words, an ongoing conversation between what’s on that screen and what was on the screens that came before it—and there’s no student of film who’s held up his end of that conversation better than David Thomson. Indeed, one of the joys of his masterwork, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, lies in how he keeps the conversation running—both through the multiplicity of his stories and the cxonstant reassessment of his opinions. (He revises and expands the volume, which was originally published in 1975, every ten years.) It’s a permanently open-ended work that resists resolution every bit as much as Polyvision does.

And yet the older he gets, the more intently Thomson seems to crave the last word. His 2004 book, The Whole Equation, sought to give us the history of Hollywood in four hundred pages. Now, entering his eighth decade, he aims even higher with The Big Screen, a summa cinematica that promises nothing less than “the story of the movies.” More than that, Thomson tells us he’s assembling an entire “theory of screens,” embracing everything “from Muybridge to Facebook,” and premised on “the possibility that in looking to see we might understand.”

He’s a man with a plan, all right, and as I took up this latest ambitious chronicle, I confess I had thoughts of George Eliot’s doomed pedant Casaubon, groping hopelessly toward a key to all mythologies. But Thomson, as always, knows how to keep the wheels spinning and the tone light, and from page to page, The Big Screen gleams with his customary grace notes. There are, as usual, his provoking aphorisms: “Cinema seldom loses or kills off its monsters”; “few crazy indulgences or shattered budgets offend America as much as those in arts.” The glistening brushstrokes: Orson Welles speaking “like a ruined angel”; Billy Wilder’s characters “luxuriating in their own fatal story”; Lauren Bacall, in To Have and Have Not, “holding up a doorway in case it faints.”

And there are many epigrammatic distillations of entire careers. Godard: “There has seldom in any of the arts been anyone with such a command of beauty and so wilful in his urge to eliminate it.” L. B. Mayer: “conservative but outrageous, high-minded and given to low blows, a pirate and a prison guard.” Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc: “Like Louise Brooks, she came and went in less than two hours, and left burn marks.” Chaplin “made silence one more way of seeming above the world, while Keaton’s quiet is as stricken as ruined philosophy. So Chaplin is silently noisy with protestation and pleas for affection, and Keaton suspects the deepest things cannot be told or uttered.”

This is Thomson at his best: holding his jewels, singly, to the light and finding unglimpsed facets. If you haven’t seen, say, Boudu Saved from Drowning or A Man Escaped or Hiroshima mon amour or Sunrise or Metropolis, The Big Screen will make you want to. And even if you’ve seen them, you may want to go back, because a movie is no longer quite the same once it’s been viewed through Thomson’s exacting lens.

And it is, in fact, this fine analytical grain, coupled with Thomson’s penchant for eccentric judgments and rhetorical excess, that make him so ill suited to the historical-survey format of The Big Screen. Locked in a death march through time, he either dawdles (kissing ring after ring on Hitchcock’s fingers) or sprints (galloping past the European directors of the 1960s and ’70s in just two pages). Space limits preclude him from even discussing Satyajit Ray or Andrei Tarkovsky or Krzysztof Kieslowski or Wong Kar-wai. And the obligations of chronology force him into bizarre conjunctions, yoking noir to the musical and Max Ophüls to Robert Bresson.

None of this would matter so much if Thomson had lived up to his promise of providing that unified field “theory of screens.” But it is here, with his quarry in sight, that he blinks and falters. Modernity doesn’t hold much interest for him, after all, so if you’re looking for his thoughts on digital imagery or Netflix streaming or mumblecore or found-footage horror movies or 3-D retrofitting or even superheroes . . . well, you’ll have to wait for another Thomson volume. (Surely, one is coming.)

Yes, he has some dire things to say about Facebook, that escaped monster from Dr. Mabuse’s laboratory: “Its aura of youthful generosity and utility belies how easily it could be turned into a system of surveillance and control.” And with his mouth set in a grim line, he sits down before porno flicks and YouTube and Jackass and Call of Duty, and no matter what he’s looking at, he’s borne back ceaselessly into the past: “If you add up the broken pieces a young person sees in a day, the chaos is like the earliest years of movies, when a viewer saw so many things we would call shorts, or clips, or bites. They were not whole movies, but the debris from an explosion in the culture, where reality seemed to be scattered everywhere we looked. It is the bang that made cubism, the machine gun, and shellshock.”

Shell shock is a good diagnosis for what overcomes Thomson whenever he gazes into the future. Words, for once, fail. But the title should have alerted us: It’s the big screen that has always mattered to him and always will. And so we are left not with any theory of screen but with a half-witting character portrait: a befuddled elder, at sea in the now, stuffing his bottle with “a love letter to a lost love.”

He is sentimental, this old fellow—a little touched, even—going on about something called the “real age of movies.” Which, to hear him tell it, was a period of about fifty years during which “the light was enlightening and moving and even transforming” and “the mere act of looking and wanting to see possessed an innocence and an energy. It seemed like a way of growing up. How lucky to be alive then and there.” What happened to this golden era? Well, sometime around the mid-1960s, or maybe it was the late 1970s, “the shining light [became] a mockery of enlightenment and a means of imprisoning the mass.”

You nod as you listen, knowing the old man is engaging in just the kind of mushy mythography that a tough-minded critic should be immune to. (How, exactly, were the masses of the 1920s any less imprisoned than the masses of the 2010s?) But he’s revealed himself all the same. Helplessly, one might add, for “helpless” is the qualifier he uses more than any other. The “helpless guilt” of Vertigo. The “helpless authorship” of Orson Welles, and Brando’s “helpless need . . . to become someone else.” The “helpless gamble” of casting and the “helpless progress” of censorship and the “helpless respect” of United Artists for Michael Cimino and the “merry admission of helplessness” in Tarantino’s work.

So much impotence, and no one more helpless than this veteran watcher of screens, who suspects that his greatest love has been his enemy—our enemy. Film has “enacted and armored our detachment from the world” and steered us away “from inner truth to appearance.” It may once have looked like a “lustrous, improved version” of reality, but in truth it has “let us give up on reality, and use it as a story, a dream, a toy version of life.”

Through this veil of regret, the film critic bears a passing resemblance to Charles Swann, who realizes too late he has wasted his life on the wrong woman. Or perhaps the better analogy is to Otto Preminger’s 1944 noir classic, Laura (a particular favorite of Thomson’s), in which a proletarian detective (Dana Andrews) finds himself gazing—helplessly, yes—at the portrait of a dead woman: at a screen, if you like, imbued with the dread and longing that haunts every cinematic image. And surely what makes Andrews’s eyes so sad is the presentiment that Laura still lives. That she is, as Thomson writes, “ordinary and awkward” (though she is played by the absurdly beautiful Gene Tierney). And still he looks, and hopes. Because it is in this act that he is most alive—and most doomed. The film critic, we must regretfully report, is just another noir chump.

Louis Bayard is a reviewer and novelist whose most recent book is The School of Night (Henry Holt, 2011).