The Big ScreenWhen I was halfway through reading David Thomson’s new book, I saw Vincente Minnelli’s musical The Band Wagon (1953) in Potsdamer Platz, Berlin. It felt like a perfect David Thomson moment. The Band Wagon immerses us in a Technicolor fantasy full of lights and legs. It asks us to look at terrific things – Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire’s moves, their snazzy clothes and shiny shoes. It’s a film about remaking yourself and about remaking a show, which hosts a conflict between high art (imbued with a European sensibility) and an American commitment to commercial entertainment. Befitting a quintessential Hollywood tale, The Band Wagon has a Germanic heart – “Ich liebe Louisa, Louisa liebt mich,” sings the man born Frederick Austerlitz – so watching it in what was once the glamorous centre of German film seemed ideal. Potsdamer Platz today may be a facsimile of urban space where the nods to Marlene Dietrich (a limp plaza) and Billy Wilder (an overpriced bar) are utterly without glamour, while the legacy of the Cold War there is turned into tourist fodder (the chance to have your passport stamped by a fake soldier), yet the area still conjures thoughts of vital events – both cinematic and world historical. Nothing, moreover, could detract from the grip The Band Wagon held on the audience that night. When the film finished, rapturous applause followed. The cinematic screen had again exerted its magic spell.

It’s easy to become intoxicated by such associations and allusions when absorbed in a David Thomson book. As its subtitle suggests, The Big Screen is interested in what the movies “did to us”. Perhaps, though, we should also consider what reading Thomson continues to do to our thinking. Suddenly, shifts from MGM musicals to international conflicts seem obvious; star biographies become spookily prescient. Reading Thomson, links between films and places, plots and events, characters and actors flow easily, whether they are profound or silly, instructive or simplistic – just like the movies themselves. He leaps from image to image, genre to genre, in an endless flow of connections and screen memories. Watching The Band Wagon in Potsdamer Platz with Thomson in mind, it felt as if Minnelli’s film somehow contained cinema’s entire history. It’s the kind of sensation Thomson himself is keen to promote: “I have always been intrigued by the idea of screens retaining something of the spirit of all their films, of their all being there at the same time – it’s a version of consciousness” (p.12). Or, as he puts it in more erotic terms later in the book: “the screen is a place where all films live anyway. And they are fucking each other all the time” (p.139). Thomson’s prose, like the feelings it describes, is undoubtedly rapturous. Yet, how far should we trust his rapture – or, indeed, cinema’s?

The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)

The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)

Like much of Thomson’s work, The Big Screen is caught between two contrasting academies. On the one hand, he is resistant to how cinema has been treated by universities. Thus, this is a history of film which avoids any sustained engagement with film theory. Equally, while Thomson makes frequent recourse to the Oscars, his critique holds an ambivalence that the film industry – epitomized by the Academy Awards – disavows. This is a highly personal, and deeply conflicted tale of what watching thousands of Hollywood movies can do to your notions of morality, desire and history. It’s also a history of film that deliberately wanders out of the cinema to consider novels, paintings and broader cultural developments.

Still, in many ways, The Big Screen remains a very conventional history of cinema, which stops at the established milestones of the medium. Thomson starts with Eadweard Muybridge, whose blend of émigré enterprise, voyeurism, technological innovation and domestic chaos (he murdered his wife’s lover and got away with it) offers a model for the book’s treatment of other essential cinematic figures. Thomson takes cinema’s legends seriously. He likes to impart meaning to the myths. “You may feel this is more gossip than film commentary” (p.172), he admits, but it is often biographical links, rather than formal analysis, that glue together the disparate strands of his narrative. From Muybridge, Thomson moves on to discuss Griffith, Chaplin and the Hays Code, with extended trips to Weimar Germany (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Fritz Lang and the emergence of Leni Riefenstahl) and the Soviet Union (Pudovkin, Vertov and a brilliant section on Eisenstein in Hollywood). The middle of the book, which Thomson claims is “a kind of movie, or a montage” (p.11)