“Selznick was crazy perhaps,” points out film historian David Thomson of Gone With The Wind’s producer, “foolish often, but seldom without insight.” Could he also be describing himself? Equal parts shaman, shrink and cinematic preacher, Thomson has seen more films than we ever will.
Typically eccentric, this is not simply a history of film, but an attempted autopsy on the medium, fearful movies have damaged our respect for life. Told almost as autobiography: his choices, his misgivings, his prolix outpourings on the romantic bond between the “huddled masses” and the silver screen — our “desire” for film.
Beginning with Edward Muybridge’s sequential photographs, we travel on the generous, excited surge of Thomson’s prose through the commotion of early Hollywood, sprawling out nation by nation around a world awakening to cinema: those montage-crazy Soviets; swooning French; tight-lipped Brits; and moody Italians. Whole chapters attend to special cases: Eisenstein in America, manic Welles, or womanising Hawks (Thomson notes how many great artists endure their agonies by sleeping with their leading ladies — that great desire made flesh). A devilish, dazzling, out-there divination that ends up confronting Adam Sandler’s Jack And Jill.
From the awe, poetry and witty iconoclasm (Casablanca is “fake, foolish, and fanciful beyond belief”) with which he regards cinema’s formative years, he turns pessimistic, almost despairing. “This book is a love letter to a lost love,” he confesses, lamenting a present day where watchers turn to their phones while in the cinema. It’s a spiritual exhaustion that afflicts the book. After a delicious swoop from the “fearful rhapsodies” of Scorsese to “irresistible” Tarantino, it fizzles out. No history could hope to grasp film’s entirety, but he gives up trying. You feel the loss. Where are the Scotts, or the Coens, or the rise of China and Korea? Where is Thomson’s humane and loquacious eye upon game-changing James Cameron? If anything, he insists the game has already changed too much.
But then, surely every love letter can be uneven. And criticism is rarely this passionate and brilliant. You come away wanting to watch it all. On the biggest screen you can find.
Reviewed by Ian Nathan