Cinema has changed us all: The birth of alienation

In his new book, David Thomson reveals how cinema has changed us all, and asks if being in thrall to the screen has detached us from reality

In his autobiography, The Words (1964), Jean-Paul Sartre described his discovery of cinema as a child. He would have been 10 years old in 1915 when The Birth of a Nation opened. But he hardly noticed particular films at first. What he saw or felt was something he called "the frenzy on the wall". That could have been a reaction to the brilliant battle scenes in Griffith's films, but it also covers the still face of Garbo absorbing romantic loss, or the stoic blankness of Buster Keaton baffled by the physical chaos around him. The frenzy was in the whirl with which projected film ran at 16 or 24 frames a second, a passage of time that seethed on the wall – and, paradoxically, the serenity of another reality. That was the inherent madness and the magic in cinema: that we watch the battle but never risk hurt, and spy on Garbo without having her notice us.

At first, the magic was overwhelming: in 1895, the first audiences for the Lumière brothers' films feared that an approaching steam engine was going to come out of the screen and hit them. That gullibility passed off like morning mist, though observing the shower in Psycho (1960) we still seem to feel the impact of the knife. That scene is very frightening, but we know we're not supposed to get up and rescue Janet Leigh. In a similar way, we can watch the surreal imagery of the devastation at Fukushima, or wherever, and whisper to ourselves that it's terrible and tragic, but not happening to us.

How large a step is it from that denial of our full selfhood to the wry passivity with which we observe global warming, economic collapse and a new freelance nuclear age as portents of an end to a world that is beyond us? Pioneers of film, such as D W Griffith, Chaplin and Abel Gance, hoped that the movie would make a single population in the world angry or moved enough to share liberty and opportunity and end war and intolerance. But perhaps it has made for a society of voyeurs who associate their own hiding in the dark with the safe futility of dealing with the screen's frenzy. So the world is chaotic and nearing ruin, but not for us – not yet. And so we talk of democracy still in a scheme that is intent on us purchasing anything and overlooking everything else.

The book I have just written, The Big Screen, is an attempt to deal with this condition. For decades, we told ourselves we were watching film and its illusion of reality. And so we treated movies as if they were theatre or novels given this extra investment and the kicker of sensation – of being there. The first measuring stick of the system was what made the most money. That's how The Birth of a Nation was the birth of a business. Though the president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, is supposed to have said, "It is like writing history with lightning", which is in the category of things you still read in movie ads or the exhortations of film professors trying to make the young believe that the best movies are akin to Dickens, Henry James or Proust.

Confession: I've done my own share in that attempt. As writer and teacher I have tried to say this film and that one are really good (and good for you), and why. It's a modest attempt at education and it leads to such things as the recent Sight & Sound poll on the 10 best films ever made (and I voted in that election). But this new book reflects a way of thinking that says it doesn't matter too much which films are good and which are bad. They are all frenzies on the wall. What is most important is the fact of the screen as something that separates us from reality. All along, I think, we have been watching screens, and it is only recently, with the profusion of electronic screens, some so small that people aged over 25 can't quite see them, that this has been appreciated.

Once you've identified the primacy of the screen you begin to see that all films are more alike than they are different. They resemble guns and nuclear weapons. In America, where there are so many guns, the defenders of the right to own them say: don't blame the guns, just blame the maddies and the baddies who get hold of them. But maybe the gun pushed too many people into those categories by its very existence. It alters our relationship with reality and diminishes our need for reason and language. Can it be an accident that guns are one of the chief props in the screen's frenzy?

As for the nuclear weapons, the only country in the world that has ever dropped such bombs rages against the threat of Iran obtaining them because there are "fanatics" in Iran, and people whose insecurities may make them recklessly trigger-happy.

Once you grasp the numbing power of screens at that level, it's clearer I think that the claims for film as an art or a business are close to fallacies. Now, I am too old to stop making those claims, or to give up the belief that A is better than B. (I think Rear Window is better than the new champion, Vertigo, but I didn't put either of them in my top 10.) Such ranking systems have furnished jobs for everyone from Andrew Sarris to Gilbert Adair (to name two movie writers lost in the past year). It has built an informed audience – yourselves – that may even purchase The Big Screen to keep me alive a little longer.

But I fear film studies, film in academia and good criticism of the medium are all McGuffins compared with the dislocating stealth of the screen. People in the street nowadays bump into one another because they are intent on screens, which means they hardly notice the architecture, the acts of mayhem and indifference going on around them, or the weather. The medium that was alleged to bring all realities to our laps may have reduced us to laptops.

Of course, I ignore my own regret in The Big Screen. I go on at some length about "great" films from an age in which people believed there could be great films – let's say 1915 to 1975. And since then? Well, I think, now, anything goes if it serves the screen and keeps us in alleged entertainment and information, as our true state moves ever further from being entertaining. Should screens be banned then? Nice try. Technology never goes back in the bottle – not screens or guns, not bombs or digitisation. As politics gives up, so we wait for some Google or other to reinstate fascism and explain our helplessness.

'The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us' by David Thomson is published on 11 October by Allen Lane

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced