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
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering