Allen Lane, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did To Us, By David Thomson

This book offers rich reflections on the impact of cinema, and its makers – bar some omissions

Reading David Thomson's The Big Screen is like listening to a particularly erudite and hypnotic DVD commentary to the history of cinema while it scrolls past our eyes over some 600 pages. Like many DVD commentators, Thomson doesn't always stick to the subject, and he's at his strongest when he is most speculative, veering off from a particular moment in cinema's past to wonder how we got where we are now.

As anyone knows who's even dipped casually into his Biographical Dictionary of Cinema, Thomson is formidably learned, and a wry raconteur. The Big Screen offers an ambitious, idiosyncratic overview of film's mutations through the ages. But it is not a routine account. It aspires to be, Thomson suggests, "a history of the whole thing" – not just of film, but of screens and how they affect us.

Thomson's thesis is that the experience of living with moving images is an effect of the screen itself. Screens of all sizes are the leitmotif of this study, which runs from the earliest motion experiments of Eadweard Muybridge in the 1870s to video games and Facebook. Screens work magic on us , often baleful magic, Thomson contends. They "make a taunting offer of reality", but they may be making it ever harder for us to apprehend or inhabit the reality around us; he worries about "a shift in cognition, whereby looking became more important or more valid than knowing or understanding". This is hardly a new argument; it largely relives anxieties about the novel's promotion of fantasy, anxieties going back at least as far as Don Quixote.

The other key theme is crowds – for it is on crowds, unified or dispersed into lonely individuals, that screens work their effect. Thomson is interested in the idea of the audience as a mass – either an actual crowd of people sitting in a cinema (as crowds once did) or a virtual community of millions tuned into the same TV programmes in the 1950s and 1960s, and entirely different programmes (or YouTube clips) today. Film has traditionally thrived on the idea of a viewing community, yet screens increasingly fragment their public into shoals of alienated individuals.

Thomson proposes that cinema moulds our understandings of what is possible and acceptable. His view is rather subtler than the often-aired moral panic that violent films make us kill people; it's more to do with cinema gradually making ideas and myths socially acceptable. "The movies have dissolved so much of our resistance to murder," he says, discussing Murnau's 1927 silent classic Sunrise.

Thomson is equally sceptical about sex on screen, not just with regard to hardcore, but also in recalling the breakthrough in sexual representation that once seemed to be offered by Last Tango in Paris (1972) . The promised new liberation, Thomson comments ruefully, only led to a culture of disappointment, mere images.

This melancholy tone – a cinephilic saudade - haunts the book. The Big Screen, Thomson admits, is "a love letter to a lost love", and it's not surprising that the greatest mourners for cinema's faded promise are those who once adored the art form most rapturously: notably Jean-Luc Godard, who inspires some of this book's most perceptive writing.

The Big Screen takes in a lot, including several flyovers of specific eras' great names and events, sometimes fleeting, sometimes hovering in detail. And there are things you won't expect, such as an astute digression on Hollywood's dark double Las Vegas, an excursus on I Love Lucy and the birth of sitcom.

Yet The Big Screen is far from being "a history of the whole thing" as Thomson himself admits. His film history is very much Western: he deals with Soviet cinema, but not with Japan beyond the exalted trinity of Ozu, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. His map doesn't extend to China, South America, Africa or Iran (in which country, over the last 20 years, cinema's claim to engage with the real has been urgently vindicated). As for Bollywood, also missing, I can't think of any phenomenon in world cinema in which the idea of the movie theatre as a place for cementing communities has been so prominent. The exclusion of Michael Haneke is perplexing, not least because I can't imagine any film-maker whose own analysis of screens and their psycho-social effects would have added much grist to Thomson's argument.

Still, this is an extremely rich book, captivating you with its intent gaze just as Dr Caligari, back in 1920, captivated his pet somnabulist. We can usually count ourselves lucky if film critics have a genuine eye for cinema; that they have a voice, and one as distinctive as Thomson's, is a rarity indeed.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...