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.