Film Season, Radio 4, All Week

How we learnt to smoke and kiss
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The Independent Culture

Twists usually come near the end, but there was a nice one at the beginning of Life at 24 Frames a Second, part of Radio 4's film season, with the peerless movie writer David Thomson.

It started with a sound collage of cinema's golden age, all the famous clips, then Thomson butted in – "I suppose that's what you were expecting" – before taking us on a rather more eccentric voyage into the dark heart of cinema-going.

The first of 10 daily 15-minute programmes, it was the radio equivalent of one of David Lynch's stranger offerings, all shadows and shocks, laced with Thomson's seductive yet vaguely threatening delivery, like one of those creepy Hitchcock villains. The series seems to be about how films burrow their way into our heads and, indeed, shape our behaviour: "Films educated us in smoking, looking at the opposite sex, kissing."

It's a cliché, but Thomson does have the gift of making you see things anew. In Tuesday's segment, "Fear and Desire", he talked about a scene in Birth in which Nicole Kidman is listening to Wagner and starting to lose her mind.

"The camera soaks into her face and we are experiencing the mystery of being," said Thomson. "The best special effect in the movies is the human face when the mind behind it is changing."

Thomson had promised "not much history, not many facts", but that was put to rights by the first part of Hollywood: The Prequel, Francine Stock's two-part look at how a district of Los Angeles came to rule the movie world. The early pioneers were us, the French, the Danes and the Italians, and even when the Americans got going, Britain, with its global shipping network, had the world distribution rights.

Then came the First World War, and because film stock contained nitrate celluloid – gunpowder, basically – the government banned its re-export on the grounds that the Germans could capture it and turn it into explosives. So, the Americans set up their own network and we were out of the picture.

A daily delight has been Matthew Sweet's Brief Encounters, in which he visits cinemas around the world. On Wednesday, he was at a Beijing multiplex that seems to float on a ring of water. "Parables of change are easy to come by in modern China," said Sweet, "but this one gets five stars".

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