A kind of Western Civ text on film, and I’d love to take a course taught by Thomson and based on this book. It just made my “favorite reads of 2012” list.
Not that this reads like a textbook. It’s more fun than that, though Thomson has been, and maybe still is, a professor of film studies at Dartmouth. He also writes about film in The Guardian
, The New York Times
and other places, but not strictly as a critic. He’s a conversational and intuitive essayist, and I love a good essay, by which I mean a meandering literary journey through a given topic along digressive detours culminating in a coherent and revelatory if not entirely resolved end. No matter how well I think I know a subject, a good essay will tell me something – often much - I didn’t know, and leave me feeling all ah-ha!
It’s also true that a good essay can make sense of, and have me enthusing about, something I know nothing about. It also inevitably startles with odd or fresh juxtapositions, for example, in this case, a chapter juxtaposing Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan as actual persons and screen personaes.
Thomson surveys the development and influence of filmmaking from the silents to Spielberg, but the survey is more satisfying than cursory. There’s also much consideration of how culture and events influence or interact with filmmaking; politics, television, technology and pornography are among the variables. European and Asian films are included, with an emphasis on the French, but always in the context of The Industry that is American moviemaking.
Every aspect and relationship is considered at some point – actors, directors and cinematographers, of course, but also editors, composers, technicians, and economics. There are many intimate looks behind the scenes, some quite disturbing, such as the skewed gender dynamics and power plays in the making of Last Tango in Paris
and Straw Dogs
, known for being "groundbreaking" films about, respectively, sex and violence.
Thomson writes comparably fascinating takes on the blockbuster and the avant-garde or obscure, always with an emphasis on the art and craft of visual storytelling. For example, his takes on Hiroshima Mon Amour
(1959) and Jaws
(1975). (I haven’t seen the former but now feel I must.)
Alain Resnais was a documentary filmmaker; Hiroshima Mon Amour
was his first feature, and he asked Marguerite Duras to write the script. It’s about a love affair between a woman from Nevers, France, and a Japanese man she meets in Hiroshima. From the chapter Sunset and Change:
It begins at night, in bed. We do not realize it yet, despite the title of the film, but the bed holds a French woman and a Japanese man. We see the bodies, or parts of them, and they are crystalline nearly. Is that the perspiration of lovemaking or the ashes from some burning? The script calls the residue 'cendres atomiques,' but when you first see encrusted arms you do not know that yet. The bodies might be buried in the night or in their love, and the flesh might be decomposing. The title is a riddle to be answered.
(The characters) are Elle, an actress come to Hiroshima to make a film about peace, while he, Lui, is a Japanese architect…In documentary-like sequences, we see the story of August 6, 1945 – there is even a clip from a Japanese feature film about the horror – as well as hospital footage where patients live with warped faces and sheared-off limbs (but) there is an admission that documentary can do only so much, then fiction is the last way to answer abiding questions . . . Begin the picture, and its haunting night returns you to the underground river that flows between Nevers and Hiroshima. Yes, there was a war that once linked the two places, but the war was only the superficial bond. The more enduring tie was the way the lovers touch and the woman remembers (and) the thing she cannot bear is the thought that life might be without links or significance in the dark . . .
, from the chapter To Own The Summer:
You cannot see Taxi Driver without asking who Travis is and what has made him. Roman Polanski identified what we treasure in Chinatown by insisting on the defeat of Jake Gittes. But when you see Jaws you are gravity-free, and just as entertained as if watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
You lose Quint, but who cares? You’re asked to watch the screen and its plasticity, and not the quality of life that may exist. We are wowed, but are we engaged? The notion of 'roller coaster' movies came into being around this time, and it’s provocative; on a roller coaster you are caught up moment by moment, physically and nervously, and afterward you are agog with incoherent talk about it. But part of the fun is that the commotion meant nothing. The sensation eclipsed sensibility. There was no industry-wide conference to confirm or enact the principles of Jaws. . .the whole economy of a blockbuster film that could suck its money in so fast, the combination of great danger or adventure without any lasting downer.
If you put King Kong (1933) and Jaws in the same sentence you have to feel the naïve poetic impulse that inspires the earlier film, and the cold-blooded detachment in Jaws. People do care about the ape. King Kong trembles with shaky effects. Jaws is as smooth as its cutting, but smoothness can kill emotion. Kong is a tragic character. He has his inappropriate desire, while the shark is just a streamlined source of energy, a convenient killer, a current in the sea, a vector in the game.
Not that that’s a bad thing. There are as many reasons for watching films as there are for making them, the point being that we need to think critically and creatively about that because their influence is so pervasive and profound. Otherwise, we’re apt to be reduced to mere spectators.