The Big Screen by David Thomson review

Hi everyone! Today I’m reviewing David Thomson’s The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us. The title is self-explanatory: Thomson is tracing the rise of cinema, from Eadweard Muybridge and the zoopraxiscope in the late 19th century, to late 2012 with the rise of Netflix and social media. As someone who is interested in film history, I thought this would be a highly informative read.

Thomson certainly crams a huge amount of information within the pages; films budgets and grosses, the cast and crew, behind-the-scenes drama if there were any plus many more. He even gives us snippets from reviewers of the time, giving the reader a glimpse into how film was perceived upon its first release. The book is meticulously researched and at times the amount of information given is overwhelming; I was bombarded with figures which I doubt I can remember after finishing. Yet I understand why they were used in the book, to give us an understanding on how successful (or not) some classic films were. With hindsight they did give me a sense if the film connected with its audience at the time.

Yet The Big Screen isn’t just about facts and figures. Thomson has created a sort of narrative, tracing the origins of cinema to the fairly present day. Thomson’s love for film radiates off every page, and his passion and eagerness for sharing it affects the readers. There is a sense coming away from the book that I wanted to watch all the films he mentioned on as big a screen as possible – even movies I had never heard of before. Thomson also has this dry wit running throughout, making wry observations about people and films. It gives the book a more personal touch and makes it feel as though Thomson is speaking directly to us, engaging us in the discussion. Far more than just a history of cinema, The Big Screen feels like a celebration of it.

The book was written in 2011 and, like any book where the subject is forever changing and evolving, it dates itself quite quickly. Thomson makes references to Emmanuelle Riva and John Hurt being alive, with Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind unfinished and unavailable to audiences. He also makes some interesting predictions; there will no longer be any video stores (true) or cinemas (highly doubt it). Yet the vast majority of the book is concerned with the past; the 2010s only make up the last 80 or so pages, and most of the time as a recent comparison to earlier films. This helps to keep the book feeling current and still a useful guide to the history of the big screen.

The Big Screen is ideal for anyone interested in the history of cinema, but perhaps doesn’t quite know where to start. Thomson gives a general overview to influential figures and movements across the decades e.g. French New Wave, meaning readers can discover which periods they find the most interesting or learn a bit more about cinema. Thomson’s writing is highly informative but also very engaging, making him the perfect person to guide you through 100+ years. He deals with everything from silent cinema to MGM musicals, British, French, and Italian cinema along with the rise of television, video games, and the Internet. A must for any film fan and a great introduction for those wanting to learn more.

The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us is published by Penguin and you can find more information here.

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