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We Didn’t Invent the Movies

We Didn’t Invent the Movies

David Thomson’s book shows us just how much today’s films owe to yesterday’s pioneers.

Matt Hanson
A Light in the Dark: A History of Movie Directors
by David Thomson (Knopf, 304 pp., $28)

Not long ago, I told a writing class of mine at a community college we were going to watch a movie as part of the curriculum. A few perked up. I told them it was a black-and-white Western and some were a little skeptical. The movie was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), which, after having seen it multiple times and discussed its finer points at length in many class discussions, seems like a strong candidate for The Great American Film.

One anxious student in the class asked, “Is it old people good or young people good?” The terms were a little vague, but I understood what she meant. There’s a world of difference between what today’s college-age viewers are used to seeing on screen and what their older siblings, parents, and grandparents saw in their own time. Back in 1962, when Liberty Valance was first released, audiences had seen plenty of movies already, but they weren’t immersed in visual culture nearly from birth.

When the class saw the film, I was glad to see that my gamble had paid off. My students connected—they made many pointed observations, stirred up engaging debate, and reacted to different plot twists appropriately. There are always exceptions, but I like to think that any story can resonate with any audience as long as it’s told well enough.

David Thomson is a film scholar and novelist who doesn’t just write about the movies; he writes within the movies. His criticism begins with the ways in which the screen projects back to us all the poetry and dread fueling our desire to sit in the dark and watch what Sartre once referred to as the “frenzy on the screen.” Thomson’s new book, A Light in the Dark, briefs us on the life and work of different movie directors. Most of them—including Fritz Lang, Hitchcock, Welles, Jean Renoir, Howard Hawks, Stephen Frears, and Jean-Luc Godard—are already fairly well known, at least to cinephiles. Thomson takes us on a tour (sometimes a too-short one) of their works, lives, and influence. If you’re already familiar with these directors, Thomson’s book might tell you what you already know. If you’re not, it can give you a sense of what you’re missing.

Today’s viewers might not be as turned on by Lang’s Metropolis as people were back in 1927, when Lang virtually bankrupted UFA Studios to make his multi-genre epic about what the modern world was coming to, which unintentionally intrigued Hitler and Goebbels. Today’s viewers have most likely seen their share of serial killer movies and thus might not be shocked by Peter Lorre’s possessed murderer in M (1931), arguably the first great serial killer movie. Yet it’s important to understand the film’s mesmerizing vision of a society descending into madness. Lang might not have told the Nazis off as boldly as he liked to claim that he did but he certainly got out of Germany in 1933 while the getting was good. The irony of a visionary like Lang being forced to ply his trade in the middle of sunny Hollywood, as did many of his fellow German artists and expats, is something to savor.

Lang’s vision of a society teetering on the edge still lingers. “Both films,” says Thomson, have their flaws, but they subscribe to Lang’s instinct … that authority would shape the world through technology and design; and that murderers might yet become our heroes.” On that point, I wish he’d included more about Lang’s Testament of Doctor Mabuse (1933), which dramatized the way in which language feeds social hysteria. Erudite critic that he is, Thomson is no snob about the value of popular entertainment. He recommends that “If you want to appreciate Fritz Lang the prophet, you should study the German series Babylon Berlin [now on Netflix]. It has the energy and fevered passion of his great work, and it leaves us apprehensive about who may be running our show.”

We watch more movies and TV than ever these days, with binge-watching becoming increasingly routine during quarantine. If you were lucky enough to work from home, all the hours of watching that you were already probably doing didn’t change very much. Sometimes, it seems like watching movies becomes almost perfunctory, just another part of the daily ritual. It makes you wonder how much of our viewing experience becomes a closed circuit of images. It becomes very easy to see movies as being about other movies rather than as stories in themselves.

Thomson is sympathetic but skeptical about directors who started out as movie junkies, like Tarantino, Scorsese, and Godard. Despite Godard’s fitful brilliance, Thomson claims that “there was a blank adolescent sensibility behind the dark glasses, accompanied by a lack of felt experience. Spending your life in the movie dark can leave you indifferent to the light of others.” After eventually getting over my Godard obsession, this judgment seems apt. Godard’s best films take us to cinematic places that few films ever dare, slicing and splicing up the ways in which we see, but there aren’t many convincingly drawn portraits of real flesh and blood people. You start to wonder if Godard cares as much about people as he does about movies.

This is what Thomson appreciates about Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). He suggests that the famously movie-mad director really cares about these unique people, giving them ample time to talk about everything under the sun, giving us a way into their idiosyncratic worlds. I liked the Kill Bill movies (2003, 2004) just fine as sheer spectacle, but I think Thomson is right to be ultimately disappointed by them: “The two films made a lot of money, but some suspicious viewers felt Tarantino was falling back on his memory bank of old movies from the video store. Movies made about movies can be a way toward a dead end.” Pulp Fiction certainly borrowed (or stole, if you prefer) from other movies, but this made his characters more interesting and multi-dimensional.

Thomson gives Hitchcock and Welles chapters of their own, praising their accomplishments but not avoiding the more unpleasant facts about their personal agendas. Hitchcock’s subtle perversities are well documented by now, and you only have to see a sample of his best work to understand how the screen allowed him to let his repressed inhibitions run wild. Thomson has already covered this material before, and done it better, as in his excellent full-length treatment The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder (2009). He also wrote an admiring but suspicious biography Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles (1996), appreciating the expert showman’s endless tricks while never forgetting how often they ultimately exalted the charisma of the one who performed them.

There are some missed opportunities. Devoting a whole chapter to Stephen Frears, who directed fine films like The Hit (1984), The Grifters (1990), and High Fidelity (2000), was an interesting choice but Thomson doesn’t really explain what makes these films compelling. A few interesting directors, like John Ford, Ida Lupino, and John Carpenter, are too easily dismissed within a few cursory sentences. Unless a book’s going to be thousands of pages, there isn’t room to do deep dives on everyone, but each of these directors could have merited a chapter of his or her own.

An important drawback of the book’s survey format, possibly adopted due to worries about length, is that an overview of the ’70s “movie brats”—Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, et al.—who contributed to the infamous “decade under the influence” doesn’t settle on any one director for very long. It doesn’t tell us very much that we didn’t already know about the people who made Jaws (1975), The Godfather (1972), Easy Rider (1969), Taxi Driver (1976), and Star Wars (1977), all of which have already been widely seen and discussed.

The chapter on female filmmakers is a welcome alternative to the boys’ club of great directors. Thomson is sympathetic to the ways in which women have been routinely gazed at and offered up for consumption: “It was taken for granted that the picture business, and its art, was the manifestation of male opportunism.… [I]t was shaping stories in how to digest romance; it was the principle that women should be ‘beautiful’ and shut up.” It’s good to be reminded of this ugly tendency within the often macho, male-centric world of Hollywood.

Thomson offers some examples of female directors who refused to be pretty and shut up, like Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993; Bright Star, 2009; In the Cut, 2003) and Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, 1987; Point Break, 1991; The Hurt Locker, 2008), and he pays attention to the largely forgotten silent film star Mary Pickford, “who was not simply one of the most comprehensive star personalities but also a commanding businessperson—she was the fierce brain in the United Artists experiment, and she was a founder of the Academy.” It’s good to shed some necessary light on women’s overshadowed roles in both old and new Hollywood, but this chapter could have had more impact if it had gone further. For instance, Thomson could have said more about Greta Gerwig’s moving Lady Bird (2017), which had the heartbreaking authenticity of reading a stolen diary, telling us about what it’s like to be a teenage girl nowadays, which isn’t the kind of experience that male directors tend to consider.

Streaming platforms offer the convenience of instant accessibility, which is a fun thing to have, yet the next generation of Godards and Tarantinos are still at the mercy of the algorithm if they want to be inspired by finding the kind of hidden gems and lost classics that spark fresh reimagining. You usually have to dig a little deeper to find the good stuff that still has much to tell us about the world we live in now. There’s a lot more than most people realize waiting to be (re)discovered in the archives of old Hollywood, to say nothing of world cinema. The ready-made convenience of streaming services limits the scope of what contemporary audiences are exposed to, which causes decades of interesting and lively films to be forgotten.

Maybe this is because streaming services want to stay current and keep viewers coming back. Maybe it’s because the material seems like “old people good” and not “young people good.” But that’s a false dichotomy. As with Thomson’s connecting Lang with Babylon Berlin, many of the TV shows and movies we all obsess over these days first learned how to work their magic from the older directors who paved the way.

And they still have much to offer; there is more subtlety, richness, and insight in that cinematic legacy than often meets the jaded contemporary eye. All you need is curiosity and a guide to the labyrinth and the curtains will part on a treasure trove. Thomson’s A Light in the Dark is a useful, if occasionally limited, guide to the movies that made the movies, though it’s only a small part of a long career. Thomson is one of the most eloquent and poetic film critics today who can show us what we are missing if we are still willing to look.

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor of American Purpose and The Arts Fuse, Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine. His work has appeared in The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and Three Quarks Daily.

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