Movie Nation

Critic David Thomson says the movies have profoundly shaped America, and not always for the better.

“The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood” by David Thomson. (Knopf)

By Tim Riley

The title of David Thomson’s provocative new history of film comes from a trenchant passage in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Last Tycoon”: “You can take Hollywood for granted…, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don’t understand. It can be understood too, but only dimly and in flashes. Not a half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.” Fitzgerald’s insight echoes throughout Thomson’s sweeping narrative, whose details reinforce those ominous words.

Best known as the author of the epic “Biographical Dictionary of Film,” Thomson chronicles the rise and fall of Hollywood icons past and present in “The Whole Equation.” The lineup includes Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Louis B. Mayer as well as Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. His first illustration of how writers (producers, directors, celebrities) don’t get the “whole equation” focuses one of Hollywood’s most respected figures: Robert Towne, who wrote “Chinatown,” and battled famously over its ending with director Roman Polanski.

For Thomson, “Chinatown” provides a neat metaphor for the compromises and entanglements of Hollywood: “‘Chinatown’ is not only tragic and foreboding, not just a parable about the ways in which Los Angeles has relied on exploitation, power, rape, greed, and a sense of the future, but a subtle magical metaphor for Hollywood and filmmaking in which the lone seeker of truth is told to shut up at the end, to go along with being left alive and (probably) paid off, and accept that the system, the business — “they” — are always going to survive and endure and run the show.”

In other words, “Hollywood” is a place where Towne regrets how the death of Noah Cross’s daughter/lover Evelyn Mulwray strays from his original plot (here’s one writer who argued in vain for his “happy” ending). “Chinatown” won Towne’s screenplay an Oscar, but he didn’t make his fortune until writing the “Mission: Impossible” film series starring Tom Cruise in the1990s. Such is the agonizing “sense” that Thomson teases out of the furious battle between aesthetics and showmanship, authorship and ownership, the image and who controls it.

At 400 pages, Thomson’s book is both efficient and thorough. After “Chinatown” he leaps back over a hundred years to the early inventions which defined the movies, their purpose and context. Around 1895, the French brothers Louis and Auguste Lumi? invented their cin?tographe, the ancestor to modern “cin?.” At the same time, Thomas Edison was building something called a kinetescope in New Jersey, a small screen an individual looked through to watch moving pictures.

Thomson lingers here for an interesting insight: imagine how different the last century might have been had Edison’s more private kinetescope caught on instead of cinema, which gathered audiences together to watch in the same room? After all, Thomson reasons, the kinetescope was actually the seed of modern television. And though Hollywood seemed spooked by television at first and movie attendance has never recovered, Thomson views the two mediums as close cousins with overlapping interests.

All of Thomson’s historical detail, however, is a platform for his thoughts on the profound effect the movies have had on America’s thinking and behavior — indeed, its very identity. Thomson thinks a frenzied yet ultimately enervating interaction takes place between an audience sitting in a darkened theater and the lit screen. The collision nearly subsumes thought. “Our education is still largely based on what words mean, how they fit together grammatically,” Thomson writes. “Against that, how many of us have ever had any education in the nature of moving imagery, its grammar, its laws or lawlessness, or how the na? viewer is expected to distinguish news from fantasy, art from deception?”

Thomson’s narrative is lit with colorful polemics. Unlike many other historians, he prefers talkies to silent films: “Talkies allowed actors to withdraw into inwardness and silence,” he argues paradoxically. The critic also defends the studio system of the 1930s and ’40s as a relatively sane model for the financing and casting of motion pictures. Thomson’s concise summaries of major figures approach the emblematic: “Chaplin had no education, no intellect perhaps. But he was driven by a brilliant modernism way ahead of Freudian understanding — half narcissism, half utter, cold detachment — that left him as outstanding as Einstein.”

Perhaps most impressively, Thomson punctures the movie industry without making it seem as if his sleek barbs are puncturing an easy target: “The ethos of the stand-out super-hit has taken over from a policy of steady business. That in itself is a mark of how unbusinesslike the business is. …There is material for a very dark comedy now in a United States that provides universal health care in Iraq before it does in its own land. Julia Roberts as the lead doctor? …I regret that America has elected to make films for its bluntest section of society and in ways that flatter them, and we have to recognize how much of that is being done for the money. We have to find another way of measuring ourselves.”

Our passion for the movies may level off over the next hundred years. But if Hollywood continues to inspire books anywhere near as good as this, it could turn us all back into readers.

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