David Thomson loves the movies.
This may seem an odd and unremarkable claim to make here, but Thomson's relationship with them is sufficiently passionate, sorrowful, joyous, tortured, redemptive and disillusioned that, at the outset, I want to emphasize his plain love for them.
Thomson, the London-born author and critic who has written extensively about American cinema, has just finished The Whole Equation - A History of Hollywood (Knopf, 400 pages, $27.95), an undertaking that is ambitious and brave and virtually impossible. His title is carefully chosen; lest anyone take the first part (The "Whole" Equation) to mean that Thomson is promising the complete story, the second ("A" History of Hollywood) implies that there are many stories of Hollywood, and that this is but one.
To be sure, Thomson offers a richly expansive look at Hollywood. His narrative has two primary threads. The first is chronological and descriptive - a captivating if idiosyncratic and anecdotal account of Hollywood that is rooted in personalities and relationships; that considers artistic ambitions and ideals as well as financial, technological, and political realities; and that is set in the suggestive physical and cultural landscapes of southern California. The second thread is moral and evaluative - a meditation on Hollywood (or, more precisely, on movies in general) that asks difficult, often overlooked questions as it seeks to make sense of the American film industry's tangled causes, conditions, and consequences.
Thomson's title - taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel about Hollywood, The Last Tycoon - signals his hope to get at the "wonder in the dark, the calculation in the offices, and the staggering impact on America of moving pictures." Thomson thus details the rare blend of financial, artistic, and social awareness that the studio system's early giants possessed, paying particular attention to Hollywood's "money habit," in order to render fully a movie's fate from its conception as an idea to its delivery as a mass public spectacle and beguiling consumer product.
This inclusive approach does not flatter Hollywood, and it justifies doubt about the possibility of artistic integrity in mainstream cinema. But Thomson, who knows that "we should never believe in Hollywood's advertising or its worldview," stalks Hollywood's "whole equation" not as a feat of fact-gathering strength, nor as a warrant for skepticism, but to underscore movies' fundamental role in the American community.
Unlike many film histories, Thomson's book does not begin at the beginning, with Edison and the Lumiere brothers (though they appear eventually). It opens instead with an evocative, personal account of a tragic relationship among a place, a screenwriter, his script, a studio executive, a director, a star, and a movie. The place is Los Angeles, the screenwriter Robert Towne, his script Chinatown, the studio executive Paramount's Robert Evans, the director Roman Polanski, the star Jack Nicholson, and the movie Chinatown. Towne is a man who has suffered the wrongs of a capricious, deceptive, and heartless system. As Thomson writes, "Towne created Chinatown, but Paramount owned it."
Even as he relates Towne's unjust loss of authorship of his own work, Thomson neither lionizes the screenwriter nor demonizes Hollywood. The fate of Towne and Chinatown - whose original ending was changed over Towne's objections - is an illuminating parable of Hollywood's contradictions: " ... the film survives now in paradoxical form, for a writer whose wishes were thwarted continues to get a credit he doesn't entirely deserve." As if to ensure that no reader become sentimental, Thomson avows that "no screenwriter has any reason to blame anyone but himself for compromises," later adding: "And that's how someone who was once among the best writers in Hollywood ... became the man who made a small fortune writing two Mission: Impossible pictures."
The larger point of this lyrical chapter becomes apparent when Thomson compares himself, and us, to Towne: "In the same way, we ... should take such compromises into account when judging the impact or value of movies. They derive from corporations and producers, not individuals or artists." Thomson thus presents Hollywood as a dense and often cruel web of competing forces because he believes that understanding that reality marks a path to change: "The gap between Chinatown and the umpteen possible future Mission: Impossibles is the lament of this book."
Towne is just the first troubled character to illustrate Thomson's view of Hollywood's place in American culture. Whether describing the brilliant, ruthless Louis B. Mayer, a "patron of storytelling" because he "noticed that people liked going into the dark to see the light" and could do arithmetic; the gentler Irving Thalberg, a mediator alarmed by the system's "empty power"; the tormented Scott Fitzgerald, a failed screenwriter who died still trying; or even Los Angeles itself, a place "crucial to the whole equation of movies, and what they have done for us" - Thomson traces the process by which the pitiless Hollywood machine has disseminated America's darkest, secret desires as well its most cherished values.
Transformation is an idea central to American movies, and Hollywood has been crucial to momentous national developments both literal and figurative. Built by foreigners fulfilling the ideals of the Republic (Lazar Meier became Louis B. Mayer), Hollywood is, Thomson notes, unique to America, which - drawn to the "reversal of old orders" - has defined itself through its glittering stories.
Our thinking about motion pictures has, from their inception just over a century ago, been shaped by both elite and popular traditions of aesthetic judgment. While relying on different evaluative criteria (an essay on Picasso's Cubist paintings may examine spatial form, while a review of Toni Morrison's latest novel might assess narrative coherence) these traditions commonly view the work itself as the thing to evaluate. So it is that, in most college film courses today, students learn to analyze individual movies, and that, for virtually all newspapers, a critic reviews this week's movies.
The Whole Equation's chief contribution may be to remind us that a film is only one piece of a much larger, more consequential process. Movies are so bound up in our lives and culture that we ignore them at our peril. Thomson emphasizes characters who understand this whole equation not because he admires them, but because they understand that society is transformed by those who pay attention, by those who "watch the wheels go round."
Thomson knows that the movies' magic is "beyond the sensible, the rational, or the hard-working." He realizes, too, that the whole equation is unknown, perhaps unknowable. But he argues persuasively that "if we ask the question in enough ways," if we pay attention to the assorted contexts from which movies emerge, then through the inquiry itself, "we may end up knowing so much more."
For our digital age, in which it is less and less possible to understand the movies in comprehensive ways, such views might be useful. Granting Hollywood's fondness for both the abysmal and the sublime, Thomson, rather than simply endorsing or contesting the American film industry, argues the value of seeking to understand it - in all its fluid complexity. That way, at least the possibility exists that movies might remain a meaningful part of our public conversation, of our collective sense of community.
It is good news, then, that a work of such grand scope and sharp purpose, a book that considers it our duty to struggle for a whole understanding of Hollywood (in all its ugliness and beauty), has been written by someone who himself loves the movies.
Geoff Pingree teaches Cinema Studies at Oberlin College. Currently finishing a book about documentary and national identity in Spain, he is co-editor of New Media, 1740-1914, a contributor to Seeing Spain, and the author of Almodovar and the New Politics of Spain. He is also a photographer and documentary filmmaker.