Looking every bit the eminent British intellectual in spectacles and elbow patches, film critic and historian David Thomson joined Lincoln Center’s Scott Foundas on stage Friday for the New York Film Festival Critics Academy, to discuss his new book “The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies.” Much esteemed for his previous works, which include “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film” and “Have You Seen…?,” Thomson told the audience that his latest volume concerned not just movies, but also “what has happened to the world in the age of film.” Foundas, a former chief critic for LA Weekly, called the book Thomson’s magnum opus.
Thomson — who dominated the conversation in a succession of charming, hyper-articulate monologues — held forth on the creative destruction wrought by developments in on-screen entertainment, from the advent of television to the ascendency of YouTube. Though he seemed wistful for the films of the World War II era, back when a community of simultaneous thousands sat united in the dark for “Gone with the Wind” and “Casablanca,” Thomson emphasized the folly in thinking we might return to such a time.
“If you’re a critic,” he said, “you have to get used to the idea that people enjoy viewing experiences that you might find appalling.”
While the directors of “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Tree of Life” might be driven to drink when forced to consider that their films are being consumed over laptops and iPhones, that reality, Thomson said, might nonetheless signal opportunities for technology to lift modern filmmaking from what he sees as a stagnant condition. Shows like “The Wire” and “Homeland,” he said, are evidence that cable TV now produces content far superior to that of American cinema.
Though Thomson offered no specific advice to filmmakers, he seemed sure of the extant power of movies, and of the urgent need in the next 10 years for passionate, innovative young artists to revitalize the medium. “You can’t make films,” he said, “unless they occupy every second of your being.”
Check out the full discussion below.