The erudite and entertaining London-born film scholar David Thomson has made a lovely book-writing career out of thinking large. To The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood we can now add The Big Screen, his supersize assessment of the medium that has beguiled and often bugged him for more than half a century.
Thomson's assessment, in some 500-plus pages, is not only that They don't make movies like They used to but also that We don't watch movies like We used to, either. These days, the 71-year-old historian-critic has a case of the Is that all there is? cinema blues. Television is where it's at, he says, and I don't disagree. But even in his most presumptive and eccentric judgments, Thomson puts on a fine show. As he meanders toward his harrumphy conclusions, the author rummages around his head full of knowledge, pulls out colorful bits of movie history, and displays his stuff to the charmed reader with self-assured aperçus. On Orson Welles: ''He turned friends into enemies and waited for betrayal.'' On Casablanca: ''It's such a nostalgia-encrusted classic that we are spared having to notice that it is fake, foolish, and fanciful beyond belief.''
Thomson has thoughts to spare on the BBC, hardcore porn, David Chase, and Call of Duty, too. And those thoughts become more scattershot as he chugs toward his concluding chapters, further and further away from the golden-era Hollywood he cherishes most and knows best. Still, he closes with a bit of prescience: ''The most effective director of his time,'' the author declares out of nowhere, is HBO helmer Tim Van Patten. Thomson couldn't have known, as he wrote, that Van Patten would soon win his first directing Emmy, for Boardwalk Empire. Perhaps a big Thomson book about the small screen will come next? B+