In his new book The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, film historian David Thomson seriously poses the question of whether our collective and alienating addiction to the multitude of screens (televisions, phones, tablet computers, etc.) that increasingly keep us buffered from the existential reality of the world and people around us may not be directly traceable to the birth and epochal influence of the first and biggest screen of them all. He makes the point concisely in a recent, brief essay for The Independent, excerpted below.
This is powerful, thought-provoking, disturbing stuff. And note that the title of Thomson’s book in its American edition, as given above, has been altered to tone down that quality of disturbingness; in its British release, the book’s subtitle is much more descriptive of its ominous message: The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us.]
Teaser: In his new book, David Thomson reveals how cinema has changed us all, and asks if being in thrall to the screen has detached us from reality
At first, the magic was overwhelming: in 1895, the first audiences for the Lumière brothers’ films feared that an approaching steam engine was going to come out of the screen and hit them. That gullibility passed off like morning mist, though observing the shower in Psycho (1960) we still seem to feel the impact of the knife. That scene is very frightening, but we know we’re not supposed to get up and rescue Janet Leigh. In a similar way, we can watch the surreal imagery of the devastation at Fukushima, or wherever, and whisper to ourselves that it’s terrible and tragic, but not happening to us. How large a step is it from that denial of our full selfhood to the wry passivity with which we observe global warming, economic collapse and a new freelance nuclear age as portents of an end to a world that is beyond us? Pioneers of film, such as D W Griffith, Chaplin and Abel Gance, hoped that the movie would make a single population in the world angry or moved enough to share liberty and opportunity and end war and intolerance. But perhaps it has made for a society of voyeurs who associate their own hiding in the dark with the safe futility of dealing with the screen’s frenzy.
… For decades, we told ourselves we were watching film and its illusion of reality. And so we treated movies as if they were theatre or novels given this extra investment and the kicker of sensation — of being there … They are all frenzies on the wall. What is most important is the fact of the screen as something that separates us from reality. All along, I think, we have been watching screens, and it is only recently, with the profusion of electronic screens, some so small that people aged over 25 can’t quite see them, that this has been appreciated … I fear film studies, film in academia and good criticism of the medium are all McGuffins compared with the dislocating stealth of the screen. People in the street nowadays bump into one another because they are intent on screens, which means they hardly notice the architecture, the acts of mayhem and indifference going on around them, or the weather. The medium that was alleged to bring all realities to our laps may have reduced us to laptops … I think, now, anything goes if it serves the screen and keeps us in alleged entertainment and information, as our true state moves ever further from being entertaining.
— David Thomson, The Independent, Cinema has changed us all: The birth of alienation, September 30, 2012