The Whole Equation
A History of Hollywood
A new book by David Thomson
404 pages, illustrated; Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95
The magic of the movies is in their uncanny, hypnotic ability to make us believe in fantasy. Extending from the images on the screen to the exaggerated lifestyles of the falsely refined movers and shakers who make them, the lies trickle down to affect both the manner and perception of us, the viewer. To say that movies (and, more profoundly, television) have reshaped society is an understatement: their sweeping modification of reality is one of the legacies (and the foremost curse) of the twentieth century.
As David Thomson displays in The Whole Equation, to write about movies is to write about fabrication and influence, and authors even as keen as he are just as susceptible to the same power of suggestion as everyone else. Going through this energetic, analytic volume, we’re with a man caught between exposing the lie and loving it. In over a dozen books and countless magazine articles, Thomson’s study of this dangerous game of chimera and self-deception has been enlightening and often irritating. (How dare he shatter our illusions!) Updated once every decade, the unsentimental tone throughout his Biographical Dictionary of Film has infuriated some readers to the stage where several crabby reviews have been as caustically entertaining as the pointed work itself. The audience who condemns what they fancy to be his myopia fail to recognize Thomson’s intense respect and adoration of good films, directors and actors. But it’s there, most certainly so, often packed very tight between the lines, an area generally overlooked by unadventurous minds and delusional addicts.
Borrowing his title from a passage in Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished ode to Tinsel Town, The Last Tycoon — “Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads” — Thomson claims his new book is “a one-volume account, a history, of magicians, con men, hacks, and scoundrels.” But The Whole Equation isn’t so fast and innocent. Go back to his funny and fascinating Rosebud, the only Orson Welles biography worth reading more than once, for a sampling of how much arsenic Thomson will scatter over that broad a declaration. With its shrewdly benign subtitle, “A History of Hollywood,” this is an investigation (indictment?) into a collective consciousness that never graduated beyond the childhood comfort in fairytales and myths; of egos systematically pumped up by those who later initiate deflation; of the art of the lie. In the past, the author has championed the cheek and ingenuity of Welles’s F for Fake, a shaggy dog comedy/counterfeit documentary about art frauds and white-collar thieves — the same breed that’s been making pictures ever since Edison. In its own way, Thomson’s book continues Welles’s tradition of arched-brows and cynical smirks directed at the suckers and suckees, the unfortunate, guileless souls (you, me, everyone) who buy the package, and that elite few who get to groom it.
It’s that latter group Thomson endeavors to unmask, either by juxtaposing the manufacture of Charles Chaplin with that of Nicole Kidman (!), or in debunking the myth of D.W. Griffith: “To be honest, I don’t think [The Birth of a Nation and Intollerance] really stand up as art, so much as something on the way to art.” Relating their birth and development against the waning years of great literature and musical composers, Thomson contends that “films are about disclosure, revelation, appearance, the world of visibility, and the fetishization of appearance.” Note the telling use of the word ‘appearance’ twice in one sentence. It echoes later: “In American films, the camera tells a certain truth — it records appearance — but then it adjusts the appearance so that it becomes a lovelier version of itself, an ideal often, but a nightmare, too. Anything except the real thing.”