The Sum Of All Films

The Argument

Moviemaking is an eternal struggle between art and commerce - a quintessentially American relationship that is both irreconcilable and insoluble.

December 12, 2004|By Geoff Pingree | Geoff Pingree,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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."

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