THE WHOLE EQUATION: A History of Hollywood
by David Thomson
Little, Brown £22.50, 448 pages

The mystery of movies - the meaning and identity of the form itself - has defeated many writers. Anyone can write a reference book or monograph (though some write them better than others). But an author asking “What is cinema?” takes on a daunting task. A book written by cinema would have to call itself I Am a Chimera. It would flaunt its exotic elusiveness, laugh mockingly in readers’ faces, keep vanishing and returning moment by moment just like the light coming through a projector.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, a great novelist and calamitous Hollywood screenwriter, provided the title of David Thomson’s new book. “Not half a dozen people have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads,” Fitzgerald wrote in The Last Tycoon. This sets Thomson on his chase. Are movies an art or a business? Are they both? Are they neither? Is the ultimate American film David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (all business, powered by a producer’s monomania) or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (all art, energised by a director’s monomania)?

You almost have to be a British-born critic and cinephile living in Los Angeles, who has written a dozen books, from the magisterial (The Biographical Dictionary of Film) to the beguilingly cuckoo (Suspects), to have the right simultaneous distance and closeness for this subject. Even those may not be enough. Thomson is a brilliant writer in small doses and a wayward seer in large. This book is not really “A History of Hollywood”, except in selective and subjective ways.

It is superb on the demographics of film going through the decades, on the uneasy relationship between creators and corporations, and on the link between what was made, how it was made and why it was made. The components of the Hollywood agenda at any time are bewildering and multiple - and often faintly sinister. Thomson sees the artist-director as a version of Jake Gittes in Chinatown: “The lone seeker of truth is told to shut up at the end, to go along with being left alive and (probably) paid off, and accept that the system, the business - ‘they’ - are always going to survive and endure and run the show.”

But Thomson largely limits his examination of the studio system to one company, MGM, and one troika of power-crazed picturemakers: L.B. Mayer, his young lieutenant Irving Thalberg (model for Fitzgerald’s last tycoon) and his daughter’s husband David O. Selznick (”the son-in-law also rises,” said wags). These three don’t just take centre stage, they are the whole play. Carl Laemmle (Universal), Harry Cohn (Paramount), Darryl Zanuck (Fox) and the rest barely get walk-ons. Reason? Thomson has done his MGM homework previously, as author of the Selznick biography Showman, and has his ducks set in a row. MGM was also the unholy clan that set Hollywood ablaze with Gone with the Wind and whose internecine intrigues were worthy of a play by Aeschylus.

To be fair to him, Thomson gives a brief moment - a curtain-raiser - to United Artists. This co-creation of Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford and Griffith, founded in 1919, tried to privilege artists in the moviemaking process, a quixotic initiative in Hollywood. The company began bravely, but there may have been a lesson in its ending. It became the blasted shell of a studio, left by the explosive debacle that was Heaven’s Gate (in which an artist was so heavily privileged that he ran financially amok).

Thomson is fascinated by these contradictions. He sees business as the Thing You Love To Hate, while admitting that at many points in the past it was the Thing You Hate To Love. But love it you had to. Business, after all, created Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca; corporation movies, with umpteen writers and directors, made for the marketplace. Thomson himself evokes “the greedy, cruel, vain passion that time and again gets great movies made”.

But this is the crux of the book. What exactly does “great movies” mean? Does it mean art? It surely can’t, since the notion of collective artistic creation is anathema to a post-romantic critic or thinker. “Art depends on the solitude of inspired, talented or neurotic egotists,” insists Thomson, sounding a little edgy in his comprehensiveness as he dismisses cathedrals and folk culture to attack his own beleaguered counter-instinct that Hollywood blockbusters can be a kind of art.

The book from this point gets weirdly bipolar. In one chapter Thomson tries to settle the dispute by taking refuge in the glories of Mahler’s Ninth. Popular cinema cannot compete with that, he argues, though from a non-musicologist this sounds woolly, mystical and a little received. (As in: “I don’t know much about music but I know what I’m supposed to bow down before.”) In the 1950s noir thriller Kiss Me Deadly, cited here as major Hollywood pop art, the object chased by everyone was called “The Great Whatsit”. Mahler’s Ninth becomes Thomson’s Great Whatsit. Tinseltown doesn’t have a chance against this wall of genius. Yet I can imagine a younger, bolder Thomson arguing that the crazy dissonances of Duel in the Sun, the emotional resonance of The Deer Hunter, even the switchbacking moods and sudden depths of Million Dollar Baby could all give Mahler a run for his abrasive beauty and challenging grandeurs.

The book’s battle of ideas, though, is already all but over. For Thomson, even those “great movies” that were manufactured by “greedy passion” were the product of an age long gone. They were made in the warm, familial climate of the old studio system (even if the family brought to mind was often the Borgias).

Thomson’s Luddism turns from couchant to rampant in the last chapters. Once the studios collapsed, freed their stars and directors, and sold their land and chattels, the writing was on the wall and it said “philistinism and synergy”. First, agencies gobbled up studios. Then multinationals gobbled up the agency-studios. Then everyone became crazy as foxes, eschewing small movies for big gambles and shoring up the financial risks with tie-in merchandising and TV/video/DVD sales. Makes no sense? Made a lot of sense for the players.

The last part of this book is an extended cry of “Call back yesterday”. Like Thomson, I mourn the passing of black-and-white movies, of that well-ordered studio diet which varied big-spending films with medium-budget movies about recognisable human beings. Like him I also mourn those picture palaces where a big screen was a big screen, not a rectangle in a rabbit hutch.

But I also know that that mourning is a reactionary reflex. Popular culture has its own agenda. It has no time for fogeys. And it probably won’t destroy civilisation with its action-fantasy franchises, its video games or even its awful inflight movie transmissions that require passengers - in Thomson’s poignant parting thought - to draw the blinds on real and shimmering vistas of the Arctic to watch a postcard-sized version of Matrix Regurgitated.

Get alerts on Books when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article