Knopf (2004), $27.95
Let's be clear: This book is not a history, per se, any more than Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film is a dictionary. The Whole Equation is a messy and fanciful long-take, one with room for both Nicole Kidman's nose ("that slightly askew button") and Howard Hawks' libido ("He would have been laughable if the screen hadn't redeemed his coolness"). It is, more than anything, a rhapsody.
The title comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon -- "Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads" -- and it is Thomson's aim to explore Hollywood's handling of that equation, roughly the balance between movie-as-business and movie-as-art. When Hollywood could maintain an equilibrium, when business imperatives and artistic concerns could hold hands all the way to the cutting room, Thomson sees cinema's golden age: the era of Hawks, film noir (in which the photography isn't just moody, but also economical), and the "exultant, enclosed bliss" of pictures produced by the factory system. (In many ways, Thomson is arguing for a new idea of auteurism, one that permits the acumen of studio bosses like Irving Thalberg.) The 1940s, he writes, represent "that key moment of world education for the mass of Americans, and the last time our movies were unmistakably on the cusp of feeling for an entire society."
The Whole Equation is Thomson, a San Franciscan by way of London, at his most characteristic: personal, impressionistic, discursive to the point of being disjointed -- his quirk as well as his charm. He offers some of his most provocative ideas not with a thunderclap but with a rhetorical nudge ("What is film noir but the night with shadows?"). Most of all, he has a wonderful knack for finding unexpected assonances in the culture: Louis Armstrong and Charlie Chaplin, surrealism and channel surfing, California's embrace of psychotherapy and acting's "cult of incoherent earnestness." Thomson has spent the better part of his career pushing against the didactic strictures of "biographies" and "histories" -- his writing is full of that "exultant, enclosed bliss" -- and it's telling to note that he regards Hawks as the avatar of Hollywood's golden age: someone who could likewise transcend his tethers, "a man insouciant about where he worked, yet equally confident that in any factory or range he would recreate his world and vision."