If Herbert Marcuse and Senator Joseph McCarthy had gone to a movie together in the late 1950s–and that could only happen in a movie–they would have walked out, probably not together, and demanded their money back. The left-wing Frankfurt School intellectuals and the red-hunting McCarthyites shared a passion: They deeply mistrusted the Hollywood “dream factory.”

Their different notions of exactly what that dream was amount to a kind of cosmic disjunction. Figures like Adorno and Marcuse saw in Hollywood’s mass appeal a subtle and insidious imposition of capitalist conformity. For them, it was like a totalitarianism from within. Hollywood’s happy endings filled them with repelled foreboding. For that matter, Hollywood’s toothless social criticism filled them with repelled foreboding. The blacklisting members of the House Un-American Activities Committee, on the other hand, overlooked the sunny finales. They saw only the Communist affiliations or left-leaning sympathies of some screenwriters, and they considered Hollywood’s soppy, sentimental defenses of the hard-pressed little guy against the plutocratic big guys coded insinuations of austere revolutionary goals. For the red-baiters, American movies represented a totalitarianism creeping in from without.

I’m not suggesting a moral equivalence between the Frankfurt School and HUAC, only observing that in America, one person’s simple entertainment is another person’s impending moral and intellectual crisis. Movies have long been a magnet for scrutiny, hysteria or moral panics, though obviously television now draws much of that dubious attention. Still, nothing can get commentators and even politicians going like a Hollywood movie. Consider Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, made mostly with Gibson’s money but also with funds from investors, and released by a large theatrical distributor–thus, like many so-called “indies,” a Hollywood movie in all but name. The Passion of the Christ represents a strange historical irony, because it was precisely the type of Catholic conservatism animating Gibson’s controversial blockbuster that inspired McCarthy’s tirades against Hollywood movies. And was there a connection, orchestrated or not, between this movie’s appearing just before the launch of a Republican presidential campaign that emphasized, in the appropriate venues, the kind of fundamentalist Christian values the film espoused?

The question of film’s influence on psyche and society is about as old as the movies themselves, and David Thomson is one of the handful of critics gifted enough to address it. Unaccountably, though, those looking for that kind of scrutiny in Thomson’s unstructured, seemingly barely edited mess of a book aren’t going to find it, unless they look very hard indeed. Strictly speaking, The Whole Equation isn’t so much a history of Hollywood as a very impressionistic response to Hollywood’s unique confluence of art and money, a marriage arranged by the men who ran the studios. And Thomson tells Hollywood’s story by following the money, from Louis B. Mayer’s nickelodeon empire to his purchase of the distribution rights to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which inspired Mayer to go into the movie business whole hog. From there Thomson swings through the rise of the big studios in the 1920s and ’30s, to their decline due to television in the 1950s, followed by a brief uptick in quality in the 1960s and ’70s, and up to our own time. Today, he argues, we are in a moribund period for film, a moment when the stories of Hollywood’s golden age, from the 1930s to the early 1950s, have been replaced by special effects and vapid characters.

I can’t think of a major film critic over the past twenty-five years–the late Pauline Kael, or Andrew Sarris, or J. Hoberman–who would argue with Thomson, but he seems more weary of contemporary movies than anyone else. And The Whole Equation is marred by its weariness. Like Kael, Thomson cherishes the popular aspect of movies; however, Thomson–an Englishman who has spent much of his adult life in San Francisco–has much too cool a sensibility to share Kael’s visceral responses. His description of his friend the screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) is an accurate characterization of Thomson’s own noir-gloomy, macho-aesthete style, which he has cultivated the way an American actor cultivates a singular persona: Towne “has a way of being that is casual but intimate, like the best sort of naturalistic acting…. Its ease and attractiveness, and its worldliness are deep at the heart of his book’s subject.” Unlike Kael, too, Thomson is very much the auteurist, though, in keeping with his sang-froid, more skeptical about the director’s authority than is Sarris, the auteur theory’s best-known American exponent. Thomson’s true auteur, in fact, seems to be the studio executive, or the studio executives of yore, anyway. One of the representative figures in The Whole Equation is Monroe Stahr, the hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. Fitzgerald modeled Stahr on Irving Thalberg, the head of production at MGM from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s. The phrase “the whole equation” is from Fitzgerald’s novel–“not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.” For Thomson, such a person was embodied by moguls like Thalberg and Lew Wasserman, and by Charlie Chaplin, who controlled every aspect, aesthetic and financial, of his films.

Thomson himself has trouble keeping the disparate elements of his book in his head, or under control. His chapters are like different camera angles on the same landscape, each one taking a subject and attempting to develop a new theme–Chaplin’s loneliness and narcissism; the saga of Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 epic Greed; the influence of studio budgets; Thomson’s (incredibly fanciful) connection between movies, which allow you to fall in love with a stranger, and the rising rate of divorce. Yet the particularity of each chapter dissolves in a blurry haze of aperçus that could appear in any other chapter.

The Whole Equation purports to offer a history of Hollywood, but this little epic of a big American business seems to consist mostly of random thoughts jotted down on cocktail napkins at Spago. Vapid generality–“Very subtly, a democratic society begins to be treated as an audience or a mass, and so it goes”–alternates with sentences that make Derrida at his most opaque look like Newsday–“And the concentration camps are often spoken of as factories of death, places where the urge toward genocide, or unkindness, was subjected to modern ergonomics, the search for greater efficiency.” Never mind that unkindness is a less than apt description of what took place in Auschwitz, or that in the concentration camps the urge to genocide was not subjected to anything. No one responsible for planning the Final Solution ever said anything about making a better office chair. This book can be maddening.

Which is a shame. To go from The Whole Equation to Thomson’s classic Biographical Dictionary of Film is to experience two different categories of writing. The earlier book is magnificent and necessary. It’s like a great novel about Hollywood; all it lacks is a plot. On Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo in The Thomas Crown Affair: “He looked like a stick being toyed with by a lush cat.” And on Billy Wilder, whom Thomson appreciates, but appraises with his characteristically cool, worldly, weary eye (and with a sly allusion to Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard): “As it is, too often I feel he’s dead, or lost, to the life of his films, a grinning corpse floating on top, preserved by sardonic fluids and voice-over.” Make that a devastating weariness.

Just released in a revised edition as The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Thomson’s Dictionary is a masterpiece of rich insight into the culture of movie-making. That’s not to say the book isn’t full of bizarre judgments. About Marlon Brando’s ontologically pure performance in On the Waterfront, Thomson writes, “Today…it is hardly possible to be moved by [Brando] in On the Waterfront for noticing the vast technical trick he is performing.” That seems just plain cuckoo. And what “trick” might that be? Thomson never says.

But then Thomson’s idiosyncratic brilliance asserts itself. Reflecting on Brando’s famous scorn for film, Thomson wonders if there was “something in Brando that found so much pretending unwholesome or dishonorable? In his withdrawal, as much as in his best work, he has altered the way we think of acting.” It’s such a simple-seeming question to ask about Brando, obvious even, but no one thinks to ask it. And Thomson’s suggestion that Brando’s discomfort with artifice has swayed our conception of acting resonates broadly. Was Brando’s distance from his craft even as he practiced it responsible for an evolution in American irony? Did his calculated eccentric embellishments of a character–an English accent here, a woman’s dress there–undermine his famous naturalism, and certify American audiences’ innate mistrust of art’s attempt to imitate life? Maybe Stanley Kowalski lurks behind reality television. Thomson has a poet’s inferring touch.

The best parts of The Whole Equation lie in such suggestive formulations. Thomson beautifully writes, “what is film noir but the night with shadows?” He turns a phrase about the “crusty moral realism that kept Lillian Gish from being glamorous,” which sets you thinking. The British philosopher T.E. Hulme once said that romanticism was spilled religion; glamour is spilled romanticism, and there is something morally depleted about glamour. Yet vast numbers of people across the world sit rapt before glamorous images. Is glamour, therefore, a world problem? As I write these lines, AOL news presents its readers with this top headline: “Pitt, Aniston Split; Stay Friends.” Under that comes the section “More News,” where the headline reads: “Tsunami Toll Tops 150,000.” That is a kind of sickness. Or is it elitist, antidemocratic and smug to say so?

It would be good if mainstream movie reviews took up those questions about the nature of moviehood, good if they cast into a new idiom Dwight Macdonald’s old categories of masscult and midcult. Your highly influential newspaper film review really should not, in fact, be a review at all, but a reflection on the vastly extended culture of movies and movie celebrity. Film critics working for powerful newspapers could approach a movie the way a good reporter approaches a political figure or event, with detachment and dogged skepticism. But, as Thomson gratifyingly points out, newspapers are too dependent on revenue from movie-industry advertising to publish too many honest considerations of film.

Thomson is far more lenient toward Hollywood’s own pursuit of the buck, and he’s right to be so. Art has never been disentangled from commerce, and from the beginning Hollywood was about commerce before it was about art. For Thomson, the “whole equation” of Hollywood is, simply, the aspiration “to be show business and art at the same time.” Or, as he also puts it, “the urge to tell [movie] stories is inseparable from the wish to make money.” Maybe, in the end, the desire to camouflage that wish behind the pretense of an idealized populist decency is what is responsible for all those Hollywood movies about the hard-pressed little guy up against plutocratic big guys.

Sober and worldly, Thomson’s book is both a disenchanted defense of the movies and a wearily, stubbornly enchanted grievance about same. For Thomson, his buddy Robert Towne’s Chinatown is a metaphor for Hollywood’s trade-offs, what with its story of how greed and the crime of incest created Los Angeles and all its big-city opportunities. (Thomson’s worldliness is sometimes an implausible pose; to a great extent, he has assimilated Hollywood’s ambience of implausibility.) On the one hand, as Thomson sees it, the bottom line looms too large in Hollywood to bear out studio executives’ self-deluded claims of commitment to any kind of artistic vision. But the urge to create storytelling magic also remains too strong among some Hollywood figures to entirely squash hopes of making emotionally and even intellectually satisfying films, if not works of art.

And money is not always the enemy of those ambitions. While it’s hard to share Thomson’s inexplicable raptures over Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, studio executives threw $15 million at Cimino to help him realize his (crude, cynical, puerile) vision of the Vietnam War and Vietnam-era America. It’s not that money unfailingly corrupts art in Hollywood; it’s that movie money is often drawn to mediocre art; and hyper-socialized hustlers, not introspective deep-feelers, are often drawn to movie-making. But Thomson can also cite a score of artistic triumphs like The Godfather and Blue Velvet (the latter produced, he notes, by “one of the ancient whores of the picture business, Dino De Laurentiis”) that dipped deep into Hollywood’s pockets while surviving its stupefying embrace.

In other words, Hollywood’s sullying innocence and soiled idealism fit neatly into the parameters of American society–and vice versa. The larger the audience sought, the more the gravitational pull of higher numbers bends the quality of art. That could change. It could be that home videos and DVDs will someday allow movies to ignore the mass market altogether and bypass onerous distribution arrangements; maybe such films will, like books, acquire the integrity of a solitary art. Yet nothing in America that is meant to please even a small number of people seems to stay un-mass for long if it’s successful.

Thomson is good, if somewhat dense, on the changing economics of Hollywood. (The Movie Business Book, just published in its third edition, is the best source for information about the green behind the silver screen.) But he’s mainly interested in the movies’ social and psychological nature, and he has many interesting, sometimes fascinating things to say in this regard about silent film (“in silent pictures characters actually talk a good deal of the time”) and about filmmakers like Griffith and Stroheim, and about the human event that was Chaplin. On Chaplin’s womanizing, Thomson is at his noirest and most macho: “Charlie fucked like a very wealthy man with an utterly private life.” Infelicitous as that sentence may be, it presents a caustic paraphrase of celebrity. Thomson is at his best when he’s exercising his gift for looking, as if for the first time, at worn, familiar phenomena like celebrity–and sex.

There’s plenty of talk about sex in movies. There is no talk, however, about sex in the culture of movie-making. Yet the sexual opportunities available to most Hollywood scriptwriters, directors, actors and producers go way beyond the experience of the average, non-Hollywood American. Movies are often used to explain society, as if they were mediated yet fairly clear reflections of social experience. But behind the movies is a special society, trapped in its particular experience, that explains the movies.

Thomson is very explicit about the expectation, on the part of the old (and no doubt some of the new) Hollywood moguls, of sex from ambitious young actresses, especially the act of fellatio. With a kind of flaunted candor, Thomson writes in a discussion of Louis B. Mayer’s conduct with young starlets: “Joan Crawford swallowed her share of cum, and her lips shone in close-ups. How do you think lip gloss got invented?” I’m not sure what the cosmetics industry would say about this–it would probably depend on whom they were talking to. And in an odd Barthesian turn, Thomson suggests that those names, often invented by male studio executives, that ended in an open vowel–Garbo, Harlow, Monroe–had something to do with that expectation. Whatever you make of his conceit, you see what he’s getting at. (Bogey and Coop’s lips certainly never shone.) Hollywood and Hollywood movies have always revolved, and still revolve, around what men want, expect, demand from women. Of course, such desires aren’t exclusive to Hollywood. (Recall the Lewinsky scandal; though whereas Hollywood is libertine, sex in the nation’s capital is a hypocritical mix of lasciviousness and prudery.) But they have a formative influence in Hollywood, the likes of which are rarely found outside Hollywood, whose products radically shape society. (Think Monica, from Beverly Hills.)

The effect of Hollywood’s portrayal of sex as both the literal and symbolic center of existence is incalculable, especially the political effect. The tacit bargain used to be that working-class and middle-class Americans expected, in exchange for playing by the rules, that the popular culture they turned to for relaxation would reflect back to them positive images of people who played by the rules. Or at the very least they wouldn’t be made to feel foolish or excluded for dutifully following the rules. The function of a generation of romantic comedies à la Doris Day, and sitcoms à la The Honeymooners or The Dick Van Dyke Show was to ennoble disappointment, limitations, and the postponement–sometimes forever–of gratification. There’s scarcely any delay between a wish and its fulfillment in today’s movies, where beautiful-looking people are regularly, and graphically, gratifying themselves with other beautiful-looking people. The decline of the sitcom means that the terms of the old tacit bargain are slowly being ignored on the small screen, too, which is an even more consequential development, given that medium’s domestic immediacy.

Frankness in popular entertainment about sex and hidden motives is hardly a negative development, so long as free and gifted minds are behind it. But if you are still wondering what happened last November, and you are tired of hearing all the abstract, mind-numbing blather about red states and blue states, consider the consequences of Hollywood’s projection of its own narrow experience into the precious leisure time of its audiences. For many Americans, the promise of instant wealth is a lot more plausible (the market may go your way) than the promise of carnal or romantic gratification (you are who you are). So if Hollywood types, who supported the recent Democratic presidential candidate and his blowsy, post-coital-looking wife, are breaking the sexual rules, you might as well go with his more regular-looking rival, who disdains sexual promiscuity but favors dramatic military violence, and also winkingly implies that he is going to let everybody break the economic rules as a kind of moral corrective to all the sexual rules–i.e., the tacit bargain–that are being shattered.

Thomson himself is hardly a moralizer, as you may have noticed, though he is a caustic, jaded moralist. The conversation about the nature of Hollywood movies usually proceeds along the cloudy, banal lines of “moral values.” But looking plainly at the sociology of Hollywood, or at elements of filmmaking that don’t lend themselves to easy polemical formulations, yields a lot more insight into how we are living. What is the social effect of close-ups edging out shots of people interacting in a definite environment, or of a jumpy camera or digitized effects overwhelming reality as opposed to a steady camera subordinate to the visible world? How has movie music affected our patience with trying, unscored moments in life? (The iPod is our way of scoring our otherwise uneventful days.) What does it mean that films, unlike plays, are shot out of chronological sequence? How does that influence an actor’s style, and how do the actors influence us? Or do they?

The subject of acting almost never comes up in any extended way in commentary on the movies. But the art of acting is at the heart of nearly all popular entertainment, and movies and television obviously would not exist without actors. Thomson takes some halfhearted stabs at acting, suggesting–with startling ignorance and ludicrous alarm–that Method acting’s emphasis on the actor’s own experience is “a nonsense that could yet destroy a society, as well as an approach that drags down art or storytelling or entertainment.” You wonder what Thomson is thinking when he watches Pacino, perhaps the Method’s purest product, utterly obliterate himself in the role of Michael Corleone. But maybe Thomson falls back on the tough-guy-prophet tone because it’s even harder to talk about acting than about music.There’s simply no vocabulary for it, and there are no stable criteria for how to evaluate acting, except for the very vague standard of being true to life. Which sounds fine until you realize that it’s an aspiration diametrically at odds with the whole idea of “acting.”

And so Thomson rushes past aesthetic considerations to what he regards as acting’s social consequences. “The new model for humanity,” he declares, in that same prophetic tone, “becomes the actor, with his infinite variety.” He adds that “many of us become a little more like actors, waiting for a fresh part, a new start.” He asks (with cocktail-napkin infelicity): “Is the only way to behave naturally now to act?” The idea that we’ve all become actors is what currently passes for advanced commentary on the effects of film-acting on American life.

But Americans are very lightly bound by deference to prescribed social forms, and this means that they are less calculating in their self-presentation than the citizens of any other society you can think of. Americans don’t play “roles” to the extent that a British, French, Japanese or Saudi Arabian person will play a role in ordinary life. That’s why great American actors, unlike great British actors, rarely lose themselves in their characters, and perhaps why they achieve such iconic power abroad. Actors who became stars–Hepburn, Monroe, Brando, Pacino, Nicholson–play some version of what we have come to think of as themselves at the same time as they play a particular part. (Hepburn is almost always a sophisticate; Nicholson usually some kind of outsider; Pacino–since The Godfather–often a towering figure of evil, etc.) Ever since Brando’s tics and embellishments sabotaged the Method’s naturalism, American actors have found ways to remind us that they’re still themselves–still true to life–under the enchantments of art.

In fact, American acting’s suspicion of pretense and its stubborn adherence to the lifelike strengthen Americans’ mistrust of artistic fictions. Hollywood’s true meaning lies not in the fabrication of illusion but in some ultimate contempt for the imagination. For all of film’s super-mega-hyper fantasies and fantastic effects, for all its probably subtle influences on behavior, it leaves audiences unable to conceive of any other kind of life than the one they’re being officially urged to live. That doesn’t mean that portentous Marcuse was more than superficially accurate in his perceptions. But it is conclusive proof that, with regard to Hollywood’s capacity to inspire us to reimagine our lot in life, McCarthy was as much in the dark as any moviegoer.