The invention of moving pictures is almost certainly the most powerful shaper of the unique consciousness of the modern age. For almost a century now we have all been at the movies, and our brains are overcrowded with the ghostly traces of all we have seen and "experienced." By now the movies are our mental wallpaper and, perhaps, even the medium through which we perceive the world. The Phantom Empire is the first book that truly captures and explains this peculiar and now universal state of thought and feeling. It focuses on the global proliferation of film, a worldless, irrational lingua franca, infinitely rich in images but conveying a knowledge radically different from the culture of the word. What, finally, do we internalize from the endlessly multiplying scenes from already ancient silent films, "real" documentary footage of massacres and bombardments, classic movies whose unerasable performers (Keaton, Astaire, Shirley Temple) never age, such mutating genres as Italian spy movies, German westerns, Chinese gangster flicks, Japanese vampire movies, porn films and splatter films of every national origin...? Their grammar bypasses poetry, history, and philosophy to create a parallel universe, an invented landscape of the supernatural whose ghosts haunt the denatured landscape of our postindustrial civilization. Still, we love movies. The Phantom Empire measures the degree and nature of that love by mixing the modes of fiction and criticism and by blurring the distinctions between objective and subjective in a completely original way. It is not so much concerned with what happens on the screen as with what happens inside the person watching it. Geoffrey O'Brien's brilliant bookcommunicates, as no other prose work has done, the visceral power of film, rooted as it is in terror, longing, and obsessive devotion. In doing so it erases the artificial distinction between spectator and commentator and virtually reinvents film writing in our time.
Ingenious and idiosyncratic . . . a work that somehow manages to be both a prose poem about the pleasures and distractions of movie-watching and an extremely compact history of the cinema.--Louis Menand