Thursday, July 30, 2015

Listing to Starboard

Not content to be one of the world's most venerated sources of news reporting, The BBC conducted its own survey to determine the "100 Greatest American Films." They published the results online last week. This is how they introduced them:  

"In recognition of the astounding influence of the US on what remains the most popular art-form worldwide, BBC Culture has polled 62 international film critics to determine the 100 greatest American films of all time. . . . Each critic who participated submitted a list of 10 films, with their pick for the greatest film receiving 10 points and their number 10 pick receiving one point . . . Critics were encouraged to submit lists of the 10 films they feel, on an emotional level, are the greatest in American cinema - not necessarily the most important, just the best."

That last sentence is rather vague,and may have caused some confusion. If one "feels" ("on an emotional level" no less) that something is great, what should one do if one knows (on a rational level) that it is not? I feel that La Notte is Antonioni's greatest film, but I know that L'Avventura is. See what I mean?

BBC Culture posted their list backwards, counting down from 100 to 1. Here are the films in their proper order.  

1. Citizen Kane (1941-Orson Welles)   
2. The Godfather (1972-Francis Ford Coppolla)   
3. Vertigo (1958-Alfred Hitchcock)   
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968-Stanley Kubrick)   
5. The Searchers (1956-John Ford)  
6. Sunrise (1927-F. W. Murnau)
7. Singing' in the Rain (1952-Stanley Donen)
8. Psycho (1960-Alfred Hitchcock)
9. Casablanca (1942-Michael Curtiz)
10. The Godfather, Part II (1974-Francis Ford Coppolla)
11. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942-Orson Welles)
12. Chinatown (1974-Roman Polanski)
13. North by Northwest (1959-Alfred Hitchcock)
14. Nashville (1975-Robert Altman)
15. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946-William Wyler) 
16. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971-Robert Altman)
17. The Gold Rush (1925-Charles Chaplin)
18. City Lights (1931-Charles Chaplin)
19. Taxi Driver (1976-Martin Scorsese)
20. Goodfellas (1990-Martin Scorsese)
21. Mulholland Drive (2001-David Lynch)
22. Greed (1924-Erich von Stroheim)
23. Annie Hall (1977-Woody Allen)
24. The Apartment (1960-Billy Wilder)
25. Do the Right Thing (1989-Spike Lee)
26. Killer of Sheep (1978-Charles Burnett)
27. Barry Lyndon (1975-Stanley Kubrick)
28. Pulp Fiction (1994-Quentin Tarantino)
29. Raging Bull (1980-Martin Scorsese)
30. Some Like It Hot (1959-Billy Wilder)
31. A Woman Under the Influence (1974-John Cassavetes)
32. The Lady Eve (1941-Preston Sturges)
33. The Conversation (1974-Francis Ford Coppolla)
34. The Wizard of Oz (1939-Victor Fleming)
35. Double Indemnity (1944-Billy Wilder)
36. Star Wars (1977-George Lucas)
37. Imitation of Life (1959-Douglas Sirk)
38. Jaws (1975-Steven Spielberg)
39. The Birth of a Nation (1915-D. W. Griffith)
40. Meshes in the Afternoon (1943-Maya Deren)
41. Rio Bravo (1959-Howard Hawks)
42. Dr. Strangelove (1964-Stanley Kubrick)
43. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948-Max Ophuls)
44. Sherlock Jr (1924-Buster Keaton) 
45. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962-John Ford)
46. It's a Wonderful Life (1946-Frank Capra)
47. Marnie (1964-Alfred Hitchcock)
48. A Place in the Sun (1951-George Stevens)
49. Days of Heaven (1978-Terrence Malick)
50. His Girl Friday (1940-Howard Hawks)
51. Touch of Evil (1958-Orson Welles)
52. The Wild Bunch (1969-Sam Peckinpah)
53. Grey Gardens (1975-Albert & David Maysles)
54. Sunset Boulevard (1950-Billy Wilder)
55. The Graduate (1967-Mike Nichols)
56. Back to the Future (1985-Robert Zemeckis)
57. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989-Woody Allen)
58. The Shop Around the Corner (1940-Ernst Lubitsch)
59. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975-Milos Forman)
60. Blue Velvet (1986-David Lynch)
61. Eyes Wide Shut (1999-Stanley Kubrick)
62. The Shining (1980-Stanley Kubrick)
63. Love Streams (1984-John Cassavetes)
64. Johnny Guitar (1954-Nicholas Ray)
65. The Right Stuff (1983-Phillip Kaufman)
66. Red River (1948-Howard Hawks)
67. Modern Times (1936-Charles Chaplin)
68. Notorious (1946-Alfred Hitchcock)
69. Koyannisqatsi (1982-Godfrey Reggio)
70. The Band Wagon (1953-Vincente Minelli)
71. Groundhog Day (1993-Harold Ramis)
72. The Shanghai Gesture (1941-Josef von Sternberg)
73. Network (1976-Sidney Lumet)
74. Forrest Gump (1994-Robert Zemeckis)
75. Close Encounters of the First Kind (1977-Steven Spielberg)
76. The Empire Strikes Back (1980-Irvin Kershner)
77. Stagecoach (1939-John Ford)
78. Schindler's List (1993-Steven Spielberg)
79. The Tree of Life (2011-Terrence Malick)
80. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944-Vincente Minelli)
81. Thelma & Louise (1991-Ridley Scott)
82. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981-Steven Spielberg)
83. Bringing Up Baby (1938-Howard Hawks)
84. Deliverance (1972-John Boorman)
85. Night of the Living Dead (1968-George A. Romero)
86. The Lion King (1994-Roger Allers)
87. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004-Michel Gondry)
88. West Side Story (1961-Robert Wise)
89. In a Lonely Place (1950-Nicholas Ray)
90. Apocalypse Now (1979-Francis Ford Coppolla)
91. E.T. (1982-Steven Spielberg)
92. The Night of the Hunter (1955-Charles Laughton)
93. Mean Streets (1973-Martin Scorsese)
94. The 25th Hour (2002-Spike Lee)
95. Duck Soup (1933-Leo McCarey)
96. The Dark Knight (2008-Christopher Nolan)
97. Gone With the Wind (1939-Victor Fleming)
98. Heaven's Gate (1980-Michael Cimino)
99. 12 Years a Slave (2013-Steve McQueen)
100. An Ace in the Hole (1951-Billy Wilder)

Believe me, typing out this list was as dispiriting to me as it was tiresome. While I don't regard any list as truly authoritative, I've certainly seen better lists than the BBC's. It is, in fact, something of a disgrace. Where do I begin to tear it apart?

There are too many reasons to list to not take Top Ten Lists seriously. I have already had my say about the British Film Institute's Sight and Sound Top Ten Lists., published every ten years since 1952. All I will reiterate is that such exercises are a dubious gauge of any film's ultimate importance, precisely because, in their strenuous attempts to be comprehensive, the more people you include in every poll, the less authoritative it inevitably becomes. The reason why every Oxford Book of English Poetry is edited by one person is to give authority over what to include and what to leave out to one guiding intelligence. The results are never greeted with universal approval, but they are preferable to throwing out a broad net and pulling in everything, including the kitchen sink. 

And what is the standard? In his book, Private Screenings, John Simon wrote: 

"Concerning film, almost everyone has some Procrustean axe to grind: It is merely an entertainment, it must be purely filmic, it has got to be avant-garde, it cannot depend on words, it must not resemble theatre, it cannot come out of a major studio, it must be the product of a single creative mind, it should not be merely an entertainment, and so on. The fact is that some of the best films have defied any or all rules that have ever been set down for them, and even the safest of generalizations does not entirely stand up under scrutiny."

Jonathan Rosenbaum could come up with one thousand films that belong in the canon of great films. If I were to be brutally honest, I would probably (if I tried) have a difficult time coming up with fifty. Remember, the BBC told the 62 critics it consulted that they had to number their choices. And they only had to come up with ten. (And it is rather unfair to take a film that critic #37 ranked at #10 and place it at #100 merely because he was alone in his love for a particular film.) There is no way I could number what I consider to be the best Ingmar Bergman film. I could narrow it down to perhaps three. But where would I place them in a Top Ten list? If Sawdust and Tinsel and Smiles of a Summer Night and Winter Light are about as equally great as I'm able to estimate, how would I fit them in a Top Ten. Is Bergman better than Fellini? Because I could easily come up with about three great Fellini films.

American film specializes in genre films, and in the BBC's top ten you have a two gangster films, two suspense films, a science-fiction film, a western, a silent film, and a musical. And - oh yeah - Citizen Kane, which is a film without a genre. To its credit, the American Film Institute's top ten lists segregate films into categories: Best Suspense Film (Vertigo), Best Western (The Searchers), Best Sci-Fi (2001), and Best Musical (Singin' in the Rain). This makes much better sense, since the terrific singing and dancing that makes Singin' in the Rain great is entirely missing from The Godfather(s). All the tricks in Alfred Hitchcock's bag that give Vertigo its reason for being wouldn't have been any use to John Ford when he made The Searchers. And there are experimental films on the BBC's list, an animated film and a documentary. It's comparing apples and oranges (and peaches and pears). 

Whether they intended it or not, the BBC's list resembles the British Film Institute's in some places - perhaps not enough. In their 2002 Critics' Poll, BFI gave Coppolla's Godfather films extraordinary importance by placing both of them at #4 in their top ten. By 2012, however, the critics had returned to their senses, and both films were sleeping with the fishes. Like BFI's, the BBC's critics think enough of Hitchcock to give him #2, #8, #13, #47 and #68. I'm not a Hitchcock fan by any means (and aren't most of these poll contributors fans rather than critics?), but even I know that Strangers on a Train and The Wrong Man are more representative of his best work than any on the BBC's list.

I could feel the shadow of auteurism casting a pall over the BBC list, just as it has over BFI's. There are five films on their list by four filmmakers: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Wilder, and Spielberg. There are four by Coppolla, Scorsese, and Hawks. Three by Welles and Ford. "Auteurs," by their definition. And there are evidently enough of their minions still out there to ensure that a few of their darlings (including Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk) score enough places on the list. But quite a few titles on the list are what I and anyone else would call - regardless of their popularity - cult films, like Night of the Living Dead, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Blue Velvet, Touch of Evil, Meshes in the Afternoon, Nashville, and a few others.(1)    

As usual, the List's sins of omission often outweigh the ones committed. How could anyone acquainted with the history of American film dare to ignore Bonnie and Clyde? And who in his right mind could name five films by Stanley Kubrick and none by John Huston? Is it really because Andrew Sarris didn't like him? Has anyone heard of The Maltese Falcon? The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? The African Queen

Terrence Malick made the list with two films, but his best film, Badlands, is, evidently, unknown or forgotten. Frank Capra's Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life, is unbearably hokey outside its holiday context, like just now in July. Why not the much better It Happened One Night instead? And I noticed that no one thought enough (or anything at all) of Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, but why should that cause them to neglect his marvelous Melvin and Howard? Woody Allen's Annie Hall and Crimes and Misdemeanors made the cut, but everyone obviously forgot Zelig, which is his masterpiece. A few years ago, before his death of course, I was calling Sidney Lumet the greatest living American director. He's represented on the list by one film that isn't his best. How could the BBC's contributors have ignored Dog Day Afternoon or The Verdict or Prince of the City? I love David Lynch's The Straight Story. The rest of his work leaves me indifferent.

Michael Cimino's disastrous Heaven's Gate, which is credited with bringing about the demise of United Artists, made the list, but his much better Deer Hunter, which presented to us what is probably the most challenging metaphor of America's involvement in Vietnam - Christopher Walken drugged out of his mind playing Russian roulette in a Vietnamese gambling den - didn't. (To this day, I still can't sit still through the film's last scene.)

There are a few surprises, some pleasant, some not. Seeing Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at #87 was cheering. And Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing is just as scary and relevant more than twenty-five years after its premier. Forrest Gump made a lot of people wish they were idiots. The critics who voted for it certainly were. 

Four years ago on this blog, I succumbed to the temptation to make a list of what I think are thirty great American films. The only way I could have come up with a hundred is if a gun had been pressed against the back of my skull. I don't believe that a hundred Great American films exist. But at least I managed to resist the stupid urge to rank the thirty I found worthy of the word "great," even if I have to admit to using the word rather flexibly. Here's what I came up with, in alphabetical order (and any list of great American films is obliged to include Citizen Kane, which is still the greatest American film I can think of):

Badlands (Terrence Malick)                                                            
Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn)                                         
Born On the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone)                          
Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)                                     
Chinatown (Roman Polanski)                                             
Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg)                                                        
Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer)                                             
Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet)                                     
Donnie Brascoe (Mike Newell)                                                    
Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick)                                    
Driving Miss Daisy (Bruce Beresford)                                   
Fight Club (David Fincher)                                      
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese)                                           
Hard Times (Arthur Hill)                                           
Jeremiah Johnson (Sidney Pollock)                                      
King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)                                        
The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston)                             
M*A*S*H (Robert Altman)                                             
Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme)                                      
The Pledge (Sean Penn)                                                
Prince of the City (Sidney Lumet)                                 
Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg)                                  
Smoke (Wayne Wang)                                                       
The Straight Story (David Lynch)                                   
Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard)                                           
Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah)                                          
Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford)                                         
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick)                                     
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Sidney Pollack)                          
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah)    


Too subjective? Of course it is. What's on your list? 


(1) In revenge, Empire Magazine's readers' poll ranked Citizen Kane #33, with The Empire Strikes Back at #1.

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