Friday, June 27, 2008


My brother Eric gave me a copy of 1001 Movies to See Before You Die, edited by Stephen Jay Schneider. The book is better than the same press's 1001 Books to Read Before You Die for two reasons: 1) it's much easier to enter into the spirit of Scheherazade's 1001 Nights because it's possible to watch a movie a night, whereas reading a book a night is well-nigh impossible; 2) the selections only have to span the period from the earliest films (the list begins, as it should, with Voyage to the Moon, 1902) to the present (or rather 2004, in this 2005 edition), so there's not as much sense of disservice to the earlier eras -- whereas 1001 Books should obviously be "1001 novels" since it doesn't at all delve into the insurmountably great works that appeared before the novel did. But even the novel, being so much older than film, is not best served by so many still-living authors whose works, however much one might conceive them as "must reads" of our particular era, don't necessarily translate into "fiction for the ages." That's partly true of the movie list too -- wherein Kubrick and Spielberg dominate -- and the various editions of the film book keep playing about mostly with the latter day stuff. In terms of write-ups, the comments on the older films are more satisfying because they actually make critical points or provide a bit of reception history. The newer films -- in my edition many with commentary by Joanna Berry -- are lackluster "fan-bytes," perhaps inevitable given much of the "must" fluff on the list.

By my quick count I've seen more than half (about 520) of the films on the list at some point -- if we count TV and video-tape and DVD viewings; the number I've seen in a cinema is far smaller. Where I'm weakest is on silent films and films from nations somewhat less than "high profile" in the world of cinema. The best aspect of the list is there: providing a reference to movies that in some cases I haven't heard of or have forgotten about. It's easy to be dissatisfied with the choice of films that one knows and abhors, and with the absence of films one prefers, but more to the point is to consider which recommended films might add significantly to one's "store," as it were.

But at once it all seems not nearly selective enough. I prefer the idea of a more stringent"bucket list" (from a film I recently saw) in which one lists the "must do before death" activities. I doubt that anyone would put viewing movies on an actual bucket list (unless, perhaps, one was already bed-ridden), but I still like the idea of a list of "musts" or "bests," as in the AFI's recently aired Top Ten American Films in each of ten genres, culled from a provided ballot of 50 films in each genre. Similarly, the challenge of the 1001 list is to whittle it down to a manageable 200 or so. The 10 per genre strategy isn't finally satisfying because some films don't easily fit into a genre and because 10 films in a more generic genre (sci-fi, horror, suspense) won't necessarily be among the best things ever committed to celluloid. I'm more inclined to try a "100 best" from the decades of my own life: the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and twenty-oughts. It may be that at least twice as many worthwhile films could be chosen from the period from the nineteen-oughts to the 1950s, but I would rather leave their choice to the film historian, which I don't pretend to be.

But the real fun is to be found in the kind of commentary offered in another book my brother gave me: 101 Movies to Avoid. The book, unfortunately, is lacking in wit and insight, showing no real grasp of the films it tries to savage. A pity. I think a real service could be provided by pointing out -- even in a list of one's favorites -- what a film's strengths and weaknesses actually are. I'm a firm believer that just about anything can be successfully mocked, particularly works that are revered in a "bandwagon" fashion or which obviously take themselves too seriously. But poking fun should be fun for the reader -- and it rarely is in this lackluster book.

So what's the upshot of all this? I'm already engaged, ostensibly, in writing a comment on every artist I own a CD by -- perhaps I'll supplement this evaluative activity with comments on the movies of my lifetime that I'd like to recommend. The problem there is that one is engaged in praising and recommending. It might be more fun to find fault with some of the 1001 films on that list -- or on any of the AFI "best" lists. But that would necessitate re-watching movies I have no intention of ever sitting through again. Anyway, on with the show...

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