In spring 2011, I was visiting my friend Joe S. in New Jersey, along with another friend of his, Raf T. of Philly, when Joe proposed we help him compile a list of his 50 favorite movies. Of course, the discussion soon became more individual, with each of us trying to come up with our own list. Early on, we agreed that a list should only contain movies released since 1970. For Joe and I, both born in the ‘50s, the reason was logistical. Movies before 1970 were rarely available to us in our formative years, or only on TV with commercials and whatever other liberties were taken with the film. Certainly, we didn’t see many of the classics on the big screen without interruption. Many of the films I admire, pre-1970, I have made an effort to see on DVD, and sometimes that’s good enough. But for us, the period from 1970 onward was when we had the opportunity to see the films we wanted to see during their first run, more or less. The Seventies was also the period when cable stations came into play, so that even if one didn’t see a film on the big screen, one could at least see it without commercial interruption or censorship. The logistics of our viewing in our teens and twenties were taken into account, in other words.
That situation has changed as we’ve gotten older, and it may be completely different for those much younger than us. Today, it’s much easier to see entire movies without going to movie theaters at all. And someone who has been watching movies only since the ‘80s, like my daughter, saw most of the films pre-90s on video tape. I mention all this because eventually I started compiling lists from my siblings, other friends, and from my daughter and a friend of hers, and may start soliciting more lists. The kinds of access, the kinds of viewing experiences, no doubt play a part in how films are remembered, and one of the things I want to get down, on this blog, are my reminiscences about the films I chose.
What I asked for, initially, involved a certain critical perspective on the films, even though they were supposed to be favorite films. I borrowed three phrases from the poet Wallace Stevens, enunciated in his “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”: “It Must Be Abstract” “It Must Give Pleasure” “It Must Change.” What I took each to mean, applied to film: “Abstract” meant the film must have a point of some kind, something that one could state as its “idea.” I believe there are many films with no idea other than to entertain, and that’s fine, but for the list of “chosen fifty,” I wanted to make sure there was some intellectual purpose to the film, no matter how broadly conceived. “Pleasure” meant it had to be a film that one truly enjoyed watching again and again; one should be careful about including films one might enjoy but which contain elements that are annoying or unsuccessful. These fifty should be films you like, not films you might feel, as a fan of X or as a film buff or as a serious critic, you should like. “Change” meant the film must offer new insights or pleasures with repeated viewings, the idea being that one’s view of the film changes with more familiarity, but it still “holds up.” Some films are very likeable, but one’s perception of them never really alters, or does so for the worse. Clearly, choosing films for the list requires some serious thought, a good memory, and a certain vigilance. A film one loved at twenty might be a bit of an embarrassment at thirty-five. Or a film which was “the” film of the year a few years back might have a much shorter shelf life than one imagined when everyone was praising it.
The list I compiled of my favorites, is, I think, accurate to my tastes. But I might only be sure about that once I make the effort of “defending” my choices. At that point, one is making a claim for a film, and it gets rather lame simply to keep insisting “but I like it!” Or even: “but I like it!” I will say this: I’ve gotten lists from twelve other people so far, and only two are people I don’t know personally. Of the 50 films I picked, there are only three that are not included on any other list. Which is I guess a way of saying that I have films in common with my friends. As Rob, the guy John Cusack plays in High Fidelity, says: “it’s not what you’re like, it’s what you like that counts.” Maybe. In any case, one can often be appalled by what other people put on their lists. And it’s that outrage at some choices while agreeing with others that makes this whole “personal taste” issue so thorny. So, for what it’s worth, I think it’s time to put up my list and own up to what I like.
Of course, I arrange the lists in chronological order, and having a sense of film chronology helped me in composing my list. But for the purposes of checking them off the list and writing about each one, I think I’ll go for alphabetical order, to avoid that whole linear narrative thing. I don’t want a narrative that culminates with whatever happens to be the latest film on the list. As it happens, the final film, alphabetically, lets me hark back to a really early moment in my film-viewing, so that should be fun.
So, as Laurie Anderson says, “hey, Professor, could you turn out the lights? Let’s roll the film…”