Last week sometime I was approached to be part of a group of critics submitting—for Lubitsch knows what reason—their picks for the 100 greatest or favorite films of all time. Somewhat against my better judgment, I said yes. I probably would not have said yes if that “or favorite” phrase had not been attached. Anyone who believes him or herself actually qualified to categorically name the 100 greatest movies ever made is frankly deluded—for a variety of reasons. Other inducements to do this were the fact that the list is merely alphabetical, and the knowledge that I would not only be the only critic with Harry d’Abaddie d’Arrast’s Laughter (1930) on his list, but very possibly the only one who’s even seen it. However, how can a movie in which Fredric March and Nancy Carroll don bearskin rugs and growl at each other not be on such a list?
That last reason is also one of the primary reasons that it’s really impossible for anyone to actually churn out a supposedly authoritative list of 100 greatest films. I don’t care who you are or how much you think you know or have seen, you simply ain’t seen it all—and neither have I. There are eras I frankly gravitate toward based entirely on my life experience that they are much more apt to contain movies I will like. Unless you happen to find yourself in a position where you end up with some immersive dose of an era you aren’t familiar with, your natural tendency is to explore periods and filmmakers that have pleased you more than those that haven’t. Let’s face it, there’s about 100 years* of movies out there and no way to watch them all even were you so inclined—and chances are you’re not.
Here’s an example of how hit or miss it can be what you do and don’t know. I was impressed the other day when that out-of-nowhere (it seemed), 24-year-old film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky found a spot on Ebert Presents at the Movies talking about Stephen Roberts’ The Story of Temple Drake (1933). Vishnevetsky not only knew who Stephen Roberts was, also but had some feel for the man’s style. I’m still not entirely sold on Vishnevetsky as a critic, but that impressed me. We are, after all, talking about a director who died at the age of 40 in 1936 after only 12 feature films—most of them fairly obscure. (Asheville Film Society members may recall his two segments—“Violet” and “Grandma”—of If I Had a Million (1932), which was run last month.) I’ve seen half of them and had never much thought about Roberts’ style, but when Vishnevetsky described it, I immediately recognized that he was right.
Of course, you could presumably check out other lists in an attempt to “play it safe” and pick titles that a lot of people claim are great. But that’s not your list. It’s something else. Then again, how can you even be sure that that’s not exactly how some of these titles keep showing up on such lists? Really, you can’t. You could very well be perpetuating a base falsehood. The other option is to salt your list with works by filmmakers you know you’re supposed to like. I suppose I’m expected to include a film or two by Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray, but I can’t do it because I’ve just never liked anything they’ve made all that much.
There’s also the question—at least in my mind—about how long it’s been since you’ve seen a movie and how many times you’ve seen it. Is it reasonable to rely on a memory of 20 or 30 years ago on a film you saw once? Some will say it is, but I’m uncomfortable with it. I can’t deny that I was very impressed with Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), which I saw so long ago that it was still being called by its U.S. title Potemkin. That means that—apart from clips—it’s nearly 40 years since I actually sat down and watched it. Some aspects of the film are as clear in my mind as if I’d seen them yesterday—or so I think. But are they? I’m not satisfied that they are. Just looking at bits of it I noticed, for example, that the famous ending shot—while still powerful—isn’t nearly as well accomplished as I remembered.
So having set some guidelines for myself—the folks in charge really didn’t have any—I proceeded to attempt this probably foolish undertaking. I’ve nearly completed my first pass—I think I’m at 92—and I’m not displeased with the list. I certainly have no notions whatever that it’s the definitive anything. It doesn’t even come near being a list of “essentials.” I’m not sure it’s reasonable to claim cinematic literacy without seeing Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Battleship Potemkin, Gone with the Wind (1939) or Casablanca (1942), but they’re not on here. At the same time, for me, the films I have down are essentials in their own way—and I could easily add another 100 that I think everyone should see.
What then is the value of such a list—of any such list? There probably isn’t any—except the prospect of getting someone to watch something they otherwise mightn’t have considered. But lists are somehow appealing to most of us. I won’t go public with this list until the people who asked me to do this have published it—or whatever exactly they’re going to do—but I’m sure some of you can guess a lot of what’s on it. And if anyone wants to tackle a list of their own—or simply feels the need to throw out a few titles they’d consider essential—feel free to do so.
*Narrative film has been around for more than 100 years, but I’m hard-pressed to think of anything pre-1915 that I’d consider for such a list. Others may disagree.