For reasons I can’t begin to fathom certain members of my family have been stricken with list-o-mania (as distinct from Lisztomania, though that would certainly be on a list I would make ). It started innocently enough with lists of favorite books and favorite movies and other such things. This I understood because lists are fun, but then they moved from the safety of “favorites” into the realm of “bests,” which strikes me as definitely risky and possibly unnecessary.
Generally speaking, no one should berate you for liking a movie—at least within limitations. (Liking the 1963 Stanley Kramer bloatathon It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is marginally excusable on the grounds of impaired taste or misplaced nostalgia. Liking Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen merits calling in mesmerists, exorcists and possibly witch doctors.) A person can’t be said to be “wrong” for liking something. “Like” is not even a remotely objective term. I understand there are people who like cauliflower. I think they’re nuts, but I won’t say they’re wrong. However, when you start making “best” claims, you’re just asking for trouble, because you’re suggesting an objective—or at least supportable case.
I really like the so-called “Monogram Nine” (well, eight of them)—those super-cheap trash horror movies that Bela Lugosi made for Sam Katzman at Monogram Pictures in the 1940s—but I’m fully aware that they’re not good. I once described them as being the sort of thing you might expect if a technically savvy ten-year-old was allowed to make a movie. This, in fact, is their charm. I won’t go as far as Katzman himself did when he opined that anyone who went to these movies—his movies, mind you—was mentally defective, but I understand his point. Unless you’re making a list of “Best Worst Movies” or “Best of Bad Bela,” you would have to be mentally defective to put any of these on a “best” list.
What interests me here isn’t so much that it’s possible to like something that isn’t good. That’s a pretty easy concept. But what about the reverse? Is it really possible to call something “best” if you don’t like it? On what basis are you then making that claim? And why should you have to?
The general answer you get for “best movie ever made” is Citizen Kane (1941). I did recently see someone say that Kane was old hat, but considering that he had the uber-predictable choice of The Godfather (1972) on his list, I was unconvinced that I was in the presence of an original maverick thinker. The thing here is that I have no real issue with Citizen Kane in this capacity, but I also happen to like it. I think it’s a lot of fun in every sense. It’s exciting filmmaking and it tells an entertaining story in an entertaining way. No, I wouldn’t answer the question with it. (If pressed to give an answer to what is really a preposterous question like this, I’d probably say F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise ). But I understand the choice and am not about to go best two falls out of three over it. But I wonder how many people who actually give Citizen Kane as the answer actually like the movie—and how many are just hooked on conventional wisdom?
I haven’t seen—or have avoided seeing—one of those “polls” of greatest movies in some time, but you used to be able to bet that the number two film was likely to be Gone With the Wind (1939). Now, there’s a movie I do have problems with—and, no, this isn’t some PC thing. The movie is of its time and I have no problem accepting that. It’s simply that it’s this big, lumbering behemoth of a soap opera that goes on forever—and is impersonal as hell. It—along with most films of the overrated year of 1939—is the expression of corporate filmmaking in full flower. It’s slick, glossy, pretty and I don’t much care. But the funny thing here is that I fully believe that, unlike Citizen Kane, it’s a movie that ends up on such lists because people actually do like the damned thing. (Truth to tell, I like a lot of things in it, but I don’t think it’s a great movie—though it is the ne plus ultra of a kind of movie.)
Here’s the thing—movies are an art form and all art has to do with communication on one level or another. Now, unless a film communicates with you in some significant way that genuinely makes you like it or feel in some way enriched by the experience, on what possible basis can you honestly label it as a “best?” That film may not be particularly deep (I wouldn’t call Kane deep) and its claim to greatness may be largely technical, but it’s not impossible to like—even love—a film strictly on that basis. Why should anyone feel the need to label a film among the best without liking it? For that matter, are they being honest if they do?
Some of this comes down to a kind of cultural peer-pressure, I know. It’s always easier to stick with the safe choices—the schoolbook choices. It makes life flow rather more smoothly, but it’s also a little—or a lot—boring. Someone who is only prepared to discuss art with you based on the accepted masterpieces of the schoolbook sort probably isn’t going to have much to say that’s worth your time. It certainly isn’t likely to lead to any kind of spirited debate—and a spirited, intelligent debate is the very thing that keeps art alive and fresh. If someone tells me that the Mona Lisa is the greatest painting of all time, I’ll probably start looking for the nearest exit. If someone else tells me that an Henri Rousseau tropical forest with monkeys painting is better, then I’ll pursue that conversation. (Nevermind that comparing Da Vinci and Rousseau is pointless.) There’s some level of actual thought going on there—not just somebody repeating something told to him or her in ninth grade.
Sometimes this sort of thing can be pretty funny when placed in historical context. There’s a scene in David Butler’s You’ll Find Out—a 1940 musical comedy thriller starring Kay Kyser that isn’t likely to be on anyone’s best list—in which guest villains Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff are standing in front of a painting. The painting is The Man with the Golden Helmet. Lorre enthuses over the painting, “Ah, The Man with the Golden Helmet. Yes, Rembrandt. He was indeed the master of them all,” and Karloff adds, “I think that’s one of his best.” Typical movie level culture vulture stuff—“culchah” for the masses. There’s only one problem—many years later, expert after expert determined that, hey, guess what? The painting isn’t by Rembrandt at all. So here are Karloff and Lorre frozen for all time with cultural egg on their faces for waxing rhapsodic over this subsequently bogus Rembrandt. Or are they?
Without getting into the questions being raised today by new experts that maybe the old experts were wrong and that the older experts were right and it really is by Rembrandt, let’s look at it another way. Our old chums, Boris and Peter, may be perfectly right artistically in praising the painting. It is after all the same painting—the painting didn’t change—it was before it was discredited. So if they were actually admiring the painting and not just bowing to the Rembrandt brand name, there’s nothing really wrong with their enthusiasm for it, is there? (Granted, they’re only reading what someone else wrote, but the principle’s the same.)
The point is worry a little less about what you’re supposed to like and consider great, and worry a little more about the honesty of your response to a thing. If you can sit down with Citizen Kane and come away going, “Hell, yes, that’s the best movie ever made,” then fine. But don’t force yourself to do it because you’re “supposed to.” These are movies, not broccoli that your mother is forcing you to eat—and if you’re approaching them as the latter, you’re doing neither the movies, nor yourself any favors.