Sunday, December 2, 2012

What are you watching? Why following something like 1001 Films You Must see is a bad idea and why you need to take everything in

Monday I got the November/ December Film Comment in the mail.   After flipping through it to see what was in the issue I flipped over to Editor Gavin Smith's opening piece and was kind of taken aback.  Smith was describing an encounter with a younger version of myself ....

The short version of the story is that Gavin was introduced to a 13 year old who was very interested in film. He was going through one of the versions of the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die and was looking to find some titles. Gavin ralked to kid and found out that his favorite films were Citizen Kane,  Celine and Julie Go Boating  and All About Eve. He was not going to main stream movies rather than things like Tree of Life and Brighter Summer Day. Gavin had said that at his age he loved Jaws, ...Holy Grail and Planet of the Apes and was reading movie novelizations (Dirty Harry). Reading the piece I saw my younger self in both Smith and his young friend, for I would have been watching the mainstream stuff while professing to want to see the "artier" stuff.

In a way I was horrified.

The horrifying thing is not so much that Gavin Smith’s early tastes mirror my own, though it does probably explain why I always love when he programs a film series and why I respect his opinion highly (come on, the man puts genre films his Best of the Year list and almost no one else at Film Comment does). The chilling thing is that someone is actually following the 1001 Must See list.


Why would anyone who truly loved movies use a book such as 1001 Must Sees as the basis of all (or most) of what you see? Why not turn on cable and start channel surfing or going to Netflix?

How can anyone even talk intelligently about film if one only sees the supposed must sees or best. I mean how do you know what the best is if you don't know what the worst is?

With all of the thousands, nay millions of films floating around out there you’re going to follow one list made up by one guy or groups of guys(and girls)? Doesn’t he realize that the films on the list past a certain point are going to be random? I mean seriously once you get to a certain point on films everyone agrees on you have to fill the other 956 films. 1001 films?  Doesn't the kid realize that the 1001 number and the must see in the title are marketing ploys.

Despite what most people think, Best Film (or best anything) or must see lists are not always the best or must see. Best film lists are at best subjective selections. The end of the year lists are more favorites than anything. We say these are the best films when in fact the list is these are the films that films we liked best. This is why my year end list is always categorized as favorites/best. The number of best films usually being ten is arbitrary, my lists ebb and flow depending on the year and what I see. As Gavin Smith says in his piece when asked about his favorite film, how can you pick a favorite when there are so many?

What also scares me is that this poor kid is only seeing the arty challenging films. He said in the previous year he saw Tree of Life and Brighter Summer Day. Art house favorites. He told Gavin that he is staying away from major releases like Avengers.

How can anyone who loves movies- no how can anyone who claims to LOVE movies not watch everything that is put before them? If you love movies you have to try to watch everything from everywhere. If you love film you have to be open, after all, all of the great filmmakers are.

Actually how can you hope to understand the work of any director, more specifically say Scorsese or Tarrantino if you don’t know what they are pulling from? Trust me on this anyone as some one who has delved deep into the films that Tarantino steals from, your view of his films will be very different if you know what he's riffing on if as opposed to just watching his pastiches. If you know where all the references in say Grindhouse come from or Inglorious Basterds you’ll see it differently. I’m guessing the same will happen when Django Unchained comes out at Christmas.(I mean how many people don’t know what the title refers to?)

Read interviews with  directors, say Scorsese talking about making his films and you'll see really quickly how he borrows from films that influenced him (whats his two series on the films that influenced him if you have any doubts what so ever). Somewhere in one of the interviews you'll have the story of him asking Freddie Francis about how to shoot things because he wanted something similar to some movie Francis made when they were working on Cape Fear. Or listen to any other filmmaker of note anywhere in the world and you'll find that they watch everything they can get their hands on.

If nothing else you have to watch everything if you want to understand the human condition. If you are watching say just the great films and the art house stuff to know the world you are dismissing whole chunks of the world. You're world view skews and gets cockeyed. What would your world view be if you only saw opera?  You'd think that right around the time the fat lady sings some one dies a horrible painful death.

By not seeing mainstream stuff you are dismissing the work of the “common people” you are dismissing popular culture in order to deal with some odd notion about which films matter. Think about how people like Dashiell Hammett, once pulp writers ended up at the big peoples table in regard to literature, the same thing with film. Once his stories were disposable, now they are essential.

You know what film matters? Any one that is watched and enjoyed, on any level for any reason. Movies are stories It is cliche but movies are collective dreams, they are our hopes and dreams and a way to burn off steam. You have to take them all in.

Going to screenings, watching other journalists talk I’m frequently stunned by the dismissive attitude they have toward some films. They will not watch certain films because they are genre or big budget or something else. There is aire of contempt as they discuss certain films or filmmakers as if they don't matter.

They do matter, they may not make things they like, but they do matter. Some times they can surprise you, such as Uwe Boll, poster child for critical abuse, turning out the excellent Tunnel Rats. Look at Peter Jackson who made the wonderful twisted sick films like Meet the Feebles and Bad Taste, films most critics wouldn't have pissed on if they were on fire, and now after Heavenly Creatures, Lord of the Rings and even Lovely Bones he's a major filmmaker.

My heart bleeds for this 13 year old, as it does for any of my numerous friends who are locked into watching only certain genres such as horror films or documentaries or crime films or 4 star films. How the hell can you watch so much of the same stuff or variations on them? If you've seen anything about Unseen Films over the last (just short of) three years its that we really do at least try to hit everything from everywhere. I try damn hard to mix it all up.

I know the 1001 has films all over the place and it's really just a pointer for films that are worthy of note, but at the same time following a list like that, or even dwelling in any supposed "great film" sewer you end up stuck seeing a lot of shit that really is shit. What frightens me is that if the kid Gavin was talking to was like me at that age he'll watch and stick with supposed noteworthy films even though he doesn't like them. I can't tell you how many classics I stuck with because they were supposed to be great when I should have walked (Wavelength or Breathless anyone?) It wasn't until I was a few years older when I realized that I could actually walk out or turn off a film I don't like.

I think what I'm trying to say is that we shouldn't be following any list of must see anything, especially one 1001, or even 101, titles long,  but instead we should be wading out into the films and making up our list  of  films that we were damn lucky to see. We should be out there trying to find the great films that change our life and not copy the list that changed some one else's lives.

Unseen Films is, for the most part my list of small treasures. Its supplemented with the things that my friends have found. Its not 2000 must see films, it's just some ideas of somethings you might like, which is all any list we share should be.

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