Friday, June 22, 2007

The Siren's Top 9 Objections to the AFI Top 100

Because she likes the number 9 better than the number 10. In reverse order, the Siren's problems with who made it, Ma, and who didn't:

9. This morning, my daughter was playing with a set of wooden blocks. There are 30 blocks in the set. Her twin brother reached out and tentatively grabbed one block. This left her with 29. His sister let out a howl that could probably be heard in Newark: "No, MY BLOCKS! MINE!" And I had the same conversation as always. There are a lot of blocks here. Your brother can have his one block.

What reminded the Siren of this scenario was the presence, once again, of Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai on this list. These films weren't merely created by a British director, like Vertigo. They are culturally and thematically British, about British history and British empire. Who cares about which country put up the money? Kwai had one American star and two American screenwriters, it is true, but one writer was in France and the other in London because we had, you know, made them leave in order to get work.

We have a massive film industry. We have our own blocks and furthermore, unlike this morning's combatants, we are not four years old. We don't have to take away movies from the British. (The Siren assumes that the howls over the prior inclusion of The Third Man as "American" must have made a dent, since its omission can't be explained otherwise.) And while we are on the subject, A Clockwork Orange, despite Kubrick, doesn't make much sense as an American movie either.

8. No Fritz Lang. Come on--no Scarlet Street? no Woman in the Window? Well, the second one has been hard to see for some time. The Siren hasn't seen it since the 1980s, but its DVD-less state is about to be rectified.

7. Sophie's Choice really isn't a good movie. It is a pretty bad movie with one great performance and an unforgettable climax. The other movies on the list that the Siren considers unworthy can be justified in terms of cultural impact or later influence--even (the Siren swallows hard) something like The Sixth Sense. But Sophie's Choice was recognized as a deeply flawed movie even at the time, and if it had lasting influence on anything other than subject matter and Meryl Streep's (well-earned) career the Siren has missed it.

6. The Siren loves James Cagney. Worships him, in fact. And she loves Yankee Doodle Dandy. But if you are going to do only one Cagney, the one to do is White Heat.

5. Similar beef with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Swing Time is great, but everyone knows Top Hat is the one to beat.

4. You out there, yes you, the one whining about Citizen Kane. Cut it out. No, it is not a "boring movie." No, it did not achieve its status strictly because of "technical stuff." It is one of the most thematically complex movies ever made in this country, an astoundingly rich statement on American success and American failure, as relevant today as it was in 1941. The Siren finds Paradise Lost boring. Nevertheless she does not waste people's time by trying to argue that this means Milton is overrated.

3. If, however, you wish to argue that The Magnificent Ambersons has as much of a right to be here as Kane, the Siren will listen.

2. Famous exchange at Ernst Lubitsch's funeral:

Billy Wilder: No more Ernst Lubitsch.
William Wyler: Worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures.

While this thought depressed the hell out of Wilder and Wyler, a lack of Lubitsch does not unduly ruffle the mandarins of the AFI. That is ten different kinds of wrong.

1. As Ebert points out, this list is more a marketing tool than anything else, designed to shift DVDs. Given the amount of attention the list generates, and the fact that it is compiled by "filmmakers, critics and historians," does it have to be so SAFE? So many Oscar winners. So many epics and adventure stories, so few women's pictures, so little grit. Everything already widely seen and widely available. Live a little, guys. Is a bit of a surprise too much to ask?

Postscript: Mucho morning-after discussion on this, of course. Edward Copeland tracks the ins and outs on the list, and M.A. Peel at Newcritics looks in depth at the Top 10. Here is Chuck Tryon, giving his thoughts on the value of lists in general, and speculating about the "why" behind some of the MIA. Jim Emerson gives his thoughts, and links to his own list at the bottom of the post. Lots of love to the Reeler for the best two-word summary of the AFI list, and his constructive suggestions for alternatives. A list of "100 Forgotten Films"--now that is something the Siren could applaud.

Still more--Daniel at Check the Fien Print has no tolerance for the D.W. Griffith entry, and a lot of skepticism over how it was chosen.


chutry said...

Thank you for saying that about Sophie's Choice. I did a mental WTF when I saw that it was included but either forgot to comment or withheld comment out of fear of offending the cult of Streep.

The Siren said...

I love Meryl myself and she was great, but I think people forget all the Brooklyn crap with Kline & MacNicol, which was the bulk of the movie, and only remember the power of the Polish scenes.

Rich said...

The Siren is a goddess. The truth is powerful. Bloggy goodness reigns. "White Heat" -- YES! Raoul Walsh must be dealt with. Likewise Frank Borzage ("History Is Made At Night"), Allan Dwan, Don Siegel, Anthony Mann....

The AFI list is the classic "Elephant Art" list -- big, ponderous "Hey, I'm Art!" art (hence "Sophie's Choice". As the late genius Manny Farber pointed out, Americans are best at creating "Termite Art" -- disreputable punch-in-the-gut classics. Might I suggest a Self-Styled Siren Termite Art List? This would certainly include "Scarlet Street" "Fury" and "The Big Heat" from our mutual friend Mr. Lang. "White Heat" certainly, and also "High Sierra" from Mr. Walsh. "Detour"? You betcha. "T-Men"? Gotta have it. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"? Absolutely. Why not "Lady From Shanghai" from Mr. Welles,the greatest visual tone poem in American film history? Just sayin....

The Siren said...

Rich, amen to all that. Any of those movies would have been a nifty little wake-up choice. Here's some more ideas for AFI: The 100 Movies That Should Be On DVD, But Aren't. The 100 Movies You Should Be Watching Instead of The Sound of Music.

Exiled in NJ said...

In 2003 when stumped for a subject for my Mystery Newsletter, I came up with "Mailing It In." Subject matter: "There is, however, one surefire space filler to which hacks like me can resort: LISTS! Best of, Worst of, Year’s Best, you get the gist."

I am not referring to you, dear Siren, but to those who sit around and come up with these compendiums. I would love to see The Fifty Worst Films Made From Great, Surefire Books Without Listing Bonfire of the Vanities.

Andrew Grant said...

I can accept Jaws, but four additional Spielberg films as well? And Schindler's List in the top ten? Talk about WTF. . .

Hazel said...

Lists are subjective which is why they are fun but how can you trust a list that has Forrest Gump, The Graduate and Yankee Doodle Dandy as three of the top 100 films?

I like Sullivan's Travels but it is in no way better than The Palm Beach Story or The Lady Eve or The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.

I would also add To Be Or Not To Be, Love Me Tonight, The Awful Truth and Aliens.

Larry Aydlette said...

As Sam Spade said to Brigid O'Shaughnessy: "You're good, angel, you're very good." I declared a fatwa on responding to this list when I realized His Girl Friday wasn't on there. But I had a feeling you'd come through. As Sophie might have said, the whole thing is a shonda. Enough said.

alsolikelife said...

The Brit-US issue has been the most consistent objection I've seen this time around, and I wouldn't be surprised if version 3.0 will duly demote at least a few of the Lean and Kubrick films from the results the same way they did with THE THIRD MAN (though it's depressing to think that of all the fuzzy UK productions to be taken off, they went with that one).

I absolutely agree with you that WHITE HEAT should be the representative Cagney flick. I'm not too sure what would be the representative Streep flick - I think she's an outstanding actress but I'm hard pressed to think of a film of hers that I'm really excited about. ADAPTATION? No way that film would be included.

And I'm with you on Lang (I'd vote for THE BIG HEAT) and Lubitsch (TROUBLE IN PARADISE or SHOP AROUND THE CORNER for me)

The Siren said...

Exiled - that would be a pretty interesting list!

Filmbrain - Spielberg is frustrating. For me, his movies are generally a collection of extremely good sequences (the ghetto liquidation, the slave ships, the Normandy beach landing) marred by thuddingly obvious wrap-ups. Jaws is an exception, though.

Hazel: I think Sullivan's Travels is a movie that speaks to a lot of filmmakers, but I am also far from convinced it is the premiere Sturges. I think I would also go for The Lady Eve.

Shamus: His Girl Friday is glaring, indeed.

Alsolikelife: I think that the Brits objected loudest and longest to The Third Man because it is possibly the best British film ever. In any event it topped the BFI poll some years ago. As for Lubitsch, I have an enduring love for Ninotchka, but the two you mention are also splendid, as is To Be or Not to Be.

Rich said...

To address Great American Termite Sub-Genres Ignored by AFI:
Greatest Noir Heist Film -- "The Killing" (Kubrick) (followed closely by "Asphalt Jungle")

Greatest Noir (Failed) Jailbreak Film -- "Brute Force" (Jules Dassin) (This is also the great American existentialist masterpiece) Runner up is "Riot In Cell Block 11" (Don Siegel)

Greatest Zombie Film -- "I Walked With A Zombie" (Tourneur, Val Lewton)

Greatest Red Scare Thriller -- "Pickup On South Street" (Sam Fuller)

Greatest Noir Critique of Capitalism -- "Force of Evil" (Abe Polonsky) followed closely by "Ace In The Hole" (Wilder)

Greatest Movie About Movies -- "The Bad and the Beautiful" (Minnelli)

Greatest American Film Noir To Take Place During the French Revolution -- "The Black Book" (aka "Reign of Terror") Anthony Mann/John Alton

Greatest Giant Bug Movie -- "Them!" (Gordon Douglas)

Greatest Exploitation Film -- "High School Confidential" (Jack Arnold)

Greatest Noir Version of Faust -- "Alias Nick Beal" (John Farrow)

Just Great Movies That Should Be On The List, Because -- The Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart Westerns, the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Westerns, the Fred Astaire/Rita Hayworth musicals, any Fred Astaire musical where Erik Rhodes plays an Italian gigolo, and "In A Lonely Place", "On Dangerous Ground" and "Party Girl" (all Nick Ray).

OH...and "The Palm Beach Story" isn't as good as "The Lady Eve," but it's better than "Sullivan's Travels" which is a masterpiece.

Dan Leo said...

Dearest Siren: wonderful post, as usual for you. And what a great bunch of comments.

Rich: I love your personalized list of "termite art", etc. On this supremely subjective subject of termite art, are there any other losers out there who love "The Outfit", a sort of neo-early-70s-noir from I believe John Flynn? This movie's got it all: Bob Duvall, Joe Don Baker, Karen Black, Robert Ryan, Jane Greer for Christ's sake. And based on a book by one of my favorite termite-art novelists, Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake). Ah, but we all have these odd personal faves...

jwr said...

Hi Siren. I'm a long time reader who's never commented before. Wanted to let you know that yours is the most interesting film blog I've found. Wish you had time for more, but with kids I'm amazed you can do it at all.

Just to put some numbers on your very legitimate complaint about a lack of women's pictures--or even women-sympathetic ones: It's an inexact science because movies are usually about multiple things, but I count a mere 13 on the list that have strong, adult male/female relationships at their center.

By contrast there are at least 32 films here that have male-bonding at their core and another twenty or so that include a strong element of it. The only two I spot that even come close to being centered on female bonding are "Streetcar" and "All About Eve." Both of these richly deserve inclusion but neither of them are principally about female bonding in the way that "The Deer Hunter" and "Unforgiven" and even "Star Wars" (among many other highly dubious choices) are principally about male bonding.

Additionally there's this general set of running themes: Male relationships good/Female relationships bad/Male-female relationships iffy. In other words, male bonding is almost always seen as a positive force in the universe (Butch and Sundance, Luke and Han, Elliot and E.T., you name it). Female bonding pretty much always ends badly (see both examples mentioned). Romance is tricky--as likely to result in "Double Indemnity" hell as Tracy/Hepburn heaven (which, of course, does not even make the cut). And meanwhile a positive picture about female bonding like, say, "The Miracle Worker," which is one of only a handful of films in history to win two Oscars for acting (and one of the very, very few which deserved both of them) isn't even on the list of nominated films.

I guess the moral of the story is: Hollywood is even more obsessed with good old male homoeroticism than we thought.

BTW: I didn't classify "Singin' in the Rain" as fitting any of these categories because frankly I can never remember whether it's Debbie Reynolds or Donald O'Connor who Gene Kelly ends up with at the end--or even if he finally had to choose. If you happen to recall, feel free to add it to one total or the other.

(Not slagging musicals, which I love. But in light of the numbers above, it's worth wondering why, in a tradition that prominently features Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, an adult Judy Garland and Leslie Caron for starters, the two pictures that convention has settled at the top of the heap have poor Debbie Reynolds being seriously out-watted by not one, but two, male co-stars and a sixteen-year-old Judy playing even younger and running around in a fairy-land with what are effectively a group of harmless uncles.) Just food for thought.

J.C. Loophole said...

I also love James Cagney and while I cannot argue with either YDD or White Heat, I suggest that, in terms of ground-breaking, importance and legacy Public Enemy would have to be included. While Scarface certainly ingrained the gangster film, Public Enemy made it a genre that has untold descendants upto and including Scorcese. Even he recognizes it's influence on his work.

You make some great points in your post and one of the strongest is the list as a marketing tool. In fact, it's even more audacious when you check out their site and realize that the interactive flash presentation has the DVD covers of the films instead of posters or stills. When you click on the DVD, you get some brief info and three links to purchase the DVD. Hmmm...

I would even suspect that some films didn't make it because the aren't (or are too costly to restore) to placed on DVD.
That being said if the list was to be made of most influencial American films on Cinema itself, it would be a much, much different list.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Yes, yes, yes. Too many films that are more British, too many films directed by Mike Nichols, and the inclusion of a glorified "Twilight Zone" episode are good reasons to hate the list. My top nominee for MIA is Rebel without a Cause.

Damian Arlyn said...

Similar beef with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Swing Time is great, but everyone knows Top Hat is the one to beat.

I love you, Siren, Will you marry me? :)

Seriously though, Top Hat is not only my favorite Fred Astaire movie, it's my all-time favorite musical. I haven't seen Sophie's Choice yet so I can't comment on it, but my favorite thing about this particular AFI list (even though I know it ultimately doesn't mean anything) is that the greatest film I've ever seen and probably ever will see (Schindler's List) not only remained in the top 10 but actually moved up a notch from #9 to #8. At this rate it'' crack thr top 5 in another... thirty years!

Exiled in NJ said...

Can I prefer Gay Divorcee to Top Hat? After all, it started the whole formula: the Eric/ks Blore and Rhodes, the wise-cracking but ditzy female sidekick in Alice Brady, Night and Day and funny comedy, though today's watchers must wonder what a Co-respondent was. It is simply whumsical, and rates a 10 because The Continental is better music than The Piccolino. Top Hat is 9.8 and Swing Time 9.75.

Operator_99 said...

The Little Foxes I tell ya, The Little Foxes!

Great post as always - of course the comments on the list could go on until the next list is compiled, but that is half the fun.

Mike Phillips said...

If we're inserting Walsh, may I suggest The Strawberry Blonde, which I think is his best film (but I'll take White Heat too). I'm voting Top Hat over Swing Time and The Gay Divorcee ("The Continental" is a subpar song with an overlong sub-Berkeley dance number). Schindler's List sits atop my own top 100 list, so there you go. Scarlet Street, The Magnificent Ambersons, any of the Lubitsch films listed above (can I throw in Heaven Can Wait?), The Lady Eve, His Girl Friday, yea, verily. And I'll throw Bride of Frankenstein onto the "what the hell, people?" list.

The Siren said...

Rich, I dig your taste. Girish had a very interesting "termite art" discussion some time back. I am not against all big/aspirational/Oscar bait movies, I just get irked that an organization with such a huge platform keeps honoring movies anyone with a passing interest in cinema has probably already seen. These guys seem to have zero evangelical zeal.

Dan, the Outfit, huh? must take a look.

Rich said...

"Bride of Frankenstein" -- YES! And I would add -- believe it or not -- "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" for two reasons:

1) It's one of the funniest movies ever made. Unfortunately, the gawdawful crappiness of the rest of the A&B canon has brought it down. Watch it. It is FUNNY.

2) It was Jerry Garcia's favorite movie. (No kidding.)

Gloria said...

My trouble with AFI's list, is the same trouble I have with the Oscar winning films: lists are made,m and somehow become a reference for the media... And then the media screams the titles out as if there were no more good or interesting films.

I mean... I enjoy Casablanca, but after some time, I get tired of its status of Mythic movie beaing repeated like parrot talk in film article after film article. Till these films become empty shells of prestige.

I have my list. It expands and compresses depending of the time of the day. I like to share the films in "my list" with friends... I'm happy when they enjoy them, and sad when not. But I'm aware that it is only my list, and as valid as anybody else's. If I like "Citizen Kane" it is because everytime I see it I am still awed, and not because some critic said "hey, this one is good!"

In fact, I have enjoyed A LOT of films which weren't in any list.

Patrick Wahl said...

I would be one of those yelping about Citizen Kane. Saw it many years ago and had a "that's it? That's the greatest movie ever made?" reaction. Don't remember anymore just what I felt was wrong, or missing (humor, warmth maybe?) Sometime I'll have to watch it again and see if it still seems lacking to me.

I'd also defend the inclusion of a few British movies. We're (Americans) sort of half brothers to the British, we have great cultural similarities and a British movie does not have a foreign feel to it the way a French movie does. Saying we should exclued British films would almost be like saying we shouldn't include any British rock bands in a list of great albums. (except for missing the Beatles, Stones, U2, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, the Police, you'd hardly notice their exclusion) And one of the greater directors of American films was a British transplant. Did he suddenly lose his British sensibilities when he moved here, or was the difference in cultures so slight he could seamlessly move into American film making?

Regarding film lists in general, and Citizen Kane again, this several year old article at Slate made some good points about the ossification of film criticism.

A more convincing explanation for the aging of the canon is simply that film criticism has become institutionalized over the course of the last three decades. Film academia has been entrenched in colleges since the '70s and '80s; movie history now hangs over the heads of cinephiles with something of the force of the other arts' intimidating ancestry. Perhaps film appreciation is moving out of its early period, with the inevitable side effect that the canon has become a wee bit stodgy.

The Siren said...

JWR - thanks for de-lurking! Given that the list tilts heavily to films made after 1960, it is not surprising that the tilt is also away from women-oriented movies. As Molly Haskell was pointing out thirty years ago, the studio age was also the great age of the women's picture and with its demise the more interesting relationships subsequently tended to be between the men. I think it also must reflect the makeup of the AFI voters.

J.C. Loophole, agree on all points. Public Enemy was on the ballot but somehow didn't make it.

Peter: I don't get Rebel's omission too. Its influence was as great or greater than most of the movies that made the list.

Damian and Exiled: The Gay Divorcee is also mighty fine, but I still must have a slight preference for Top Hat. The Gay Divorcee should be better known, though. Eric Rhodes is possibly at his funniest in that one. "Your wife is safe with Tonetti! He prefers spaghetti!"

Operator_99, The Little Foxes was on the ballot, but didn't make the cut. Sigh. Not nearly enough Bette on the list in general.

Rich: I have no idea what to do with that bit of Jerry Garcia trivia, but it is endearing somehow. I like a lot of Abbbott & Costello. Most are no one's idea of canonical but they still are fun.

Gloria, yes, there is a certain laziness of thought in the list that you pretty much nail. But it goes all the way back to the ballot, which does not have a huge amount of imagination either.

Ben Alpers said...

My top films left off the list...

King Vidor's The Crowd. Possibly belongs in the top twenty. A crime it's not in the top 100. More of a crime that it's not on DVD.

Night of the Hunter. Can't say enough about this one, so I won't even try. How is this not on the list?

The Conversation An amazing film made more so by how different it is from The Godfather films that Coppola made on either side of it.

Out of the Past Less important to include than some Lang (I'd go with The Big Heat myself), but one of the truly great noirs.

In addition to something by Borzage, how about one of the Val Lewton films from the '40s? Cat People is the obvious choice, but I'd probably go with The Seventh Victim. All probably too lowbrow and weird for the AFI list, which might also account for the absence of The Manchurian Candidate or anything by Sam Fuller or David Lynch.

Also: The Lord of the Rings flicks are no more American than The Bridge Over the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia in my book. I loved them but they don't belong on this list.

I'd join those who'd pick The Lady Eve (which would be my first choice) and Miracle of Morgan's Creek over the still wonderful Sullivan's Travels.

The Siren said...

Okay, so I am slo-o-o-wly working my way through the comments, as you can see ...

Patrick, I think the problem with the Slate article as it relates to the AFI list is that the AFI list is one no self-respecting academic is likely to come up with. A cinema studies prof would probably have something a lot edgier. And I think that is even true of the Sight and Sound list. If I were to poll my blogroll, for example, I think I would get something much less stodgy, and there are a fair number of academics on there.

You make some fair points about the international nature of filmmaking, which is why making a list about one country only is difficult. But the AFI came up with the designation, and some films are more identifiably English than others. You could not possibly justify Brief Encounter on an American list, for example. Hitchcock's Hollywood movies out-America Americans for the most part--by which I mean that their U.S. settings are intensely observed and not at all incidental to his plots. I still say the two Leans are British as crumpets, and so do a lot of British critics, who tend to be sensitive about their film industry being co-opted by the Americans anyway.

Look at it this way; if we pull the two Leans, adding that of course they are brilliant movies, then we have room for The Crowd (AMEN BEN!!) and Night of the Hunter (and Amen again), two movies that are as American as the Leans are British.

Also Ben, Cat People was on the ballot and I would have no problem adding it instead of the gimmicky Sixth Sense.

Noel Vera said...

Siren, I hated Sophie's Choice, only liked serious Streep in A Cry in the Dark, and love her to death in comedy (Death does become Her).

As for Citizen Kane, yes, yes, yes, it's very good, but his career only ascended. After Ambersons (a greater film), there's Touch of Evil, Mr. Arkadin, F is for Fake, the beautiful Immortal Story, and Chimes at Midnight

And you prolly seen this already, but for the record, these are my fave films

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

Watching the AFI Top 100 made me a bit ill. I only liked about 30 of the films they listed. I couldn't believe that White Heat was left off and Yankee Doodle Dandy was on.

One thing that really bugged me about the whole sad affair was the lack of sixties cinema.


The Siren said...

Noel, I love your list. It has been years since I saw Chimes at Midnight, I remember it as a very beautiful but melancholy film.

Cinebeats, the list reminded me of Richard Harris's put-down of Charlton Heston: It could have dropped out of a cubic moon, it was so square. Nothing swinging about it at all, really.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

That could be this best put down I've ever read!

I didn't know I could love Richard Harris anymore than I do, but I was wrong.

The Siren said...

Kimberly, since you liked it so much, here is the whole Harris quote (presumably from when they were working on Major Dundee, which is one of Chuck's better roles IMO):

Heston's the only man who could drop out of a cubic moon, he's so square. The trouble is with him he doesn't think he's just a hired actor. He thinks he's the entire production. He used to sit there in the mornings and clock us in with a stop-watch.

I too love Richard Harris. Never had the career he should have, largely due to his own demons, but was there a better raconteur in movie history? Welles, possibly ...

JUAN. said...

I would have included McCarey's "Make way for tomorrow".