Monday, August 13, 2007

Scenes from the Cinematic Scorekeepers

Still out there? Good. The Siren has raised the blinds, put away her lace-trimmed hanky and is ready to face down Gladys Cooper, or whatever else gets dished out this week. She is still working on her Nightmare Alley thoughts, but the sudden, unwelcome spike in film obituaries has spurred her to put some down some old rambling thoughts.

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Hell of a time for film fans, isn't it? RIP, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Michel Serrault and László Kovács. More interesting than the end-of-an-era stuff, however, is the subsequent scorekeeping. We cinephiles tend to pooh-pooh Greatest 100 Films of All Time Lists, then dive like Greg Louganis into debates over whether or not a director is an all-time heavyweight. In the most recent round, Jonathan Rosenbaum had critics all over the blogosphere uncorking either the champagne or the smelling salts when he ran a New York Times opinion piece on Bergman that the editors, in a moment of inspired chutzpah, titled "Scenes from an Overrated Career." Roger Ebert wrote a spirited defense, and discussions ensued all over everywhere, particularly at Scanners, a_film_by, Elusive Lucidity and Girish.

It is fascinating how the general tone in the treatment of a director or other film artist changes over time. If you admired Bergman in 1973, the year of Scenes from a Marriage, chances are you still do. But in that year you wouldn't have been contending with nearly as many reservations as have been heard in the two weeks since his death.

Other directors are also getting fewer awed reactions than in the past. When in her late teens the Siren started trying to watch movies in an intellectuallly engaged manner--reading up on history, seeking out serious critics, trying to mix as many highly regarded films into her viewing as possible--it was axiomatic that John Ford was a towering great. That was a while back, and Ford's status has slipped for some; he even got a sideswipe in Rosenbaum's piece. David Thomson and Richard Schickel, both veteran Ford haters, have a lot more company now.

On the other hand, back in the 1980s the Siren had a hard time getting a serious discussion of Billy Wilder going, unless she wanted to talk about his supposed misogyny. (She didn't want to talk about that, because she doesn't think he IS a misogynist, but that's another post.) Reagan was in office and, not coincidentally in the Siren's view, Frank Capra was fashionable. It was a go-go era, a time of vocal patriotism, even more so than now. Capra was better suited to it than Wilder, with his mordant view of what success means for Americans, and what we will do to achieve it. With the publication of Cameron Crowe's book and the tributes after Wilder's death in 2002, suddenly the Siren had no trouble finding Wilder admirers. He is better suited to the tenor of our own times than Capra--Ace in the Hole is a lot closer to the age of reality television than Meet John Doe--so it isn't surprising that Wilder now is more in vogue.

In vogue, if not in full pantheon membership. According to Brian Baxter of Britain's Guardian, Wilder is still "second rung" (though "never second rate"). In this Guardian obituary for Ingmar Bergman, Baxter names a "handful of geniuses--Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir, [and] Roberto Rossellini" who outrank Bergman and Antonioni, and by the way, they're also better than Wilder, Visconti, Kurosawa and Ray. You might think that with six Film Pageant Runner-Ups (if Mr. Bresson cannot fulfill his duties as Greatest Director of All Time...) you would have just six different ways of getting pissed off. But the Siren's initial reaction was "What about Max Ophuls, huh?"

Her readers can replace the name of Ophuls with their particular favorite. We all have our teacher's pets, no matter which directors are being debated more in film classes. Year by year, with pious patience, the Siren sits waiting for Mitchell Leisen to get his due. And she loves John Ford, but has resigned herself to the naysayers. Now the Siren can read David Thomson's vituperative Ford piece in A Biographical Dictionary of Film without recourse to ripping out pages, scribbling in the margins or calling her cousins to rant. On some directors she retains a certain touchiness, however. When you trash Ernst Lubitsch, smile, cowboy.

The Siren is firmly on the side of the Bergman lovers. His "private psychodramas" still say many large and universal things to her. She does think, however, that people should give Mr. Rosenbaum a break about not seeing Fanny and Alexander. For one thing, Antonioni's death sent the Siren scurrying to her Netflix queue in embarrassment--even though he isn't really in her chosen specialty, boy, does she need to get cracking on his filmography. For another, she is exceedingly fond of Fanny and Alexander and does not wish to hear it nitpicked, by Mr. Rosenbaum or anybody else. Far more painful than someone loving a movie you loathe is someone who hates a movie that you consider a work of genius--or, worse yet, waves the movie aside as old hat.

Rosenbaum himself gave a nod to the way reputations cycle when he showed up at Jim Emerson's place and remarked, "I don't think I could have written such an article for the Times WITHOUT it being to some extent a piece about fashion." The Siren thinks Bergman will swing back into fashion; he's too good not to. One rediscovered movie is often enough to do it. When I Vitelloni had a brief re-release in theaters some time back, the Siren went to see it. As she sat in the audience she felt a sense almost of surprise coming off some other patrons--the startled laughter and enjoyment of people who weren't expecting to be wowed. Fellini has also been out of style--try Googling Fellini and "overrated" and just look at all the opinions that come up--but the movie is so good it constitutes its own form of rebuttal. So does Fanny and Alexander.

Anyone wish to share some perceptions of who's in favor these days, and who seems to be getting more knocks than in the past?


Patrick Wahl said...

When I was in college (in the 1970's) it seemed that Truffaut was much more in vogue than he is now. I'm a great fan of The Four Hundred Blows, but I don't know how his movies have held up. Going the other way, I think Hitchcock's stock has risen considerably in the last 20 years.

I think there are some directors that hit some real highs in a few movies, but don't have the larger body of work to rate with the Fords and Bergmans. Just to pick 3 Americans - Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Marty Ritt.

edo said...

It seems to me that in contemporary academic study the classic Hollywood auteurs are all the rage from the emigres to the natives. And I would add that Ford is definitely still popular. Interest is growing to uncover some of those giants lost to time like Borzage.

At least in the States, I feel like this enthusiasm for the studio-bound or the classical if you will has really put the burden of proof upon foreign films - I should specify post-silent era foreign films. If the filmmaker is not one of a handful of filmmakers - the likes of Bresson, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Dreyer, Rivette, Resnais, or Godard - then sorry buddy you're not part of the club. Those filmmakers who were especially popular in the sixties and seventies Truffaut, Fellini and Bergman are lampooned often. But more important figures have also been smothered, namely Andrei Tarkovsky.

I don't know. Mostly, I just say 'whatever' to these kinds of debates. They accomplish for me too little too often, but when they do actually stir the pot it is an unfortunate truth that some great filmmaker is lost in the mix. Let the audiences decide! Audiences and time - they are the great levelers!

Bob Westal said...

I'm not sure if time is a leveler or a see-saw.

Exiled in NJ said...

Great directors rarely realize that 'death can be a career move.' How many live into their eighties and nineties? And, by the time that death comes, they are, to critics quoting pitcher Frank Sullivan in 1961: " the twilight of a mediocre career."

The Siren said...

Patrick, I would agree with all three of your Americans. Peter N. of Coffee Coffee and More Coffee did a Martin Ritt series a while back that illustrated your point--excellence in some films, puzzling mediocrity in some others.

Edo, you are right that the discussions don't add much to actual understanding of a director. It is more of a parlor game, and as long as we all recognize it as such it keeps things easier, in my view.

I have to say, though, that Bob's equating audience preferences with a see-saw is an image I love and will probably appropriate at some point, with proper credit of course. :)

Exiled, for a long time I have been trying to track down something Welles supposedly said, about directors doing their best work in their twenties and their seventies. I don't know if that holds up to intense scrutiny, but certainly a lot of European directors seem to have a last burst of creativity late in life--Bunuel, for example. When a director can still get financing often he can still strut some stuff.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I saw Alain Resnais' newest film on DVD, and while I don't like it anywhere near his films from the Sixties, I am happy that he is still working. Film scholarship may be skewed by the films and filmmakers available on DVD. My own choices seem to ebb and flow. I guess my biggest concern is laziness, the Star Wars fan who has never seen Hidden Fortress, those who admire Kubrick but have no idea of Max Ophuls influence, or those who have not bothered with any of the dozen or so films that Quentin Taratino plunders from to make one of his own films.

Brian Doan said...

Siren, I second your love of Max Ophuls-- I showed my students Lola Montes this spring, and they were wowed by his imagery and constantly moving camera, and I hope the long-promised Criterion box (supposedly due this year) continues to elevate his rep.

I kind of get the sense Truffaut is making a comeback (if, indeed, he ever left), as compared to Godard, and that his reputation will only increase in coming years.

What about Michael Powell? For a long time, it was hard to find much beyond The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom, but a bunch of great DVD releases, like A Cantebury Tale and The 49th Parallel, seem to be doing really well (as he's my third-favorite director ever, I hope we get even more, including a R1 of The Small Back Room).

Edo-- great call about Borzage, who deserves much more attention.

And yes-- more Mitchell Leisen, please!

Rich said...

Please excuse the cranky ramblings of a Siren-loving film nut.
• Falling out of favor -- Preston Sturges (a true self-destructive genius, with the best 4 year run in film history)
• Vastly underrated -- Jules Dassin, Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh, Robert Wise (pre-West Side Story)
• Another American 1970's near-great -- Michael Ritchie (The Candidate, Downhill Racer)
• Not a director, but a comic auteur who is almost forgotten -- W.C. Fields. When I was a film student in the late 60's, Fields was a God (as was Bogart). When was the last time you saw a major article on Fields films as necessary social commentary on small-town America in the 1930's?

FINALLY..."Midnight" by Mitchell Leisen is as close to pure cinematic bliss as I've come. I'm sure the re-make will be an atrocity, but it might motivate a re-issue of the sublime original.

Edward Copeland said...

The one that galled me was A.O. Scott's piece on the 40th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde, where he hems and haws and actually suggests that Bosley Crowther might have been right to be dismissive of it.

Uncle Gustav said...

Thoughtful post, Siren. And something of a loaded gun for me: since the advent of blogs, where literally anyone can claim the title “critic” (have you seen the roster of toddlers spearheading Cinema Fusion?), and with so much emphasis placed on recent films, pointless trends and a faceless vanguard of contemporary filmmakers, we’ve witnessed the death of incisive print journalism, replaced almost entirely by McDonald’s-style reviewing and toadyism. At the same time, it’s becomes clear in the blogs that those who applaud creativity and liberal attitudes are themselves quite conservative and single-minded.

The recent revival of Jacques Rivette’s twelve-hour Out One, the deaths of Antonioni and Bergman, the gushing over so-called “Asian” cinema (a weird beast mysteriously lacking in Russian product—Russia’s in Asia, right?) are three handy examples of topics scrutinized by an endless stream of internet writers (most of questionable talent and taste) in a fever of apparent competition: who can get online and noticed first? The brass ring being a link on GreenCine and perhaps a nod by Girish. But, as in most anything else in life, you’re only as good as your last post.

The much discussed Online Film Community’s Top 100 Movies is a depressing and telling barometer, not so much of where we’re headed, but of who’s minding the store. Unless my failing eyesight didn’t register their names, Renoir, Borzage, Ophuls, Anthony Mann and Lubitsch were absent, supplanted by, frankly, a lot of shit. The list’s nod to “foreign films” is the work of tourists: Nosferatu, The 400 Blows, 8 ½, The Bicycle Thief, Seven Samurai—good films all, but their inclusion carries obvious obligation, especially as they rub elbows with Blade Runner, Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, high art for the couch potato.

Edward Copeland said...

What was even worse about that list was the original 500+ films from which it was culled. It included Hot Fuzz for crying out loud, a movie that's not even a year old and that landed on at least three of the nominators' lists.

The Siren said...

Peter - sometimes the issue is laziness, sometimes it is simply time and what you crave at the moment. Since no one pays me to blather on here, I pick my own films, but that means I may have (all right, I do have) gaping holes in my film knowledge. I start to get hostile when I read (apparently) serious arguments that there is anything to be said for an attitude that pre-1967 cinema is Ancient History.

Which brings me to Edward and A.O. Scott's Bonnie & Clyde piece. It was provocative, and it is interesting to read even a left-handed defense of poor old Crowther, who is tethered to those Bonnie & Clyde reviews for all time. I think Scott is far too serious a critic to indulge in contrarianism for its own sake, but his fundamental point is just plain wrong. Movie violence does not exist in a vacuum and each violent movie has to come up with its artistic and thematic rationale for depicting horrific acts. Bonnie and Clyde didn't ring down the curtain on those debates. The mere fact that he references Saw and Hostel should ring a gong--did we not see the blogosphere erupt in a very serious discussion of the violence in those movies? I was in the anti- camp there, and nobody called me square, a fussbudget or a philistine. At least, not to my (virtual) face ...

Cinephile, another Ophuls lover! and yes, Powell has had a renaissance, starting I think with his being championed by Scorsese. Powell was married to Thelma Schoonmaker and Scorsese has long championed movies like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, even occasionally screening prints for his crews.

Rich - I am not sure that Sturges is falling out of favor; certainly the Coens still love him. I agree with the rest of your list but I can't go into detail because my heart stopped cold at the words "remake of Midnight." The very idea makes me want to retreat back into my darkened room, or at least re-post the Moira still ...

Flickhead, I certainly see what you are driving at here but I don't tend to read those sorts of blogs. I will say that my blogroll (not to mention the comments sections at those places) helps disprove the rule and should give hope.

As for the list - I just don't have a taste for a lot of the films that turned. Someone at Dennis's place came up with a good theory for why it looked the way it did - people picking the Big Guns, then throwing in a few quirky picks, but everybody picked different quirks and thus there we have it, a list that really wasn't any more exciting than the AFI.

The Siren said...

One more aside to Flickhead - I must add that if getting a link on Girish is a goal, it's a worthy one. He chooses carefully and when I follow his links I rarely find anything that isn't as challenging as his own blog. I would say the same for Greencine. I can think of some very high-traffic, pop-movie-focused sites where that isn't the case, but I refuse to name names. :)

Alex said...

Naruse is definitely get a lot more interest with the retrospective touring the country recently. Finally, we have a (single) Naruse Region 1 DVD release!

Borzage is certainly getting more attention.

Truffaut fell to the wayside for a while, but there's a certain amount of re-evaluation going on of his work after the early Sixties, particularly Wild Child and Small Change.

I don't know - I though Raoul Walsh always had a fairly small yet consistent number of partisans. I suppose he was a bigger deal in the 60s, precisely because there were only a limited number of classic American auteur previous to that point.

Um, the list was insane crap and completely indefensible under any scheme. Sorry, Back to the Future was number 31.......just behind Die Hard's number 30. There's simply no way Die Hard should appear on an actual critic's top 100 list, much less number 30. It's not a seminal action movie (pick Dirty Harry at least), a particularly deep or challenging one (see Point Blank, 3:10 to Yuma, Winchester '73, The Big Red One, Kill!, Touchez pas au grisbi, Men in War, Attack!, The Steel Helmet or a three dozen other movies I can name off the top of my head) or even amusing or thrilling (see Prime Cut, Knife in the Water or A Man Condemned).

This is not just bad taste......these people just don't know film. They simply don't know what they're talking about and should be viewed roughly as one would view a person who believes Outback Steakhouse to be good food.

The Siren said...

Hooray for Naruse! I saw nine films at the Toronto Cinematheque retrospective and my big regret is that I didn't see nine more. I would put Walsh in a subset of extremely talented Hollywood directors who are appreciated by a small group of partisans, as you say, but don't seem to break into becoming a widely known name. My subjective perception is that Anthony Mann has gone from being a rare taste to broader cinephile fame of late, but Walsh ... depends on who or what you are reading, I suppose.

I hesitate to be too hard on the list because it was the product of someone else's hard work, not mine. It was also put together rapidly from a small number of online writers, and the gentleman who compiled it acknowledged at SLIFR that he had not really specified whether it was 100 Best, or 100 Favorites, a big distinction. I would pick any of the films you named over Back to the Future, which is disposable in my view despite the very appealing Michael J. Fox, or Die Hard. I won't lie, I enjoy Die Hard and few women my age can resist Bruce Willis or Alan Rickman. You can argue that it spawned a host of imitators but the movie bothers me on a number of levels--the sledgehammer technique, several plot strands that just go limp, the remarkably retro treatment of Bonnie Bedelia. I would be interested to see how many of those who endorsed Die Hard for the list have examined its decidedly right-wing bent. Does that appeal to them, or do the film's politics not register that much?

Jonathan said...

"toddlers spearheading Cinema Fusion"
Very cute. Because, you know, age always is the meter for intelligence, right?

"This is not just bad taste......these people just don't know film."
Wow, if I ever go around with such self-assurance and arrogance, honestly believing I know so much about film (should I give you crap because you included the fluffy, silly Fast Food Nation in your 2006 Top Ten?), then please... put me out of my misery...

I don't have a problem with people tearing into the list, because I have plenty of problems with it, but when people go out of their way to personally insult those involved, frankly, it's pathetic.

Many stick their noses in the air, swearing they know so much more about the art of cinema, all while they're sitting behind their computers, hypocritically tossing out insults, because they're 34 years old and think anyone younger than them who writes for a blog couldn't honestly know anything about film.

Which I admit, I don't know nearly as much as I want to, which is why every single day, I'm constantly soaking up more and more films, taking recommendations from those I respect, and really trying to get a grasp on what I don't understand. Just like everyone else, I'm getting there, one movie at a time.

It's just the attitudes of some people is perplexing, just mind-boggingly painful to read...

The Siren said...

Jonathan, don't think I have seen you here before and I hope you will stop by again, despite your chagrin. I know from personal experience that Flickhead and Alex bring a lot of passion to any film discussion, and the heat can singe a person at times. But it is also a big part of what makes them interesting to read. Bomb-throwing has its place; you can always hurl the grenade back at them, I assure you they can take it. Provided, of course, that we all keep it civilized. This isn't Libertas. :)

I also know that there are embarrassing gaps in my own viewing. Actually, a while ago, over at the now-defunct Cinemarati, I did a post about the game Humiliation, invented by the novelist David Lodge in "Changing Places."
The rules are simple: You name a literary classic you've never read. The player with the most stunning reading gap wins. In the book, an American professor, consumed with either masochism or our country's famous win-at-all-costs spirit, claims he's never read Hamlet. He wins, but gets fired the next day. (Lodge himself admits to skipping War and Peace.) People in Great Britain play this at parties, or so says the Guardian.

So I posted a cinephile version of this game (my biggie was La Dolce Vita, which I am ashamed to say I STILL have not seen) and the admissions that turned up were at least as big as Jonathan Rosenbaum admitting he hadn't seen Fanny & Alexander. We all have what we like to call real lives (at least, I hope we do) and if you are blogging out of love rather than money it can be damned hard to squeeze in everything.

All that said, I still cringe at "Back to the Future."

Uncle Gustav said...

Siren, your diplomacy, patience and tact is an example for us all. "Bomb throwing has its place...": my dear, I'm in love!

Which reminds me: how many Buñuels were on that list? I'd imagine there couldn't be any less than five.

Jonathan: I wish I were 34 again. Show some respect for your elders; we're worn, tired and confused.

Where are my teeth? Where's my cane?

Jonathan said...

Thanks, I'll definitely leave my comments more often. I enjoy the site.

I actually just put Fanny & Alexander at the top of my Blockbuster Online queue YESTERDAY, because I was sad that I hadn't seen it.

As for me, I still have over a decade before I hit 34. Which means I'm completely rebellious, do a lot of drugs, and, most importantly, respect no one, especially authority figures.

The Siren said...

Flickhead, I was flabbergasted that Belle de Jour didn't make it. What's the world coming to when the youngsters don't even appreciate twisted sex? (kidding, I'm kidding).

Jonathan, glad to hear it. I love both versions of Fanny and Alexander but I highly recommend that you invest the 312 minutes in the long version. It's worth it, and the long version is the one Bergman himself preferred. Over at Scanners there is a discussion (with limited bomb-throwing, at least last I checked) of Rosenbaum's reaction. He didn't much like it, but he didn't really say why, just referred us all to Kael's review. Which I don't remember. Probably he assumes we all have a copy of 5001 Nights at the Movies on the shelf, but mine wound up with a long-forgotten ex. See how we misspend the days of our youth?

Cole said...

Sigh, if only tolerance were more widespread, then maybe the younger generation would watch The Earrings of Madame de... as many times as they've seen Transformers. Snobbery, monetary and intellectual, is truly hateful and self-defeating.

I dislike it when people try to pass off taste as some objective beast, the end-all and be-all of criticism. Isn't it the most subjective and personal barometer of art? Frankly, I prefer people who don't allow their tastes to be boxed in what other people consider "good taste" or "bad". Thank God for critics like Adrian Martin, who loves Catwoman as much as he loves L'Argent.

Russia is transcontinental, both European and Asian. It is generally considered a unique entity in itself. At least, that's how we Asians see it.

Alex said...

"if I ever go around with such self-assurance and arrogance, honestly believing I know so much about film"

Look, their taste is simply bad. There are simply lapses in taste that are unforgivable: if someone tells me that Left Behind is their favorite book, or that they really love Denny's or their favorite artist is Thomas Kincaid, they just have bad taste.

And that's not some elitist or arrogant view. It's just as easy to read other books than it is to read Left Behind, it's just as easy to rent Point Blank or Winchester 73 as it is to rent Die Hard, there's no shortage of other artists besides Thomas Kincaid.

I love hamburgers, but that doesn't mean I believe McDonalds to be the height of that art. Someone who told me that they were hamburger fanatics and that McDonalds was the best, has a bit of a problem with their tastebuds (or their parents own a McD's franchise and won't let them eat elsewhere). If someone tells me they love film, and declares Die Hard to be one of the best action movies ever (and indeed, that only 29 movies of any kind in a century of film-making are better)...... they either have made very little effort to see anything that isn't shoved in their faces (belying their self-description as loving movies) or they have no taste.

Don't respect authority. If you don't, why consume (or respect) so much recent Hollywood product, which is precisely the output of an immense apparatus of corporate power, government intervention and historic cartelization? Is the real authority some film scholar or critic scribbling away, mostly to deaf ears, or Murdoch or Redstone, who are controlling vast portions of capital and media?

Of course, one must be discriminate in liking or disliking Hollywood output (rejecting it all is as unacceptable as consuming it blindly - my favorite film was a big-budget Hollywood production), but I don't see much evidence of discrimination on the list. And that's the ultimate problem.

"As for me, I still have over a decade before I hit 34. Which means I'm completely rebellious, do a lot of drugs, and, most importantly, respect no one, especially authority figures."

Wait, your argument that you're rebellious is're young and, purely stereotypically or conventionally, youth is considered a rebellious time of life. And that you do a stereotypically "rebellious" act: one in which there is no necessary connection to political rebellion (the Revolution does not happen due to your personal consumption activities).

Look, go watch Milestones or La chinoise and then tell me about rebellion.

Alex said...

"I dislike it when people try to pass off taste as some objective beast, the end-all and be-all of criticism. Isn't it the most subjective and personal barometer of art?"

I wouldn't use taste as the final criterion either. But, if a person is voluntarily dwelling in a basement and eating shit, gaining good taste would be a positive step for them. And, yes, it is objectively bad for a person to be filling their heads with vile garbage.

Uncle Gustav said...

Silly me: I was looking at crusty old maps that give no indication of Russia's "transcontinental" status. Thanks for expanding my borders.

Uncle Gustav said...

Siren, you'd better whip up some custard pies toot sweet!

Jonathan said...

You do realize, Alex, that that "rebellious" comment of mine was purely tongue in cheek?

And when you describe taste, this is according to you, which frankly, most people other than yourself will rarely care about. I agree that Winchester '73 is a better film, but it's not any "easier" to get that than Die Hard, because:

a) People are more likely to pick out Die Hard at a movie store because of the exposure the film received, whereas outside certain online film circles, Winchester '73 may as well not even exist

b) Not all movie stores carry Winchester '73. In fact, out of the Blockbuster, Movie Gallery, and 4 privately owned movie stores around me, not ONE of them carries the film. I had to use Netflix to watch it.

In other news, I just finished watching The Man from Laramie for my first time about 10 minutes ago, and I think I liked it just as much as Winchester '73.

Brian Doan said...

Out of curiosity, just clicked over to your blog. I suspect we might disagree about a lot of films, but anyone who lists both Fitzgerald AND Bruce Campbell among his favorite authors is an online friend of mine (btw, I actually am 34, and still don't respect my elders (:).

Also noticed your blog title background picture (is that the right term?)-- do you know about the Spielberg month going on over at Windmills of My Mind? Pretty interesting stuff, and worth checking out (I think Siren has the link on her blogroll).

I'm ashamed to say I still haven't seen Man From Laramie, but I do like Winchester '73, and really dig the noir movies (like T-Men) that Mann made with John Alton.

Alex said...

"People are more likely to pick out Die Hard at a movie store because of the exposure the film received, whereas outside certain online film circles, Winchester '73 may as well not even exist"

Yeah, but these aren't just uninformed consumers, they're movie critics (or bloggers)- that's the whole point of any top 100 list: to have a list that's better than "Sumner Redstone paid Blockbuster to put the copies of Die Hard in the front of the store". A person who tells me they can't be bothered to put something on a Netflix queue or find a better video store, or buy it off Amazon isn't really even somewhat committed - which is fine, but don't be a movie critic and pumping out a top 100 list then. We're not talking heroic measures here, I'm not harassing people because their top 100 list doesn't include Welles' Don Quixote or something not easily available.

And it's not like Winchester '73 (or most of the other movies I named) is some massively obscure movie - it stars Jimmy Stewart (remember, the guy from Rear Window and Vertigo?)! Made by a major studio, in English, has several other major stars in it, linear narrative, easily understood, etc.

(This is not Die Hard specific, the whole list is filled with similar items. I couldn't care less if some particular movie is on there or not - it would be more fun if movies I hadn't seen or heard of were on it than my favorites! It's just that the list taken as a whole does not betray much familiarity with the subject.)

Uncle Gustav said...

Besides, Thunder Bay is superior Mann/Stewart, and especially timely given the American right's "Big Stick" tactics going on now both at home and abroad.

Meanwhile, one who is "completely rebellious" would never acknowledge a mainstream mediocrity like Die Hard.

Greg said...

I'm really late in the game on this post which I was alerted to via Cinebeats page.

And I don't even have much to say that hasn't already been said. So I'll say this: I have had a few comment exchanges with Jonathan Burdick at Cinema Fusion and even a couple of e-mail exchanges with him and I find him to be an excited and curious student of film with valuable insights. There was no internet when I was beginning my study of film a couple of decades ago (or more) so one cannot trace the history of my thoughts on certain directors or genres electronically (and thank god for that). I'm sure I passed some pretty arrogant and assinine judgments back then and now that I can be traced electronically I'm sure in twenty years I'll look back and cringe at one or two (hopefully no more than that)things that eminate from my keyboard.

So the list didn't turn out too well. But you know, it has inspired some intense and serious discussion since it occurred so in the end I think Jonathan did a good thing in organizing it. And you can't blame one person anyway since many participated, including Dennis Cozzalio (who has also put together a great post on this very subject) and I would never accuse him of having mediocre tastes.

Just a final note: When I posted comments on Dennis' SLIFR about this a couple of weeks ago I started out with DIE HARD and noticed most other posters have had the same inclination. There's just something about that movie being on the list that really affects people (myself included of course). I think it's the abundance of cliche that bothers me. When someone ranks it and can't see the militant cliche attacks it signals a lack of understanding of the cinema language for a lot of people I think - or perhaps just a disregard for it.

Jonathan Lapper

The Siren said...

Well, the Siren is fresh out of custard pies and so is tiptoeing away from the exegesis of the Online List. I do think it gives a good blueprint of where to start from next time.

I share Mr. Lapper's relief that my own sweeping movie judgments from, say, my high school and college days are not here. (Although you can get a general idea of MY taste from the fact that I chose Anytime Annie as my role model.) Clearly I need to add Messrs Burdick and Lapper to my blogroll, however. Mr. Lapper, you could have found no better way to endear yourself to me than to have a post on Anton Walbrook in Colonel Blimp at the top of your blog. Bliss!

As for Die Hard, yeah, I really want to read the thoughts of those who listed it. Do the themes resonate with them, or just the action and excitement? Inquiring Sirens want to know ...

Greg said...

Clearly I need to add Messrs Burdick and Lapper to my blogroll, however. Mr. Lapper, you could have found no better way to endear yourself to me than to have a post on Anton Walbrook in Colonel Blimp at the top of your blog. Bliss!

And yours to mine. Done. Thank you Cinebeats. You know through Cinebeats and Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule I have found practically all the people I find interesting commenting on film.

And how pleased I am to find you are a Walbrook fan. Considered yourself endeared as well.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I may be setting myself up for some slings and arrows when I post my list of favorite foreign films that I created for Edward Copeland. It will be interesting to see the results of that poll which I suspect will indicate agreement on certain filmmakers, if not specific films. Speaking of which, sometimes it is not the filmmaker but certain films that critics embrace more than others. Andrew Sarris makes that point about John Ford who had certain generations of film critics rallying around The Sun Shines Bright or Seven Women.

Alex said...

"When someone ranks it and can't see the militant cliche attacks it signals a lack of understanding of the cinema language for a lot of people I think - or perhaps just a disregard for it."

In terms of purely manipulating the audience's thrill mechanisms, Die Hard does that function very well. If you want to learn how to do that, Die Hard is a reasonable (though probably not the best) method to learn from. It's clear, in fact, that most currently working mainstream action directors did watch Die Hard quite closely.

But the question quickly becomes what that the "thrill" techniques are being used for. If it's solely to thrill, that's a plausible but not particularly impressive goal. How should "thrills" be ranked in a possible hierarchy of what we want film to achieve? (After all, this is a numbered list - this is an exercise in hierarchy.)

It's actually fairly obvious that one can relatively reliably create a film that contains a similar quality of thrills to Die Hard - Die Hard is thrilling, but it's techniques are learnable and absorbable by others. But that's what precisely agitates against it being the 30th best film of all time.

Nobody can closely imitate Welles or Kubrick or Borzage and come up with anything but a rather appalling failure. Only someone who really doesn't care about film would make such an attempt. That's (partially) what makes their films notable.

Marilyn said...

I know cinepiles love lists the way they love their favorite directors, but I do get a bit tired of them being used to stimulate discussion. I start to believe the lists are made precisely to be controversial and draw attention, not to give a true appraisal of the merits of a film. And yes, taste is something that can be relative, but when some films stand the test of time, you can be sure that there is something approximating "objectivity" in the area of taste. I find it nearly impossible to make a list myself, because there are so many films I have yet to see, so many films yet to be made. I don't object to a new film being on "best" lists, because longevity should not be used to penalize a film of true genius that just happens to have been made after the year 2000. I fully expect many of the films of the Dardennes and Michael Haneke to become classics and would not hesitate to include them on a "best" list.

I concur with some of the shout outs on this thread, including Anton Walbrook and especially Mitchell Leisen. One filmmaker I'd love to see get a closer examination now is Ken Russell. I've been dipping back into his films and find them characteristically his but also very particular to their subject matter. It's not many directors who can be true to themselves and the material at the same time. Russell's been neglected far too long.

Gloria said...


Off Topic: I just saw your comments about "this land is mine" at Libertas. I didn't feel like logging in there to leave a comment, but there are scenes (and I have the film script at hand to confirm it) which clearly illustrate in which side Renoir and Nicholls were (and, incidentally, Laughton was then starting to work with Brecht)

i.e. Albert Lory in the courtroom says: "It's very hard for people like you and me to understand what is evil and what is good. It's easy for working people to know who the enemy is because it is the aim of this war and this Occupation is to make them slaves. But Middleclass people like us can easily believe as george Lambert did–that a German victory isn't such a bad thing"

or this other exchange between Nazi Colonel Von Keller and collaborationist George Lambert:
Von Keller:"I can remember the time when we had the same problem in Germany–during the Republic, under Capitalism. I fought in the streets for our Fuhrer, Lambert–I killed workers with my own hands. For my class it was either kill or be killed. But we won, and now we are brothers. Absolute obedience!"
lambert: I, too, fought the unions–Right in this yard: I was nearly killed. But you hada leader, and you were many. We had no leader and we were few. That's why you're here"

Hence, I find it funny that somebody at Libertas bought this film as an "anti-commie" one. The authors of the film left quite clear who were the ones who hastened to collaborate with the Nazis and those who resisted them.

The Siren said...

Peter, one of Dennis's quizzes just asked for a "a bad film from a good director" and I pointed out El Dorado, but could easily have named those Fords, though Seven Women does have some good points.

Marilyn, this discussion has me leaning toward your view of lists myself. I find that Ken Russell is suddenly popping up in more discussions--at SLIFR, for example, where he had a post about Russell's having made, alas, a list.

Gloria, HA! you caught me losing my temper. I had resolved not to post over there again, and indeed I hadn't, but that particular commenter (who refers in that post, as he does in many others, to his desire to vaporize all Muslims) had so egregiously misread the film that I couldn't keep silent. To have Renoir, the great humanist, dragooned into this bigot's predicted civil war against "liberal maggots" ... no, no, a thousand times no. The scenes you cite stuck in my mind as well. Slezak is extremely good as Von Keller, and the film is also unusual in that he plays a relatively mild-mannered, high-toned Nazi, not a goose-stepping caricature like many other World War II movies. And of course, Laughton was superb. It was nice to read, in Renoir's autobiography, of his friendship with Laughton.

Operator_99 said...

Well, at 62, I'm must the least trusted person to make any comments, but...while "age is definitely not a meter of intelligence", it doesn't negate it either, if the sentient in question kept his or her eyes and ears open during waking hours. I have seen so much film during my life that I think I can truly say that I know what is good and what is not. However, film criticism, once a fun exercise for me, like debating Marxism in the early 60's (the late 60's are a bit of a blur) at the Cafe Figaro on Bleeker, often removed me from the pure joy of the experience as experienced. I just hope that everyone can step back occasionally and let the flickering moments take you away with no thought of camera angle, the comparison to the director's previous effort, etc. Its not easy to do, but kick back once in a while, ok? Then rip something to shreds.

On directors, Hitchcock ranks well with me. When I was seven, my parents dropped me with my aunt and uncle for a couple of days. The second night Aunt Lil and Uncle Wes took me to the movies with them; the film was Strangers on a Train, and I don't know what they were thinking. I was terrified of carousels after that, but never mentioned it to my parents. When I was a few years older and knew what a director actually was, I made it a point to see anything and everything he made.

Ok, off to take some Centrum Silver and watch Woman in the Window again while trying avoid comparing it to Scarlett Street :-)

Marilyn said...

Siren - I read the list Russell made (a link from Facets), and it is really a very charming article he wrote, full of wit and a lampoon, in the end, of lists. I'll put the link in so you can see what I mean.

Cole said...


"I wouldn't use taste as the final criterion either. But, if a person is voluntarily dwelling in a basement and eating shit, gaining good taste would be a positive step for them. And, yes, it is objectively bad for a person to be filling their heads with vile garbage."

Of course, artistic taste and taste in the nutritional sense are two completely different experiences.


"Silly me: I was looking at crusty old maps that give no indication of Russia's "transcontinental" status. Thanks for expanding my borders."

I'm glad to know I've expanded your borders! See, no one is too old to learn new things :)

JUAN. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JUAN. said...

I love Mitchell Leisen as well and I hope he'll get the recognition he deserves anytime soon. I think Leo McCarey and Rouben Mamoulian shall be better acknowledge.