Saturday, February 11, 2012

One Last Furtive Look Around

12,717 minutes
212 hours
8.83 days

That’s the amount of time it takes to watch AFI’s 2007 list of the "100 greatest American films." Last night I watched the final film on the list, "Citizen Kane," up on the big screen at the Egyptian Theatre. See? There's my ticket stub and everything. Of course, for me, just watching the movies was the tip of the iceberg. I have spent the last two years of my life devoted to watching, absorbing and discussing these films, and now that the final film has faded out and my final article has been written, I can safely say that it was time very well spent.

I started on the journey hoping to learn just as much about myself as a filmmaker as I would learn about the craft of filmmaking itself, and in that respect I also believe I succeeded. I hadn’t seen every movie on the list, and many of the ones I had seen had long since begun fading from my memory. For me, the most amazing thing that the American Film Institute represents is that it bridges the gap between honoring the past and what has made filmmaking America’s greatest, most influential art form while training the next generation of filmmakers…the ones who it will honor years from now. It’s a beautiful circle, one which I was honored to be a part of for two years and, hopefully, will one day be part of its legacy. I must also point out that my education at AFI was worth every penny, and has earned its reputation as the world's best film school thanks to its fantastic faculty, staff and selection of Fellows.

I write this because the thing that I believe more than anything else about filmmaking is that, to move the medium forward, you must first understand its history and what has made it work to this point. Filmmaking has always, and continues to, represent the most important and emotionally genuine aspects of our culture. If you do not make an honest attempt to study and invest yourself in the men and women who kept it alive through the decades, then you are an idiot. You can learn everything about how to write a scene, stage a scene, direct actors, work a camera, hold a boom mic, edit coverage…but without inherently understanding what makes the final product transcendent, you are doomed to failure.

So should everyone who wants to make movies watch the AFI Top 100? Of course.

But is the list really the Top 100 movies? Of course not.

In the first place, the list only covers American films and, really, any list of great films that lacks “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is incomplete. “Sight & Sound” does a survey of directors and critics every decade to find the top films from all over the world, but those lists are faulty as well.

That is because every list, no matter how many people have added or subtracted to it, is essentially subjective and must inherently evolve with time. Not just because new films are being released every week, but because we aren’t the same people, the same country, the same world as we were yesterday, or last week, or last year. I’m lucky enough to love every genre of film, but to others, genres like horror and science fiction could never be transcendent enough to be considered an art form. That thought is just ridiculous, of course—just because you don’t like something does not mean that it does not exist or deserve validation.

Before writing this epilogue, I examined my prologue…the first article setting down the ground rules of the project. I wrote that I would explore whether any given film from the list deserved classic status, inclusion and then, every few articles, I would offer up a suggestion for another film that could serve as a replacement. Whoops.

I don’t think what I wrote there was wrong-headed, because I understand where I was coming from, but that was before I actually started. Now that I’m finished watching all 100 films, I can say that each one deserves its classic status. Did I dislike some of the movies? Of course. Are there many movies that I believed should have been ranked instead of ones that actually made the final cut? Duh. And yet…and yet each film on the list is important. Is special. I might disagree with its inclusion, but I understand why each film was chosen. If I hadn’t watched every movie on this list, I would have been missing out on a significant part of our culture. It was an honor to watch every film…even “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Another decision I made early on was to watch each movie fresh. I would do absolutely no research on the film, filmmakers, the history of the project, its critical acclaim, its awards or its impact on society before watching the movie and writing my article. If possible, I wouldn’t even read the back of the DVD box. And I can legitimately write that my choice was exactly the right decision. It gave these films that mystique that would have been lost had I known all the nuts and bolts going in. I have been studying those nuts and bolts for the past two years at AFI and, frankly, wanted an escape to view the movies like they were meant to be seen: As their own entity. Had I known how the actors seemed to make tracks in virgin sand in “Lawrence of Arabia,” the magic would have been lost. Had I known Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh hated one another, I would have been watching for that on the screen instead of being swept away in their love story.

Reading critical analysis of the classics today is like reading a history lesson. “This scene is important because it is the first time this camera was used and this nod has significance because the filmmakers hated one another and were threatening to kill one another in their sleep.” It’s almost as if modern critics are using all the histories, intricacies, battles with studios, battles between cast and crew and censorships to qualify the movies as classics. Hell, 2/3 of the critical essays I read about these films (after seeing them, of course) were more about their making than the movies themselves. That’s not how it should be. The best movies are classics not because of the circumstances they are made…but because they are great movies. After being mired in so much talk, talk, talk about the “how,” it was refreshing to watch the movies purely and ask myself “why.”

Even though I know they aren’t the actual Top 100 films because there can never be a definitive list, the AFI list still has vital importance, because it represents 100 reasons to fall in love with film. It also represents a means to introduce you to hundreds of other important, great films (American and otherwise). Because I watched these movies I am now a huge fan of Chaplin, have tracked down most of Wilder’s movies, discovered a love for David Lean’s Dickens adaptations and his great “Summertime,” feel like I’ve finally understood what Stanley Kubrick’s appeal is…and that’s just from the top 25. Now I can’t imagine my life without “Modern Times” and “The Last Picture Show,” two films I had never seen two years ago.

Use this list as a launching point to discover other amazing movies, shorts, television, filmmakers. Expand your knowledge. Grow. And if you make it through these 100, promise me you’ll watch “East of Eden,” “Notorious,” “The Great Dictator,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “The Uninvited,” “Witness For the Prosecution,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Exorcist,” “Kill Bill,” “The Muppet Movie,” “Room With a View,” “Night of the Hunter,” “Superman,” “The Verdict,” “Remains of the Day,” “Alice Adams,” “Casino Royale,” “The Thin Man,” “A Star is Born,” “Horror of Dracula,” “The Color Purple” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” “The Haunting,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “Limelight,” “Touch of Evil,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Funny Face,” “The Untouchables”…and I’m sure that’s only scratching the surface.

What’s next? This isn’t the end. I want to dive into television next, but more on that later.

One final triumph: Through watching this list, I know for a fact that I became a better writer and filmmaker, consistently holding myself to a much higher standard than I did before I started.

Thanks for reading,
Robert Taylor
February 11, 2012

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