Tuesday, June 26, 2007

AFI and Me, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the List (With Apologies To Jonathan Rosenbaum)

"Business as usual."

That's what Jonathan Rosenbaum called the AFI's Top 100 American Films
upon its unveiling in the spring of 1998. Never one to mince words,
the longtime Chicago Reader film critic went on to condemn the headlines-grabbing list as "symptomatic of an increasingly dumbed-down film culture that continues to outflank our shrinking expectations."
Ouch. Tell us what you really think of it, Jon.

I was fourteen when the American Film Institute unleashed their list,
and I couldn't have been more geeked about it. Here, thought I, was an indisputable catalog of the best films ever made. The good folks at AFI had done me the favor of slapping together this Ultimate List,
saving me the immense trouble of trying to put one together myself.
(This was, mind you, before the days of the Internet Movie Data Base
and its wellspring of at-your-fingertips info.) Who was I, as an
impressionable young lad just then discovering the deeper joys of
great cinema, to question the judgment of such a prestigious
organization? With a name like the American Film Institute, they had
to know what they were talking about, right? There they all were,
conveniently filed and ranked, neatly laid out for my consumption: the
Best American Films of All Time. Period.

Ah, the foolish naiveté of youth. I saw the movies. Most of them
anyway—still haven't been able to work up the enthusiasm to check out Yankee Doodle Dandy. I watched Slim Pickens ride The Bomb. I watched Travis Bickle lose his mind and ask if we were, in fact, looking at him. Was Katherine Evelyn’s daughter or her sister? I got an answer to that one. And I found out what the hell Rosebud was.

My appetite sufficiently whetted, I moved on to new frontiers, new directors, new continents. I discovered Fellini and Bergman, French New Wave and Dogma 95. Several years and hundreds of films later, my favorable perspective on the List of All Movie Lists began to shift and wane. I became a disciple of the Gospel of Jon, and slowly grew to hate the AFI in all of their pandering, middlebrow glory. Who were these people, these anonymous “film artists, critics, and historians,” to tell all of us what the best American films were? How could one hope to even make such a list—to narrow down 100 years of diverse, exciting, challenging cinema to a mere 100 choices? And those choices! Did we really need another voice championing Casablanca or On the Waterfront or (vomit) Gone With the Wind? Where were the renegades of American cinema, the Terrence Malicks or Sam
Fullers or David Lynchs? Forrest Gump over Blue Velvet? Were these
people fucking high?

Worse still than the actual quality of the list, I eventually
surmised, was its very reason for existing. What I once assumed was a
celebration of the art of cinema was really just an elaborate
marketing campaign. Rent the films at Blockbuster! Buy the films at
Target! Watch the accompanying (dry and uninformative) three hour
television special! Collect all five McDonalds, limited edition
Citizen Kane Happy Meal toys (including the broken snow globe and the discarded symbol of lost childhood dreams)! It was all just a ploy to make money, a canny repackaging of the same old iconic, beloved
pictures that have been winning awards and universal acclaim for the last
century. It was the AFI bottling up Hollywood nostalgia and selling it
back to us. The fact that the Institute began putting out new, insipid
lists every year—100 Years… 100 Cheers? What does that even mean?—was the last nail in the coffin. They were dead to me, the faux-historians, the self-congratulatory hucksters.

I stopped even perusing AFI lists several years ago. No need to get
myself worked up over nothing. When it was announced in January that
the Institute would be updating its official Top 100 list every ten
years—meaning, obviously, that we were to expect a new one this year—I shrugged, let out a snobby, derisive chuckle, and went back to my daily routine. Well, last week the brand spanking new, updated list (a redo, of sorts, of the inaugural '98 version) was unveiled to the public. I was wholly prepared to join the eye-rolling, head-shaking Jonathan Rosenbaums of the world in denouncing this pointless, money-grubbing publicity stunt.

Only thing is… I kind of like the new list.

Very little has changed. The AFI still exists mainly to promote itself and to commodify our film culture. It still celebrates the frequently celebrated and praises the already over praised. And it still loves the shit out of Forrest Gump. All this having been noted, the group’s new list—while still marred by glaring omissions and baffling inclusions—comes much closer to presenting a balanced and eclectic history of American film than its much-maligned predecessor.

Admittedly, there’s an air of apology about the whole affair, a sense of begrudged reconciliation. One can almost see the President of the AFI, looming large over his clandestine voting bloc, chomping on a stogy and bitterly intoning: ‘Those bastards want Buster Keaton, than we’ll give em’ Buster Keaton!’ Among the wrongs that have been righted: Preston Sturges making the cut (Sullivan’s Travels, at #61), Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing their way in (Swing Time, at #90), and John Ford’s The Searchers going from a barely-made-the-list #96 to almost-top-ten #12. No doubt about it: the AFI designed this new list to please their dissenters, and the results are surprisingly satisfying.

Citizen Kane is still #1. No surprise there—Orson Welles’ debut has been called an undisputable masterpiece for so long that its reputation is now virtually airtight and unimpeachable. It’s the Mona Lisa of classic movies. 23 of the original list’s winners have been given the boot—including Dances With Wolves (hoorah!) and Fargo (bummer!)—making room for two dozen new picks. Only four of these films hail from the last decade: Titanic (natch), Saving Private Ryan, The Sixth Sense, and the first and best of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. In a nod to the politically correct times we live in, D.W. Griffith’s racist but groundbreaking Birth of a Nation has been swapped out for its even more ambitious, less offensive follow-up, Intolerance. I can live with that.

The bad news? Still no Malick, Fuller, or Lynch. Also, nothing from John Cassavetes, Ernest Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Richard Linklater, or Douglas Sirk. I’ll pick my battles and hope that in another ten years voters will have the good sense to find some space for these eccentric, essential auteurs. Until then, I can revel in the fact that three of my favorite films of all time—12 Angry Men, Do the Right Thing, and Toy Story—actually made this new-and-improved list, albeit towards the very bottom.

So where does this surprising elation, this sudden flip-flopping, leave me? Probably somewhere between the knowledge-hungry idealism of my early teenage years and the jaded cynicism of my early twenties. In a strange way, this new list has reminded why I got so excited about the first one a decade ago. Lists may be fundamentally silly and fairly irrelevant, but that hardly suggests that they are without use or merit. They help us organize our obsessions, to make sense of all the art and entertainment and information flowing into our brains. They inspire debate and encourage us to stand up for what we cherish and believe in. Even when lists piss us off, they get us talking. What was the onslaught of criticism the AFI inspired with their last list but a testament to the passion of film lovers everywhere?

Roger Ebert, the populist yin to Rosenbaum’s contrarian yang, recently wrote an enlightening piece on this new AFI list. Taking in the choices as a whole, he concluded with what he felt was the true value of such an event: “Some newbie will find out who James Stewart or Ingrid Bergman was. Some kid somewhere is going to rent Citizen Kane and have the same epiphany I had when I first saw it as a teenager.”

And there it is, really: the AFI list isn’t designed for know-it-all film buffs and well-traveled cinephiles. It’s for that kid who’s never seen Citizen Kane. Or Raging Bull. Or Do the Right Thing. It’s not an ending, it’s a beginning, a jumping off point. It’s not a period, it’s an ellipses.

I think I was right at fourteen.