Sunday, August 26, 2007

Miscellaneous Musings: Reflections on the AFI

August 5, 2007

And the Greatest of All-Time Is...

Every so often, a list comes out that gets everyone talking, even if only for a short time. Rolling Stone’s occasionally releases a list of the greatest albums of all time, from time to time, Sports Illustrated publishes their top ten athletes, and at the end of every year, film critics release their top ten lists. It has been ten years since the American Film Institute first released its 100 best films of all time, and at the time, their list created a bit of controversy. Some complained that it should have been called the top 100 American films, as none of the films on the list were from outside the United States. Others quibbled that their favorites had not made the list or that some that did were unworthy. Perhaps it is na├»ve to believe that any list could ever adequately capture the 100 greatest film masterpieces to have appeared on screen, but I had hoped that the AFI might get close the second time around. However, the AFI’s new list shows not only a lack of imagination but also seems tailor-made for in-store promotions. In other words, don’t expect to find anything remotely controversial or considered a tough sell.

The list reads like a collection of popular commercial films. It starts with Citizen Kane and ends with Ben-Hur. In the middle are Hollywood classics such as Sunset Blvd., Chinatown, and The Godfather I and II. The list even includes some recent films. For instance, Titanic now ranks #83 of all time according to the AFI. Saving Private Ryan (#71) made the list this time around also, just two spots below Tootsie. The AFI even saw fit to include M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense at #89, three spots higher than Scorsese’s Goodfellas. One would think that with all the recent films that made the list Hollywood must be experiencing another golden age of cinema.

Only five of the films of the list are silent films, and two of those five were made after sound had been invented. They were only silent because, as Chaplin put it, the Little Tramp could not talk. One silent film appears on the list for the first time, D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. If one didn’t know better, one might think that a classic had been rediscovered, that in the ten years since the first list, America had fallen in love with a silent film about racism and injustice. However, the silent film that fell off the list was also D.W. Griffith’s, and the selection of Intolerance seems to have been a make-up for bumping his astonishing but troublesome The Birth of a Nation. After all, it’s much easier for Wal-Mart to put Intolerance on its shelves than The Birth of a Nation. I can imagine the banner: Intolerance – a must-have for those who loved Crash.

Another problem with the list is that once again influence has been put over quality. Many of the films that made the list have had an enormous influence on Hollywood. Jaws (#56) was the first movie to gross $100 million, Titanic was the first to take in over $1 billion, and Pulp Fiction (#94) inspired countless knock-offs and got ever young scriptwriter/director to try to write like Tarantino, but it is hard to believe that the shark that sunk a boat, the one-week stand between Jack and Rose, and the gimp represent some of the best of all time. Another example of influence over quality comes in at #13, Star Wars. While Star Wars is said to have changed Hollywood completely, few fans would say that it is better than its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. In addition, the AFI saw fit to proclaim Toy Story the ninety-ninth best American film of all time. It is true that Toy Story was the first film to be made entirely using computers and that since then, almost all animation had been created that way. Indeed, the success of Toy Story greatly changed Hollywood. Whether or not it deserves to be ranked as one of the greatest films for its quality is another matter.

Just imagine if the AFI had put out a list that included films that the general public did not know very well. Imagine if #25 was something like The Ox-Bow Incident, The Petrified Forest, or even Requiem for a Dream. Imagine if the AFI omitted Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music entirely and replaced them with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. I do not claim to be able to make a list of the greatest films of all time, for I have not seen enough films. However, the AFI is supposed to have done just that. When the AFI makes a list, people should read it and be awed by the titles selected. They should want to run to their nearest video store to find a title from the list and see for themselves what is so great about that particular film. Instead, the AFI’s list is predictable and uninspiring. The day the list was made public, I saw a newspaper headline that read “Kane Still Number One.” Honestly, what else were they going to put up there – Salt of the Earth? Christ in Concrete? Titus? After all, who’s heard of those films?

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