Wednesday, June 27, 2007

AFI Part Two: More of the Same

It's business as usual at the American Film Institute. The organization's updated 10th anniversary list of the 100 greatest American films (introduced in a live telecast on CBS June 20th) offers plenty to quibble with. But beyond the mere ineptitude of many of the selections (and the selection has improved somewhat with the elimination of such clunkers as Dances with Wolves and the inclusion of such previously neglected films as Sunrise and Do the Right Thing), what is most troubling is the insistently imperialistic attitude towards cinema that the list represents. It is one thing for the AFI to co-opt such questionably "American" films as Lawrence of Arabia (a British production with a British director) and A Clockwork Orange, but to perpetuate the narrow-minded view that the only films worth considering are filmed in the English language is inexcusable. Granted, foreign films would be outside the purview of the American Film Institute, but by positing their list as a ranking of the "100 Greatest Movies of All Time" as their marketing campaign repeatedly proclaimed, the Institute further perpetuates the belief (already held by many American moviegoers) that the cinema outside of the United States doesn't exist. While most savvy filmgoers can easily see through the AFI's false rhetoric, such cinephiles are clearly not their target audience and by promoting the list in such a way, the AFI does irreparable damage to American attitudes towards the world cinema.

If the AFI rankings are intended as an introductory list for the neophyte film viewer (it is unlikely anyone else would take it seriously), it represents a very problematic introduction indeed. Granted, encouraging interested parties to check out Citizen Kane and The Searchers (which jumped 84 places to #12) is admirable, but by interfiling these masterpieces with such outright trash as Forrest Gump and Titanic as well as such popular but dubious "entertainment" as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the AFI presents a warped cinematic worldview that the discerning neophyte will ultimately have to overcome. Such a list does a service to no one except the studios that own the rights to the represented films and whose interests the AFI serves. In addition, the list is largely skewed towards the sort of "prestige pictures" that usually vie for the top prize at the Oscars and are full of overblown sentiment and a sweeping, but ultimately blandly generic aesthetic program. By privileging films like The Shawshank Redemption or Sophie's Choice that strain for a hollow significance, the list prevents more interesting but less insistently important films from earning representation. A movie must be self-consciously epic in its thematic concerns or it need not apply. The question of aesthetics is secondary.

And once again the Spielberg sensibility dominates the proceedings, not suprising considering his oeuvre represents the two strands of film that the AFI favors, "pure" entertainment and the overblown, historically significant epic. Spielberg is thus represented by both his popular entries, like the aforementioned Raiders, and his more serious work, culminating in Schindler's List which cracked the top ten on both lists. A servicable piece of filmmaking, Schindler's List hardly qualifies as one of the great films (or even one of the director's more successful efforts), but the combination of filmmaker and subject guarantees its place near the top of such a list regardless of the film's shortcomings. In all, the director is represented by five films. Spielberg's heir apparent, M. Night Shyamalan (at least until a series of recent commerical failures sidetracked his career) joins the list with his overrated The Sixth Sense as one of the few recent films included on the list. Needless to say, the work of Todd Solondz, Gus van Sant, and even David Lynch is nowhere to be found, despite the fact that Lynch's Mullholland Drive was the best American film of the decade and these three contribute far more interesting work to the American screen than Shyamalan and James Cameron. Perhaps the list's only positive development is the inclusion of more silent films after the bitter declamations that followed the Institute's decision to include only one non-Chaplin silent on its original list (Birth of a Nation). Added to the new rankings are Buster Keaton's The General, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, and F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. Still, this hardly compensates for the damage that the AFI's list will continue to do by regurgitating an unreflective and static canon of American film that mixes in an inexcusably high quantity of garbage while passing the whole thing off as a definitive ranking of the "greatest films ever made" not just in America (or England) but on the entire planet.


Allison said...

I agree about Titanic (though i love to watch that movie in an ironic sort of way) and Forrest Gump which is just abysmally bad. But The Shawshank Redemption and Schindler's List were both really well crafted movies and they do deserve the accolades they get.
Is it their popularity that sticks in your craw?

Also, lists are pointless. The AFI just drives that point home.

andrew schenker said...

Being well crafted doesn't make a great movie. Schindler's List is another historical film that tells us nothing important about the historical period in question. Any film that keeps alive the memory of the Holocaust serves a purpose, but this film has to be one of these least challenging and least resonant treatments of the subject. And The Shawshank Redemption is sentimental dreck.