Tuesday, December 15, 2009

must-see films project

Once again I find myself, deprived of the luxury of infinite hours per day, rushing through my Top 100 countdown. Which I didn't even want to do in the first place, except I kinda did.

The project I hope to get rolling in 2010 and - fingers crossed - complete by the end of next year, although this isn't the kind of project that's ever truly finished, has to do with a renovation of the idea of "classic" and "essential" film canons, by assembling a catalog of film titles that are, how to put this...

When structuring film canons - or literary ones, etc - our cultural seers face two fundamental and destructive problems. The first, there's too many films to see. There's only a handful of people in the world who can confidently scan a given year's crop of movies, wherever they debuted (festival, multiplex, local, church, non-traditional, etc) and figure, at a reasonable distance from the close of that year (shall we say, March), "Okay, I've seen enough films to declare confidently that the search for more great films from the year-just-now-ended will yield diminishing returns, it will be more rewarding to redirect my efforts towards the year at hand." Even the person who says that can't get shut of the idea that there may be, just could be, something awesome that they've yet to see.

On the other end of the spectrum - the second problem, as it were - is that once you get a number of film buffs in a room, their consensus choices will feel boring and ossified, even to each other. Take No Country for Old Men as an example. Regardless of how I feel about the film, let's pretend there's something like a Pandora Radio or iTunes Genius for movie canons, and we plug in the variables "No Country for Old Men" and "2007." Let's say that's something we can just up and do. The "film canon genome project" - no such thing - will hem and haw and spit out the following:
  • There Will Be Blood
  • Ratatouille
  • Juno
  • Into the Wild
Plug in 2008:
  • Wall-E
  • Iron Man
  • The Dark Knight
  • Slumdog Millionaire
Or plug in 1972:
  • The Godfather
  • Cabaret
  • Deliverance
  • Solaris
  • The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
We can debate the relative assets and liabilities of these titles until we're blue in the face, but they're always the same films. If you love The Godfather, do you need to be reminded of its greatness? If you hate it, can you stand to hear about it again and again whenever people talk about American cinema of the 1970s?

My goal would be to assemble a catalog of films not necessarily with the goal of thumbing my nose at "appointed classics," some or many of which are genuinely great, depending on who you asked, but rather to challenge the essentializing mechanism a great many of us have accepted unquestioningly, or, if we questioned it, we didn't sit down and...build a truly "alternate canon." Alternative not only in letter but also in spirit.

In fact, the project may include films that aren't great in the traditional, popular sense, but may instead be highly divisive, or disreputable. People who go through my catalog are not required to like the films I select. (For the record, I will be gathering contributions, so as to dilute, more effectively, my authorial stamp.) A fair number of movies will emerge from two groups that we don't examine very often: for lack of better descriptors, I'll call them "truly bad films" and "enormous Hollywood productions."

Forgive my being vague - but let's say that's how far down I'll plumb for titles. By down, I mean gathering up titles that may piss people off, or just not win many new friends, or have people calling me crazy. (In other words, I'm not shooting for neutral reactions.) As far as the opposite direction, it is my hope that I can bring exposure to truly great films that, if more people saw them, they'd develop a strong reputation. Maybe even exceed the tipping point.

This project, ornery but with a spirit of democracy and inclusiveness, was inspired by Jonathan Rosenbaum's now-famous rebuttal to the AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies.

It was Borges who suggested that, if we made a detailed enough map, it would actually encompass the territory it was intended to represent, i.e. the map would be the territory. Needless to say, such an endeavor would be as impossible to achieve as it would be foolish to try. (Anyway, you have the IMDb.) In a nutshell, I want to bring more attention to films that deserve it, and haven't faded from overexposure. That doesn't wrap it up philosophically, or polemically, but it'll do for now.

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