Last week Slate put up an article where they invited various notables to pick the classic books that they would kick out of the literary pantheon if they could. Turns out that I'm not alone in my doubts about James Joyce. But movies are my medium of choice, so I figured I'd try out the exercise with cinema classics - which of the great films, in my humble opinion, really aren't all that great? My five choices below.
"L'Atalante" - This highly influential 1934 French film directed by Jean Vigo contains lovely cinematography and some beautiful effects, but the story is bare bones, the character development is scant, and the performances are unmemorable. I understand that some of its groundbreaking technical and artistic achievements look rudimentary by today's standards, but that doesn't excuse the leaden pacing and the flat characters. Being languid and lyrical is all very well and good, but it's been done by so many others to so much better effect - see Murnau's "Sunrise," for instance - I don't understand how "L'Atalante" still ends up on so many Top Ten lists. Vigo was a great visual stylist, with a lot of offbeat charm and whimsy, but between this film and his "Zero for Conduct" short, I don't think much of him as a storyteller.
"Rashomon" - I understand why "Rashomon" is an important film. When it showed at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, it was the first encounter Western viewers had with Akira Kurosawa, and Japanese cinema in general. And of course it was groundbreaking for its narrative ingenuity and some new technical innovations. But "Rashomon" pales in comparison to Kurosawa's other films like "Seven Samurai," "Ikiru," and "Ran." I understand why doing something important first may rate some extra points when people make up these lists, but I think "Rashomon" has had the benefit of a few too many over the years. I like the film and appreciate it, but the older it gets, the more apparent its flaws become and the more gimmicky its premise comes across.
"The Lady Eve" - This one is a casualty of time and changed cultural mores. In 1941, I'm sure it was a perfectly delightful screwball comedy, courtesy of Preston Sturges. Now, it's hard to watch the film without cringing at some of the plot developments. To put it bluntly, Barbara Stanwick's con-artist character wins and reforms Jimmy Stewart's ladykiller character by wooing him both as herself and in disguise as a bad-girl named Eve. She seduces him as Eve first, than behaves so unbearably towards him, it sends Stewart running back into the loving arms of her real self. This sort of manipulation isn't funny when it's the man up to the hijinks, and even though I appreciate the role reversal, it's not funny when the woman plays the part of the jerk either. Stanwyck's performance is an awful lot of fun though.
"Gertrud" - I was entranced by "The Passion of Joan of Arc," moved by "Ordet" and "Day of Wrath," and bored to tears by Carl Theodor Dreyer's last major film, "Gertrud." It's literally a succession of conversations between the middle-aged Gertrud and the men in her life, presented in interminably long, slow, lingering shots that contain nothing particularly interesting to look at. "Ordet" was slow, but at least gave me moral dilemmas and religious turmoil. In "Gertrud," the heroine indulges in lukewarm existential angst about her life and relationships, and nothing important happens aside from her gentle rejection of potential suitors. Does it work as a character portrait of a strong-willed woman working out what she wants for herself? Sure. Would anyone have paid so much attention to it if Dreyer hadn't directed it? Hell, no.
"Shane" - I've mostly gotten over my biases about Westerns, but the one I could never seem to warm up to was "Shane." Brandon DeWilde as little Joey was naive to the point where I wondered if he was supposed to be mentally deficient. Alan Ladd's Shane looked the part of the iconic cowboy, but had all the personality of a fence post. I understand why people embraced the film back in 1953, why its sentiment and idealism hit home for so many. I liked the action scenes, the cinematography is gorgeous, and I can't be too hard on any film that features Jean Arthur as the female lead. It's a fun movie, but when you get down to it, "Shane" didn't do anything new or different or even very well. It's a good film, maybe, but not a great one.