Thursday, November 10, 2011

An Update on "They Shoot Pictures"

Last summer, when I had gotten through about 500 titles from the "They Shoot Pictures Don't They" ("TSPDT") list of the 1000 Greatest Films, I wrote up this post to vent some of my frustrations. And now, a year later and with about a 150 more titles from the list checked off, I thought it was time to revisit that opinion.

My biggest beef with the list last year was finding so many mediocre films like Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits," Coppola's "The Godfather Part III" and Cimino's "Heaven's Gate," crowding out better, but lower profile films from lesser known directors. I think I've got a better understanding of why these titles were included. Let's take "The Godfather Part III" for example. The first two "Godfather" films are among the most revered films of all time. You could talk endlessly about them, but eventually the conversation would turn to the final, less well-regarded installment. If you really love "The Godfather," it's mandatory to have an opinion about "The Godfather Part III," whether good or bad. And that's the reason why a lot of titles are on the TSPDT list. I may not like "Juliet of the Spirits," but I can't argue that it's not a significant film, or an absolutely vital one to see if you want to talk about the career and development of Federico Fellini, one of the most important Italian directors.

The more films I see, the more important context becomes. After a while, simply reading Wikipedia entries and Criterion booklets wasn't enough, and I started picking up books about film history and film theory to help me piece together the bigger picture. Film history isn't all about successes and breakthroughs and moments of genius, but about the failures and the disappointments and the missed chances too. Thus "Heaven's Gate," which was not just a bomb, but a legendary bomb with consequences that went much further than anyone could have predicted at the time. TSPDT does a good job of reflecting this. In some cases I still think that the emphasis on particular directors gets a little out of hand - there's really no reason to include so many obscure Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau films - but I do appreciate that a director's failures can be at least as interesting as their successes, and provide just as much material for good discussion. There are a few entries that still confuse me, like "Starship Troopers," which I fail to see any cultural or artistic value in whatsoever, but I'm sure there's a good argument in support of it somewhere.

As I'm getting into the more obscure titles, the diversity of the TSPDT list gets more and more impressive. I've been watching films by Emir Kusturica, Gillian Armstrong, Ousmane Sembene, directors who are practically unknown outside of the very narrow contexts of Eastern European, Australian, and Senegalese film. A list of a thousand entries may seem extreme, but it ensures that once you get past the bigger, foundational classics, there's still room for cinema from smaller countries, documentaries, shorts, and other interesting corners of the film world that never get as much attention elsewhere. One of the most intriguing directors I've become familiar with thanks to TSPDT and the Criterion Collection is Stan Brakhage, an experimental filmmaker who creates these amazing video collages of abstract imagery.

I've also accepted the fact that I'm probably never going to finish the whole list, at least without expending much more effort than I think I'm willing to put into the venture. There are rarities like Andy Warhol's "Chelsea Girls," unavaliable except for rare museum screenings, out of print titles like Roberto Rossellini's "Stromboli," and films I just honestly have no interest in watching. Six hours of Jean-Luc Godard's pretentious rambling through "The History of Cinema" sounds incredibly unappealing, and I'd probably find excuses to put off watching it for as long as possible, though currently there's no commercial version available with English subtitles that I know of.

The TSPDT list has also gotten me watching all sort of other films that aren't on the list. I'm currently in the middle of hunting down everything that Peter Greenaway ever directed, after watching "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover," the only Greenaway title on the current list at #855. Ditto animator Norm McLaren, whose work I stumbled across while searching for other shorts. And heck, I'll watch pretty much anything where Toshiro Mifune or Takashi Shimura appear, whether Akira Kurosawa is directing or not.

In short, I'm a happy cineaste, and still getting a lot out of They Shoot Pictures. It's certainly not a path to cinema enlightenment for everyone, and I've gotten frustrated at times, but it's working for me. I definitely feel like I'm getting more out of it now than I was a year ago, and I look forward to checking more titles off the list.

Happy watching.

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