Caution: Small minds on big screen

Just what David Thomson needs: another top 100 films poll. And it's not even as if the list-makers ever get it right
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"EXCUSE me, sir, are you listing?"

"No, madam, I've walked this way all my life!"

Flash forward - 15 April 2020, and the announcement by the National Sentimentality Society of America ("Feel someone's pain today!") of the 10 greatest motion pictures ever made. "The envelope, please: The Truman Show; Truman Goes Home; Scream 17; The Gold Rush; Truman Gets a Network; Lethal Weapon 21; The Wizard of Oz; The Monica Lewinsky Story, starring the cloned Natalie Wood, and Truman Goes Boating - "

"That's only nine."

"Wait for it. And, of course - Citizen Kane - feel someone's pain!"

With so long to go still before the dustcarts of the millennium have all passed by, the lists go on and on, and no subject seems as listable as the 100, 200, 360 or 1,001 best films or most moving movies ever made. This last week, for many hours on the CBS network, the American Film Institute listed the 100 best American films of all time ... and it's all madness and vanity over again, and don't forget Citizen Kane to close the might. "Citizen Kane - not you again!" No, seriously, I love Citizen Kane, et cetera, it's still the best, but all these polls it wins make it harder to watch in any spirit of discovery or freshness. If you enjoy the dream of Orson Welles as the greatest magician of our century, then think of him making the cinema vanish just by topping all the other films made. Can't you hear him laughing - "One day, they will make nothing but lists!"

The AFI list began with 400 films chosen by the institute. Ballots were then sent to 1,500 "prominent Americans"(rat-smelling time - there aren't that many, not even with Gore Vidal in the country) to get to 100 - listed on television in reverse order, so that they're all ranked. What do you get? Well, you don't get any Buster Keaton; you don't get Errol Flynn in The Adventure of Robin Hood, The Awful Truth, The Bank Dick, The Conversation, Detour, Fury, Greed, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve (because you don't get any Preston Sturges - he must have known that many "prominent" people would wipe him out), Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Magnificent Ambersons, Meet Me in St Louis, Mildred Pierce, Nashville, The Night of the Hunter, Red River, Sunrise -

That's it! If a list omits Sunrise I'm not getting up.

Instead of those great works and still vivid experiences, the grotesquely prominent and stupid AFI came up with a mess of "big", "boffo" pictures - big business, big attention, big waste of time. Here's a sample, ladies and gentlemen (which, I know, is hardly an adequate list these days) of the distressing repertory envisaged by the AFI - Apocalypse Now, Doctor Zhivago, West Side Story, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sound of Music (no letters please!), The Silence of the Lambs, Forrest Gump, Ben Hur, Wuthering Heights (I'd like to lock 1,500 prominent or not Americans up with that one), Dances with Wolves, Rocky, Mutiny on the Bounty, Patton, My Fair Lady, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Whereas the list I quoted from above (the one that goes from The Adventures of Robin Hood to Sunrise - now, there's a great title in the list of films never made) comes from the Library of Congress's 200-strong National Film Registry. This is a list that of films the library reckons deserve preserving - the library also notes that in the land that made movies, lives by them, and boasts an American Film Institute, at least half the films made by 1950 are now lost for all time.

The Library of Congress's list is as vulnerable as all lists, but it does attempt to cover a wider range of film usage. It includes, for example, documentaries, shorts and such startling bits of sui generis as the Zapruder Film - the home movie, super 8mm footage that Abraham Zapruder happened to shoot in Dealcy Plaza, Dallas, the day President Kennedy was killed.

The AFI list is the noisiest and most flagrant, and thus the one deserving most abuse. Like many such lists, it wants to make everything American. For example, no 5 on the AFI list is Lawrence of Arabia. American? Directed, written and made by Englishmen. Set in England and the Middle East. The cast has three Americans if you count Anthony Quinn (born in Chihuahua, Mexico) and Claude Rains (born in London). (Who is the third American?) Of course, the producer, Sam Spiegel was American at the time - and Spiegel has four films in the AFI top 20: Lawrence, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The African Queen - and it was made with American money. Still, the idea of its being claimed as an American film seems retrograde. There's a further problem with such attributions and The Third Man. The AFI list regards that as an American movie - it comes in at number 57 - but the Library of Congress does not include it in its 200 because ... well, maybe because the library knows that Alexander Korda then was rated as very English, while David O Selznick, its American producer, having delivered Valli, Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, did all he could to ruin the film.

Why does the American Film Institute need to be so American? Even as we shudder over these things, the June issue of Sight & Sound (its cover story a tribute to John Boorman's Point Blank, a film omitted from all lists) comes with a pamphlet on the BFI's own scheme to identify, preserve and screen in year-round repertory 360 film classics. The list was made by one man - hurrah! lists should be assertions of lone opinion - David Meeker, keeper of films at the National Film Archive (makes them seem like lions). He stopped at 1981 - and he did have 360 picks - but his list is brave, personal and decent. He has 139 films for the US, 81 from France, 31 from the UK, 30 from Italy, 18 from Japan.

From the BFI list, a student could get a sense of what the movies have done all over the world. The BFI pamphlet prints a good deal of commentary and criticism on its own list, and it delivers an entertaining and valuable footnote on film history.

Of course, no one's perfect (I got that from a list of 500 favourite lines from talking pictures). The BFI 360 omits Rear Window. So does the Library of Congress. But the egregious AFI has it. And I think we all want and need it. I mean, whoever heard of a desert island without Grace Kelly?

OK, who was the third American in Lawrence of Arabia?

You got it - Arthur Kennedy.

What about Jose Ferrer, then?

He was born in Puerto Rico, which doesn't count.

I leave you with this little-known fact. It wasn't the ice that did it. Not really. As long ago as 1912, the passengers and crew on the Titanic - omitted from the AFI list! - were doing lists on the 10 things they liked best about the ship. They never saw the ice.