AFI Lists and Cannes Controversies
Well, it’s been a hectic week for me, so I have not had a chance to see a movie for about two weeks now (I’ve been tiding myself over with my new Sopranos
DVDs, and the drought ends tonight when I see X Men 2
at the cheap theater), but I decided to post about some movie related stuff that has come up over the past few weeks.
AFI’s 100 Years...Ah, Who Cares?
Apparently, nobody; the American Film Institute’s latest studio marketing ploy, er, list,AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Heroes and Villains
was the lowest rated AFI special yet. I actually managed to watch most of it, tuning out for the middle hour to watch the premiere of the television show Keen Eddie
on FOX (a somewhat amusing pilot, marred by hackmeister Simon West doing his best Guy Ritchie impression). However, when I logged online, I could find little or no discussion of the newest AFI list, which is surprising, because I thought this was the worst list since the original Top 100 American Movies (the subsequent, more specialized lists of movie stars, comedies, thrillers, and romances being marginally better than the first list). Then I saw the ratings and understood. Man, does anyone remember the outrage among the cinephile community when the first list premiered? I do. It takes me back, rereading Richard Schickel’s tepid, rationalization of the list in Film Comment
(he was one of the people behind the original list), or Jonathan Rosenbaum’s hostile response and counter list
(a much better, more comprehensive list of American films). Now, those were the days. But I think the problems of the first, most famous list, have come back to roost, and has largely invalidated the subsequent lists in the eyes of many, especially among cinephiles: a much too contemporary slant, coupled with an almost total neglect of silent film; a dubious definition of what constitutes an American film, and the total neglect of films from outside the studio system, such as independents, avant-garde, and documentaries. In short, their selections were safe and uncontroversial (and in this particular case, filled with boring liberal piety, and I’m a liberal), and mostly from the 1960s to the present, thus making them the perfect marketing shill for the Hollywood Studios and the Video Rental market.
The newest list was particularly bad for several reasons (though this list did actually improve on the initial list by actually including examples from animated films, though they were exclusively Disney). The quality of the guest spots from celebrities explaining why this or that “hero” or “villain” made the list, never one of the AFI Special’s crowning achievements, were particularly shallow, sanctimonious, and in some cases self-serving (i.e. Oregon Senator Gordon Smith comparing himself to Capra’s own Senator Smith, blech!). The list, or I should say the TV special presenting the list, managed to conflate characters who garnered a spot on the list from one movie, with other portrayals of that character in other movies (for example, Arthur Chipping got on the list for the 1939 Robert Donat film Goodbye Mr. Chips
, but they managed to show clips from the subsequent 1969 remake; Hannibal Lecter managed to appear multiple times, along with James Bond, Han Solo, Darth Vader, Han Solo, Tarzan, Count Dracula, and the Tramp). The Tarzan appearance was rather bizarre, because they initially showed a clip from the 1934 debut starring Johnny Weismuller, but also one of the cheapies from the 1950s starring a completely different actor. Then, for me there were some dubious choices such as Cruella De Vil, Joan Crawford as interpreted by Faye Dunaway, and come on, the pod people of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers
were way more villainous and scary than the Martians of The War of the Worlds
(but then again, the TV show managed to show a clip from just about every 50s movie featuring a Martian).
However, the worst quality of the list were the AFI’s own definitions of what constitutes a “hero” or “villain,” taken from the AFI’s own website:
*Hero: For voting purposes, a "hero" was defined as a character(s) who prevails in extreme circumstances and dramatizes a sense of morality, courage and purpose. Though they may be ambiguous or flawed, they often sacrifice themselves to show humanity at its best.
*Villain: For voting purposes, a "villain" was defined as a character(s) whose wickedness of mind, selfishness of character and will to power are sometimes masked by beauty and nobility, while others may rage unmasked. They can be horribly evil or grandiosely funny, but are ultimately tragic.
OK, so the shark from Jaws
is ultimately tragic? They killed a big, dumb eating machine. But more importantly, the AFI’s zest to shove all the choices into a black and white binary just proves that the AFI is more interested in moving units than educating the American populace about American film and film culture. Why? Well apparently the AFI has never heard of the term “anti-hero.” Otherwise, you would not have the dumbest choice of all the list, including Travis Bickle into the “villain” category, which is the one time I actually looked up and began to pay real attention. Travis Bickle is the villain of Taxi Driver
? OK, but if you look closely at the AFI’s definitions of what constitutes a hero or villain, you’ll see that Travis Bickle is not easily categorized, it’s as if he straddles the line between the two definitions, but the AFI could not have this, and consigned him to the villain category because he was a sick man who killed a bunch of pimps. Many of the characters on the list could do not easily fit into either category, and I was given the impression that they were shoehorned in where they fit if the world was black and white, instead of shades of gray. Other examples from the list would include Regan MacNeil from The Exorcist
, Darth Vader, Michael Corleone, Alex De Large, HAL 9000, Dirty Harry, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, Gen. Patton, Clyde Barrow & Bonnie Parker (this was actually kind of acknowledged by Arthur Penn in the TV show), the Tramp, and Popeye Doyle. Well, I guess you can not expect much from a television show which has a complete lack of analysis when it comes to the characters, barely even justifying the characters inclusion on their respective lists.
The War of Words
The other thing that I would like to mention is the increasingly ridiculous war of words between Vincent Gallo and Roger Ebert (Gallo’s version
, or at least a Gallo defender’s version, versus Ebert’s
). But what is most interesting, regarding this latest inane dustup, is the critical fissures that it has exposed, something that Jonathan Rosenbaum brings up in his latest column
. But first, let me back up, do you ever notice that American trade and mainstream press critics who’ve attended Cannes the past few years have seemed to declare each subsequent version of the modern day Cannes film festival to be worse than it’s predecessor? It’s a constant refrain, but not something you regularly hear from alternative press critics, foreign critics (apparently, the French papers Liberation
and Le Monde
really liked Brown Bunny
), or critics from specialized film magazines (all of whom may be disappointed with the festival’s offerings, but who rarely resort to the kind of headline-winning hyperbole found in mainstream criticism). I bring this up because, whenever, discussion of the Cannes film festival, or Brown Bunny
in particular comes up, the critical opinions of two English-language trade journals, Variety
and Screen International
, are brought up as if they are some kind of critical paragons. I think this speaks to the low level of discourse that can be found in mainstream American film criticism; increasingly, I’ve found that the mainstream’s depiction of the Cannes Film Festival films to be distorted at best, and I have to wait some time for more balanced (and dare I say accurate) opinions to finally be published. And then I have to wait a year, or two or three, to see any of the films for myself (for the record, I will probably see Brown Bunny
, assuming it ever opens here; hey, I’ve already seen Gallo whack off on camera in Trouble Every Day
, so what’s a blow job?). Hopefully, Yun-fat can deliver a festival recap in the near future.