Surely, a 100 Greatest Films Ever List Doesn’t Make Sense! – “It’s Not My List, It’s Their List.”
As I started to think about what I wanted to say about where Ingmar Bergman’s films fit into the 200 films that much more mature minds than mine have chosen as the greatest of all time, I realized that I only had a strong emotional reaction to three of the films, Persona, Scenes from a Marriage and Smiles of a Summer Night. I actually loved them, unequivocally, on many different levels. The films for which I had a strong visual attraction were Persona, Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring and, of course, The Seventh Seal. The two films which overwhelmed me were Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander. The film which seemed to me to be ahead of its time, moreso than the others, was The Virgin Spring. It’s depiction of violence and revenge killings caused outrage at the time. Hour of the Wolf was a film I appreciated as more of a middle ground between Ingmar Bergman’s film with a more conventional narrative, and the narrative-style that began anew with Persona and developed further with Hour of the Wolf and Cries and Whispers. It was fascinating and engrossing but left me feeling largely indifferent; even upon reflection.
Not having seen them before (except a lot of Seventh Seal was familiar – and I always finish any film I start and I don’t watch a film unless I’ve seen it from the beginning), meant that the only thing I knew was that The Seventh Seal, Persona, Hour of the Wolf and Fanny and Alexander were regarded as exceptional as they appeared on numerous of the 1200 Best Ten Film lists in the 2012 Sight and Sound Survey. Even then I did have an expectation which I think coloured my view, which was, “Impress Me!”
Persona did impress me, instantly, whereas the other three I had to think about for days afterwards before I arrived at a conclusion. The danger of bringing preconceived ideas to a film, even when that is minimal, is that it will influence the act of sitting down and watching the films on their own terms.
When I began watching the films that populated this 2012 Greatest Films Survey (about two weeks before I decided to attempt it in the space of a year), I watched Tokyo Story and Man with a Movie Camera. I took this attitude of “Impress Me!” into the screenings. And both films did. Enormously. They are incredible. Vertov’s collection of images, arrangement of images, incorporation of structures and other man-made things (machines mostly), showing visual relationships with those creations, rank it as one of the most impressive pieces of filmmaking I’d seen. Sergei Bundarchuk’s Waterloo and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (along with Intolerance and The Ten Commandments) were extraordinary pieces of filmmaking with respect to commanding resources, and so – in its way – is Man with a Movie Camera.
Tokyo Story was the opposite. I watched the story develop and I expected that it would be a very particular kind of film that only a particular kind of person could appreciate as being remarkable. And yet it told as simple a story as anything I’ve ever seen, which became more and more interesting to me as it unfolded. Beautifully created images combined with mostly peaceful human interactions and observational-filming and acting. The storytelling is moving as is the idea of showing how an elderly couple are treated by all of those they interact with. The plot could be written on the back of a postage stamp and yet the details seen in the way the camera observes events could fill pages and pages. I’m from an English-speaking background, and the film is in Japanese (with subtitles), and yet Ozu’s film language conveys things far beyond the dialogue or subtitles. It’s an amazing film. It’s amazing – to me – because it isn’t Lawrence of Arabia or Citizen Kane and was engrossing without great resources or any intricate storytelling structure. The film you see if you want to know how to make a film about a few ideas and say a thousand things. My preconceived ideas were overwhelmed by the film. It’s definitely when-less-is-more filmmaking.
As I hadn’t seen any of the Bergman films (except maybe Seventh Seal), I brought far fewer preconceived ideas to my viewing of Bergman’s films than the four films planned for this week, because I’ve seen The Godfather twice before, and The Godfather Part II once before, The Conversation four times, and Apocalypse Now twice (both times in the cinema). So I will bring all sorts of ideas to this week’s screenings.
My preconceived ideas are:
The Godfather (1972) – “excellent film, in every regard.”
The Godfather Part II (1974) – “absolutely brilliant, inspired, engrossing, goes beyond the genre, or the normal film narrative of its time.”
The Conversation (1974) – “it’s good, all aspects are very well executed, I love the idea and I love the ending – very novel, but I don’t understand why it’s brilliant. Is its ordinariness its brilliance, like a Tokyo Story, where you just observe, or listen in on a conversation? It’s solid but lacking the kind of arc and climax that makes a really good thriller. Pedestrian in its pacing at times.
Apocalypse Now (1979) – “The first time, I thought it was very good, but some of the Marlon Brandon scenes were just too long and too inarticulate, and it strayed too far from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” which I had just studied at university and loved. With all the reports of the problems of making the film, actors having heart attacks and breakdowns, and drug use, and the film being shut down, then more delays, then Coppola running out of money, his ego running out of control: I think I bought into the media story which was that several egos were out of control and the film was cobbled together from the salvageable footage. And I still thought the film was good – very powerful. But, a diluted Heart of Darkness.
The next time was twelve years later and the second time around I wasn’t aware of any popular revisionist thinking about the film in 1992, but I was keen to see it again, as was my best friend, and my second response was, ‘Wow! One of the greatest, most harrowing,films ever made..’ I didn’t think in terms of Best 100 Films or Top Ten Films, in those days, but if I had, it would probably have been in both.
Nowadays I still don’t think in terms of a Greatest 100 Films, or a personal Top Ten, despite this (ridiculous) exercise, which is, of course, centered round the idea of The Greatest Films Ever. Those kinds of phrases are invented by the people who sell newspapers and magazines. But where it proves useful, insightful, is in collecting hundreds of opinions about what the polled participants would site as their Top Ten Films if a gun was held to their head. So many of the critics and directors mentioned the ridiculousness of the task, in trying to create a list of just ten films from all they have seen.
Most people who really enjoy movies see around ten or twenty in the cinema a year. Or if you’re Rod Joyce, around a hundred a year. Plus another dozen or so at home, revisiting favourite films regularly. Or if you’re me, then it’s sometimes a hundred in the cinema, and another two hundred (films I’ve never seen) at home, every year. Or during the last ten years with the SSO, it was more like twenty in the cinema and fifty at home every year, because my energy was going into recording music rather than watching film. But despite those ten years of only seeing seventy films a year – only about thirty were for the first time – there was a twenty-year period where I saw on average, one a night – all new to me; and fifteen years of watching two a night, but only half of those would have been films I’ve never seen before.
Film critics, academics and film historians, of course, would have seen far more than that, and from a far wider pool than what my local video store had available.
This brings me to the value I find in the fact that when people who want to cause controversy and raise their readership and sell more magazines and newspapers (advertising The Best Film of All Time or The Greatest 100 Films) ask for a multitude of top ten lists: a consensus forms around certain films, by people who have seen as many films in a language that is not their first, as in their first.
First, I discovered the British Film Institute [BFI] list from 2012 which polled over a thousand people who live, breathe and think film. Then I discovered the top ten lists from the same poll (also known as Sight and Sound poll) for 1952, 62, 72, 82, 92, 2002, at a certain point separated to delineate directors from critics, academics, historians, exhibitors, distributors and other important craft roles. And with the 2012 poll, the BFI provided a breakdown of every voters’ top ten list, all films voted for, and a list of the top 100 films as voted by directors and the top 100 films by critics.
That’s where the idea of this endeavour started. I looked at the two lists of 100 films, worked out the ones in common, worked out the ones which weren’t, noted the ones I hadn’t seen, and the idea germinated from there. Naturally, I already knew that the Internet Movie Data Base had a list based on a 10-point system of everyone in the world’s opinion (with an English-speaking bias), and that Rotten Tomatoes had a rating. That gave me another two slants.
The Critics 100 list has a slight bias towards embracing a cerebral view of film over one of enjoyment or emotional fulfilment
The Directors 100 list has a slight bias towards the idea of the director having the major vision of how a film turns out. The bias of the director’s list is that they see the director as the visionary who is responsible for the artistic success of the film.
[I’ll digress to talk about the way the director’s role has further developed in either importance or influence in: The Three Directors’ Cuts.
Due to potential studio interference we now have three versions of a film which can be called a director’s cut:
1) a lot of footage which wasn’t shown in the original, is shoved back in, to gain another marketing opportunity for the studio,
2) an actual director’s cut, where a director’s original vision, which was interfered with, is restored by the director or someone else, and
3) a new cut of the film which comes about because a director is asked to re-evaluate his original film with the benefit of hindsight, and trim certain scenes, and include other material which wasn’t used for various reasons, like pacing, in the theatrical release, or the first release. [It was at this point that I found a copy of Tokyo Story in my local library and watched it. Then I found a friend who had Man with a Movie Camera and watched it. Both viewings left me with such a strong feeling that I was seeing something utterly amazing and quite extraordinary. And for the first time. And they were both better than some recent misfires in popular cinema, with comic book adaptations taking over the world in more senses than one.]
I’ve recovered from the disappointment of the very first film of the 52-week journey and re-watched it. But The General wasn’t hilarious, and I expected it would be. Now, I see it as a completely different film. And now because I read anything about its greatness. I waited five days and watched it again.
Then I’ve gone along with Week 2 and Week 3. The Seventh Seal and Fanny and Alexander didn’t hit me between the eyes, but Persona did, and it made me want to see more of Bergman. Then came Hour of the Wolf which underwhelmed me. At this point I realized that you can’t expect to see or comprehend something immediately if the person that makes it, brings a different sensibility to their creation than the diet I’m most familiar with. I went back to my local library, found Cries and Whispers, The Virgin Spring, Smiles from a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries and Scenes from a Marriage. And now I realise that I’ve seen nine, not eight Ingmar Bergman films in the last two weeks. I lost track. Six from Lane Cove Library, two from Quickflix, and one from a friend.
All of these lists have made me broaden my understanding of film by embarking on this adventure – and have achieved it, already, in just three weeks.
Everything else is now an additional broadening of my mind with regard to this particular art form.