In the process of covering the Tribeca Film Festival and the kick-off of the summer movie season, we didn’t really get to weigh in on that already notorious British survey concerning lying about the movies you’ve seen. It is, we should note, a pretty inexplicable list — not because people lie about this stuff (“What’s that? My favorite Antonioni film? Well, really, who can pick a favorite?”- Me), but because people apparently lie about seeing these films. The Shawshank Redemption? I didn’t realize it was possible to have cable television and never see The Shawshank Redemption; they must not have TNT over there. Dirty Dancing? Is there some sort of thick Freudian subtext that renders that movie impenetrable, and scares off potential viewers? (The answer: no, it remains the tale of Baby not getting put in the corner.) The films on this list are, for the most part, accessible popular entertainments; The Great Escape is a thrilling jailbreak caper, GoodFellas is a cracklingly fast-paced gangster picture, Citizen Kane sparkles with screwball dialogue and inventive narrative trickery. And The Godfather? Who can’t make it through The Godfather?
The point is, these are not the kind of dense, cinematic-obligation-filling works that New York Times writer Dan Kois is referencing in his “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables” essay (which came out around the same time as the British survey). Some critics and viewers, he writes, “love the experience of watching movies that I find myself simply enduring in order to get to the good part — i.e., not the part where you’re watching the real-time birth of a Kazakh lamb, but the rest of your life, when you have watched it and you get to talk about it and write about it and remember it.” The tragedy of the British list was that there were so many genuinely great movies on it, and those would-be viewers were really missing something by skipping them. On the other hand, there are plenty of movies that it’s perfectly fine to lie about — pictures that, as Kois points out, are more of an obligation and a chore to get through, because they are iconic or important or influential. We’ve compiled our own list of those films after the jump.
D.W. Griffith was film’s first real artist — he perfected much of the cinematic vocabulary that we take for granted today, including the use of facial close-ups and cross-cutting between scenes to create suspense and tension. The culmination of his early efforts was The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915. It was American history told on an epic scale — and at an epic length (the film ran over three hours, in an era where the twenty-minute “two-reeler” was the norm). It is masterfully crafted; it is also horrifyingly racist, a Civil War and Reconstruction story filled with broadly stereotypical and patently offensive black characters (played by white actors in blackface) that paints the Ku Klux Klan as brave and heroic.
For film historians today, Birth of a Nation is deeply problematic — it is an innovative and important film, but wow, how about all that racism? Roger Ebert wrote about it eloquently in a 2003 essay for his “Great Movies” series: “Certainly The Birth of a Nation presents a challenge for modern audiences. Unaccustomed to silent films and uninterested in film history, they find it quaint and not to their taste. Those evolved enough to understand what they are looking at find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the postwar and Reconstruction scenes, which are racist in the ham-handed way of an old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet.” The point is, any documentary on the silent era worth its salt (like Brownlow and Gill’s brilliant Hollywood, or TNT’s recent — and excellent — Moguls and Movie Stars) is certain to include some clips from Birth. You’ll get the point.
Griffith was reportedly shocked (shocked!) by the charges of racism leveled against Birth of a Nation, so — as an attempt at penance, perhaps — his follow-up was a paean to tolerance throughout the ages. Subtitled “Love’s Struggle Through the Ages” and intercutting four stories from four eras (ancient Babylon, the Biblical crucifixion, the French Renaissance, and modern America), the film is structurally brilliant, and Griffith’s heart is certainly in the right place. The trouble is, it’s an utter chore to sit through; running a good three hours (longer in some prints), the picture is heavy-handed and dull as toast. Instead, we recommend viewing Buster Keaton’s 1923 parody Three Ages; it’s a helluva lot shorter (a brisk 63 minutes!) and far more fun.
“The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil,” noted Ebert’s 2003 essay on that film. “Like Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.” Leni Riefenstahl was the favorite filmmaker of Adolf Hitler, who engaged her to film the 1934 Nuremberg Rally and put the country’s full resources at her disposal. The filmmaking on display is stunning; using dozens of cameras, aerial shots, trick lenses, dolleys, and unfettered access, Riefenstahl creates the big-budget blockbuster of propagandistic cinema. But who actually wants to watch a fetishistic tribute to the Nazis? Check out Starship Troopers instead, which quotes much of Triumph’s iconography for semi-satirical purposes.
It’s a key moment in just about any documentary concerning the New Hollywood movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s — the smash cut on that first chord of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” accompanying the unforgettable image of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda tooling down the open road on their choppers. It’s an indelible image, and Easy Rider was a turning point in American cinema: a low-budget picture catered toward the youth market, equally influenced by European cinema and rock and roll music, which garnered rhapsodic reviews and epic box office, proving once and for all that the old Hollywood studio system was broken beyond repair. It was a landmark movie. But have you ever tried to sit through it? Good heavens. There are occasional pleasures (Nicholson’s too-few scenes among them), but these days, it mostly functions as a head-scratching time capsule: self-consciously arty editing, endless and meandering “hey, man” dialogue, and painfully dated sequences like the commune visit and the subsequent performance by a theater troupe. Instead of subjecting yourself to this one, we recommend one of those documentary studies of New Hollywood (the best of the bunch is A Decade Under the Influence); you’ll see all the clips you need there, and in the context that the picture so desperately needs.
Here’s a surefire way to get called a cretin: voice a less-than-enthusiastic response to a Bergman movie. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of great Bergman films (Persona, Scenes from a Marriage, Cries and Whispers). But his most iconic picture, the 1957 drama The Seventh Seal is — dare we say it? — mighty hard to take in. Alternately befuddling and impenetrable (wait, which one’s Jons and which one’s Jof?), funereally paced (it feels about twice as long as its 96 minutes), and so somber than it frequently verges on self-parody, The Seventh Seal is mostly remembered for its personification of a black-robe clad Death, who plays a game of chess with Max von Sydow’s Antonius. Then again, you could also get that reference from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
Our pop culture subconscious can always call up one image from Disney’s 1940 animated feature: Mickey Mouse, the sorcerer’s apprentice, in his wizard hat, conjuring up the forces of magic. And make no mistake, that section of Fantasia is an absolute treat. The rest of the movie? Um, not so much. As Pauline Kael wrote, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, featuring Mickey Mouse, and parts of other sequences are first-rate Disney, but the total effect is grotesquely kitschy.” The film was met with mixed reviews and sub-par box office upon its initial release, though it was successfully re-released as a “head” movie in the late ‘60s and has since assumed a role as one of Disney’s all-time classics. Try sitting through the parade of abstract imagery and classical music with a kid, though. Lordy.
The early works of Jean-Luc Godard are among the most energetic and invigorating in all of cinema; there are few moviegoing experiences as pleasureable as your first time through Band of Outsiders or Breathless. And there are few things on this earth as absolutely unwatchable as his 1970s films, didactical cinematic essays espousing his radical political viewpoints. Look, there’s nothing wrong with making experimental films that have something to say, but the films in Godard’s Maoist period are, to put it mildly, a bit of a trial for the viewer. His 1967 film Weekend catches the filmmaker on the cusp between his two identities; much of it is dogmatic and rather obvious. But it has its moments, and sports one of the most remarkable sustained shots in cinema history: the above scene, a long tracking shot from the back to the front of a traffic-stopping auto accident, ending with a glimpse of carnage that starkly contrasts the impatient car-beeping behind it. In that scene, Godard marvelously marries his form and his content; it was a union that he would seldom achieve again.
There’s nothing terrible controversial about noting that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is no great shakes, cinematically speaking; its fans will tell you that going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not about the movie, but the experience. That’s the common narrative: it tanked when it was originally released in 1975, only to find cult success as a midnight movie in the years that followed. Those midnight screenings (which have kept the film in continuous release for over 35 years) are based on audience participation: call-backs to the screen, the use of audience props, complimentary performances by “shadow casts,” etc. But actually going to one of those screenings (as your humble author has) is a decidedly overrated experience — at least if you’re a “virgin,” which is what regulars dub newbies. Between that charming little hazing, the shouting of frequently indecipherable rejoinders, and the overload of inside jokes, going to a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show usually amounts to spending two hours watching a movie with unfunny Ren-Fest kids. If you’re genuinely interested, last year’s 35th anniversary Blu-ray release of the movie includes the options of viewing the film with “The Midnight Experience” — from the comforts of your living room.
The first problem, if you’ve never seen Blade Runner, is figuring out what the hell Blade Runner you’re supposed to watch. Director Ridley Scott has subjected the film to the kind of excessive post-release tinkering that makes George Lucas look like a hands-off, devil-may-care slacker; the film’s 2007 Blu-ray release sports no less than five different versions of the picture. It is, without question, a wildly influential film: its vision of a bleak futuristic cityscape is clearly reflected in later films like Batman, Dark City, and The Matrix. But, in spite of the endless attempts to get it right, the film is frequently muddled, and for all of the praise for its forward-thinking visual scheme, the fog-and-synth aesthetic has dated badly indeed, giving many sequences the feel of a bad ‘80s music video.
Sharpen your knives, I’m ready. 2001 has great sequences, yes — HAL 9000 is an unforgettable cinematic villain, and the “Jupiter Mission” section (the bulk of the film, really) is powerful and often unbearably tense. But people tend to selectively edit the film in their memory, forgetting the inexplicably endless “Dawn of Man” and “TMA-1” sequences before it, and how they go on and on. And on. And on. Kubrick, for all of his technical skill, seems to have forgotten in the years since Dr. Strangelove, how to tell a story. “It isn’t accidental that we don’t care if the characters live or die,” Pauline Kael wrote in 1969. “If Kubrick has made his people so uninteresting, it is partly because characters and individual fates just aren’t big enough for certain kinds of big movie directors… It’s a bad, bad sign when a movie director begins to think of himself as a myth-maker, and this limp myth of a grand plan that justifies slaughter and ends with resurrection has been around before.”
Those are our picks — what “important” films do you wish you’d skipped sitting through?