SASY Wrap #5 – …And a SASY New Year

And so the epic saga continues. We here at Fan With a Movie Yammer are now 50 films — count ‘em 50 films — into our experimental plunge into the Top 250 films of all time. That sounded impressive until we realized it means we still have 200 to go. Luckily our interest remains keen and our willingness to flood the screen with pixels remains undiminished. A quick scan through our word counts and a gambol through Google reveals to us that our yammers on these 50 movies are collectively longer than Sense and Sensibility, so take that Jane Austen! We only mention that because we really have enjoyed this experience and we think that tucked away in our small mountain of verbiage are some actual decent insights — hopefully you have been exploring our site and will agree.

But on to films 41 — 50. This most recent batch of 10 saw us thoroughly entrenched in American cinema of the early 1940s, as only one film was not from the United States (and it was a British short documentary, so no subtitles this go round). In this wrap up we’ll express the merits and problems with American cinema of the period, and why we are really jonesing for some European or Asian films right now. We will touch on reputation versus merit when it comes to film and film criticism. And we’ll try to sort out our own puzzlement over the inclusion of some of these films in the Top 250. But first, as tradition demands, our respective (and this time nearly identical) rankings of the last 10 films.

S.

J.

1. Casablanca (1942) 1. Citizen Kane (1941)
2. Citizen Kane (1941) 2. Casablanca (1942)
3. The Lady Eve (1941) 3. The Lady Eve (1941)
4. His Girl Friday (1940) 4. His Girl Friday (1940)
5. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) 5. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
6. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) 6. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
7. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) 7. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
8. To Be or Not To Be (1942) 8. To Be or Not To Be (1942)
9. The Great Dictator (1940) 9. The Great Dictator (1940)
10. Listen to Britain (1942) 10. Listen to Britain (1942)

J. – Oh man, I’m not even sure I can remember some of these films its been so long since we wrote them up. I have to offer our sincere apologies once again for basically being out of commission for about a month due to a combination of getting married and Breaking Bad (the television show, not us). Well, to be honest, I’ve fibbed a bit there in the first sentence, because this particular batch of films was old hat for me — I’d seen eight of the 10 before, some of them many times, so my memory of each is just fine. As it happens, the only two I hadn’t already seen were the two short films — Meshes of the Afternoon and Listen to Britain — so I got a whole half hour of new experiences out of this batch. C’est la vie.

Of course, the reason I had seen so many of these movies is because they were pretty much entirely Hollywood films from what is probably my favorite era of American cinema. And there really was a lot to enjoy here, even if it was for the second, third, or 25th time. There’s clearly a more experimental streak happening in Hollywood films of this period, or at least the ones that have stood the test of time. We generally found that the European films of the 1920s and 1930s were the real standout pictures over the course of the first 40 films we watched — more visionary in their presentation, more willing to tackle serious subjects, and more likely to demand that the audience participate in a thoughtful manner. And I definitely see more of all of that in these eight Hollywood studio films. Certainly Citizen Kane is about as visionary, serious, and uncompromising as any movie. But even the lighter fare like Casablanca or To Be or Not To Be have darker currents running through them that push the form towards new possibilities. But for all that, I still feel like most of this stuff doesn’t measure up to the emotional and intellectual heft of a lot of the European films we have seen — particularly the French films.

S. – The Hollywood sensibility is intrinsically different from the European film experience. The American films have an emphasis on entertainment and I kind of feel like a customer when I am watching them, albeit generally a satisfied one when it comes to those on the list. I get to sit back and enjoy the ride, which is action-packed with plenty of gags, everything looks amazing and the characters on screen are aspirational. I guess the exception in this batch was The Grapes of Wrath, where a darker path was tread, but I can’t help thinking of the power this film could have had without the safety net of the “good guys will come through in the end” trope. Citizen Kane also stands out for its willingness to leave things unexplained, this type of invitation to the audience to be intellectually teased by the story is par for the course in European films and I find that leaves hooks in my mind that linger strongly. In contrast, movies such as The Lady Eve and His Girl Friday I enjoyed watching immensely yet, other than a general positive vibe, few details stay with me. I guess that makes for an ideal Hollywood product.

J. – Yeah, there really is that cotton candy kind of thing with many of even the best Hollywood films — especially the comedies — where you enjoy it immensely in the moment but it dissolves away in seconds. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because a list of 250 Joan of Arcs or Rules of the Games would not just be utterly unrepresentative, it would be tedious and overbearing. That this list has larks like The Lady Eve is one of the things that absolutely sits in its favor. And I’m not sure that anyone does crackerjack entertainment better than Hollywood, if only because they have the budget to do so. But also its more of a money industry in America and it has to cater to a much, much larger audience than, say, a German film. There are a whole lot of people in America and the folks in Kansas and the folks in New York don’t necessarily see eye to eye; so it’s key to create content that the maximum number of people can enjoy. Of course the problem with that is that I start using words like “content” instead of “art”.

Now, I think the best Hollywood content is also excellent art, but I’m looking for something with even more substance. And one of the things that has impressed me about the European and Japanese movies we have watched so far is that many of them are not only smart, they are deeply invested in the emotions of their characters. The two movies currently atop my Top 10… As of Yet list (Joan of Arc and L’Atalante) are both gorgeously shot films, but more than that they were emotionally explosive, blindsiding me in a way I had not anticipated. There’s also something very visceral and grimily intimate about M and Battleship Potemkin. American movies aren’t really like that, as emotion becomes more of a character flaw (over-emotional characters are a staple) or the butt of jokes (see all the screwball comedies). So the best American films so far — like Citizen Kane — have been thoroughly cerebral movies — smart enough to impress and awe, but not necessarily able to connect at an intimate level. (I make a qualified exception of Casablanca, which manages to be emotional and phony at the same wonderful time.) So I’m looking forward to diving back into Europe for much of films 51 — 60 in the hopes of finding something less afraid of giving free rein to emotion. But then again, four out of the next 10 films are British — so I should perhaps just forget about that.

S. – I am curious to delve into the British film scene, so far we have only been treated to the brief propaganda piece Listen to Britain from this source, which I didn’t really warm to. Fingers crossed at least some of the impending full-length features appeal more strongly. Although, as you have hinted at, J., I am not confident that the emotional lives of the protagonists will be considered fruitful terrain for exploration by the Brits, stiff upper lip and all that. The other short we encountered this batch had greater impact, I was thinking I was being quite bold ranking the surrealist Meshes of the Afternoon at number 5 out of the 10 films in the Wrap. Apparently we were on the same wavelength! I suspect part of the reason behind my favorable response to this film is I was expecting not to like it and was rather reluctant to watch it. Previous exposures to this style of film had left me fairly cold. Too frequently the aim seems to be to create juxtapositions that are as jarring as possible without giving the viewer any access into the film. In this case I did feel I was drawn into a mystery and while many techniques were employed to throw you off balance it was more like being on an amusement park ride than being threatened by a bunch of rampaging hooligans.

J. – I was also taken aback that we both picked Meshes of the Afternoon as our #5 — and it should be noted that we make these lists separately and without consulting each other. But I think that one of the reasons that our lists ended up so similar in this batch is that these movies just generally weren’t all that challenging, so the scope for drawing passionate love or hate wasn’t really there. Looking back over all 50 films we have watched so far makes me think that this batch of the 10 is the weakest yet. Or more accurately, it is the least exceptional decalogue, because there weren’t any stinkers but there were only two real champions. I suppose one way to put it into perspective is that I liked eight movies from films 31-40 more than I liked this batch’s #3, The Lady Eve.

But that’s gotten me doing a bit of wondering here: Why are these films on the list when we found them very enjoyable but hardly mind blowing? I wonder if the auteur theory might be partially responsible for this development. For those unfamiliar with the term, the auteur theory posits that films essentially represent the vision of a single individual author — usually the director — who is almost solely responsible for the art up on the screen. One can see that certain directors come up over and over again on the Top 250 list, and some directors have been championed by critics looking to promote these filmmakers as visionaries of one stripe or another. Implicit in this approach is a rejection of so-called “studio films”, the sort of entertainment of the masses stuff that is basically made by committee in Hollywood — some of which (Casablanca!!) is excellent. So Orson Welles’ flawed, butchered Magnificent Ambersons perhaps gets a nod partially as a poke at the studio. Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch are deemed auteurs, so their films make the list while Frank Capra’s and John Huston’s do not. To Be or Not to Be combines the espionage thriller with comedy and gets lauded as genius, but I think it pales next to, say, The Thin Man (1934), which combined noir thriller with comedy nearly a decade earlier and with much more satisfying results. But The Thin Man was a Hollywood franchise; To Be or Not To Be was a flop by a great director that needs to be championed — and so it is. I don’t want to sound cynical about all of this, because these are still great movies that we have been watching, but I get the feeling that the critics are letting their slips show, as it were, with some of these selections.

So I will be curious to see what happens as Hollywood studio films take the backseat and more and more countries come into play in the coming rounds of 10 — particularly the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who will account for six of the next 20. Imagine that, British filmmakers scoring huge on a British Film Institute list. (OK, sorry, sorry, enough cynicism — done! And I really like Powell & Pressburger so that was a super unnecessary.)

S. – It is exciting to be moving out of the Hollywood zone and into less familiar territory but I don’t want to give this batch of 10 the short shrift. I loved the excuse to watch Casablanca again, having the opportunity to analyse the myriad characters and relationships allowed me to happily revel in the delights it holds. And Citizen Kane was made for dissection, the film is a complex distillation that can sustain hours of speculation and theorising. The remainder of the set may not leave as deep an impression as we explore further through the Sight & Sound list but they have included truly stunning cinematography, fantastic laughs and some very slick dialogue. Perhaps our #3 ranking was for a softer contender this go around but the #9 ranking went to a film that I had a great time watching, so I don’t feel too hard done by. But enough looking back for now, time to cross the Atlantic!

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