SASY Wrap #1 – Thou shalt look back at the first 10 films

Well, well, well… Haven’t we been busy(ish)? Fan With a Movie Yammer is already a whopping 4% of the way through the Sight & Sound Top 250 movies of all time. And it feels like we just started yesterday. Initially, we thought it would be nice to do a bit of a look back every 25 films to see if we couldn’t put them in some larger context or discuss their merits relative to each other. Then we realized that 25 movies is a whole lotta movies, and nobody would want to read such a post. Consequently, we’re going to do a nice conventional decalogue… If it worked for Moses and David Letterman, we figure it’ll suit us as well. And so, we present our first Sight & Sound Yammer Wrap. Enjoy.

J. – I suppose I’ll get the ball rolling on our first SASY Wrap. Presumably we’ll be doing at least another 24 of these things, so to begin with I am particularly pleased to realize I’m not yet tired of watching these films or writing about them. May this henceforth continue to be the case.

That, of course, is a long-winded way of saying I’ve had a lot of fun so far. We’ve seen some excellent films and perhaps a few that we haven’t really clicked with, and hopefully what we’ve previously written has reflected our enthusiasm (or lack thereof).

S. – It is very reassuring to find that I have truly loved some of the films we have watched, seeing as the journey ahead is long and mysterious. As a handy reference our blog’s sidebar will now contain a fluid ranking of our personal top 10 films viewed thus far. Obviously because our review count currently stands at 10 all the films we have discussed are on there, but as we go along the cream of the crop will emerge with handy links (Thanks, J.!) to the relevant yammer. But onto the inaugural Wrap, just how do these first 10 films shake out? Feast your eyes on the lists below:

S. List                                              J. List

1. M (1931)                                                                 1. M (1931)
2. The General (1926)                                                 2. Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
3. Man With a Movie Camera (1929)                           3. The General (1926)
4. Battleship Potemkin (1925)                                     4. Battleship Potemkin (1925)
5. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)                              5. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
6. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)                      6. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
7. A Trip to the Moon (1902)                                        7. Un Chien Andalou (1929)
8. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)                           8. A Trip to the Moon (1902)
9. Un Chien Andalou (1929)                                        9. Intolerance (1916)
10. Intolerance (1916)                                                10. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

J – It’s apparently a general consensus between the two of us until the bottom four films of the list. I think it can safely be said that there is a pretty sizable gap in enthusiasm (for both of us) between the #6 and #7 films on each of our lists.

I certainly enjoyed my top six well more than I did the bottom four. And it is probably no coincidence that the oldest (and most archaic) films fell at the bottom of both our lists. A Trip to the Moon, Intolerance, and Dr. Caligari are the three oldest films on the Sight & Sound list, and that antiquity is very, very evident when watching them. Being at such a far remove from the style of the period, I am guessing it has become too difficult for us to connect with these films when they are placed up alongside their much, much more modern descendants. That was actually one of the things that amazed me about watching the progression of these early films. The leap made between Dr. Caligari and Battleship Potemkin seems like it couldn’t be more massive. It feels like the equivalent of Star Wars coming out five years after a Buck Rogers serial. I imagine some of that had to do with technological improvements, but I think most of it was the result of remarkable experimentation and growing realization of what one could do with film.

S. – I feel like the greatest talent of some of the early film directors was the vision of what a movie could be, embracing this medium as its own entity and not just an extension of live theatre. Man with a Movie Camera and Battleship Potemkin are pulsing with energy, while Intolerance and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari just limp along by comparison. M makes it to the top of my list for achieving astounding visuals, a compelling story and outstanding acting. You mentioned the five year gap between Potemkin and Dr. Caligari as seeming broad, I feel this is also the case once we slip over the border into 1930. I guess we need to flesh this out with more films but it seems as though the acting really steps up a notch as we leave the 20s behind. Or perhaps it just becomes more familiar, some of the styles we still see today are emerging.

J. – Well, there certainly should be a big leap from the 1920s to the 1930s, given that sound films became pretty much the standard everywhere by the early 30s. I think what impressed me so much about the leap between Dr. Caligari and Potemkin is that no particularly radical new technology was introduced. Sound requires new acting styles that are more like what we recognize today, but Potemkin managed to rocket itself toward modernity without sound and without even having a moving camera. Editing and shot composition (which as you correctly note represent a move away from the stage to a new medium) accounted for pretty much the whole of the advance, and what an advance it is.

M is a long time favorite of mine, and that no doubt influenced my decision to put it at #1. In a number of ways, however, I feel like Man with a Movie Camera is a far more impressive movie. It is certainly much more radical and experimental and demonstrates a virtuoso command of film techniques and editing. It was also downright fascinating and fun, with a unique take on the documentary form. But for all that, M is just a thoroughly entertaining movie — even for all its grimness. I think it has excellent acting, wonderful staging and clever juxtapositions, and a real respect for its characters (something more killer-on-the-loose movies could really use). It is for similar reasons that I put The General above Potemkin. The latter is certainly the more revolutionary movie, and it really is amazing and crackerjack entertainment. But on any given night I’d probably rather watch The General, which manages to deftly combine great filmmaking, intense action, and some killer comedy — and I think the ability to make an audience laugh often does not get the recognition it deserves. (Potemkin certainly has its moments of catharsis, but it definitely does not have a sense of humor).

S. – When I look at my ranking the order reflects the degree of empathy the film inspired. Obviously sound is a huge factor in achieving this, that pause as you read an intertitle adds a degree of separation that is difficult to overcome. I wonder if Man with a Movie Camera was more successful drawing me in because it did without the intertitles. The semi-regular appearance of the man lugging his camera about was enough to provide me with the point of view, and the visual wonders that unfolded were all attributed to him without the need for commentary.  The General told a lot of it’s story without the need for many words and Communist propaganda just has special powers, comrades, resistance is useless. The films in the bottom half of the rankings all contained some visual elements that were amazing, but tended to be missing that point of entry into the story where I felt involved.

J. – I think that’s a very fair assessment, and undoubtedly reflects some of my feelings regarding both the top and bottom of my list. I also got a real kick out of the middle duo of our lists — Dr. Mabuse and Only Angels Have Wings. They were both supremely entertaining movies, but I think they lacked those special somethings that elevate a movie into the rarified realm of the greatest of the great.

That’s perhaps sounds harsher than intended. They were both impeccably crafted, and Dr. Mabuse, in particular, utilized some very inventive imagery. But the films in our top fours felt special, like you were watching a bit of alchemy on the screen — silver nitrate transmogrified into lightning. That said, I’d happily plop down on the couch and watch our #5 and #6 movies anytime. (I think a few blu-ray purchases will be in our future as we climb through the Sight & Sound list.)

S. – I agree that the top four films are in a league of their own and I suspect it will take some time for them to filter out of my personal Top 10, if they do at all. And while I would be sad to see any of them slip from the ranks that can only mean some scintillating flicks have pushed them from favour. While our two lists don’t diverge wildly for this wrap-up our off-blog discussions clearly show the biggest divide in opinions is around Un Chien Andalou. While many of the effects were impressive and some of the absurdity was fun, that film left a pretty bad taste in my mouth, a taste similar to how I imagine eyeball goo.

J. – That is gross, and you should be slightly ashamed of yourself.

Yeah, we have diverged sharply on Un Chien Andalou. I’ve not only rated the film two slots higher than you did, but I would put my appreciation of the film closer to #5 & 6 than to the bottom three of my list. I really enjoyed it a great deal, but then I have a possibly unhealthy obsession with the absurd I wouldn’t expect anyone to share (perhaps that’s why I like existential novels so much). But while I thought it was a wonderfully confronting piece of film, I can easily see how it would either leave people cold or offend not so much their sense of propriety as their sense of connection — it is a movie of the id with no real emotion, no real sense of purpose (primal or otherwise). Still, I hope you feel you got something out of it at least as an artifact or even as a failed experiment.

S. – Okay I can concede that there is valour in experimenting even when it fails, and is also a useful reminder to keep things mercifully short when you don’t really have much to say. I would have been genuinely surprised had we ranked things in identical order but it seems a harmonious sequence has emerged even if there were some different elements that grabbed us in each of the movies. As a novice when it comes to silent films it has been a happy discovery to find three of our top four come from this form (and personally I believe they are stayers).  I am curious to see if we continue in similar fashion through the next crop of ten, onward comrade…..

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