SASY Wrap #2 – Son of SASY Wrap

We’ve made through yet another 10 films here at Fan With a Movie Yammer, which of course means it’s time for another Sight & Sound Yammer Wrap! [wait for applause] Yes, we are now a full 8% of the way through the Top 250, which actually feels like a decent number compared to where we stood for the first SASY Wrap. This latest batch of 10 films was a mixed bag for us, with a few movies we absolutely loved and a couple that really didn’t sit well with either of us. In this SASY Wrap we will do a bit of comparing and contrasting across movies 11 through 20 to pick out what we adored and what we’d sooner forget. In particular we’re going to take this opportunity to examine a key question that has been troubling us since the beginning of our movie experiment: Is innovation equivalent with greatness? A few movies in our second 10 really forced us to grapple with this idea, and it’s about time we sorted it all out.

But first, our respective rankings of the last 10 films:

S. List                                          J. List

1. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) 1. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) 2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
3. I Was Born, But… (1932) 3. I Was Born, But… (1932)
4. The Last Laugh (1924) 3. Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
4. Sherlock, Jr. (1924) 5. The Last Laugh (1924)
6. Earth (1930) 6. Earth (1930)
7. Nosferatu (1922) 7. Sunrise (1927)
8. L’Age d’Or (1930) 8. Nosferatu (1922)
9. Sunrise (1927) 9. L’Age d’Or (1930)
10. Greed (1924) 10. Greed (1924)

J. – Well, this was a very interesting and polarizing batch of films; I think it’s very safe to say there is a substantial divide for us between the #6 and #7 films on both our lists. There isn’t much appreciable difference in our ranking of the six films we really enjoyed; although it looks like I enjoyed films 11-20 a bit more than you did, S. Certainly Joan and 2001 have rocketed to the top of my “Top 10.. As of Yet” list, and I have a feeling they will be enjoying those rarefied heights for some time. I have long loved 2001, so its placement isn’t much of a surprise to me, but it was an extra special treat to see it on the big screen for the first time. And Joan left me blown away by its intensity and inventiveness — I would in no way be shocked if it stays at the top of my list for the duration of our experiment.

But I have a suspicion that quite a bit of this SASY Wrap is going to be spent discussing those bottom four films, the one’s we really didn’t like so much. Because in some ways they really were the big surprises. We both adored I Was Born, But…, and The Last Laugh was a real treat as well (although I know you thought more highly of it than I), but both of those films are ranked lower on the Sight & Sound list than all four of the movies we didn’t really care for. Heck, Sunrise is ranked #5 and I Was Born, But… is ranked #183, but I damn well know which one is the superior film and it ain’t the one in the single digits. So something is going on here that’s worth getting to the bottom of.

S. – Such a diverse collection of films with the top three for me being truly exceptional. I agree there is another divide after Earth, with the bottom four in my list all having serious flaws. Greed was actually a burden to watch.

One consequence of this project is that when you encounter a movie that you don’t enjoy you are persuaded to dig a little deeper to try and find what marks it as special. For instance viewing L’Age d’Or was not especially riveting on screen, the bizarreness of Un Chien was there but without the edge and the few sequences that I did find humorous also seemed rather predictable. But on reflection the streak of black humour was probably very risqué at the time, not only was something shocking happening your impulse was to laugh at it, or at the very least it conjured up a smirk. The fact that I could predict the punchline speaks volumes about its influence on modern satire. A similar process was required to appreciate the value of Nosferatu. The viewing experience was hardly riveting with the exception of a few brief scenes, but the intriguing and unsettling blood-sucker is a type of specimen still familiar today. So I can make peace with the films I ranked 7th and 8th in this decatet being marked for greatness. But Sunrise and Greed?!

J. – See, I rather liked Sunrise and can understand why critics might view it as an important movie (although, #5 — really?!). It didn’t exactly thrill me like movies 1-6 above, but I don’t really have too many negative things to say about beyond it being a bit of a wasted opportunity. The pieces were there to make something quite remarkable and it didn’t live up to it (something I can see with extra clarity now that we have watched the similar but far superior L’Atalante).

I agree that our writing about the films has forced us to look quite a bit deeper at what we have been watching, although I’d argue that it applies to the good and the not so good. For instance, in recent days I have bumped Battleship Potemkin up above The General on my “Top 10… As of Yet” list, if only because my thoughts keep returning to the two films, and as I have continued to mull them over, my mind has shifted. That’s a wonderful thing.

However, in the case of L’Age d’Or, I’d say that time has only made the film suffer in my eyes — amplifying the problems I had with it as we watched it. Whereas Sunrise has improved its position in my mental Rolodex (although not by much). But it is interesting that you mentioned how you’ve been thinking about the influential aspects of L’Age d’Or and Nosferatu and that their influence on later films has elevated the pair in your thinking. How important do you think the influential aspect(s) of a film are when it comes to the way you perceive a film’s greatness?

S. – I suspect that the importance of innovation differs depending on your technical appreciation of film-making. With a few exceptions (such as Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz) movie-making pre-1940s was a black hole for me, I had no working knowledge of how the art form developed. As a novice in this field I need something more than a new trick to engage me. Perhaps the purists are compelled to honour the introduction of an idea or method that becomes a source of inspiration for future productions?

The high regard of Sunrise and Greed can only be explained by the developments they contributed to film production and technique. I cannot support the idea of greatness based on that criteria alone and running into these two speed-bumps has made me somewhat wary of what the Sight & Sound list still holds. However, the fact that absolute gems like I Was Born, But… and the magnificent The Passion of Joan of Arc can be discovered via the list more than compensates for a few clangers along the way.

I like that some of these films have stayed with you well beyond the viewing to the point you needed to perform a ranking re-shuffle. Out of this new batch of films were there any big “stand-out” moments for you?

J. – There absolutely were a few stand out moments for me among these flicks. And I’ll get to them in a second, but I’d like to speak a bit about the idea of influence vs. greatness. I think there’s absolutely a bit of room for considering influence in determining how great a movie is, but not how good. In case that doesn’t make any sense, I mean that a film might have a powerful impact on later films and that should be taken into account, but it doesn’t mean that it is therefore enjoyable. (I call it the Sgt. Pepper argument — it might be The Beatles greatest album, but there’s no way it’s their best.)

To my mind a truly great film should have a measure of both: bring something new or unique to the screen but keep me invested in what I’m seeing. Sunrise brought the goods when it came to new techniques and interesting visuals, but fell flat on the story and performance fronts and those are major failings. Greed was much the same, only it probably had fewer visual high points and a whole lot more story problems. To be honest their placements on the list do mystify me to some degree because of these narrative problems — it makes the list feel less like good criticism and more like a museum display.

But that’s enough of the humbugging, because some of these movies had compelling stories and great visuals up the wazoo. As far as standout moments go, I suppose I can do it by film:

Joan – Pretty much everything. This one blew me away on multiple levels, and when I went to get screen grabs for our yammer the challenge was not to grab every frame.

2001 – I have a particular affection for the battle between Dave and HAL, but my favorite scene in the film is the docking sequence timed to “The Blue Danube” — that’s about as beautiful as cinema gets.

I Was Born, But… – There’s plenty to love here but a standout shot for me is when the boys and their dad are walking to school along the tracks and a tram pulls perfectly into frame. It’s lovely.

Sherlock, Jr. – Motorcycle!!!

The Last Laugh – I love what should be the final shot of the film. Gorgeously grim and atmospheric in a movie that generally looks fantastic.

Earth – The opening shots of the film as the camera trains its gaze on the wheat fields are just beautiful.

Sunrise – I did really love the scene in the moonlit swamp with the evocative moon and the clever use of animated intertitles. If the rest of the film had lived up to that, it would have been amazing.

Nosferatu – I found a lot of this film rather dull, but the scenes that take place on the boat and that remarkable shot of the coffins being marched down the main street of the town were real standouts. (Why oh why did I not do a screen grab of the coffins for our yammer?!)

Greed and L’Age d’Or aren’t really going to get any love from me on this front. In general, I found that the films 11-20 were more visually inventive than films 1-10, and I feel like I responded very strongly to that. How about you, S.? Were there any bits and/or pieces that stood out for you?

Nosferatu coffins

OK, so I forgot to put this in the Nosferatu yammer. Well, here it is and it is cool. You know a vampire has come to town when the funeral procession looks like this.

S. – It feels a bit unfair having Space Odyssey in amongst this batch of films, not only was it made well after the other movies it is renowned for spectacular visuals. But the scene you refer to where human Dave is calm and analytical in the face of the catastrophe unfolding as HAL goes rogue, letting his “emotions” get the better of him, is one of my favourite movie moments ever. Joan still haunts me, I was quickly and deeply drawn into her struggle and despaired to realise she was hopelessly trapped by her own conviction. The experience was intense and resonates long after viewing. And I Was Born, But… was a pleasure from beginning to end. The boys are like gambolling puppies, living moment to moment, with the wider world occasionally intruding to knock them off their feet. One of the stills used in the yammer perfectly captures the story-telling power of the cinematography, as the brothers stand downcast yet resolute facing the narrowing path revealed to them by the diminishing power poles. It is just one example of many in Ozu’s beautiful creation.

J. – 2001 definitely feels out of place here, a bit like bringing a laser cannon to a knife fight. But I think it does help reinforce what we have been saying about innovation versus greatness. Certainly there have been hundreds of movies since 2001 that have special effects that are well advanced of what Kubrick produced (heck, Star Wars basically set the standard there). So the innovations of 2001 have been thoroughly absorbed into cinema, and the story and imagery of 2001 have long been grist for parody. But the power of the film remains — in its look, its feel, its story, its philosophy. It is a movie that engages the viewer on so many levels and remains gripping 45 years after its release. Sunrise may have had the innovations but it loses out when it comes to engagement and story and emotional heft. It is an important movie, sure. It might even be a great movie, but it certainly isn’t all that good. And should anyone think I feel that way because Sunrise is so much older or because it is a silent film, I’d have to point them to my current rank of The Passion of Joan of Arc (#1, woo!).

Well, I think I’ve said my fill on films 11-20. It’s looking like we will be wrapping up the silent era during our next ten films, S. I’m certainly surprised by the degree to which I have been enjoying the silent films on the list, but I confess to experiencing a measure of relief knowing that sound will soon be the norm within our experiment.

S. – The silent films have been a revelation! The list has provided a brilliant introduction to a cohort of movies I had completely overlooked, I never expected that I would enjoy silent film so much. Sure it hasn’t all been smooth sailing but for the movies that were unsatisfying I am not convinced the main hurdle was the absence of spoken dialogue. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a couple of silent films stay in my Top 10 for the duration of the project. However, I’m also excited to be moving forward into the sound era. Our next wrap should contain a blend of both forms, it will be interesting to see how things shake out.

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