Folly and Misinformation
Eccentric film lists are always welcome. Personal, intractable, idiosyncratic — the fruit of someone's peculiar, singular lifetime of viewing. Great books have been written from such lists, like Gilbert Adair's Flickers (1995) and Jacques Lourcelles' Dictionnaire du cinéma: les films (1992). More recently, Mark Cousins' TV series The Story of Film claims the right to the same personal viewpoint upon cinema history, with generally good results. We might call them follies — whimsical, risky, ephemeral — but embarking upon folly can sometimes be a wonderful thing, in life as in art.
But even the grandest folly or craziest list requires a baseline of correct information, and a trustworthy sense of world film history in all its depth and variety. The absence of these things is what bothers me about the Internet site Fandor's current republishing, in instalments, of Scott Smith's 1998 book The Film 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential People in the History of Movies.
Jonathan Marlow introduces this feature by expressing the reasonable wish that Smith's (in every sense) 'partial' list will give rise to counter-lists, other propositions concerning the shape of film history. OK. But are simply more lists the solution to a really bad, wonky list at the outset of the experiment?
Marlow gamely describes The Film 100 as 'seminal'. I fear for the progeny that might come from this seed! Smith starts from something absolutely unquantifiable and unverifiable, except in purely subjective terms: the most influential people in cinema. The list runs from indisputable selections — Edison, Méliès, Chaplin, Hitchcock, Garbo, Kubrick — to somewhat odder choices: Hedda Hopper, Siskel & Ebert?
Some typical problems, almost to be expected in exercises of this type: not many women (actresses aside), and a frightening lean towards an all-American culture. Every cinephile will be able to produce at least several dozen other names that should, by any reckoning, be there (Akerman, Preston Sturges, Béla Tarr, Serge Daney...). In the comments section, director/critic Christoph Hochhäusler pointedly remarks: "I don't quite get it. To what end this list has been put together? Why are there (almost) only Hollywood people? Because they were the most influential? That's a laugh."
But lists are lists, take them or leave them. A worse problem is the short essays by Mr. Smith accompanying each selected name. They are appalling: "Full of disgraceful errors, mind-boggling omissions, ridiculous assumptions and spurious opinions" (my contribution to the comments box).
I started with Godard: nothing beyond Weekend (1968) is mentioned. Because that's when he ran out of mojo, perhaps? Or when his influence over US arthouse box-office culture ended? Stupid clichés aside, no one can convince me that Tout va bien, Hail Mary and especially Historie(s) du cinéma are not massively influential.
The more you browse, the weirder things you find. Jacques Tourneur becomes Tournier. Ben Hecht is rightly celebrated as a writer of films, but no mention is made of those he directed. Fritz Lang is disproportionately hailed as a developer of film noir, and his last US movie is wrongly cited as his final work. And on it goes, forever blundering. This is called misinformation, and it's pernicious.
Beyond the comedy duo of Siskel/Ebert, dear old André Bazin is the only critic who scores a slot in The 100. As "principal instigator of the auteur theory", and "taking his lead from film critic James Agee", Bazin "argued that the highest purveyors of the form were the fiercely independent American directors" — like William Wyler? Are these Smith's long-ago memories of a rotten undergrad lecture he heard on the origins of auteurism?
Marlow on pal Scott: 'He knows much, much more about the motion picture business and its history than just about anyone you know'. Now that's a laugh.
Film culture is wonderfully free on the World Wide Web today; but it also sometimes needs to remind itself of its responsibilities. However you slice it, publishing The Film 100 and giving it such uncritical prominence is an irresponsible act on the part of Fandor, and should be wound back immediately. This is the worst kind of folly.