Weeks of preparation and then the crush of the holidays themselves (not to mention the incapacitation of a full-length brace on my leg) kept us from writing our annual Christmas letter. Bill’s part of The Letter is anticipated far and wide and for want of it, we’ve had complaints. Finally he’s been able to settle his brains and compose his part. It’s not the usual “…and Mary and Jack and little Bill are thriving in Woebegone, TN…and the twins are stellar in Tuppelo Little League…” I’d like to share his musings with you who have not met my brilliant film historian husband.
Greetings of The New Year from Storm-Tossed Santa Cruz ~
I had just finished my seven-class course for Osher Lifelong Learning entitled “Meet Frank Capra” when I got news of the British Film Institute’s latest poll for The 100 Greatest Films of All Time. This poll has been taken every ten years since 1952. In that year, the BFI polled sixty-eight correspondents. This year they polled 1,600. In 1952 the greatest film was “The Bicycle Thieves.” This year it was Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, Bruxelles” which beat out “Vertigo” and “Citizen Kane.” I confess I had never seen this film, so I watched it immediately on HBO. I found it most interesting. Yet I suspect the majority of the 1,600 would not have rated it Number One.
The difficulty lies with BFI’s method of polling. First, it asks the correspondents to name what they think are the greatest films. But film, like literature, has several categories. We would not take seriously a poll which tried to determine which was greater, “The Iliad,” “Hamlet,” or “Anna Karenina.” So we should not try to determine which is greater among fiction films, (commonly known as movies), documentaries, and avant-garde films. Despite being fictional, “Jeanne Dielman” tells its minimalist story by the methods of avant-garde films. Second, the correspondents do not rank their ten. The poll simply means that “Jeanne Dielman” was listed more often than “Vertigo.”
These polls are fun and provoke conversation but there are hundreds if not thousands of films that could well be placed in The 100 Greatest list—for example, “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Chinatown,” and “The Wild Bunch” were bumped from the present list. However, this new inclusiveness has produced some happy results. For the first time, there are five films from black directors (including “Moonlight’ and “Get Out,” both made by Sarah Lawrence graduates*) and an increased number of women directors. But it also reveals a bias against comedy—only nine were included (three of them silent)—as well as against musicals, of which only one appeared (“Singin’ in the Rain”). Academics and critics prefer tragedy (To live is to die) to comedy (To love is to live).
Needless to say, no film by Frank Capra appeared on the list, and for all I know, may never have appeared (you must pay £37 to the BFI to see the full list). Of course, I have never been consulted and this letter may prove why.
In any case, I sat down and tried to list my Ten Greatest Movies. I only got to three: “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Ikiru,” and “Groundhog Day.” Whereas “Jeanne Dielman” concludes in bewilderment, these three dramatize without preaching the meaning of life, namely, serving others. Thus ends my Christmas meditation.
*Bill taught Literature and Film Studies at Sarah Lawrence College for thirty-eight years.