Over the weekend, I picked up a copy of, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. I think I like checking out books like this because I know they will annoy me. It doesn’t matter if they are overall reasonable, I have strongly held iconoclastic opinions about film, and over the course of 1001 films, many things are bound to set me off. But while I’m on the subject, I should note that the book is pretty interesting. It contains a lot of great films and the discussions of them are not bad. But enough of the good!
The very idea of a book like this is stupid. There are two competing impulses. On the one side, you have all the supposedly great films that everyone has seen. And then, on the other side, you have all the films that this or that cinephile holds as a personal treasure. And this book represents a lot of cinephiles: 59 of them. I love the latter impulse. And this is certainly one reason I check books like this out; I’m always curious to see interesting films I’ve missed. But the first impulse is just boring. And they aren’t even all great (or even good) films. Is it really necessary to watch When Harry Met Sally before I die? I certainly hope not!
This is part of the selling of the book. People only buy it because it contains films that readers have seen. This allows them to flatter themselves on having enjoyed some of the films that are so good no one should die without seeing. And this is manifested most clearly in the overabundance of recent films. Consider the list of Stanley Kubrick films: Paths of Glory; Spartacus; Lolita; Dr Strangelove; 2001: A Space Odyssey; A Clockwork Orange; Barry Lyndon; The Shining; Full Metal Jacket; and Eyes Wide Shut. I will discuss the issue of the overloading of particular directors in a moment. But Eyes Wide Shut was released in 1999 and this version of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die was from 2003. So they threw in that film even though no one actually thinks it is indispensable when limited to 1001 films.
A new edition of the book comes out almost every year. That in itself shows what a farce the book is. The list is so eternal that it must be updated year to year? The 2013 edition of the book sported an image from Life of Pi. I’m not suggesting that it isn’t a good or even great film — I haven’t seen it and I really don’t think I should waste my precious film-watching time on yet another big budget, special effects derived film. Regardless, the film was on that cover because it was a big hit in 2012 and Ang Lee won the Academy Aware for Best Director.
But my biggest problem was the way that the book fetishizes certain directors. I thought it did a good job with Russ Meyer. He got one film, and it is his best, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! I could have done without the condescending description of the film. But while I admire other work of Meyer, in a list of 1001 films, one film is about right. I’m also okay with Samuel Fuller getting three films because of the diversity of his work. But nothing can justify the inclusion of 18 Alfred Hitchcock films. I won’t list them all, but it includes a number of mediocre films, which I will: The 39 Steps; Shadow of a Doubt; Rope; Vertigo; North By Northwest; and The Birds. Don’t get me wrong: I like most of the those films well enough; but only The 39 Steps was impressive in its own time and it has aged poorly.
As I indicated, I generally pick up books like this because it is fun to be annoyed by them. And I’m not immune to feeling a good that Pickpocket and El Topo are in the book. But ultimately, such books are bad for us. If those 18 Hitchcock films really are so important, they deserve to be presented as a narrative within the context of film at the time and Hitchcock’s career. But books like that don’t sell well. So we get these kind of books as magazines — printed on slick paper with color photographs, which, above all, never require an attention span of more than three minutes.
Since writing this, I went through the book from beginning to end. This is a pleasure. If you know film fairly well, you can see the historical arc of the art form. I was surprised just how many films I’ve seen — more than 70%, certainly. I think it does a particularly bad job of representing international filmmakers in the 1920s, 1930s, and into the mid-1940s — and then only really the Italian Neorealists. It also does a pretty bad job of picking Orson Welles film, most especially including The Stranger!