About 4 years ago, I was staying at a friend’s and noticed a list book, 1001 Movies You MUST See Before You Die. I am a sucker for lists. It’s sad, because really, one should make one’s own lists and not give a damn about anyone else’s. But on the flip side, lists of things like movies, books, and music do help you broaden your education and experience stuff you wouldn’t normally bother with, kind of like college syllabi. And unlike the truly ridiculous lists – 1000 Places and Things You MUST See and Do Before You Die – one can conceivably see all 1001 movies on the list.
I created a spreadsheet to tally up what I’d viewed, a perfect activity for the nights I was too tired to think, which at the time was most of them. Having worked at Criterion, I figured I’d have easily seen at least 600 of them. I was a bit stunned that I was only in the high 300s, primarily due to my avoidance over the years of 90% of the movies made before 1940. I decided I’d start trying to pound my way through, and I figured someone had to have created a blog that was doing the same thing. While I did find one, I wasn’t happy with it. So just under 2 years ago, I started what would become, after a couple of name changes (the unfortunate “cinemarinkadink” is still in the url), Cinema 1001.
I’ve watched in order, and rewatched the few movies in the first 100 that I’d already seen, as I didn’t remember them that well. The library has a lot of them, but not all. I had to watch The Bitter Tea of General Yen and The Phantom Carriage hacked up in pieces on YouTube, and I’m currently trying to work my way through the many hours of Les Vampires in the same way. I realized how bad my French was when I managed to understand approximately 15% of the nearly wordless Zéro de Conduite, only available online unsubtitled. Next to none of the movies I needed stream live from Netflix – I have subscriptions to both that and Blockbuster. Oddly, the latter has been a better source for some of the more obscure items. There are approximately 5 movies that just aren’t available, including La Chienne, on which Scarlet Street is based, but I’m sure that by the time I’m getting close to the end – I figure I’ve got another good decade – everything will be accessible somehow.
Mechanics aside, it’s been an interesting experience. I’ve always avoided silent movies like the plague unless Buster Keaton was in them; I’d seen Intolerance in high school and had a hard time recovering. In fact, having to slog through all the Griffiths early on – including a re-watch of Intolerance, which I feel no more love for now than I did 30+ years ago – nearly did me in. Only Broken Blossoms was palatable in the least; those other suckers are long. But of course, if you gut your way through Griffith, you start to see new things in John Ford, Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, and a bunch of other guys. You understand American filmmaking in a new way: It’s exciting, strives for realism even though it’s patently false, and also capable of insufferable moralizing.
To study movies from virtually every year in the first three and a half decades of the 20th century is to watch the spirit of different countries evolve and develop. It’s an eye opener to see the prounounced antiwar sentiment in the US evident in King Vidor’s The Big Parade, as well as in All Quiet on the Western Front and Duck Soup. You understand French movies better when you start with Méliés’ playful surrealism, then proceed to the visions of Abel Gance and on to Renoir. German cinema progress from Dr. Caligari to Dr. Mabuse to the glories of Murnau and Pabst. You appreciate anew Hitchcock’s unique dark genius, and you watch Astaire and Rogers journey in the space of a year from a good team to a spectacular one.
I’ll admit that the most fun is disagreeing with film scripture. I felt particularly feisty about Metropolis and Triumph of the Will; I’m happy to argue with anyone that the first is a catastrophe, if a fabulous one, and the second a mind-numbing bore, and that Riefenstahl was an unmitigated hack with great legs – doubtless, a key to her getting gigs – and a budget with which ANYONE could have made a good-looking movie. I’m glad Stroheim’s movies were cut; I subscribe to the heresy that they’re plenty long as is. I don’t like Clark Gable, Carole Lombard can bug me, and I don’t think Scarface (the Hawks one, I’m still in the 30s) can hold a candle to The Public Enemy. Mervyn LeRoy is completely underrated, Karloff is a better actor than Lugosi, and Strike and October are both much better than Battleship Potemkin.
Anyway, I’ve never linked to Cinema 1001 before because I wanted to get the first 100 posts up. They’re there now, with the exception of Les Vampires, mentioned above, and Within Our Gates, by Oscar Micheaux; I bought a copy but have never gotten around to watching it. I’m mostly happy with the posts, though I admit I half-assed a few, mainly because I was intimidated by the source material; what can I say about City Lights that someone else hasn’t said better? But I started the whole damn thing because I wanted to honestly assess things my way, and it’ll be a continual work in progress for as long as it takes.
Anyway, pop over, skim around. I hope you have a grand old time.