i have to preface this query by saying that i?m probably as appalled as
most by the AFI list of the ?greatest? one hundred pictures . . . although
some of the objections that have appeared are reasonably met by the AFI?s
stated intention to deal only with ?american feature length fiction films?
the list is still skewed in many problematic ways . . . even by the most
generous reading ? offered on NPR this morning ? the list reflects only
what the selectors are already familiar with and comfortable with, and thus
ignores many films that not only were not selected but almost certainly
were never even considered . . . and in doing so the list effectively
dismisses many major parts of the heritage of american fiction cinema . . .
. . . and yet, and yet . . . my own responses while watching much of the
telecast last night, and reflecting on it, suggest that there is at least
one nagging question to be asked about these objections . . . it occurs to
me that the fundamental objection to the AFI list derives from the idea
that it creates a perverse and terribly distorted canon of great films . .
. and this premise itself requires the prior, or corollary, notion that
there is a more legitimate canon, a body of ?truly? great films that have
been overlooked by the AFI list . . . in short that the AFI list, in the
interests of commerce, misrepresents our shared history . . .
. . . this is a defensible claim, and i think a valid one . . . but it is
oddly discordant with the tenor of a time in which canons themselves are
always suspect, and a zeitgeist which increasingly leads us to want to
historicize value judgments . . . we tend to believe that ?greatness? does
not inhere in things in themselves but only in the relationships between
things and contexts, that it is a quality that grows out of the way
something has been culturally appropriated and situated . . .
. . . to put the matter somewhat differently: although last night?s list
may not reflect what film scholars or professionals consider the finest
work in the field, it surely does reflect what the culture at large has
appropriated as part of its collective sensibility, and as touchstones of
movie greatness . . . watching the telecast i was surprised ? though i
probably should not have been ? by how many of the shots, characters, and
spoken lines were immediately recognizable . . . these were snippets that,
for better or for worse, in fact have become part of our culture . . . and
i can?t help but wonder whether the sorts of objections that we have raised
to the list are not suspiciously close to the objections raised to the
whole enterprise of taking film seriously raised by those who insist that
that as a medium cinema cannot be taken seriously, and that a canon of
shakespeare, goethe, tolstoy, and baudelaire has no room for griffith, or
hawks . . . in other words, i?m not sure we really want to start fighting
the canon wars on that turf . . .
i intentionally overstate, if not the case for the AFI list, the case
against the case that has been made here against the list . . . though i
myself may not agree with everything i?ve said above i think it is an
argument that deserves, even demands, our most careful attention
Screen-L is sponsored by the Telecommunication & Film Dept., the
University of Alabama.