I don’t like list journalism. I guess it should follow that therefore I do like anti-list journalism. So the fact that this post is a gentle critique of the purest form of list journalism – the discussion of a public poll – by way of offering an alternative list…well, let’s just say that I like list journalism if it’s me doing the listing. (Forgive me, I just watched the smart, funny, and ultimately surprisingly moving ‘Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice’ and feel like I need to be honest about my feelings, whether I feel like it or not. I really feel that. Honest.)
Yesterday IMDb posted the current results of its ongoing invitation to users to put a number beside the titles of films they may or may not have seen, thereby creating a list of 250 films, some of which are pretty good, some of which are amazing, some of which are considered cool for the same reason that school bullies or rich kids or the guy who knows how to use a yo-yo often are: because there is cachet in appearing to know them. Yesterday’s sub-list: the ‘Top Rated Films of the New Millennium’.
This title is problematic for me, given a) my antipathy toward calling something a millennium while you’re still in it (literally accurate, but tip-toeing toward pretentiousness and an obsession with the new; a bit like when professional colleagues anoint a film that hasn’t been released yet as ‘an instant classic’. A film may become a classic, to be sure, but before it’s been released, if you don’t have a time machine, how can you know?) and b) my admittedly pernickety insistence on the idea that a film needs a bit of time to be absorbed before you can really be sure that it’s going to last (rule of thumb? Ten years out of the gate before you can really say that it’s got form. I know this makes me even more list-centric than this post was already going to reveal me to be, but, as Admiral Kirk once said, sometimes the most logical people are the most human. Although I imagine the Vulcan, in his desire to be understood, might write shorter sentences than I do.)
So IMDb’s ‘top rated films of the new millennium’ is both hyperbolic and not particularly useful ('The Dark Knight' wins. I like 'The Dark Knight'. But not that much.) The polling numbers on the site, which is itself, in other respects, very useful, are skewed toward films that disproportionately attract people who a) like to take part in internet polls and b) give marks out of ten to the kind of films that people who like to take part in internet polls either enjoy watching or, one suspects, damning without having seen. To wit (have no idea what ‘to wit’ means, but always wanted to say it, and it feels right about here): Empire magazine’s public polls in the mid-90s provided ‘Pulp Fiction’ with a slot near the top for at least three reasons, as far as I can see:
1: It was the safe choice for people who wanted to feel part of a crowd (A moment of interest when I auditioned, a fresh-faced 22 year old token northern Irish candidate, for Johnny Vaughn’s ‘Moviewatch’ on UK Channel Four was the look on the producer’s face when I described Quentin’s critic-proof piece of rhetorical necrophilia* as ‘the Lada of contemporary cinema; fuelled with the highest quality gasoline, but the worst kind of vehicle’. The producer perked up - maybe she was glad to see that someone dissented from the shibboleths of the day; but I think I must have scared her. Actually, writing that last quotation down scares me. If I was that pretentious then and didn’t recognize it, how far am I disappearing up the river of critical self-aggrandisement now? Save me, dear listener, if you can. Anyway, I never got my day in the ‘Moviewatch’ sun.)
2: It appealed to people who were just discovering ‘real’ cinema for the first time. I mean, I experienced the impact of ‘Pulp Fiction’ – it won me over the first time too. But, please, please, PLEASE don’t forget how it became, for so many of us, a portal to seeing only other derivatives. Tarantino gave birth to ‘The Usual Suspects’ which fathered ‘Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead’ and ‘2 Days in the Valley’ (albeit by way of the elegant ‘Short Cuts’). And we all got excited about those movies too. But there were 99 years of film history before Vincent and Julius delighted audiences with their happy-go-lucky-theological-burger-schtick. Some of the films made in these 99 years were actually pretty good. Some of the films made since ‘Pulp Fiction’ have not been influenced by Quentin in any way whatsoever; and some of these are pretty good too. They don’t tend to win internet polls though.
3: OK, fair enough, it was also actually pretty good on its own terms. It revealed Tarantino’s talent for mashing things together in a fashion more exciting than anything since Richard Dreyfuss built the Devil’s Tower out of potato; the discordant fusion of music and images, the golden light of messy LA, the knowing back projection, the vision of the city that encases the heart of movies as a samurai comic book, the overlapping and forward-backward motion direction of the plot, the attempt at putting everything QT knew onto the same table: like I said, it was pretty good. Maybe even more than pretty good. But that’s only part of why it consistently topped polls of tiny cohorts of the public: the cohort that already likes certain kinds of movies, and takes part in internet polls.
Who cares? I do, for one simple reason: when the culture anoints one dominant, acceptable choice, lots of people don’t ever see anything else.
To that end, I’d like to propose a number of caveats to make all future film polls more interesting. I’d like to, but I’m not sure you want me to list the ten commandments of how to create lists of films that actually invite us to watch them rather than try to prove our concordance with the cultural zeitgeist (although finding a way to nominate movies without resorting to ranking them out of ten would be a welcome discovery).
So I'll limit myself to one caveat:
Sports and Music Halls of Fame always let a decent period go by before deciding who gets in – so films should be only be re-visited and made eligible for ‘greatest’ lists after they’ve existed for a decade. Take anything younger than ten years old out of the IMDB top 250, and it would be the IMDB top 187. That would suggest that either more than one fifth of the greatest films ever made emerged in less than one tenth of the time the movies have existed; or that we are still more easily distracted by shiny new objects than compelled by patience.
That caveat, of course, would mean that the ‘Top Rated Films of the New Millennium’ shouldn’t exist until 2011, and only films from 2001 be allowed on it. But the list exists, and you can read it here.
*I don't say that to be harsh: 'Pulp Fiction' may be a lot of things, but one of those things is the fact that it's obsessed with the eroticisation of death. It wants to be taken seriously, which is how I take it.