It’s a fairly safe bet that “List-o-Mania, Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love American Movies” was the most popular piece I published in the Reader during my 20 years there as chief film critic. I suspect its appeal had a lot to do with the growing popularity of movie lists ever since the video market started expanding the choices of most viewers.
Like a commercially successful Hollywood feature, “List-o-Mania,” which was published in 1998, had its share of sequels and spin-offs. Retitled “The AFI’s Contribution to Movie Hell,” it became a chapter in my most popular book, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Movies We Can See, a rant that received over a hundred reviews despite the fact that its small Chicago publisher (A Cappella Books, a division of Chicago Review Press) couldn’t afford much advertising, aside from freebies in the Reader, and I never even met my publicist there.
In the book I added in a footnote a list of 25 titles in the AFI’s list that I probably would have included if I’d started my own list from scratch. Then, as an appendix to my 2004 collection Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (Johns Hopkins University Press), I compiled a chronological list of my 1,000 favorite films, with asterisks next to my 100 crème de la crème titles, this time including shorts as well as features and non-American as well as American items—a list to which I added 60 more titles in my afterword to the 2008 paperback. The 2004 list generated a lot of online discussion; see, for instance, www.alsolikelife.com/FilmDiary/rosenbaum.html.
It’s a paradox that the industry strategy to spend millions hawking a few new items opening in theaters each week hasn’t prevented a certain vertigo from setting in among moviegoers looking for something to rent and watch at home. What’s often perceived as a daunting surfeit of possibilities has increased a need for guidance and suggestions, especially when it comes to older fare. The ever-growing embarrassment of riches offered by rentals from Netflix and Green Cine, purchases on Amazon, and various venues for streaming video have become more marked for hardcore cinephiles like myself who like to expand our choices still further by ordering from abroad and discussing what we see (before and/or afterward) on Facebook and diverse international blogs.
Thanks to such options, some of my sharper cinephile friends in their 20s and 30s know as much or more about the history of cinema as I did at their ages (even after I spent five years edifying myself at the Paris Cinémathèque and two and a half more at London’s British Film Institute, starting in my mid-20s). But by the same token, dumb filmgoers today are arguably still dumber than their counterparts half a century ago because the industry hacks who write their canons have a more restricted view of film history, being especially clueless in most cases about what the studios have in their own vaults. Quite apart from the plethora of titles lost forever, the cavalier notion that “everything” or “almost everything” can be accessed today understandably irritates my worthy predecessor at the Reader, Dave Kehr, who now writes an excellent weekly column on DVD releases for the New York Times and a newer column for Film Comment dedicated to exposing some of the things we still don’t know about earlier movies.
The upshot of all this is that nowadays the possibilities for cultural enrichment through digital media are available only to spectators with a focused sense of mission. Interestingly, many of these cinephiles are more tolerant and appreciative of “difficult” filmmakers (e.g., Costa, Straub, Tarkovsky, Tarr) than their older counterparts were in the so-called Golden Age of the 1960s and ’70s. (Back then, Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, and Dreyer were commonly regarded as perverse jokes, even by many of their supporters.) Yet to call these younger and more specialized spectators “elitists” is not only moronic but, strictly speaking, oxymoronic; the true elitists are those who require multi-million-dollar ad campaigns, including those for the Oscars, before they regard most movies as worthy of their attention.
“List-o-Mania” was largely inspired by my anger at seeing the American Film Institute’s list of the “100 Best American Movies” treated solemnly in the media as news, as if it were something other than a self-validating studio sales pitch for already-familiar videos. So this article helped to implement my long-standing desire to deconstruct the industry’s received wisdom. This was already reflected in my very first ten-best list for the Reader, in 1987, which included both Elaine May’s Ishtar and Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance. Look at the recent Warren Beatty biography by Peter Biskind, whose Hollywood credentials can be gauged by the fact that he spent years as editor of the AFI’s American Film and then of its logical successor, Premiere. (Mea culpa: In the late 70s and early 80s, I paid my rent by writing for the first of these magazines.) Although Biskind often appears to fancy himself a Marxist, his continuing function as an apologist who toes the Academy line can be seen in the way he can devote many thousands of words to Ishtar without ever hinting that this scathing and prescient comedy about innocent American idiocy in the Middle East has any political dimension whatsoever; he prefers the conventional industry wisdom that May was interested only in imitating the (unabashedly imperialist) Hope and Crosby Road comedies.
This is only one example of the way studio propagandists, conscious or unconscious, rewrite film history to validate their own limitations. An even clearer instance would be the AFI’s ballot for the greatest of all “American” (i.e., Hollywood) comedies—providing 500 candidates while scandalously omitting my personal favorite, Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947), presumably disqualified because Chaplin produced it independently. The hick American take on the rest of the world—according to which everyone is either American or aspires to be—determines portions of our foreign policy with comparable myopia.
Jonathan Rosenbaum was the Reader‘s film critic from 1987 to 2008. Since then he has contributed to such publications as Cinema Scope and DVD Beaver, taught at Virginia Commonwealth University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and launched his own web site, jonathanrosenbaum.com.