Talking films, too: electric boogaloo

In my previous post, I suggested that I distinguish between the following sorts of reactions to films:

  1. Enjoying a film
  2. Recognizing the cinematic virtues of a film (i.e., its being a “good” film)
  3. Acknowledging the cultural significance of a film

I think a bit more should be said here, so let’s talk about some examples.

  • Let’s start with a film that I enjoy, is good, and is culturally significant. I take Citizen Kane to be a relatively uncontroversial choice for this category; its satisfaction of (2) and (3) are generally accepted, and I do enjoy the film on many levels.
  • A film that I enjoy, is culturally important, but that is not good: Glen or Glenda is a terrible film in many ways, but it also is quite a hoot and fairly groundbreaking for its day in thinking about gender.
  • A film that I enjoy, is good, but is not culturally important: Fletch Lives was a fairly funny and well-put-together film, but it wasn’t as good or important (or quotable) as the original film.
  • A film that I enjoy, but that is neither good nor important: Petey Wheatstraw is better made than Dolemite or The Human Tornado, but that isn’t exactly saying much. Nonetheless, its arrival on the scene in 1977 puts it at the tail end of the blaxploitation period, and so had less cultural uptake than the films with the Dolemite character.
  • A film that I do not enjoy, but that is good and important—so, someone interested in film ought to watch it: Olympia is Leni Reifenstahl’s celebration of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. It features techniques that were way ahead of their time and it is beautifully shot, but it runs about 226 minutes.
  • A film that I don’t enjoy and isn’t culturally significant, but which is a good film: Man Bites Dog is a well-made, often funny mockumentary about a film crew following a serial killer. It has a fairly grotesque scene that is supposed to make the audience feel . . . ashamed? uncomfortable? about its having laughed its way through the film up to that point. I found the scene difficult to watch, but I didn’t agree with the intended critique. (It isn’t particularly culturally important because it didn’t break any new ground in film, and very few people saw it.)
  • A film that I do not like and isn’t a good movie, but which is culturally significant: there are probably a lot of these, but perhaps the one to choose for this list is Reefer Madness—which is just a terrible, boring film that has played a role as propaganda in the early part of the American drug war and as counter-cultural humor among stoners.
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A few of my favorite films

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people see so many movies that when they finally see one not so bad as the others, they think it’s great. an Academy Award means that you don’t stink quite as much as your cousin. — Charles Bukowski, The Last Night of the Earth Poems

My film students frequently ask about my “favorite” film (yes, usually singular), and, honestly, I don’t have one. Indeed, one of the things I try to convey to my students is that there may be a gap between the films one enjoys, ones that a person recognizes as being excellent in one way or another, and ones that a person recognizes as being culturally important. So, I reply by asking which of these sorts of categories are they interested in and why. Sometimes I mention a film or two in each category, but I try to make the questions the topic rather than my particular tastes.

So, this list is an “arbitrary 15” (i.e., rather than a “top 10”) list of films from some combination of the aforementioned criteria.1

  1. Point Blank (Boorman, 1967)
  2. The Human Tornado (Roquemore, 1976)
  3. Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
  4. Pink Flamingos (Waters, 1972)
  5. La Jetee (Marker, 1962)
  6. Death Race 2000 (Bartel, 1975)
  7. Tales from the Hood (Cundieff, 1995)
  8. Key Largo (Huston, 1948)
  9. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Lee, 2006)
  10. Shaolin Soccer (Chow, 2001)
  11. The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969)
  12. Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958)
  13. Master of the Flying Guillotine (Wang, 1976)
  14. Vanishing Point (Sarafian, 1971)
  15. Schizopolis (Soderbergh, 1996)

  1. The films aren’t completely arbitrarily chosen from within the broad criteria listed above. I have left off films from my “Philosophy and Film” course, and I have generally included films that have stuck with me, inspired multiple viewings, and the like. I’ve also left off fairly popular films like Fight Club or Fletch