The latest clip job on American movie history, “AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Movies,” adds insult to the injury to AFI’s rep as a serious archival/educational cinema institution caused by the over-hyped, scholastically challenged “100 Greatest Films” special, which drew strong ratings June 16 for CBS. With both hullabaloo and controversy over that TV event quickly fading to black, this staid, stodgy, slipshod series appears poised to draw yawns, not roars of protest.
The concept of culling the cream of America’s bountiful crop of classic cinematic offerings initially drew excitement, thanks to brilliant merchandising and media tie-ins, including a stand-alone special issue of Newsweek. But the financial windfall for the American Film Institute has also stirred up something of a tempest among film critics, fans and scholars who question a selection process that eliminates Keaton, Lubitsch, Sturges, Vidor and others, while including films of marginal historical, social or artistic importance. It also weighs in on the side of such living filmmakers as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese at the expense of such auteurs as John Ford and Howard Hawks.
Despite the sanctifying of the process and the TNT series by the on-air involvement of movie heavyweights such as talking heads Spielberg and Scorsese and hosts Richard Gere, Jodie Foster and Sally Field, the first two episodes lurch from clip to clip, lumbering to historical points that are either obvious or obscured by haphazard methodology.
Opener “Against the Grain” purports to be a celebration of American movie heroes, but quickly devolves from a few scenes from Frank Capra’s classic James Stewart starrer “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” into a celebration of the career of Jack Nicholson. How else does one explain the inclusion of scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (not one of the 100), featuring Nicholson as a homicidal maniac, in a doc on cinema heroes?
Actually, the series could use more unorthodoxy. Instead, in “Grain” and the second installment on the “greatest” American crime movies, “Beyond the Law,” viewers are treated to static assemblages of scenes with no emphasis on the moviemaking process or the cinematic techniques that contributed to the power of the images and the performances. The approach is didactically oriented toward film as pictorial literature, but strangely never provides onscreen credits for the novelists and nonfiction authors of the source material for films such as “Goodfellas,” “The French Connection,” “Double Indemnity,” “The Godfather,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Maltese Falcon.”
While “Grain” misses the opportunity to place film heroes in some historical context, other than mentioning in passing that “Easy Rider” reflected ’60s rebellion and “Mockingbird” reflected national racial inequities, “Law” completely botches the exciting, vibrant story of the evolution of the American crime film. According to the seg, films such as “Pulp Fiction” just sort of exploded from the creativity of Quentin Tarantino, as if the popular filmmaker never saw a Hong Kong film and never heard of Samuel Fuller. And in giving short shrift to context, it doesn’t seem possible to mention “High Noon” without at least a reference to the McCarthyism it allegorically skewered.
The exclusion of any discussion of influences is baffling. Film noir is mentioned, but not the German cinematographic breakthroughs that inspired the films, nor the European directors of photography who shot them. That the genre is defined in name by its expressionist lighting would seem to have been an ample justification for a moment’s discussion of the filmmaking itself, but instead we get a literal retelling of the James M. Cain story “Double Indemnity,” minus the credit to Cain.
The fascinating notion of a generation of immigrants and their offspring defining America through its movies never seems to have passed through the minds of the documentarians. Fred Zinnemann, Milos Forman, Elia Kazan and Capra are all interviewed and their films lauded, as if they sprang from American soil without any historic or cultural references outside the good old USA.
And host Gere’s reading of the show’s prescribed notion that crime films are appealing because auds long to “revel in crime” seems to shoot wide of the mark. It’s as if the elements of montage, action, adventure and even the “heroics” addressed in episode one weren’t important enough to be factored into the equation. Again, the analysis of the crime film doesn’t include any dissection of the building blocks of filmmaking, other than a few de rigueur seconds of the car chase from “The French Connection.”
There is one saving grace to the series: the inclusion of interviews with legendary director Kazan. Arguably America’s greatest living filmmaker, with classics including the AFI 100’s “On the Waterfront” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” as well as omitted classics such as “East of Eden,” “Wild River,” “Viva Zapata,” “A Face in the Crowd” and “Baby Doll,” the 88-year-old Kazan, it seems, will never be recognized by the AFI Lifetime Achievement committee because of his complicity in McCarthyism. But that political stain was set aside during the TNT special, which offered a fair evaluation of his contribution to cinema. That’s the kind of heroics and vision that the list and the series needed much, much more of.