I am woefully unqualified to assemble a film canon. Though I have devoured films and books on films, and actually made a few short films (the most distinguished being "Crisis in the Golan Heights", which consists of my friend Volney chasing my other friend Phil all over a crowded Athens, Ohio thoroughfare in the middle of the afternoon; it’s neorealist slapstick), I do not possess an actual degree in film. I majored in Theater. This has not made me a rich man.
But film is my lifelong passion. And I have always understood it on a visceral level; I was just waiting for the correct terminology that would put a name to the techniques I intuitively felt whilst watching Jaws or The Fury (I am undoubtedly a better man for knowing the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic sound). My education was complete once I goofed around with an actual camera and hung out on sets at college and in New York City, where I learned that filmmaking is a glacial, frustratingly piecemeal process (which only looks and sounds romantic when set to a Georges Delerue score – by the way, that’s "non-diegetic").
So fuck credentials. Film makes sense to me. It’s the only thing in this life that I understand fully, and it is the dream that I have followed since childhood. This is why it pains me when a visually listless presentation like Hairspray captivates the folks who get paid to see through its aggressive (if ineptly shot) production design, garish performances and derivative show tunes. When a few journalists began whispering about a potential Best Picture nomination for this tripe (which I walked out of at the one-hour mark), I wanted to bludgeon the philistines with a freshly struck 35mm print of The Band Wagon. And, no, it was not lost on me that, for most of these so-called critics, this would’ve represented their first contact with Vincente Minnelli’s classic musical. And their last.
But the state of film journalism is another rant for another time; I’m undertaking this exhaustive errand for those of you who’ve emailed and posted to the message boards over the last few months. Many of you have voiced an eagerness to experience the enthralling without getting hung up on (i.e. bored by) the essential. Some of you also seem overwhelmed by the available options. Perhaps you’ve seen His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby and want more Howard Hawks, but don’t know whether to go with Ball of Fire or Monkey Business. If you consult the IMDb, there’s only seven-tenths of a star separating these two movies; this is grossly misrepresentative of the gulf between an all-timer like Ball of Fire and a middling work like Monkey Business. The same goes for John Ford: popular sentiment will tell you to check out The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley before My Darling Clementine; though fine on their own terms, these Highly Respectable Dramas could be sufficient to put you off the great director before you get to what I consider his finest work.
Over the last few years, a couple of noteworthy writers like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Paul Schrader have argued in favor of a film canon, and, to this end, they’ve offered up their own lists of essential viewing. The problem with their selections, however, is that they are too scholarly for the enthusiastic filmgoer – i.e. the viewer who devotes a sizable enough portion of their free time to watch, say, five movies a week (provided work and family obligations don’t get in the way). Rosenbaum and Schrader were writing for their fellow critics, professors and that miniscule sliver of film buffs who live in major media centers and, therefore, have access to excellent repertory houses. Unless I’m mistaken, this is not representative of the average CHUD reader.
While most of you possess the requisite gray matter to make sense of Muratova’s The Asthenic Syndrome, I have a feeling you’d rather know which of Buster Keaton’s silent comedies you should Netflix for the weekend. So in reaction to the eloquent urging of readers like Tony Sollecito (who suggested the title for this column), I have decided to compile something resembling a popular canon. But let’s clarify one thing straight away: "enthralling" over "essential" does not mean that every selection will be a rip-roaring entertainment of the North by Northwest variety. For anyone who adores the immersive power of film, the absence of action in an imaginatively composed space can be as enthralling as Cary Grant scampering across the face of Mount Rushmore. Watching a theater employee clean the aisles row-by-row in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn can elicit as rapt a lean-in as Hooper fighting off the great white in Jaws. If you don’t have the patience for moments like the former (and you don’t have to agree with the particular example cited), then you probably aren’t interested in the full experience of moviegoing.
For the rest of you, I hope y’all enjoy my humble suggestions. We’ll try to take this at a ten film per week clip. I’ll chime in with brief defenses, but will avoid major deconstructions so as not to prejudice what might be your first experience with these films. The corresponding message board thread will be the place to really dig into these titles. It’ll also be the place to register your outrage with my omissions and personal preferences.
Again, this is meant to be more helpful than definitive.
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919, d. Robert Wiene) – If Wiene’s groundbreaking German Expressionist classic were merely the template for practically every horror film that followed, I’d still recommend it. But even though you’ve seen nearly every shot and design element and plot twist repurposed in everything from Fritz Lang’s M to John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, it’s still one of cinema’s most unnerving depictions of insanity. The screenplay is by Carl Mayer, who would go on to write…
2. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, d. F.W. Murnau) – No one who’s harbored even a passing interest in film should deprive themselves of Murnau’s Hollywood-produced drama about a Man (George O’Brien) tempted to murder his Wife (Janet Gaynor) by The Woman From The City (Margaret Livingston). Those blunt, capitalized character names should give you an idea as to the heightened quality of Murnau’s universe, but nothing could possibly prepare you for the startling beauty of his images or the purity of his visual storytelling. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime movie; William Fox gave Murnau unlimited resources to make an art film, and the German master happily availed himself of the mogul’s largesse. Nowadays, Hollywood lures foreign directors in order to homogenize their original voices. This always turns out well and saves everyone a whole bunch of money (e.g. The Invasion).
3. The Last Laugh (1924, d. Murnau) – I hesitate to include this title, but many film scholars consider it superior to Sunrise. I don’t agree, but the emphasis on visual storytelling is more pronounced here – i.e. titles are used sparingly. It may be Murnau’s most stylistically adventurous picture (once you see it, you’ll wonder why Nosferatu gets all the ink). As for the story, it’s a tragedy of a hotel doorman who gets bumped down to the disreputable position of washroom attendant. As you watch these silent movies, you’ll notice that storytelling got a tad more complicated with the ushering in of the sound era. In most cases, this stunted the growth of the medium.
4. Metropolis (1927, d. Fritz Lang) – The seminal science-fiction film, and still one of the best. Even if you’re painfully familiar with most of its tropes, the 124-minute version available from Kino does an excellent job of presenting the butchered narrative in a flowing, coherent manner. Then again, I’ve never been too bothered by the previous, compromised versions; I even dug Giorgio Moroder’s pop music-laden 1984 rerelease. Please don’t take that as a recommendation; stick with the Kino.
5. Our Hospitality (1923, d. Buster Keaton) – You already know to watch The General (at least you should), so I’m going to skip past that paragon of silent comedy and go with my two favorite Keatons. Train gags also figure prominently into Our Hospitality, but what clinches it for me is the plot: it’s a romantic comedy set against a Hatfield-McCoy CAN-type family feud. The stunts in Our Hospitality are as spectacular as any found in The General (the waterfall finale is as breathtaking now as it must’ve been eighty years ago), and there’s much more going on in the narrative, what with the brothers of Keaton’s beloved trying to kill him at every turn. If you’ve never tried Keaton before, this is as good a place to start as any. You also might try…
6. Seven Chances (1925, d. Keaton) – At fifty-six minutes, this is easily Keaton’s tightest film. Based on a play by David Belasco, it’s about a bachelor who will inherit $7 million provided he marries by 7 PM that very day. Yes, this was remade as The Bachelor with Chris O’Donnell in 1999. I don’t know how they tried to replicate the frantic final chase sequence in the O’Donnell picture, but I can’t imagine it entailed the actor narrowly avoiding boulders as he sprints down a steep mountainside (though that might’ve been a gratifying sight after Batman & Robin). Few films build to a conclusion this preposterously satisfying.
7. The Gold Rush (1925, d. Charlie Chaplin) – I’m liable to get lynched if I don’t include a Chaplin title, so here’s the Tramp at his best. I think. There’s no denying Chaplin’s innovation or his facility as a physical comedian, but there’s something emotionally remote about his work; aside from this picture and the later Monsieur Vedoux, watching Chaplin feels like going to school, and that’s the exact sensation I’m trying to avoid with this list. If, however, you find Chaplin utterly enchanting, please move on to The Circus, City Lights and Modern Times at your nearest convenience.
8. Battleship Potemkin (d. Sergei Eisenstein) – Not as dreary as its reputation indicates, but also the least entertaining silent I’m going to recommend. The crew members of a Russian battleship incite a mutiny in response to subhuman conditions (e.g. being fed maggoty meat). The highlight of the movie is the classic Odessa Steps slaughter, which remains the textbook example of montage in film history. Brian De Palma famously appropriated the sequence for the train station gunfight in The Untouchables. Alas, there’s no sliding Cuban in Eisenstein’s version.
9. The King of Kings (1927, d. Cecil B. DeMille) – One of the most enjoyable acts of popcorn proselytization ever committed. You don’t have to be a devout Christian to appreciate the divine visual storytelling power of Cecil B. DeMille, but non-believers will be snickering throughout this New Testament epic. For some reason, this silent portrayal of Jesus Christ is less risible than most sound runthroughs of The Greatest Story Not Called The Uncanny Ever Told. The literal "first sight" of Christ in The King of Kings may be downright laughable, but it’s still an undeniably brilliant visual flourish. Everyone should see a big, old-timey Bible epic just for the experience; this is one of the best.
10. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, d. Carl Theodor Dreyer) – Dreyer’s mesmeric take on Joan of Arc is the greatest film of the silent era, and features probably the most emotionally acute performance you’re ever likely to see in any medium. Just see it, and be awed.
Further Viewing: Greed (d. Erich von Stroheim), Intolerance (d. D.W. Griffith), Safety Last (d. Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor), The Thief of Bagdad (d. Raoul Walsh), The Wedding Circle (d. Ernst Lubitsch).
Next: Pre-Code Movies.