“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”
–Lewis Carroll, “The Walrus and the Carpenter”
Today’s rant is not about a movie, but about a movie list.
I took an online quiz today. There was no wrong answer, only one question: “how many of the Top 250 movies on IMDB have you seen?”
After learning my score (212), I may have been tempted to say “I’ve got some watching to do”, but then, upon reflecting on some of the films included past the 100-film mark, I started doubting the reliability of IMDB users.
That the films are voted on by a community of users is important, and I’m not arguing otherwise. There is a value in the democratic election of films deemed worthy of watching. The problem is that we cannot ascertain what this list purports. Top 250 films ever made? Top 250 films to watch? Top 250 films most liked by a collection of anonymous users? In order to understand the ramifications of this list we must understand the purpose of this list. What are viewers really voting on when they make their ranking? The answer requires a small bit of unpacking,
The list is a by-product of the irrational ability for users to assign numeric scores to films. The numbers are a bit of dodgy numerology which vaguely correlate to equally vapid qualifiers like “great”, “good” and “bad”. However, just because something corresponds to a single word doesn’t mean using it is valid procedure, or that the term being ascribed is valid either. Consider, for example, if we undertook some new quasi-literate scheme of assigning value. How about “Great” films are comprised of 3 “Good” features, while a “Good” feature corresponds to a given ratio of “Acceptable” elements to “Bad” attributes cross-referenced against a cumulative list of user-generated qualifiers. Aren’t lists fun? That of course would be a convoluted mess, and get us no closer to whatever our intended goal might be by generating the list (we still don’t have an easy to rank pile). But express your unqualified sign with a number and suddenly the arbitrary nature of the sign becomes not just overlooked, but the sign itself becomes valuable. Suddenly opinions can be qualified en masse for mass distribution. Hurray. Democracy works. So this scheme of numbers forms the basis of a popular list widely considered to be the essential collection of films to watch. The quiz I just took made me think so at least. After all, I got stars and points and everything just for claiming I’d watched them. I wonder if they might one day form the basis of an economy.
“Excuse me, I’d like to buy a chocolate bar”
“Certainly, do you have enough film points?”
“I’ve got 2.”
“Sorry, the price just went up to 3; go watch The Dark Knight again and come back.”
(Now that’s an economy in which I would thrive.)
On that note, I should acknowledge that I despise ranked lists. Particularly those that pass off subjective qualifications as objective truths. I find them restrictive and condescending. It’s why I haven’t given a single ranked list yet (nor do I ever intend to do so in the future). You rank buildings by height. You rank TVs by pixels. You can even rank food, but without qualifications we quickly and visibly see how the lack of qualifications undoes the list.
Say we rank food by how many calories it has and we assume whatever has the least amount of calories is healthiest. But how then to account for a twinkie, which only has 150 calories? Yet nobody mistakes a twinkie for healthy. But still, maybe you want a twinkie. And maybe you want a twinkie despite its lack of nutritional content. But then nutritional content is an objective thing. There are objective claims that can be made. You need vitamins in your food. And yet you don’t need too many vitamins, since that, believe it or not, can kill you. But it’s precisely this independence of belief that allows for them to be objective. You don’t have to agree, it will still kill you–or make you healthier. You just got lucky. The same can’t be said for film. But I understand the urge for applying some sort of objective reasoning to cinema. It’s easier to say one film is better than another because it got a higher score on IMDB. That The Shawshank Redemption is better than Plan 9 From Outer Space judged solely because of its budget, its artistry, its depth of meaning, its appeal to cinematic doxa, etc, may be true. But it is true independent of your opinion. Your opinion does not make it true. It does not alter unalterable conditions of existence. It may be your opinion that cabbage is healthier than a twinkie. You’re right, of course, but being right doesn’t make it so. Even if you change your mind, that twinkie is still going to suck. The joy of film, to me at least, is that it challenges these unalterable truths. We can’t ever get it perfectly right, and what was believed to be a worthless film fifty years ago suddenly becomes considered a masterpiece (take Vertigo). Fifty years from now twinkies will still be junk. But then when we get into the aesthetics of it, things like taste, then it becomes interesting, but only if we qualify it. You may think a twinkie tastes better than cabbage (in the same way that you could prefer Plan 9 to Shawshank), and maybe you could leave it at that, because we can assume sugary food tastes better than non-sugary food (in the same way that dumb films can be more fun that “smart” films). But how much more interesting then if you say a piece of raw cabbage tastes infinitely better than a twinkie, and how dull when you fail or are unable to elaborate.
What small joy then that IMDB provides message boards which allow viewers to engage further with the film and its content by discussing it in an open forum with other viewers. Do not mistake my argument as an attack against their mission to enable people to engage with cinema. My concern is the casuist manner in which they are called to participate in cinema–this ranking and list building. The problem is that it defeats serious investigation into a movie. The main virtue of the film is the score. It’s the first element IMDB provides next to the title, even when not on the movie page. Let there be no doubt what IMDB wants you to consider important. And so this ranking scheme turns the practice of watching movies into a war of scores to be adduced and tabulated. To quibble whether the Godfather Part 2 is better than Part 1 is to miss the point of watching The Godfather saga altogether. And while this pointless conjecture was being debated long before IMDB, or the internet for that matter, IMDB has allowed this deleterious argument to fester on a mass scale, and to spread throughout the whole consortium of cinema. No longer is it Godfather Part 2 versus Part 1, but Godfather Part 2 versus The Shawshank Redemption. What is even being addressed by this point?
With the digital paradigm we are seeing a rise in film-conscious viewers, certainly, but we are also inculcating a generation of film watchers. By that I mean people who let a film roll for two hours, maybe add it to the list on facebook of movies watched and move on, in the same way that people may think they’ve read a book by looking at pages without actually having read the words. The goal should not be merely to consume as many objects as possible but to engage with the products that we do. The beauty of a list, then, or even of a blog, is that the the hardest job has been taken care of: you the viewer don’t need to guess whether the film will be worth your time, you have it on good authority it will be. The difficulty then becomes learning to read the film instead of just watching it. This is not so much an issue with the list, or lists in general, I only offer it to point out the productive opportunity provided by this popular, user-generated response to engage them further with these movies. The goal, of course, is a more cinema-literate public. By that I mean a viewership capable of qualifying their aesthetic considerations of a film (and such qualifications can be achieved, I’m certain). But all of this is beyond the purview of the list, and will have to be continued another time.
I am not saying that every instance of watching a film is to be conducted with the severity and gravitas of a religious event, I merely want to draw attention to the fallacy that just because one has seen these movies means they know anything about them. Films don’t work by proxy.
My argument is, I realize, hopelessly vague, I certainly can’t point to any statistic or data to prove that my fears are grounded, or even emphasize they are an issue worth being concerned about, all I can do is appeal to common sense. Is it sufficient to champion a list? Is it enough that we simply watch movies and get away with just throwing a number at them so we don’t have to engage with them? (“I liked it! But there were a few bits I didn’t like–maybe because I didn’t understand them? No, it must have been because they were no good. Still, great movie. I give it a 9. No, that’s too high. 8.8. Yes, that makes perfect sense. Now that that’s done, who wants McDonald’s?! Oh, right, I live alone…”)
The content is not the issue. That the films on the list just so happen to correspond with a great majority of titles selected by something as reductive as the AFI is beside the point. That I would recommend about 90% of the films on the list is irrelevant to the argument. The content of the list is not the focus of my argument, though what are both Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness doing on the list? Nevermind so high! Surely just the first would suffice. And The Hobbit? That is, of course, if you didn’t consider that perhaps there were other movies worth watching first. No Herzog? No Soderbergh? No Mizoguchi? The list is undoubtedly a populist product: The Hobbit has more votes than all of the Hitchcock films combined (with the exception of Psycho). I ask this question again then, because if my rant has established anything it’s that I’m unable to arrive at a cohesive answer: What is the purpose of this list? (And no riposte telling me to focus my attention elsewhere will suffice.) As a widely consulted and discussed list, it seems useful to consider its intended use. What are we championing? If the meaning is simply to document the aesthetic, moral and cultural perceptions of IMDB users circa 2013, that’s a perfectly valid impulse. The difference is the transparency, the qualification of the statement. Let’s be sure to preface what we’re selling, and what is being packaged and sold to us under the innocuous title of a list. The time indeed has come to talk of many things–of films, and scripts, and silly facts; of anything but lists.
In the meantime I’m off to go bump my number up to 213.