As a film geek par fair-to-middling, I’ve watched literally thousands upon thousands of movies in my life and times because, well, that’s what we do. However, at the turn of the millennium (a phrase I still find odd to comprehend twelve years hence), I had to come terms with the fact that there were some serious gaps in my self-taught film education, the glaring omission of seminal works of the world cinema any self-described movie expert worth his salt should have seen be now (or then, for that matter). Frankly, I was embarrassed to admit my short-comings, a character flaw that made me nothing more than a neophyte poseur. Maybe it was the caveat “required viewing” that kept me away from some of these. “Take your medicine. It’s good for you.” That’s just another in a series of lame excuses. I felt that it was high time that I redeemed myself, at least in my own eyes.
Inspired by the documentary A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN CINEMA (a highly recommended documentary with Marty talking about what inspired him and keeps his passion for movies alive), I set out to right the wrongs in my own personal history. In 2002, I drew up a list of 52 titles, kind of a lower case version of 1001 Movie to See Before You Die. (I’ve seen ¾ of those in that book anyway). These movies had eluded me or vice versa over the years and now was the time to make up for lost time. I chose 52 so that I attain the reasonable goal of adding at one of these to my regular viewing per week for a solid year, a variation of the venerable card game 52 Pick-Up.
THE RED SHOES-Powell/Pressburger
RED DESERT- Michaelangelo Antonioni
THE GREAT DICTATOR-Charles Chaplin
THE CROWD-King Vidor THE 400 BLOWS-Francois Truffaut
JULES AND JIM-Truffaut
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT-Lewis Milestone
THE SEVEN SAMURAI-Kurosawa
NIGHTS OF CABIRIA-Federico Fellini
LA DOLCE VITA-Fellini
OPEN CITY-Roberto Rosellini
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE-John Huston
THE CINCINATTI KID-Norman Jewison
THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR-Jewison
THE HUSTLER-Robert Rossen
PLACE IN THE SUN-Stevens
THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL-Vincente Minnelli
THE LOST WEEKEND-Wilder
PURPLE NOON-Rene Clement
KING OF HEARTS-Phillipe DeBroca
THE TIN DRUM-Volker Schlondorff
THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING-Phillip Kaufman
A FACE IN THE CROWD-Elia Kazan
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE-Kazan
DAS BOOT-Wolfgang Peterson
APU TRILOGY-PATHER PANCHALI,APARIJITO,THE WORLD OF APU)-Satyajit Ray
THE FIREMAN’S BALL-Milos Forman
THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS-Jean Cocteau
BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET-Mario Monicelli
LE SAMOURAI-Jean-Pierre Melville
THE MYSTERY OF KASPER HAUSER-Werner Herzog
HEART OF GLASS-Herzog
THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN-Rainer Werner Fassbinder
LOLA MONTES-Max Ophuls
Ten years later, I’m still working on the list. To be fair, I’m only three titles shy, but still, the only grade I deem worthy from myself is an Incomplete.
So what remains? I actually had to turn off Jean Cocteau’s THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS after about twenty minutes because I grew impatient with it. I meant to return to it some day but now it’s gone with the wind, maybe lost forever. I’ve never been able to track down Luis Bunuel’s TRISTANA or Werner Herzog’s HEART OF GLASS.
Don’t think I’ve been a slacker. Quite the contrary. I just have cinematic ADD. I couldn’t focus primarily on the list itself because almost every film open up a trail that led me off the beaten path to explore titles with the same director, in the same genre or even from the country of origin. One film begat another…or seven.
For example, two films from director Jules Dassin, NAKED CITY and BRUTE FORCE led me to the rest of his available filmography including NIGHT AND THE CITY, THIEVES HIGHWAY and NEVER ON SUNDAY. His work also plunged me headlong into unexplored territory in film noir. Coincidentally, a year before the list, I became enamored with French crime films after seeing his big heist classic RIFIFI. That’s how LE SAMOURAI and PICKPOCKET made the list.
I fell head over heels for the works of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (BLACK NARCISSUS and THE RED SHOES), so I moved on to A CANTERBURY TALE and the absolutely amazing THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP. Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS intrigued enough to experience THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE. I became mesmerized by Charlie Chaplin for the first time with THE GREAT DICTATOR as well as Satyajit Ray for his APU trilogy (PATHER PANCHALI, APARAJITO and THE WORLD OF APU). And I found Elia Kazan’s A FACE IN THE CROWD to be as timely as it was back in 1957.
When I couldn’t find some of the 52, I drew up a second string of titles to draw from as well and that fed enough distractions enough for me to even stick to that list. Films on that list included Ozu’s TOKYO STORY, Bergman’s WILD STRAWBERRIES, Von Stroheim’s GREED, Capra’s MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, Mann’s WINCHESTER 73, Fuller’s PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, Miike’s AUDITION and Pontecorvo’s BATTLE OF ALGIERS.
As a direct result of the 52, the last decade was a crash course in film studies that has enriched my life as a cinephile like never before. However, it’s a double edged sword.
Not one single solitary title was viewed in the manner in which they were made, that is, on the fabled silver screen I saw them all at home. But with the various outlets at my disposal, I probably wouldn’t have been about them at all and for that, I am eternally grateful. If I feel a need to justify myself, I could just imagine that the 52 for 2002 was the menu from a gourmet restaurant where I ordered take-out. Why not? After all, the 52 allowed me to sample various flavors of the world, develop my palette for more complex cuisines and wean me off of junk food enough to realize there is always something better out there. All you have to do is give it a taste. If you like it, you’ll want more and it’s yours for the asking.
There you have it. A metaphor for all seasons. Use judiciously. Apply directly. Repeat.
For more movie writings from the mind of me, try my book :
IN THE DARK: A LIFE AND TIMES IN A MOVIE THEATER
on sale now in paperback and digital