The 46x60 or So Project, Pt. 1: Building a Tower of Film...
I wanted focus, but the question was, "Focus on what?" I began to try and work out exactly where to begin reeducating myself in the film history of my lifetime. Do I start with a certain director and watch all of his available films straight through? It sounded good, but then I was likely to lapse into a state of cinematic paralyzation if I restricted myself to just one style without interruption, and how would I determine the best place to force an interruption if needed? How would I fit those moments into the plan? The same went for choosing one genre outside of my normal path and focusing on the landmark films within that genre. Except who was to establish what I should see within that genre? I considered focusing on stars, cinematographers with whom I have grown enamored and wished to see more of their work, even something as goofy as choosing a random key grip and then watching any film in which they were involved.
But, then it struck me... Considering my concerns regarding The Last Detail and its until-thus-far unseen ilk, it dawned on me that most of the films of which I claimed knowledge (when in fact I didn't beyond what I had read fleetingly) were released within the span of years in which I have been alive, from 1964 to the present. (Yes, I have established my age, but then that has never been a problem with me, as I always feel as if I am 22. Only an increasingly creakier 22...) What if I were to focus on watching the major films, foreign and domestic, that have been released within my lifetime?
The reasons are three-fold. One, most of the films on which people would confront me would be of more recent vintage, so this would be a great way to capture that knowledge and be ahead of the game, or point me towards films to include in my "to-see" list when I ran into someone who mentioned something I hadn't watched. Two, it would allow me to flit about through most of the major directors and styles throughout my lifetime, without allowing myself to fall into a state of that dreaded boredom, for too long at least. Thirdly, and I was hoping most interestingly, it would allow to actually gain a large dose of cultural and political knowledge by watching films through the '60s, '70s and '80s, and perhaps increase my understanding of the shifting tides of both the American and world consciousness through these decades. (There was also a fourth, smaller reason, that didn't strike me until much later. This was seeing the evolution of the movies themselves through five decades of development, turmoil, and changing technology.)
So, I knew why, but now: what? How to determine which films to watch. The first step was easy: the Oscars. I do not believe that there is ever actually a "Best Picture" in any given year. Styles are so diverse, as are intents, and who is to ever say that a supposedly moving drama about love and loss during wartime is any more meaningful than a mere comedy that seeks to bring nothing but laughter and smiles to people's faces? That's right: simple escape is just as important. I often deride it, or at least those who only go that route, but the use of the movies as mere escape is actually quite important. It is a release for emotions and pent-up frustrations that can prove very necessary to society. Thus, I needed to build a list that gave me a fairly accurate picture of each movie year. The Academy Awards are critiqued by the masses as being not populist enough, and on the other hand, by much of the film community, as being too populist. The Oscars really cannot win in the long run. They just have to endure, and prove themselves enough of a mark of excellence to thrive.
I may not agree most of the time with the Oscar choices, but I do know that it would prove enough of a mix of the high and low to begin building my list using all of the nominees and winners for all categories from films released in 1964 forward. I created an Excel database and begin to construct my Tower of Film. At first, each year ended up working out to about 25-35 films or so, which is what I began calling the project, added a 44 at the front, representing the number of full years of my lifetime to that point. (I changed it to 46 for now, for while I have just turned the corner on 45, I am actually in my 46th year of existence. The title will remain so for a good while though. I am reluctant to change it past this point of establishment, if only out of exhaustion.)
Completing the Oscar list left me delighted with the structure of the thing -- each year neatly blocked off, films alphabetized within each year, and columns for each category, the winners in yellow -- but desperately seeking major films which I had known to have come out in a particular year, but were not to be found within their block. What to do? How to add films without making this list more personally oriented, and not neutrally enriching?
The trick was to turn it personally towards someone else: Danny Peary. Mr. Peary had written a volume in the early '90s (on which I have written before) called Alternate Oscars, which is basically his version of how each Best Picture, Actor and Actress award should have been handled from the beginning of the awards in 1927 through the year of the book's devising, 1992. Peary makes numerous interesting and brave choices, such as the great Karloff getting a Best Actor achievement for his astounding role in Val Lewton's production of The Body Snatcher in 1945. (It is a favorite of mine as well, and I agree, Karloff is exceptional in the film.) Like the Oscars, no one will ever agree with all of Peary's choices (even I don't), and many of them are based on whether he had already rewarded a certain party with an award either farther up and down the line, so it plays heavily on second and even third sight. Alternate Oscars is armchair critiquing at its top-notch best.
And so I went through his book beginning in 1964 and adding in any films not touched or dismissed by the Academy the first time around. This began to flesh out the list a tad more, but it really only added, at most, three or four films per year, if any at all. Scanning my own collection, I began to realize that what the Oscar (and Peary's list) was missing was a foreign influence. Apart from the Best Foreign Film category and the odd stray nomination elsewhere, foreign films were barely represented, with many prominent directors of my lifetime missing wholesale from the list. Since it was a few Criterion Collection discs that caused me to muse on this aspect, I decided to grab the entire Criterion list of releases, queue it up by year, and then add all of those releases from 1964 on up. This made the list bulge out a bit more, sometimes as many as seven, eight or ten films per year, though there was naturally a major drop-off from the mid-'80s to now, seeing as the company really concentrates on older films, with only a few more modern releases in the mix. I was also aware of the European version of Criterion, Masters of Cinema, and though some films were matched on both lists, it did a handful more films of great interest to me, some not released on Region 1 discs at all. (I would eventually purchase a couple of Masters of Cinema discs at Scarecrow Video in Seattle in late July. Region 2, yes, but they will play on my laptop.)
So, I now had a good fifty or so movies per year on my list, and it was looking like it might top out at around 2000 films. But it wasn't enough for me...
(To be continued in The 46x60 or So Project, Pt. 2: It's a Tower Built to the Heavens. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?)