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AFI
(and what I think of them)

With the upcoming airing of yet another fucking AFI list of flim flam yada yada (AFI Cheers List - the 100 Most Inspiring Movies, or some such bullshit), I was asked by a local reporter as to what my particular thoughts on the whole AFI shabang are.

Here was my e-mailed response to the reporter:

As to the whole idea of the annual AFI lists in general, I must profess a rather strong distaste for them. Now don't get me wrong, I love making and compiling film lists - just look at my site (http://www.thecinematheque.com/) and you will see that - but the way the AFI goes about it is nothing short of a media-whored frenzy of marketing aimed directly toward those who know little or nothing about the art of cinema. Jonathan Rosenbaum, critic and resident film historian of the famed Chicago Reader, has said about the organization and it's lists: "...given its egregious industry ass kissing throughout its existence, I'm tempted to conclude that its only substantial contribution to film culture--American or global--was producing David Lynch's Eraserhead at its film school.".

You see, the whole idea of AFI's lists are to sell dvds. Every single title on every single AFI list so far is available on a studio-run dvd distribution company - every single one. I am not saying that many of their picks on previous lists are not good films (many are on my own personal Top 100 list), but their main problem is they ignore almost any cinema that is not Hollywood focused. Even the independents they choose are films like Pulp Fiction and Fargo, made substantially with Hollywood funding. I am also not saying that nothing good ever comes out of Hollywood, just look at Casablanca, The Godfather, Singin' in the Rain and On the Waterfront for affirmation of Hollywood's filmmaking prowess. What I am saying is that the AFI gives no regard for many of the more obscure (at least obscure to the common filmgoer) great films and filmmakers of American cinematic history, instead opting to tout those films - both good (Chinatown, Vertigo, All About Eve) and bad (Forrest Gump, Titanic) - that are already known to just about everyone in the modern world.

Where are filmmakers such as Cassavetes, Sturges, von Sternberg, King Vidor, Buster Keaton? Where are true American classics such as Intolerance or Sunrise? Where are those films and filmmakers who are unknown to the masses? The same films and filmmakers that the AFI should be awarding with some sort of prestige, not just for their greatness - for that is a highly subjective thing anyway - but for the mere fact that they are relatively unknown to the masses. Everyone knows of Star Wars, why do we need to hear about it again, but not many have seen Greed, so why not let them in on that little secret bit of cinema?

To go back to Rosenbaum once more, in a statement he wrote on the occasion of the original AFI list (which aired in a spectacular pomp and circumstance extravaganza on CBS back in 1998): "Is the list simply a commercial ploy dreamed up by a consortium of marketers to repackage familiar goods, or is it a legitimate cultural contribution that's somehow supposed to improve the quality of our lives? (Are we still capable of distinguishing between the two?) If it's the former, then surely it qualifies as front-page news only if we're living in the equivalent of Stalinist Russia. If it's the latter, then why does the list contain so many movies that lie--about Vietnam (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now), about racism (The Birth of a Nation, Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction), about countless other matters? And why are so many of the entries aesthetically bland or worse while recapitulating all the worst habits of Hollywood self-infatuation, liberal (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner) as well as conservative (Forrest Gump)? Shane is bad enough, but why did Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid make the cut, along with (choke) Dances With Wolves? I yield to no one in my love for James Cagney, but did he ever make a less bearable picture than Yankee Doodle Dandy, the only Cagney vehicle on the list?".

So, I suppose I am saying that I have no desire to delve very deep into the waters of the AFI. I suppose if I were pushed into a corner and asked which films I believe would top the list (and I must admit to not really being all that sure what the AFI means by "inspiring movies"), I would have to go with Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Schindler's List, Forrest Gump, It's a Wonderful Life, Titanic, High Noon, The Sound of Music and Rocky - some of which I liked, some of which I disliked and a few of which I hated (including one that I would have to call the worst film ever made - go ahead, guess which one).

As for my own personal Top 10? Off the top of my head, at 9:35 on a Tuesday evening, I would say (and I am sorry but I just can't leave it at American films only) Ordet, Ugetsu, La Passion de Jeanne d'arc, Sunrise, Gertrud, The Bicycle Thief, Wild Strawberries, The 400 Blows, A Man Escaped and The Gospel According to St. Matthew.

Other than that, I don't know what I can add. I realize this wasn't what you were looking for and it probably was just a way for me to soapbox about the woes of modern cinema and the dumbing down of America, but there you have it anyway.

If you ever want to talk about cinema (and I really do like many Hollywood films, no matter what the above rant may preclude) or do an article on foreign film and/or just film in general, please give me a ring/e-mail and we will converse about such things.

Until then, fin.
Kevyn Knox


The results of that e-mail can be seen in several quotes in a recent article published in our local rag, The Harrisburg Patriot-News. There are also quotes from Caleb Smith and Todd Shill, both local Film Experts (and friends).

Here is the whole article, written by Colin McEvoy (my quotes in bold):

AFI: 'Most inspiring films' list inspires some local dissent
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
by Colin McEvoy of The Patriot-News


Whether through an underdog boxer from the streets of Philadelphia, a man on a bench with a box of chocolates, or Julia Roberts fighting the powers-that-be in a push-up bra, we've all been inspired by the movies at one point or another.

In its ninth annual series celebrating the first century of cinema, the American Film Institute will honor the films that have emboldened and invigorated with "100 Years...100 Cheers," a list of what it calls the 100 most inspiring movies of the last century.

"'100 Years ... 100 Cheers' will celebrate the films that inspire us, encourage us to make a difference and send us from the theatre with a greater sense of possibility and hope for the future," said Jean Picker Firstenberg, AFI director, who will be retiring next year.

The list, to be televised at 8 tonight on CBS, will feature such film figures as Steven Spielberg, Jane Fonda, Sally Field and Sidney Poitier presenting, in ascending chronological order, the movies selected by a jury of 1,500 film artists, critics and historians.

While local film experts are mixed in their response to the AFI and its latest list, all agree with the motion picture's capacity to inspire.

"Films that inspire me are those that take the audience to places where people act differently, think differently, and have a different perspective on world events," said Todd Shill, founder of Harrisburg's Midtown Cinema. "Those films remind you that our corner of the world is very small and that there is always a different point of view."

And while some films -- "The Wizard of Oz," "Schindler's List," "Rocky," "It's a Wonderful Life" -- are all but guaranteed a spot in the top 10, some fans of cinema are hoping at least a few more contemporary films make the bill.

"There are many newer films and filmmakers who are going beyond the filmmaking boundaries in both image and storytelling," said Caleb Smith, program director of local arts organization Moviate, citing such movies as "Magnolia" and "The Royal Tannenbaums".

"[These] are two examples of modern inspiration, people dealing with inner turmoil and public issues, and then learning from their experience and overcoming problems."

But these films, as well as others Smith mentioned including "Lost in Translation" and "Broken Flowers," were not among the 300 films nominated for the list.

Kevyn Knox, a local film critic and operator of thecinematheque.com, said this is typical of the AFI.

Knox said the main purpose of the list programs are to sell DVDs and that the Institute ignores independent and lesser-known but worthy films in favor of Hollywood products.

"The AFI gives no regard for many of the obscure great films and filmmakers of American cinematic history," Knox said.

"Everyone knows of 'Star Wars', why do we need to hear about it again? But not many have seen 'Greed,' so why not let them in on that little secret bit of cinema?"


AFI officials defended the list series, saying that the AFI itself does not choose the movies, but that they are selected from a jury of more than a thousand "leaders from the creative community," who may also register write-in votes for films not among the 300 nominees.

The Wednesday program will be the ninth in the AFI's "100 Years..." series.

Previous lists included "100 Years of Film Scores," "100 Movie Quotes," "100 Heroes & Villains," "100 Passions," "100 Thrills," "100 Laughs" and "100 Stars" and "100 Movies."

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