In the process of covering the Tribeca Film Festival and the kick-off of the summer movie season, we didn’t really get to weigh in on that already notorious British survey concerning lying about the movies you’ve seen. It is, we should note, a pretty inexplicable list — not because people lie about this stuff (“What’s that? My favorite Antonioni film? Well, really, who can pick a favorite?”- Me), but because people apparently lie about seeing these films. The Shawshank Redemption? I didn’t realize it was possible to have cable television and never see The Shawshank Redemption; they must not have TNT over there. Dirty Dancing? Is there some sort of thick Freudian subtext that renders that movie impenetrable, and scares off potential viewers? (The answer: no, it remains the tale of Baby not getting put in the corner.) The films on this list are, for the most part, accessible popular entertainments; The Great Escape is a thrilling jailbreak caper, GoodFellas is a cracklingly fast-paced gangster picture, Citizen Kane sparkles with screwball dialogue and inventive narrative trickery. And The Godfather? Who can’t make it through The Godfather?
The point is, these are not the kind of dense, cinematic-obligation-filling works that New York Times writer Dan Kois is referencing in his “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables” essay (which came out around the same time as the British survey). Some critics and viewers, he writes, “love the experience of watching movies that I find myself simply enduring in order to get to the good part — i.e., not the part where you’re watching the real-time birth of a Kazakh lamb, but the rest of your life, when you have watched it and you get to talk about it and write about it and remember it.” The tragedy of the British list was that there were so many genuinely great movies on it, and those would-be viewers were really missing something by skipping them. On the other hand, there are plenty of movies that it’s perfectly fine to lie about — pictures that, as Kois points out, are more of an obligation and a chore to get through, because they are iconic or important or influential. We’ve compiled our own list of those films after the jump.
D.W. Griffith was film’s first real artist — he perfected much of the cinematic vocabulary that we take for granted today, including the use of facial close-ups and cross-cutting between scenes to create suspense and tension. The culmination of his early efforts was The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915. It was American history told on an epic scale — and at an epic length (the film ran over three hours, in an era where the twenty-minute “two-reeler” was the norm). It is masterfully crafted; it is also horrifyingly racist, a Civil War and Reconstruction story filled with broadly stereotypical and patently offensive black characters (played by white actors in blackface) that paints the Ku Klux Klan as brave and heroic.
For film historians today, Birth of a Nation is deeply problematic — it is an innovative and important film, but wow, how about all that racism? Roger Ebert wrote about it eloquently in a 2003 essay for his “Great Movies” series: “Certainly The Birth of a Nation presents a challenge for modern audiences. Unaccustomed to silent films and uninterested in film history, they find it quaint and not to their taste. Those evolved enough to understand what they are looking at find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the postwar and Reconstruction scenes, which are racist in the ham-handed way of an old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet.” The point is, any documentary on the silent era worth its salt (like Brownlow and Gill’s brilliant Hollywood, or TNT’s recent — and excellent — Moguls and Movie Stars) is certain to include some clips from Birth. You’ll get the point.