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Open Thread: Is "The 100 Essential Directors" List Too Snobby?

Here at Flavorpill, we’ve learned (and continue to be reminded, on an almost daily basis) the pros and cons of making a good list. On the plus side, people love to see pop culture artifacts piled up and stacked against each other; it starts conversations and stirs passions. On the minus side, selecting and ranking beloved films, television shows, albums, books, musicians, etc. is just asking for trouble — what begins as starting conversations and stirring passions can become a melee of second-guessing, judgment, and sometimes even name-calling. So our sympathies and admiration go out to the fine folks at Popmatters, who have spent the past several weeks compiling a list of “the 100 essential directors,” and thus opened themselves up to the inevitable Monday-morning quarterbacking of film fans, a notoriously hard-to-please bunch.

The site’s editors wisely avoided the most bitter arguments by running the list alphabetically rather than in a ranked order; it’s a move that also spread out the angry “What about…” comments throughout the series’ run, rather than all at the end. But now that we’ve had a chance to look at the whole thing, as you have, there are some, well, puzzling choices.

“Please note that any perceived omissions were likely on purpose…” note the editors, and we can only take them at their word. These lists — theirs, ours, those of EW or Movieline or Rotten Tomatoes or any of the other slide-show purveyors online — are, above all, subjective opinion, one person’s (or panel of persons’) judgment.

But, that said: Tim Burton? Seriously?

Perhaps this was seen as a way to fill the “cult directors” void we mentioned last week; whoever they may be, the man has his fans. But let’s face facts: he hasn’t made a worthwhile motion picture since Ed Wood, and that was nearly 20 years ago. Fine, fine; Welles is on the list, and he peaked early too. But is there anyone alive who honestly thinks that the highlights of Burton’s filmography (and to give the man his due, he did make Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands) warrant his inclusion on a list that excludes Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati?

Perhaps there are some who think so, but we’ve never met them. Instead, it’s worth considering what the editors themselves give us the list’s criteria: “The aim with this series is to celebrate directors of distinct vision, who have honed their respective crafts, who have brought something new and exciting to the medium, and who continue to push the boundaries of the form. This isn’t necessarily a Hollywood-friendly list, and that is very much on purpose.”

That last sentence is a loaded one. Unpack it, and you’ve got the essential conflict of modern film culture on your hands: populism versus snobbery. In that line, “Hollywood-friendly” is used in the most strictly pejorative sense; you can all but hear the writer turning up his nose at the big-budget wielding denizens of California studios, cranking out blockbusters and dumbing down the masses. We are true film fans, a line like that whispers to us. None of that pap that they slop up at the multiplex. Allow us, instead, to dazzle you with our knowledge of obscure French and Asian filmmakers.

Is there anything wrong with dazzling a readership with your knowledge of obscure French and Asian filmmakers? Of course not. One of the pleasures of a list this immense is that it allows an informed writer to extol the virtues of a skilled director who might not otherwise have come onto your radar — that is the virtue of, for lack of a better word, “film snobbery.” But it also encourages an irritating cultural elitism. “The Film Snob’s stance,” wrote David Kamp and Lawrence Levi in their indispensable volume The Film Snob’s Dictionary, “is one of proprietary knowingness — the pleasure he takes in movies derives not only from the sensory experience of watching them, but also from knowing more about them than you do… The Film Snob fairly revels, in fact, in the notion that The Public Is Stupid and Ineducable, which is what sets him apart from the more benevolent film buff, the effervescent, Scorsese-style enthusiast who delights in introducing novitiates to The Bicycle Thief and Powell-Pressburger movies.”

Any argument that the Popmatters list is more “film buff” than “film snob” falls apart in the August 29th post, part 9, which runs alphabetically from Victor Sjöström to Luchino Visconti. It does not include Steven Spielberg. The commenters howled with objection, and rightfully so. Has Spielberg directed some clunkers? Of course. Did his films help hasten in the age of the blockbuster and hustle out the ‘70s era of personal filmmaking? Certainly. But is he a great director — a trendsetter, and artisan, an “essential”? Positively. Anyone who argues otherwise is just trying to be provocative.

Amidst all the objections over Spielberg’s exclusion, no one mentioned the other head-scratching absence from that alphabetical chunk: another famous filmmaking Steven, Mr. Soderbergh. On the very weekend that Soderbergh’s latest, the excellent Contagion, reminded us that (lest we forgot over the long, hot summer) big-budget, big-star studio filmmaking can be vital, skillful, powerful, and sneakily emotional, we cannot help but question the very sanity of any true film lover who does not consider Soderbergh a visionary, a craftsman, or a boundary-pusher. He expanded the possibilities of independent cinema with sex, lies, and videotape; he’s made popular entertainments with wit and style, and alternated those commercial endeavors with risky, experimental fare that has enriched his subsequent mainstream efforts. If Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone are on this list, then Soderbergh should be too, period.

It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the Popmatters list jettisons Spielberg, Soderbergh, Eastwood, and the like because of its admitted anti-Hollywood bias. But that’s also not an argument that holds water when you look at the filmmakers from the studio system who did make the cut; Hitchcock, Hawks, Cukor, Huston, and Ford were all journeymen directors who worked within the system to craft films that were commercial and personal, simultaneously. Of course, it took the latter-day reconsiderations of Andrew Sarris and the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd to give those popular filmmakers the bona fides they have today. Maybe in 50 years (when a list like this is made and then, I dunno, implanted into our visual slide chip or however we get information then), these filmmakers will get their proper due.

So that’s our take on the list. What’s yours? Is there an anti-populist bent? Which filmmakers should have been on it? Which directors shouldn’t have?

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