Better ideas.
July 2 1998 3:30 AM


The cultural anomie induced by the AFI's top 100 film picks.

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The same is true of the cowboy and the tough guy. There are traditional cowboys and tough guys on the list, but the former (as in Stagecoach, 1939, and The Searchers, 1956) is limited mostly to John Wayne, and the latter (as in The Maltese Falcon, 1941) to Humphrey Bogart; and you get the sense these films were chosen more out of nostalgia for their stars than for their dramatic power. The old western was almost always a tale of a courageous loner imposing order on lawlessness, as in the Wayne films and Shane (1953). High Noon (1952), which is on the list, is an interesting variation. But Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) features existentially disillusioned outlaws going out in a montage of bloody chaos, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) is an outlaw buddy film, and Dances With Wolves (1990) attempts to revise entirely the concepts of both "order" and "the west."


Few dames made the cut. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944) is a lonely, worldly wise woman on the list. The tough cities that such women and their fugitive men once haunted are nowhere to be found. The seductive and corrupting film noir downtowns featured in so many admired cheap second features might as well all have been demolished, along with the long-gone Bijous and Palaces where these films first played.

Perhaps that makes sense. Twentieth century American culture was largely a downtown experience. It isn't anymore. It is increasingly an at-home experience, increasingly private, increasingly personal. The AFI's list, for all its peculiarities, appears to reflect that.

Obviously, being fairly arbitrary, many of the AFI choices may not lend themselves to sound cultural interpretation. But there is an upheaval in canon creation going on throughout American culture, and this list brings that upheaval to the movies. It's worth trying to understand the AFI 100 for what it is and isn't. The alternative is sitting in the dark, waiting for a show that's really over to begin.

If you missed the link, click to see how the influence of cultural gatekeepers has waned in the last 50 years.

Charles Paul Freund is a senior editor with Reason magazine.