The American Film Institute says that one purpose in creating its list of the 100 greatest American films was to stimulate discussion. In that, the list has been a success. It has engendered not merely discussion but objection, accusation, abuse, and excoriation--nearly all at the AFI's expense. It's an awful list by traditional standards but no less fascinating for its shortcomings, and no less culturally legitimate, either.
Take your pick of things wrong with the list. It fails to recognize acknowledged classic films (such as Dracula, 1931) and major filmmakers (such as Buster Keaton) and instead includes many more recent box office successes such as Jaws (1975) and Tootsie (1982); that makes it a stupid list. It was culled from a preselected group of 400 titles and voted on by 1,500 "prominent" persons, including celebrities and politicians; that makes it an arbitrarily conducted test of popularity. It is designed to stimulate video rentals; that makes it a commercial list. At least one columnist has argued that in honoring Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, it is a racist list. (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? the list's only anti-racist entry--and a mediocre one at that--squeaked in at No. 99.)
For the sake of argument, let's stipulate that the way the AFI went about filling up its list resulted in an approach to movie "greatness" that is at best controversial and at worst dumbfounding. But controversy is likely to follow in the wake of any "best" list. The AFI's effort is a freeze frame of American movie taste in a moment of sweeping cultural transition.
The AFI's list of all-time greats downplays the influence of credentialed taste-makers, cinema scholarship, and educated judgment. It nods to expertise by anointing Citizen Kane (1941) the greatest American film, then largely abandons expertise. It thereby marks another stage in the decline of cultural "gatekeeping"--the control over what is deemed worthy (as opposed to merely popular) long exerted by critics, educators, repertory programmers, film historians, and so forth.
There's no shortage of would-be gatekeepers, but in recent years their influence has been waning. (Compare the influential movie-ad critic/blurbists of the past with the current proliferation of no-name "quote whores.") They've been done in by the new technology--VCRs, cable, satellites, computers--that has provided a wide cultural audience with vastly more choices than it had a generation ago, and vastly more power as a result. The VCR revolution of the last 20 years, for example, has completely transformed access to film's past. The old classic rep houses are now mostly dark; the new rep houses are on cable, or on your VCR stand.
Enter the AFI--a gatekeeper that, true to its times, has yielded to more commercial concerns. Its choices for the top 100 American movies on its list are explicitly designed to stimulate video rentals (and TV ratings for an associated TNT series). These are films that, in the AFI's estimation, Americans are still willing to pay for and sit through. Less commercial list-makers might have felt the need to pay lip service to, for instance, Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922), an undeniably "great" film that is not on the AFI list. Flaherty's famous portrait of an Eskimo's daily struggle to survive was the first attempt to join documentary filmmaking to personal vision, in Flaherty's case a vision of humankind's struggle to overcome Nature. Once one of the world's most popular works, today Nanook is rarely, if ever, seen by a nonspecialist audience.
A nd yet, even Nanook might have made the AFI list a generation ago, as might such other silents as Clyde Bruckman and Keaton's The General (1927), King Vidor's The Crowd (1928), or D.W. Griffith's Way Down East (1920). Back then, moviegoers in search of culture were not only closer in time to the silents, they also acknowledged their stature, and stature mattered to audiences then more than it does now. (Click to find out why.)
The AFI compilation reflects more than just technological change and the shifting power to confer "greatness," however. It also suggests a change in the characters the American audience enjoys watching and with whom it wants to identify. This is especially notable in the genre films on the list, the tales of tough guys, dames, cowboys, spacemen, and gangsters traditionally at the heart of popular American movie drama.
T here are many genre films on the AFI list, but most of them represent their genre in its late period--The Godfather (1972), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), and so on. These are indeed great films: powerful, handsome, strikingly edited. But in many ways, they seem just the opposite of the movies from which they developed. There is a startling difference between the gangster romanticism portrayed by Marlon Brando and Al Pacino and the gangsterism embodied earlier in the century by Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. You could admire Robinson's and Cagney's toughness, their ability to get their way. But in the end, you knew they were bad: They broke their mothers' hearts and paid too high a price for their criminal success.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967), on the other hand, presents criminality in romantic soft focus. The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II (1974) are a daydream of limitless wealth and power available to those (like Brando and Pacino) clever enough to survive it. The old Warner Bros. gangster morality tales were always said (by the gatekeepers) to represent the American gangster film in its glory, but these morality tales are completely absent from the AFI 100.
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.