When all before you is barren...

05 August 2011

Sexy Beast, 2000
MP here

Picture the scene: the sun is shining, the heat is up, people are talking of beer gardens, impromptu barbecues and whatever else a spontaneous summer affords us in Britain. I often wonder if other cinephiles are met with the same curiosity or judgement when, upon being asked what their plans are on days like this, they reply that they're off to the cinema. "What do you mean," comes the response. "How can you spend a day like this in a cinema?" Alas, in an increasingly cautious distribution game, wherein my local 'independent' has to seemingly show the likes of the final Harry Potter film and Super 8 in order to accommodate Godard's Film Socialisme for a week's worth of screenings, films come and go like bouts of sunshine these days, and you have to catch them while you can.

But here are some interesting figures. In August 2006, I saw four feature films at the cinema. In August 2007, I saw one (a re-release of the original The Wicker Man). In August 2008, 2009 and 2010, I didn't see any films at the cinema. Maybe we get summers in the north of England after all; or maybe I have a natural dip in cinema visits at the mid-point of the year; or maybe Augusts are notoriously lacking in my kind of film releases.

Whatever, I can't see a significant change this month for me, judging by the release schedule (and even then, my independent often doesn't screen films till weeks after its release - but I intend to discuss this in more detail at a later point, or for my entry into Sight & Sound's young writers' essay competition).

"When all before you is barren, return to what you love": as I noted in an earlier post, that was the opening line of this blog back in April 2010. There are always new-to-you films to catch up on, of course - and the more you see, the more you want to see. But August sees the final run-up to the FilmSpotting forum's annual Top 100 Films poll. It's the fourth of its kind, and it'll be my first.

This month, then, provides the perfect opportunity to finally revisit some films I've been meaning to see again. I'll have had five weeks in total to compile the list: that's a lot longer than the weekend I had to do a similar list for music albums. Hopefully, my Top 100 films will feel more comprehensive as a result.

The reason I'm revisiting a lot of films is to make sure old favourites still hold up; nobody wants a list based on nostalgia. I know for starters there's going to be very few Scorsese films in there; three years ago I'd have probably listed four or five. But I'm also revisiting films in preference over the notion of seeking out highly regarded works I've not seen that might make my own list.

For me, fitting in films that for the sake of argument I'll refer to as "canonical", only to see if they make an impression immediate enough to enter a favourites list, possibly undercuts the very notion of a "favourite": if familiarity is one parameter of liking something, I'd argue concurrent to that is longevity. Which films do I recall over a given amount of time?

Another reason why I'm personally against this approach is that a favourites list should in some way represent you, your personal taste in films, etc. Of course, personal lists necessarily overlap with an established canon; but crucially, canons emerge from the most commonly championed films, which is why they should always be challenged but never blindly resisted.

As I wrote in the forum's appropriate thread, "I've decided not to bend over backwards fitting unseen greats in over the next five weeks, figuring that seeing a film in order to fit it into a possible favourites list - with very little time for reflection and the test of longevity - is perhaps the wrong reason to see it. I'm thinking of films like Tokyo Story, which I've had unwatched for ages. My list this year will be as interesting (to me) for its limitations as it will be for its inclusions: 'Oh, when I was 23 I still hadn't seen an Ozu film.' Rather, I'd prefer to revisit films on the cusp of an instinctive Top 100 [to establish a confidence through familiarity with exclusions], and treat the final FilmSpotting list as one recommending unseen stuff for my own list next year. That way, my list at least favours enduring preferences always open to an annual shift (if we're to take a year as the appropriate mark of re-evaluation); as opposed to overnight changes in preference, which can make these lists agonising to do."

As you'll see if you clicked on an earlier link, the voting system is tiered, whereby the higher a film ranks, the more points it receives. Having tried to compile an initial Top 100 so far, I'm thankful that not every rank has a different point, but rather points are rewarded in sets: #1 receives 17 points; #2-5, 15 points; and so on. This allows me to give an approximate rank to a film. Instead of proceeding mechanically by going "down the list asking if [film] A is better than [film] B" and so on, I can group certain films together according to my enthusiasm for them.

It recalls a friend's amusing comment a few years back, after I'd referred to several films that night as "Top 5 material" or something similar. "How many films are in your Top 5," she asked, "so far you've listed about ten!" So so far, I've been considering films by asking how I'd rate them on an instinctive basis: Top 100 contender? Top 50? Top 20? Top 10? Is it my favourite film? (No, unless it's The French Connection.)

Revisiting a film allows you to not only recall it in itself, but to gauge your familiarity with it, how much it still turns you on, etc. Rekindle feelings - or not, as the case may be. Already this week, I've rewatched The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which probably won't make the list, and The Fly (1987) and The Insider (1999), both of which most certainly will. I've also watched Bill Douglas's Comrades for the first time: an excellent film I'm rating (for the sake of rating films in the first place) 5 out of 5. But it won't make the list because who's to say upon reflection I won't feel different?

Maybe next year year, then. For the Ozu, too.

Or maybe not.