Shuffling the Deck (& Losing Cards): Thoughts on the Latest Update to the TSPDT 1000

mother-india First off, I want to commend Bill Georgaris on another monumental round of collecting, compiling and computating in delivering the latest update to the 1000 Greatest Films on They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? The January 2010 edition incorporates 216 more films than the previous update of December 2008, resulting in the replacement of 68 films in the list of 1000. The good news for me is that the update only sets me back four spots in my quest to see  all 1000 films. My countdown will resume with Alexander Kluge's Yesterday Girl at #993 instead of #997.

I'm expecting the Shooting Down Pictures project to finally conclude in the weeks to come - though I'll be taking time to savor the remaining films as best as I can, at least as much as Matthew Dessem appears to in his entries on the Criterion Collection catalog. (Many thanks to him for giving me a mention in his profile by Roger Ebert.)

There is one film in the "left to see" column that has proven incredibly difficult to obtain, and that film is Douce / Love Story by Claude Autant-Lara. I can't find a video copy of this film anywhere, and as of now it's looking like I will have to spend a few hundred Euros to rent the film from France and then rent out a theater to screen it. If anyone out there knows of a way to access this film without considerable financial cost, please don't hesitate to contact me at alsolikelife at gmail dot com.

I feel that I should follow up on last year's version of this "state of the project" post (which itself was a rehash of issues I raised the year before), in which I offered a mild complaint that the list has consistently shown a lack of regard for world cinema (unless your idea of world cinema is Europe or Hollywood movies set in Middle Earth), as well as experimental films and films by women. Maybe I'm betraying my own biases towards films I consider underrepresented, but on the other hand there seem to be no shortage of supporters of the mainstream. The latest version of the list grimly bears this out.  I don't so much mind that Jaws is now part of the top 100 films, even if it bumps off Bunuel's L'Age d'Or, a Surrealist equivalent of a cinematic shark attack on the unsuspecting viewer. I have more of an issue with the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy being shoehorned in by however many fanboy lists taken from any number of popcorn geek sites.

The numbers offer further discouragement. The number of films from North America and Europe keep climbing, from 900 to 905. At least the number of films by women went up one notch - the list traded Jane Campion's Angel at My Table for Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark and Agnes Varda's The Gleaners and I, bringing that total to 17. The experimental field dropped to 18 films (Mothlight and Dog Star Man replaced Flaming Creatures, Scenes from Under Childhood and Lucifer Rising).

Last year I tried to make my move to buck this trend by calling out to world cinema and experimental film scholars to contribute their lists. Unfortunately, my calls were met with typical responses of "I don't do lists" and "how much does it matter anyway?" At the start of last year I considered the TSPDT 1000 a cultural landmark, something that people, especially young aspiring cinephiles, would turn to for guidance in their exploration of movies, and thus it was vital to make sure that the list represented a diversity of cinema. But after hearing so many film experts whose opinion I respect give a collective shrug to the project, I'm all but burned out on the idea of canons and their importance.

I do thank those individuals who sent lists my way, which I duly forwarded to Bill for inclusion. I would like to give a special thanks to one particular person, Nitish Pahwa, who took my call to action more to heart than just about anyone. He went to the trouble of transcribing an issue of Outlook magazine in which 25 Indian film directors were polled to pick their favorite Indian films of all time, the results of which were compiled. (Since this list doesn't exist anywhere online to my knowledge, I plan to post it sometime soon.) I considered this a major find, given that India continues to make more movies per year than any other country, and yet they receive very little exposure to a world audience. I dutifully forwarded the results to Bill, as well as the findings of a similar poll of South Asian cinema organized by the BFI some years ago. To my chagrin, neither of these polls were figured into the current update.

In an email, Bill had told me that he could only count top ten lists for all films, and not those only focused on national cinemas. But if you look at the PDF Companion to the current 1000 films, which lists every source cited in the compilations, you'll see numerous lists from the American Film Institute (AFI) that celebrate only American films: "America's 100 Most Thrilling"; "America's 10 Greatest Films in 10 Classic Genres". There are countless genre-specific lists as well that focus only on sci-fi, horror, comedy, even "Spiritually Significant Films."

If these topical lists can be considered, then why can't a list on Indian or African or Asian cinema? Especially if it's the only way for Indian film experts to be counted, given that these Indian specific lists are the only instance of their input on the subject? Otherwise, if you look at who voted for the Indian films, they're almost exclusively European or American critics. Really then, what is this list but an echo-chamber exercise touting whatever films a Euro-centric pool of "experts" happen to see? Maybe this would explain why several Satyajit Ray films remain on the list, while Mother India, arguably the most revered film among Indians, dropped out of the updated list of 1000 - despite being mentioned repeatedly in the lists I collected to give to Bill.

I really hope that Bill reconsiders his position on the lists I submitted him, because for me they embody a crucial underpinning to the cultural significance this list has to offer: to what extent it can truly claim to offer the "greatest" in "all" of cinema,  according to a truly representative selection of film "experts." As someone who has followed this list for years,  and has been one of its most ardent supporters, it pains me to raise these questions. But I wish to make the stakes clear: nothing less than ensuring the credibility and value of this list.