Canny Ben Franklin, who once wrote that "an assembly of great men is the greatest fool on earth," would doubtless fell the same about the assembly of great films that AFI members have in their wisdom selected as the 10 best American productions of all time.
The list, which was revealed to a breathless public at last night's AFI Tenth Anniversary gala, includes, in alphabetical order:
African Queen (1952)
Citizen Kane (1941)
Gone With the Wind (1939)
Grapes of Wrath (1940)
One Flew Over the Cuckoos's Nest (1975)
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Star Wars (1977)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Wizard of Oz (1939)
Obviously some, though hardly all, of these films belong on anybody's list, but taken as a whole, they constitute a bizarre, off-centered collection that gives a lopsided picture of what is genuinely exceptional about Hollywood.
To get its selection, the AFI first sent ballots to its 35,000 members, of which about one-quarter live in the Washington area. Though the ballot included a "reminder" list of 341 favorites, the 16,000 members who replied were brazen enough to nominate 1,100 films.The AFI calculated the top 50 choices, sent out another ballot, and from the results of that named the top 10.
Ten-best-ever lists are a game everyone likes to play, and the answers you get depend on the standards of the people you ask. For instance, when Sight & Sound, the prestigous British film magazine, asked a world-wide panel of critics in 1962 to name the best films ever made, they picked "Citizen Kane" for No. 1, though their other American selection, Eric von Stroheim's massive "Greed," was missing even from the AFI's top 50.
"Kane," of course, is the most obvious and most unassailable choice on the list, a masterfully precocious work directed by Orson Welles when he was but 26. Even the fact that people tend to name it in a knee-jerk way, like saying Switzerland when you think neutrality, cannot diminish the film's freshness, its inventiveness, its power.
Aside from that unavoidable success, a look at the release dates of the 10 choices - nothing before 1939 and three 1968 or later films - reveals the list's most obvious flaw. For if we consider that American feature production began more than 60 years ago, this selection is terribly top-heavy on recent films while managing to totally neglect the entire silent era as well as the first decade of sound.
Of course D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" (1915) and "Intolerance" (1916) don't happen to be as much fun to sit through as "Star Wars," but this wasn't supposed to be a mere popcorn-chomping popularity poll; for gosh sakes, the AFI ballot did say "THE GREATEST" and in sizable capital letters at that.
Anf from that standpoint to neglect Griffith's films, which refined and put into general use many of the techniques and plot lines still central to American films, not to mention the crucial effect they had on the great Russian directors like Eisenstein, is close to unspeakable. Harrumph.
And if spanking new, fresh-in-the-memory films must be selected, surely the AFI members could have made classier choices. There may be nothing wrong with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," but thinking of it in terms of transcendent greatness is quite a strain.
Better than Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather," a film that fairly reeks of epic resonances,, had been selected, or "Bonnie and Clyde," which didn't even make the top 50 despite being the most influential film of the last 10 years.
The central problem wiht the AFI members' list, however, is that almost wihtout exception the voters have gone for soft, sentimental fims, the gooey hot fudge sundaes of cinema, movies that are fine in reasonable doses but deadly in excess. Even if each film is worthy on its own, taken together they threaten a massive entertainment over dose.
This is not just a question of the exclusion of my own personal favorites. Though I would have moved heaven and earth to find room for "All About Eve," possibly the wittiest, most literate American film ever made; or for a comedy by Preston Sturges, the most persistently underappreciated comedy director - "The Palm Beach Story," arguably his funniest film, isn't even on the list of 341 - or for one example of film noir chosen from, say, "Double Indemnity," "White Heat," "Sunset Boulevard,' "The Asphalt Jungle, "Sweet Smell of Sucess" or "Touch of EVil," all that would probably be too much to expect.
Yet if AFI members are going to chose films by directors like John Huston and John Ford, why have they chosen the ones they did? Why not the stronger, tougher, more interesting "Maltese Falcon" or [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] Sierra Madre" for Huston, for [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] instead of the weak though [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] lovabrgued onto the list, it is strange pick a John Ford film and not pick western, since the man practically dozen or le "The African Queen."
An while "Grapes of Wrath" is [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] excellent film that perhaps could argued onto the list, it is strange [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] pick a John Ford film and not [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] western, since the man practically [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] the genre and made [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] dozen or more - "Stagecoach," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," The [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] "The Man Who Shot Liberty [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] "My Darling Clementine among them - of the very, very best.
In fact, the single most boggling feature of the AFI list is that the only director mentioned twice - and this [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] the face of the baffling absence [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] crowd-pleasing masters like Chaplin and even Hitchcock - is Victor Fleming.
Fleming was apparently one hell of a nice guy - no, really - whose name ended up appearing almost by chance on two films, "Gone With The Wild" and "The Wizard of Oz," which he did'nt have much more to do with than a whole lot of other directors who weren't so lucky. In fact the best Andrew Sarris could do for Fleming in his "The American Cinema" was to place him in his lowest category, "Miscellany," and call him "mysterious." So much for the auteur theory.
The only actor to appear twice on the list is Humphrey Bogart, while those totally forgotten include Marlon Brando, Cary grant, Greta garbo, Jimmy Cagney, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and so on ad ridiculum. Not to mention that the list neglects screwball comedy, neglects westerns, neglects mystery-detective-crime films, neglects, one should say in all fairness, more than could possibly fit on one 10 film list. Still and all, even 16,000 experts should have come up with a better selection that this. Really.