Of all of the inanimate paraphernalia in my life, the thing that I treasure more than any other is effectively weightless. It is, in one sense, a geometric construction, composed solely of criss-crossing horizontal and vertical lines and the 30,000-odd words (none of them original) that are spread among its intersections.
Ostensibly, my film list1 is not a demanding object: in its essential form, all it has taken from the world is the (now, roughly) two-and-a-half megabytes it laps up on my computer hard drive, even if its various printouts have expended more than their fair share of wood pulp over the years. And yet, like any sentimental possession, hasn’t this artless entity obstinately taken up residence in one cortex or another of its warden, insisting upon its own value even as it remains inscrutable and/or inconsequential to most other observers?
I’m writing this piece partially as a means to come to grips with this strange personal obsession, one that has played such a significant role in my engagement with cinema, and to see if it can tell us something about the way we engage with art, the attempts we make to communicate and codify subjective experience, the unreliability of memory, the fear of loss. This is the story of a thirteen-year project; a small joy and a millstone around my neck; a time-killer par excellence; a single rudimentary table in a Microsoft Word document, a few columns across and an indefinite, ever-growing number of rows down. I didn’t initially plan to end up with a table of every film I’d seen since early childhood, 1930 titles in all (on last count) ordered by preference. Such a project, if embarked upon ex nihilo, would simply seem too mammoth, too defeating. My intention, at the age of 16 in early 2005, was something rather humbler and more commonplace (more socially acceptable, even?): a top ten scrawled in biro on a scrap of paper. I present a facsimile below:
- The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001–2003)
- The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001)
- Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959)
- The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998)
- Signs (M. Night Shyamalan, 2002)
- William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, 1996)
- The Village (M. Night Shyamalan, 2004)
- Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)
- The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)
- Team America: World Police (Trey Parker, 2004)
As this nascent (some might say unduly Shyamalan-heavy) list may suggest, my interest in cinema had at this point barely emerged; my own tastes were still subject to the limits of familial curation and the local multiplex slate (and barely even that; Team America, perhaps the most eyebrow-raising entry on that list, was at that point my only unchaperoned big-screen experience). It would only be a year later, thanks to Canberra’s sole arthouse video rental store, that my cinephilia would really kick in. By then, my list had already been semi-immortalised in Microsoft Word and had since mutated into a top 50, then a top 100, then, in a fit of completism, something else: a comprehensive survey of a teenager’s experiences with cinema.
In its current form, my list contains nine columns. Third from left is the title of the film (original above; English-language release title, if applicable, below in italics); to the left of that is the number designating its position; and to the furthest left is a rating out of five. To the right of the title is the release year, followed by country of origin, director’s name, lead actor/s, running time and, finally, the date of first viewing. If a title is in my DVD/VHS collection, it is bolded; if I have seen a film at the cinema, the date in the right-hand column is underlined. Each page of the Microsoft Word document features exactly 25 titles (this can be a little tricky to maintain, and the only real way of keeping it in check is to add or remove actors).
In theory, the list is dynamic; at any moment in time, I can revisit a film and decide that its position needs to be higher or lower. Once, every few years, I have gone through the list in sections at a time and wholly renovated it, playing hundreds of titles off against each other in groups of 16 as if they were competitors in the final rounds of the Australian Open. In a final play-off, for instance, Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947) might take on Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg, 2013) for position 535; then the winner gets fed into the group above, the rest are methodically sorted through, and the process starts again. If this seems slightly/moderately/totally insane, I confess that the thought has occurred to me too. You may also be gathering that such list-keeping is not for everyone. It is certainly a – to put it charitably – singular exercise. Even with the motivation to do such a thing, a certain amount of disposable time is required; as such, I do little more than add titles now, and the films at the very top haven’t shifted for a long time (as for the bottom of the list, there be mostly undisturbed dragons – I’m generally quite picky in what I choose to watch nowadays).
Why do I list? Why, for that matter, does anybody? In Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel High Fidelity, the protagonist, Rob, a record-store owner, habitually devises ‘top fives’ to compartmentalise his experiences, reflecting a deeper human desire to categorise things, to order them, to place them in hierarchies, no matter how mundane the subject matter might be, no matter how obsessive, self-indulgent or absurd the exercise. It’s true that some of us are much more prone to cataloguing than others – I have been doing it since I learned to write – but lists clearly remain a communication method with broad appeal: consider the commercial success of list-based clickbait website BuzzFeed and the plague of ‘content-generating’ websites it has inspired, for instance. A list can take something complex and give us an anchor point, much in the way the number of stars on a film review serves as an immediate (and, in many ways, obscenely reductive) indicator of the writer’s feeling about the work they are describing.
The idea of ranking artworks certainly doesn’t sit well with everybody. For some, it’s an exercise that is at best silly, at worst downright offensive. There are a good many critics, for instance, who contribute year-end lists but prefer not to include rankings. Perhaps they will include an indeterminate number, presented alphabetically or in no order whatsoever. Of course, this too is an act of curation: in any given list of any given size or order, certain titles have been left off. Furthermore, it seems likely that some titles were necessary inclusions and others were afterthoughts; unquestionably, before they hit ‘send’ on their webmail interface, at least some of these critics saw reason to include a couple of titles that they had initially considered leaving out, or deleting one that they no longer deemed sufficiently worthy. Thus, it seems evident that, even in such cases, a grouped hierarchy of sorts – 1) the definites 2) the maybes 3) the excluded – is already in existence, even if it has not been expressed. Such a list, thus, is a refusal to communicate hierarchies, not a refusal to have any in the first place.
Why have such hierarchies at all? Because engaging with art is not (or, at least, ought not to be) a neutral experience. However it might be perceived in popular culture or by certain members of the profession themselves, the critic’s role is not merely to sort the wheat from the chaff, giving ratings along the way; it is, at least in part, to have known a cinema that can excite, provoke, move, be of formal interest etc.; and, perhaps equally, a cinema that can disappoint, bore, demonstrate a need for further development of certain skills, tell the critic or the imagined audience member little (and then, of course, everything that might lie somewhere in-between, because films are seldom ever only praiseworthy or worthless). That is to say: a critic is engaged in the ecstasies and agonies of the art form, and has some conceptualisation of its potential and some investment in its success. A critic who has not had such experiences is surely in the wrong profession.
Perhaps some will even recoil at the idea of an unranked top ten. Can’t one just appreciate a meritorious film without needing to compare it to another, with the implication that one of the two will be declared inferior? Isn’t art, in all its meaning, associations and subjectivity, essentially non-linear, and thus in a fundamentally different category to, say, a footrace?
The trouble with such an argument is that it treats preference as if it were a performative choice, rather than an innate condition. If “liking” something is a mere agglomeration of certain categories of chemical states that we might refer to as excitement, absorption, satisfaction and admiration (among other reactions), then these are surely responses that could, hypothetically, be measured and compared, at least at a certain moment in time. Taste may be subjective, but the fact of experience – and what is experienced, as its own phenomenon – is not in dispute.
In the realm of objectively true phenomena – that is, for the philosophical materialists, hard determinists and other assorted non-Baudrillardians among us, everything – there is nothing within our range of perception that is quite so difficult to verify as the subjective. It is true that we know that we experience, and we often have a fairly good comprehension of what those experiences – be they emotions or inner monologues, senses or sentiments, memories or dreams – are. Likewise, we know that these are the products of real chemical occurrences, and, in their own way, matters of fact: whether or not we can accurately remember its details, the dream has certainly been dreamed. All subjective experiences can be relayed, albeit imperfectly, and we have entire fields of scientific research devoted to investigating them. And yet, we lack the means to measure any of this in any provable way. This ineluctable barrier need not, of course, deter us from attempting to gather and analyse data about the things we think and feel, however inept our processes might sometimes be.2 And the fact is that much of our sense of meaning is derived from such imperfect recollections. Without them, what do we have, really? How else can we communicate?
Towards the end of High Fidelity, Rob, music obsessive and compulsive lister, is given the simple task of naming his five favourite albums for a magazine article. For once, he draws a mental blank.3 I’m much too far gone for that, unfortunately – not only can I tell you my five favourite films, I can, upon consulting my latest printout, tell you that Stephen Frears’ 2000 adaptation of the novel is currently number 1142 on my list. But here’s the problem: I’ve seen that film twice now, and I’m not completely certain that the aforementioned scene is even in it. And, likely, the same goes for many, perhaps most, of the films on my list: my memory of them exists in fragments, ever diminishing as time passes from my most recent viewing. If this is the case, it would be fair to ask: what business do I have ranking films that I can’t even remember properly? And what is it, precisely, that my film list is actually measuring?
For me, seeing a film in my list is like taking the lid off a storage box: inside, there are moth-eaten reels of a few scenes, the skeleton of a narrative, perhaps only a few still images that stand in for everything else and the vague aura left behind from my last visit, a sense that I was really blown away by this; or, I liked this, but…; or, that was pretty uninspiring, wasn’t it. Perhaps a great scene in an otherwise mediocre film sticks in my memory, and causes me to be too generous; perhaps I caught a film on a bad night, and I have let those associations cloud my appreciation of it. Such, though, are the limitations of perception and memory, and they are simply limitations I have to work with. If I have misremembered a film, I can always watch it again and reappraise it. The framework is still there to accommodate that.
I have always tried to avoid letting my judgements be affected by established critical opinions. I make no attempt to base my rankings on how objectively good a film is; hence why Jens Jorgen Thørsen’s rough, politically questionable and unquestionably terribly acted Henry Miller adaptation Stille dage i Clichy (Quiet Days in Clichy, 1970) is in my top 100 and Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) isn’t: the former’s anarchic aesthetic sensibility and killer Country Joe McDonald soundtrack just gel with me more than the latter’s ambitious, brilliantly executed composition and narrative. While my definition of “entertainment” may differ to that of others – give me Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975) over the latest Marvel blockbuster any day – pleasure comes first and foremost. But even so, external factors undoubtedly infect my judgement, and perhaps Citizen Kane (number 448) is still higher than it would be if I were unaware of its reputation.
Even as a personal document that I have complete control over and that answers to no-one else, my film list is an imperfect exercise: right now, I could probably scan through it and find a title that seems much lower than it should be, or much too high. It’s a crude approximation, but it’s something. It will never be perfect, but it can always be improved. And there’s already some great data to sift through in there: not only do I have a record of my top ten films, I also have a way of quickly compiling my top ten Swedish films, or the best films I saw in 2009, or my top five Jan Švankmajer shorts. I can even subject it to mathematical formulas; recently, I used one to determine my favourite 100 directors based on where their films were placed. As a personal reference guide, it’s hard to beat.
It’s also, in many ways, a fairly candid document. A little under 2000 films is not that many, all things considered. If you get hold of my list, you can see exactly how many Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s I’ve seen (it ain’t pretty). And while it might be fun to compare top tens with friends, the bottom half of a list is bound to be a little more controversial. It’s like in any conversation: even if the other party disagrees, it is much less awkward to talk about what you love than what you hate. So the less said about the position of À bout de souffle (Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1960), the better. Ultimately, I feel like the difference between not having this list and having it is the difference between a nebulous personal history of cinematic consumption and a concrete record of it. Seeing a title in a document, in a certain place within it, is a way to remember it.
I don’t know if I will always maintain this list. The bigger it gets, the more unwieldy it is. And because the opportunity to renovate the list is increasingly rare – it can now take me months at a time to get around to adding new titles – the possible result is that it will calcify and end up as an artefact, a somewhat abstract and rarefied snapshot in time from another life. Perhaps, then, it will have outlived its purpose.
But, for now, I’m quite willing to admit that it is inextricable from my engagement with cinema. To see a film, and to have nowhere to file it away, seems empty, somehow. It’s possible that this sentiment is a self-imposed punishment. But I can’t shake the feeling that the joy I have derived from those wonderful works of art in that top 100, that top 25 – from number 19, Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991), to number 3, La maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore, Jean Eustache, 1973), to that impenetrable cinematic happy place at number 1, Celine et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating, Jacques Rivette, 1974) – deserves to be housed somewhere, safe from the caprices of memory and forgetfulness. You can’t keep everything in your head at once; sometimes, you have to file it away somewhere, put it down on paper, give it a number, hold onto it while you can.
- The top 1000 is available on my website as a PDF; see “David Heslin’s Film List”, David Heslin author website, https://davidheslin.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/davidheslinfilmlist3.pdf ↩
- Ed Yong, “Psychology’s Replication Crisis Can’t Be Wished Away,” The Atlantic, 4 March 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/psychologys-replication-crisis-cant-be-wished-away/472272/ ↩
- Nick Hornby, High Fidelity, 3rd ed. (Camberwell, Australia: Penguin Group (Australia), 2008), pp. 233–7. ↩