AFI's 99 Percent Perspiration

Stand up and cheer, but for God's sake don't sit down and watch, America's 100 most inspiring films.


In the eight years since the American Film Institute premiered its original list of the "100 greatest American films of all time," the institute has shown all the dexterity of Alan Smithee in finding new ways to repackage and re-promote the same group of movies. We've seen lists of greatest stars, greatest comedies, greatest thrillers, greatest love stories, greatest movie songs and soundtracks, greatest heroes and villains, greatest lines of dialogue, and this year, the 100 greatest inspiring movies—and yet the basic group of films has remained almost unchanged. If your idea of a great movie experience is to line up for Gone With the Mockingbird Who Came To Casablanca While Saving Schindler's List of Arabia, this year's list is for you. Then again, so is every year's list.

A strong element of Willie Loman anxiety has crept into these efforts to keep reselling the same product. Most of the entries in the original "100 greatest" pictures (including the entire top 10 and at least 18 of the top 20) have appeared on at least one of the subsequent lists, and a few have appeared on nearly every list. If you asked the AFI voters (who are those people, anyway?) how many motion pictures have been made since the beginning of time, I suspect they would paraphrase Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (the 63rd most inspiring film): "About a hundred movies."

Isn't it the job of AFI to be moving back-catalogue inventory? Where is the fiscal incentive to keep promoting such mangy warhorses as To Kill A Mockingbird and It's A Wonderful Life? If there's anybody out there who has not seen eight-time honoree Casablanca by this point, what are the odds that that person will add the Michael Curtiz classic to his or her Netflix queue just because AFI has also declared it the 32nd most inspiring film in American history? Why not come up with some interesting categories for a change? Where are the 100 greatest unintended homosexual subtexts? The greatest scenes where some Hollywood "ugly duckling" gets a makeover (generally consisting of little more than doffing her eyeglasses, combing her hair, and getting into a backless dress)? Where are the greatest disgruntled, "I'm sick of zis damn var" Nazis, like Robert Shaw's valet in the lousy (and suspiciously snow-free) Battle of the Bulge?

The desperation evident in the "100 Cheers" list suggests an idea better than anything AFI has come up with: The 100 Most Desperate American Films of all time, a rogues' gallery of forlorn productions; vehicles for distressed stars; second, third, and fourth sequels; sweat-soaked attempts to cash in on some already fading fad; tax writeoffs featuring Christopher and Lynda-Day George. What is the value in reminding people once again that they're supposed to endure Schindler's List for the good of the culture when you could be convincing them to invest in Trog or Three On a Meathook, to recapture the magic of both Gymkata and Lambada, or to pick up an underrated gem like Leprechaun In the Hood?

The missed opportunity here is acute, because this year's stand-up-and-cheer list probably expresses most completely how AFI voters and people like them understand film: as a classy, monumental medium to be viewed by a compliant audience that will react only in the exact manner the filmmakers intended. It doesn't matter that the ending of Repo Man (not on the list) is a lot more fun and cheer-worthy than the scene in E.T. (Number 6) that it spoofs. What matters is that in the latter film you're supposed to be cheering.

So plenty of pictures that generate some generalized sense of camaraderie or uplift get shoehorned into the "inspiring" category. The American people, whose wisdom is as inexplicable as God's, have decided that The Shawshank Redemption (not even the best prison film of the 1993-1994 period) is the second greatest motion picture of all time; and since nobody is willing to accept the obvious explanation for this vote (that people are still confusing it with The Hudsucker Proxy), AFI splits the difference and places Shawshank at Number 23 on its cheer list. But Robert Aldrich's The Longest Yard gets shut out entirely, possibly due to confusion with the Adam Sandler remake. Rocky shows up at Number 4, and there's certainly something to cheer in the fact that Apollo Creed, a man who knows how to honor his country's 200th birthday, ends up winning at the end of the film. But if Rocky has aged well, it's because it makes strenuous efforts not to be a feel-good picture, instead knocking around a kind of Delaware Valley neo-realism leavened with offhand banter about shell-shocked turtles and taking retards to the zoo.

In fact, AFI shows a postmodern indifference to the actual content of many of its entries. This produces some interesting results: Where else could Erin Brockovich and Gunga Din end up as bunkmates (at 73 and 74 respectively)? Lawrence of Arabia clocks in at 30, a film that opens with its hero's meaningless death, ends with his ambiguous departure from the battlefield, and in between features both an extended segment of homoerotic torture in a Turkish army prison and an Arthur Kennedy performance that really drags down the film's second half. I don't know, maybe pointless death, sexually-charged torture, and ambiguous battlefield departures are what Americans find inspiring these days. If so, where is our Arthur Kennedy? And who exactly is cheering for The Bridge On the River Kwai, The Diary of Anne Frank, On Golden Pond, The Killing Fields, Silkwood, The Spirit of St. Louis, or Coal Miner's Daughter? Did the people voting even see these movies?

I called up Reason contributor A.S. Hamrah for some analysis of these mysteries. "Everyone knows this list is horseshit because the most inspiring film ever made is The Vikings," Hamrah said, "and number two is Showgirls. This is the only list where The Paper Chase and Fame could be next to each other, and it's supposed to be a list of good movies. And the most inspiring film is It's A Wonderful Life? That's a dark movie about a guy who realizes what a loser he is: He never even got out of his hometown, and he's suicidal because he realizes his life was pointless. But I do like how The Ten Commandments is one space above Babe: Where's your Moses now? He's right there with the pig. Should Moses even be that close to pork?"

If such ironies only heighten your confusion, here's something that will make sense. It's pretty clear that Hollywood still equates inspiration with prestige. A surprising number of pictures on the list lack even Shawshank's proven crowd-pleasing quality. Instead, they're socially conscious downers, message pictures, and other sorts of prestige films that people dutifully honored at the time and stopped caring about almost immediately. Stanley Kramer, king of the leaden message movie shows up three times, as producer and director. Sidney Poitier makes five separate, inspirational appearances. Even Martin Ritt clocks in with two entries (Sounder and Norma Rae) that will make you suspect that, in some collective, utilitarian way, blacklisting Ritt may have been in the best interest of society. Sidney Lumet, American cinema's most gifted purveyor of good-for-you heavy-osity, also turns out to be an able inspirer, with three entries (all of them deserved, in my view).

Such political works figure prominently in the list, and conservatives at odds with Hollywood's leftish bias will find little to please them here. Could we explain the over-representation of films made in 1993 as some kind of gassy expulsion of relief at the first year of Bill Clinton's presidency? Would any conservative be bold enough to protest the inclusion of The Best Years of Our Lives at Number 11? I wouldn't, because I think The Best Years of Our Lives is just jake, but consider the film's dramatic high point, Fredric March's stunning "collateral" speech (which you can view in Quicktime here, here and here). Who could observe this drunken plea for a massive increase in federally guaranteed spending and not wish Ayn Rand had gone through with her plan to denounce the film to HUAC?

There's an even more glaring point of contention between Hollywood and this nation's traditional values. If, like me, you only get really inspired by films whose titles feature phrases like "They came from beneath…" and "…has risen from the grave," you will notice the glaring absence of Jesus Christ from the list: no King of Kings, no Greatest Story Ever Told, no Passion or Temptation, not even The Ruling Class. (Maybe that last one doesn't count as American.) And forget about Song of Bernadette. Ben-Hur (Number 56) is the closest the list comes to any overt Christian inspiration. Is AFI telling us that Ruth Gordon is more inspiring than Jesus? (I agree! I agree!)

Few things are more discouraging than a failed attempt to win over a crowd. The AFI 100 lists continue to generate attention; this one got a flurry of press coverage and a CBS special I didn't watch. Nevertheless, the institute is operating on an outmoded model of the roles of audiences and cultural gatekeepers. If AFI focused on coming up with weirder and more offbeat categories, if it aimed not to be a steward of an acceptable canon but to get people participating with stuff they haven't seen before, the organization might do some good. Hollywood may be on the left politically, but it's remarkably conservative in the way it views its own product. Providing life support for a dying medium and haranguing audiences about the proper way to consume your product—that's a depressing spot to be in. Add up all 100 Cheers and you've got a pretty serious Demotivator.