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The reel thing - shadows of echoes of memories of songs — LiveJournal
The reel thing
I do not know enough about films.

I noticed this particularly while on holiday, as my travelling companion frequently tried to refer to films that she assumed I would have seen, and more and more I found myself apologising for being whatever the filmic equivalent of "poorly-read" is. ("Poorly-viewed" makes me think of frosted glass, and anyway, you know what I mean.) But it's something that happens quite often: people allude to films in the confident belief that they are accessing shared cultural reference points, and my only response is an unbecomingly blank look.

I'm also aware that often when I do watch films which everybody else has raved about, I feel as though I'm missing something. Obviously there are differences of taste, but with literature (and, in some genres, music) I feel as though I can make a critical judgement which satisfies me (I'm not particularly concerned whether other people's opinions differ) -- that is, I can say "I feel that I have read/heard and understood this and I am confident that my indifference to it or dislike of it is a matter of personal taste, rather than a sign that I am missing something which is central to appreciating it." (Goodness, that sounds arrogant. I don't mean it as such.)

Now I'm not really asking for recommendations of Wicked Cool Films You Like, because I've probably got enough of those to keep me going for the next 200 years, and unfortunately I'm only likely to live for another 60-odd of those. What I'm asking for is something slightly different: what films do you, O film-viewing people of my readership, regard as central to understanding film as a medium? Or, perhaps, which films are most central to the cultural consciousness of people in the English-speaking Western world[1]? What films would you be horrified to discover that somebody in my cultural context hadn't seen?

[1] I'm specifying this because one of my reasons for asking is that film is an area where, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, I feel like an outsider in my own culture. I feel as though there are swathes of cultural referents which I am entirely missing because I'm so lacking in filmic knowledge. For other cultures I'm happier to accept that I will lack a lot of shared reference points.

Yes, everybody's answers are going to differ. I'm not really interested in producing a definitive list; rather just seeing what people suggest. I'm also interested to know reasons for your choices -- a list of films without any explanation will tell me nothing if I haven't seen them, and won't motivate me to see them.

Does this rambly and multifaceted question make any sense?
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huskyteer From: huskyteer Date: October 7th, 2004 05:24 am (UTC) (Link)
I often find that 'classic' films leave me disappointed. Nonetheless I'm going to nominate the most classic classic of all time: Casablanca, because it's perfect. It's the right length, the sets and costumes are great, the dialogue just sizzles, and it's the best plot ever. After many viewings, I've conditioned myself to start crying as soon as the opening titles come up, to save time later.
huskyteer From: huskyteer Date: October 7th, 2004 06:47 am (UTC) (Link)
I should add that everyone knows the famous lines from Casablanca, but it's really worth putting them in context. And having seen a million spoofs won't spoil the original at all.
ms_saffie From: ms_saffie Date: October 7th, 2004 05:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Sorry for the random post. I would highly recommend 'The End of the Affair'. I don't know if you are discounting books-made-into-films, but... the lighting is incredible, the direction perceptive, the acting sympathetic to the script, the momentum is exquisite, and the dialogue is a breath-taking. There are a hundred an one reasons to see this film, and, from my limited experience, I think you'd appreciate it.
hairyears From: hairyears Date: October 7th, 2004 06:03 am (UTC) (Link)
Presumably the list needs one Western, one Romance, one 'Action' movie and one prewar Hollywood 'Classic'.

Have you been told you ought to see 'The Princess Bride', or is it just me?
j4 From: j4 Date: October 7th, 2004 06:27 am (UTC) (Link)
Presumably the list needs one Western, one Romance, one 'Action' movie and one prewar Hollywood 'Classic'.

Does it? See, this is the other thing, I don't really know what genres apply to films. Also, when I read literature, I know enough about the conventions of various genres to see when/how certain books are playing with the 'rules' of that genre; with films I don't think I really have that knowledge.

'The Princess Bride'

I've seen it. I thought it was good -- clever & funny, definitely worth seeing once -- but not as life-changing as some people seem to think.
mobbsy From: mobbsy Date: October 7th, 2004 06:12 am (UTC) (Link)
I'll mention directors rather than films, as one might mention authors rather than individual works, incomplete and in no particular order:
Fritz Lang
Jean Luc Goddard
Akira Kurosawa
Sergei Eisenstein
Alfred Hitchcock
Ingmar Bergman
Federico Fellini
Roman Polanski
Sergio Leone
j4 From: j4 Date: October 7th, 2004 06:39 am (UTC) (Link)
If I was mentioning authors I'd probably give a couple of examples -- an idea of which works are 'classic', which are particularly good, which are a bad place to start if you haven't read anything else by that author, etc... Also I'd try to say what makes those particular authors so central, so influential -- did they inspire a lot of imitators? Or do things so differently that they changed the whole face of the genre/medium? Did they capture the zeitgeist? (Moo!) Or what?

Which is, of course, just a roundabout way of saying that I would not be able to name a single film by any of those directors except Hitchcock (I've seen 'The Birds' and 'Marnie') and possibly Bergman (didn't he do 'The Seventh Seal'? I haven't seen it, though). I've heard of most of them, but most of the time I have literally no idea who directed anything.

(And yes, I'm ashamed of this; I feel as though I'm doing the moral equivalent of not being able to name a play by Shakespeare or a novel by Dickens, or of only being able to refer to pieces of music as 'the one on the jeans advert' or 'the one that goes da-da-da-dummm'.)

I suppose one answer is that I should Just Fucking Google It, but I'm also interested in hearing ideas/opinions from people I actually know, partly because that way I'll learn something about them as well, and partly because I have more of a jumping-off-point for understanding the film if I know why somebody-whose-context-I-already-know-a-little-about rates it.

Of course, I realise that this is basically asking people to write essays on film which they don't have time for... so will understand if they don't want to.
vinaigrettegirl From: vinaigrettegirl Date: October 7th, 2004 06:25 am (UTC) (Link)


As a nonfilm person myself, I would recommend The Heart in Winter [Le Coeur en Hiver], because it is stunningly well-composed and its use of colour, tempo, and visual effect in support of the plot and characterisation is masterly and unobtrusive.

I am immensely fond of Mikrocosmos for its filming and humour (3 years in a French meadow, filmed mostly as close-up work), The Lavender Hill Mob, anything by Buster Keaton, and the older version of Arsenic and Old Lace, which uses (IIRC) a very young Gregory Peck, and Peter Lorre as a wicked sub-figure, whose utterance - a lie, obviously - of the words "Heidelberg, 1919" as an answer to "where'd you get your medical degree?" was so masterly that I can hear it in my mind's ear even now.

I gather that the car chase scene in a famous film (name escapes me) starring Gene Hackman is worth viewing: I have no stomach for violence in film and walked out of Braveheart in a state of wretched sickness after ten minutes.

It may be that this is why I also feel an outsider in my own culture: I lack the referents because so many of them are essentially violent.

Films you haven't seen which you "ought" to see? Well, The African Queen (Hepburn, Bogart); at least one Clint Eastwood Western and one John Huston Western; one with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for perfect, perfect footwork and sheer professionalism; Singin' in the Rain, a Perfect Film for its costumes, actors, settings, camera angles, composition, and pace.


I like the films I do like because they are not archly manipulative and self-conscious; I loathe being manipulated and bullied, visually or through action and dialogue.
j4 From: j4 Date: October 7th, 2004 06:55 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: flimsies

Despite being a non-film person I have actually seen Le Coeur en Hiver in French. I'd like to see it in English, because even in French I enjoyed it (though I know I missed a lot of nuances and details).

Gene Hackman, car chases - Google suggests you're thinking of The French Connection, is that what you had in mind? I confess I wouldn't know Gene Hackman from a hole in the wall.

no stomach for violence in film

OOI, graphic violence, or implied violence as well? (FWIW I don't particularly care for it but it's not something that would put me off seeing a film if I believed it had other things that made it worth seeing -- I can't think of any violence I've seen in films where I haven't read worse in books, and books tend to affect me more.)

Singing in the Rain

Hurrah - I've seen that several times, it's one of my favourite films! So obviously I'm doing something right. :)

Interesting point about manipulativeness in films. I do sometimes enjoy self-consciousness and arch manipulativeness in the arts, and in other contexts ... I guess for me it's partly about consciously choosing to be manipulated in an interesting way by people I trust or otherwise in a 'safe' context (if a book is manipulating me I can put it down, if a film is manipulating me I can hit 'stop'). But that's another issue, or rather another can-of-worms-shaped bag of issues; food for thought (cans of worms are sometimes a healthy mental snack) nonetheless.
addedentry From: addedentry Date: October 7th, 2004 06:27 am (UTC) (Link)

Let's play Humiliation

Bambi and Citizen Kane, apparently; but you don't need to watch them, you just need to know that Rosebud's mother dies, or something.
geekette8 From: geekette8 Date: October 7th, 2004 07:01 am (UTC) (Link)
Does this rambly and multifaceted question make any sense?

Yes, a lot.

I felt a lot like this - I had literally only seen about 5 films in my entire life - when I started at University. DH (who was then only DBF of course) was horrified to discover this and began a single handed effort to educate me on the world of films, using the rather limited resources of the college TV room and the best that Blockbusters had to offer.

Telling you the list of films he showed me is probably NOT the most useful thing, since that list is biassed towards his / my tastes and generally probably isn't terribly helpful.

I would say that the best way for you to get an idea of the cultural context would be to visit the Internet Movie Database, and specifically The Top Lists. Linked from that page you will find
a) The Top-Grossing Movies of all Time and
b) The Top 250 Movies of All Time (as rated by IMDB users) as well as a handy list of genres.
Anything that ends up on both lists is probably worth seeing.

Over time, as you experience more different films, you start to get an idea of the things that make a film good (to you).

I also recommend watching as many of the films as possible on DVD and watching the Director's Commentary (preferably after watching the film "au naturel" first). I have learnt a HECK of a lot about films and film making that way, and as a result started to notice more about the techniques and so on. It might be stuff like "This scene is obviously an homage to Foo Bar" so then you can go and check out who/what Foo Bar is/was, or it might be stuff like "This is another example of the recurring motif of people looking out through windows in this film, which was meant to signify [blah blah blah]". I found Directors' Commentaries very eye-opening and there were some films where I watched them once, watched the Director's Commentary, and then watched the film again in its entirety now that I had an additional layer of knowledge/understanding about it.

Of course after spending ~10 years of kid-free life going to the cinema pretty much every weekend, and also watching films on video/DVD during the week, and then spending large parts of my year of maternity leave sitting watching videos/DVDs while Matthew fed or snoozed in my lap, since going back to work I now have basically zero time to keep up with films, which is a bit of a shame but just one of those things up with which we have to put :-)

I'm also aware that often when I do watch films which everybody else has raved about, I feel as though I'm missing something.

Oh yes, I also wanted to add that in general, I often find I don't like or don't feel I "get" films that everyone says are brilliant. The Shawshank Redemption had me bored to tears, for example. I don't think it's necessarily a sign that I'm missing something - just a difference in tastes.

Anyway. Sorry this answer turned out so long. I hope it helped somewhat!
burkesworks From: burkesworks Date: October 7th, 2004 09:38 am (UTC) (Link)
> The Shawshank Redemption had me bored to tears, for example.

Hooray! Someone else who believes the emperor has no clothes on. Despite more than adequate acting by Tim Robbins and especially Morgan Freeman, a plodding, downright obvious script and hacky direction by Frank Darabont doesn't raise it from the ho-hum.
bopeepsheep From: bopeepsheep Date: October 7th, 2004 07:17 am (UTC) (Link)
I think it's hard to separate "you should see this [because it's technically/artistically fantastic]" and "you should see this [because everyone else has so it's part of some wider body of knowledge now (FVSO everyone else)]" and "you should see this [because it will speak to you specifically, Janet, at this point in time and space]" and "you should see this [because I think it's a good way to spend two hours]".

That said, I think I'd suggest: Casablanca, if only because it filters into so many other things, it's almost the equivalent of Shakespeare in intertextual terms now; Cinema Paradiso because it explains why (some) film lovers love film in the way they do [warning: subtitles]; Memento because it subverts narrative lines beautifully, it's very clever and quite gripping; Some Like It Hot for similar reasons to Casablanca and also because it's just genuinely funny; Amadeus because it's beautifully shot and orchestrated and an interesting story (Schaffer text gives it a headstart too); Monsters Inc. because it will make you laugh and it's "cuddly"; 10 Things I Hate About You because Shakespeare adaptations work well with cute teens; Kiss Me Kate, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, West Side Story, Singing In The Rain, Meet Me In St Louis, My Fair Lady because musicals are great fun for rainy Sunday afternoons - no one can be miserable with a musical (even one that ends in Bleak Despairing Death). Add some classic Ealing comedy, Clerks or Mallrats, some John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, perhaps)... I could go on for too long so I'll stop there.
j4 From: j4 Date: October 7th, 2004 10:06 am (UTC) (Link)
Agreed about it being hard to separate the different motives. Although:

"you should see this [because I think it's a good way to spend two hours]"

Watching a film is rarely something that occurs to me as a good way to spend two hours -- I think possibly because I can't do anything else while I'm doing it, and I'm used to reading while cooking, listening to music while reading, etc. etc.

Thank you for all the suggestions and reasons.

Should point out that I've already seen a lot of the musicals (WSS, SitR, MMISL, MFL) and I love musicals in general -- I admit somewhat sheepishly that The Sound of Music is one of my all-time favourites, and I even have a soft spot for Brigadoon, painted scenery and all. :) And then there's The Wizard of Oz, and the hilarious film of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (with Zero Mostel and Michael Crawford and probably lots of other famous people), and Showboat, and The Desert Song, and, and.

(And I am a complete sucker for Glorious Technicolor.)
rysmiel From: rysmiel Date: October 7th, 2004 07:19 am (UTC) (Link)
Central to understanding film as a medium ? Nice question.

Casablanca definitely. I'm vacillating on Citizen Kane, because although an inordinate number of things were invented in it, their significance would to my mind be diminished by an avowed intent not to go out and watch the couple of hundred things that lean on it. Part of me wants to send you back to all the sources, Metropolis and the original Nosferatu and a whole bunch of cool German Expressionist stuff, but again, finitude gets in the way.

Something by Kubrick, definitely; if only one, 2001 but only if you can get it on a big screen, it is very much not worth seeing on TV. Dr. Strangelove doesn't have so much of this problem.

Modern Times.

Some Like It Hot.

Something by Woody Allen, I think, most likely Bullets over Broadway.

The Usual Suspects.

And, for a couple of recent recommendations, Amelie, Fight Club modulo whether you're OK with some fairly harsh bare-knuckle boxing, and Being John Malkovich. I could go on and on about various excellent films that do great things at lots of other levels, but these three, to me, are really pushing at the limits of the medium and redefining what can be done with film qua film, rather than telling stories that would work just as well in other media.
rysmiel From: rysmiel Date: October 7th, 2004 07:25 am (UTC) (Link)
I just said qua in a sentence. Damn, I'm undercaffeinated. Hope that post doesn't come out as way the hell pretentious.

There's also piles of Significant Stuff I've not seen. Still not managed to get a crack at Sergio Leone, frex, or any Kurosawa except Ran. I'm basically waiting for the local arthouse cinemas to do seasons of them at some point when I am actually in town, which I've managed to miss twice in the past three years, but which will come round again.

Oh, and if only one film could be saved to represent the whole medium, my choice would be Jesus de Montreal. I'm not sure you could call it central to the understanding of the medium, but it epitomises several of the best things the medium can do.
livredor From: livredor Date: October 7th, 2004 07:24 am (UTC) (Link)
I really wish I'd written this post, because it perfectly explains something that I've been trying to say about myself for ages. Unfortunately, being in the same situation as you I'm the last person to be able to help you with this question. But I'll be bookmarking it to check what answers you get.
j4 From: j4 Date: October 7th, 2004 10:12 am (UTC) (Link)
it perfectly explains something that I've been trying to say about myself for ages

Coo. In that case I'm glad I got round to writing it!
dorianegray From: dorianegray Date: October 7th, 2004 07:30 am (UTC) (Link)
I am not really much of a film person either, and I have a penchant for the German silents which makes people look at me funny, but here goes anyway...

"Some Like it Hot" - Marilyn Monroe movie, very funny (I thought) with cross-dressing.
"The Last Action Hero" - again appealed to my sense of humour; Arnold Schwarzenegger taking the piss out of his own movies.
Lots of people have said "Casablanca"; I add my vote.
"Star Wars" - the original trlogy. Don't bother with the new ones.
"Clueless" - based on Jane Austen's "Emma", but in a Valley Girl setting.
juggzy From: juggzy Date: October 7th, 2004 10:29 am (UTC) (Link)
Clueless is one of the very good films of the early eighties/late nineties (there I go, passing absolute judgement). It doesn't aspire to be anything than a very funny High School story with an edge, and is beautifully light, treating it's subject matter with affection as much as anything. Ten things I Hate About You is a later film with very much the same film - and interestingly, both of them were based on 'classic' English lit - Clueless on Pride and Prejudice and Ten things on The Taming of The Shrew.
oldbloke From: oldbloke Date: October 7th, 2004 07:40 am (UTC) (Link)
Back in the Good Old Days when there were only two TV channels (I vaguely recall there only being one, once, I think), you could pretty much rely on almost everybody having seen certain programmes. Not any more! Sometimes I think I'm the only person who saw Small Potatoes...

As for what films to see to understand film as a medium, it's no good asking me. I mostly go for ActionAdventureBullshit. I believe some people think Blade Runner is iconic in certain cinematic respects - I just lay back and enjoyed it.
imc From: imc Date: October 7th, 2004 07:56 am (UTC) (Link)

Small Potatoes

Was on Paramount late night on weekends a while back, so we've seen bits of it.

Don't remember a great lot about it, but it had Omid Djalili in it so it can't have been bad.
From: vatine Date: October 7th, 2004 08:43 am (UTC) (Link)
Off-hand, Bergman's /The seventh Seal/ because it's so damned influential (ever seen Death play chess, that's where it comes from, as an example).

Hitchcock, for similar reasons (lots of things nab small things from his films).

Chaplin films, at least one or two. They're also referenced in quite a few works (more film than literature, though).

I'd also recommend seeing the occasional "French Artsy" film. They tend to explore the limits of the medium somewhat more than the general Hollywood stuff.
vinaigrettegirl From: vinaigrettegirl Date: October 7th, 2004 01:11 pm (UTC) (Link)

death and chess

Mediaeval imagery brought to life - yay, Bergman.
burkesworks From: burkesworks Date: October 7th, 2004 09:33 am (UTC) (Link)
Two words. Luis Bunuel, the greatest film director that ever drew breath.
arnhem From: arnhem Date: October 7th, 2004 09:53 am (UTC) (Link)
A niche area (but I think quite a good one) that I don't think anyone else has touched on: either "Trust" or "The unbelievable truth", both directed by Hal Hartley. They both seem to define a particular style of "hyper-real" US cinema that briefly appeared in the early 1990's. They're also both funny and moving, and beautifully crafted.

I have a feeling that you could include "sex, lies and videotape" in the same general grouping; it rings many of the same bells in my memory of how things felt, even though I can remember few details of any of the three after this long.
arnhem From: arnhem Date: October 7th, 2004 04:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
And in a slightly different area, Peter Greenaway, particularly Drowning by Numbers.
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