Sometimes talking about talking about movies can be as fascinating as actually discussing movies. That’s why I’ve followed with interest the crisis of identity that has gripped film criticism of late. What’s interesting, however is to hear Donald Clarke of The Irish Times complaining about the Internet Movie Database Top 250 Films of All Time:
The performance of Inception highlights the most serious problem with this list. Like most such sites, IMDb receives contributions from a disproportionately high number of teenage boys. If you doubt this, look at the ratings for the Twilight films. I know that most critics are less keen on the teen vampire pictures than I am, but the appalling ratings for the pictures on IMDb speak of a spotty allergy to “gurl’s fillums”. Such boys idolise Nolan and — crucially — know how to put together internet campaigns.
I’m kinda wondering though, what exactly is Mister Clarke arguing against? When did any film ranking become an objective exercise that needs to be treated like “serious business”?
Was there a top secret meeting of film-minded individuals some time in recent history wherein we all unanimously decided to adopt an open internet poll as a true barometre of a movie’s quality? If so, why was I not informed? I’ve been carrying on the old party line that “a list is a list is a list”. Film certainly isn’t objective (at best, any opinion is a crude generalisation), and any attempt to find the top 250 films of all time must be a personal one. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one definitive “top 10 films of all time” list, and that’s the one I keep safe in my noggin. Yes, I said “noggin” – because that’s the last obscure euphemism for “head” where anyone would bother look for it. I’m sure most of you feel the same way about your own top 10 – the only opinion that really matters is your own.
The Internet Movie Database is great. That’s why I love it. If I need to know – like really “need” – whether the talking telephone in Toy Story 3 was played by Willem Dafoe, I can look it up. (He wasn’t, though he sounds uncanny – it was the director of the Night & Day short beforehand.) If I’m jonesing bad for a Christopher Walken fix, the IMdB can recommend one or two of his films that I haven’t seen. If I need to feed my trivia monster and tell you that Indiana Jones’ most iconic scene was the result of a case of the trots, well… you know the story.
But IMDb is more than that. It’s a community for movie nerds. It sparks debates and discussions, offers a forum of voicing opinions. Hell, users can rank movies out of ten. I’ll admit, I do factor that in when deciding what to watch on a weeknight with the family. I’ll also factor in Rotten Tomatoes, maybe MetaScore and perhaps even one or two individual critics (and the blogging consensus, of course). The logic being that I haven’t seen it, so I’ll get the opinions of those who have in order to decide if it’s worth my time. Once I have seen it, that score might as well be 10 or 0, because I have my own damn opinion now.
And it’s most objective, the ranking allows you justify somehow throwing around generalisations like “cult classic”, “beloved indie”, “highly popular” or “well regarded” – although in most cases that observation doesn’t need justification from the list. Certainly if I wanted to describe Star Wars as a “science fiction masterpiece”, nobody who questions me is going to retract their statement when I say they’ve got it on the list. Similarly, I’d use the term for any number of films absent from the list. Similarly, if I wanted to call TRON, a film not on the list (by a significant margin) “a cult science fiction classic”, I doubt anyone would object too strenuously. I just did, so live with it.
Now, you might argue that this chart — created, as it is by real people — has more worth than, say, the British Film Institute’s venerable list of the greatest ever films. Well, yes and no. The BFI does vet its contributors and the voting procedure is nice and public. By way of contrast, though IMDb does employ a formula that attempts to root out lunatics, concerted campaigns still have an effect on the site’s final table.
In fairness, that’s a little bit of a lopsided argument. No matter which way you filter contributors, you’re going to have a problem with bias. Like it or lump it, the members of the BFI (for example) are hardly going to be representative of the general public. Of course, by way of contrast, the Internet Movie Database has its own foibles, through its basic structure: it favours those with internet or computer access, for instance (which is, stereotypically, a younger audience) and those who care enough to bother voting at all. Arguing as to which approach is “better” is like arguing whether apples are better than oranges. IMDb offers a more “open” forum – just about anyone can contribute. It’s about as “open” as you can make the voting procedure and as populist as you can claim to be without individually polling every person on the planet to compile a definitive list. This approach has its own drawbacks and perks, just as a list compiled by “experts” has.
It’s fascinating, though, how aggressively one can criticise a list like this. I think that anyone will concede that there are several “crazy” entries on the list (but, of course, what those entries are will vary from person-to-person to one degree or another). And those differences spark discussion and debate, which is arguably the only real benefit of publishing a list like this. However, it seems a little mean to launch ad hominem attacks on the voters themselves:
Unusually, there are, this week, two current films in the top 10. Toy Story 3 appears at number eight. Inception makes it into number three. Nolan’s dream-invasion thriller is a decent piece of work, but I defy anybody to offer a lucid argument for it deserving a place this high in a list of world’s greatest films. The Nolanistas are out in force again.
These aren’t exactly arguments that lend themselves to being disproved. In fact, I agree that Inception’s high ranking was due to a wave of fanboy-ish enthusiasm, the same one which propelled The Dark Knight straight to #1 two years ago. And, to be honest, sparked the same sort of introspective look at the IMDb, with the somewhat similar whiff of melodrama in the air:
I’ve no axe to grind against The Dark Knight, but it has achieved a rare degree of publicity hysteria, by accident and by design. Chances are, The Godfather will regain its top position at IMDB after Dark Knight mania dies down and we move on to the next big comic book movie. If it doesn’t, though, perhaps it’s time to ask, “Is the imdb top 250 still the greatest movie chart of all time?”
When was it agreed that the Top 250 was “the greatest movie chart of all time”? And, even if was accepted as such, isn’t rejecting a system because it gave you an answer you didn’t want a very flawed way of finding a perfect mechanism. Surely “it can only be perfect if it agrees with me” is a flawed starting point?
However, it should be noted that time is the great equaliser when it comes to modern films immediately gaining high rankings upon release:
The ability to hold a place in people’s memories over a long period of time constitutes more than a quick fix of movie awesomeness. The term “instant classic” has become all too commonly used, and frankly, is as meaningless as those one-word blurbs you see in movie in trailers, like “awesome” or “incredible.” So, the instant classic flaw people are so quick to point out seems to work itself out on IMDb’s list every few weeks, like a moon cycling around.
I’m fascinated by a fairly basic assumption which seems so common place that it’s seldom even articulated. The notion that the list is somehow invalid because it displays a clear preference for newer films over older. Indeed, in noting the while the American Film Institutes 100 Years, 100 Movies list was something of “bell curve” in contrast to the more “wavy” form of the IMDb’s list, the notion that the latter’s preference to films released in the last 20 years is somehow self-evident proof that the list is inherently flawed:
That’s no bell curve. The trend definitely shoots upward starting around 1990 and continues through the current decade. How could this be? Isn’t this the era of Not Another Teen Movie and Pearl Harbor? Isn’t this the time when Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay unleashed their celluloid crap onto the masses? Why, yes it is, but it’s also the time of the fanboy, that over-exuberant, internet-savvy, slavishly devoted fan who comes home from the midnight screening and *ZAP!* fires away a 10 star salute to the work of incredible genius that he just saw. Why else would The Dark Night [sic] be the Number Four Greatest Movie of All Time according to this? For a few weeks after its initial release, it was even ranked Number One, over longtime favorites The Shawshank Redemption and The Godfather.
This sort of argument is interesting, because it assumes that modern films are inherently worse than their earlier counterparts. Personally, I believe that ninety percent of everything is, was and always will be crap – and we tend to forget that there were undoubtedly more than a few clunkers in the thirties and forties. But, truth be told, if you asked the random person in the street – not a film critic, not a fanboy, not a blogger – what their favourite films are, I reckon there would be a clear statistical leaning towards the modern films. After all, how many people do you know refuse to watch a black and white film, even on principle? There was an interesting case over at the rather brilliant Anomalous Material, where their quest to find the best comedy ever showed a clear bias against classic films.
Even from personal experience, when I was watching The Mist with my gran, my aunt insisted that I change to the coloured version rather than the black-and-white director’s version. The same with silent films.
I’m not making an argument as to whether modern films are “worse, better or as good as” the golden oldies, as I think that objectively arguing over the quality of a film is somewhat pointless. I am more suggesting that the IMDb list is more reflective of popular taste than most give it credit for. I accept the influence that fanboys have on the ranking, but fanboys are such a fickle group that – experience has taught us – they will spend as much time fighting amongst themselves as organising a solidarity campaign. Yes, I have a lot of hatred for that “fanboy” mentality. However, such on-line groups are predictable and, as the Wall-E “fiasco” demonstrated, every action has an equal and opposite reaction:
The howling backwoods that is IMDB.com is where film criticism goes to die (and then have its corpse gang-raped, called a racist, and accused of supporting Al-Qaeda), but it’s amazing how much stock people still place in its ranking system. Right now WALL-E‘s message board is overrun with commenters aghast at the film’s high placement on the completely meaningless and arbitrary Top 250 Films, which compiles numerical “votes” to paint a topsy-turvy world where Se7en far outranks Citizen Kane, Vertigo, M, and Chinatown, to name but a few, and The Shawshank Redemption is second only to The Godfather. Last week, WALL-E edged out Schindler’s List, cracking the top six and sending users into a frenzy: Seeking to counteract all of the “10” votes, many people have been encouraging others to rate the film a “1” out of pure spite, setting off a storm of controversy on the message board that rivals only those ever-popular “Maggie Gyllenhaal is a terrorist!” threads for utter pointlessness. The film has since dropped down to number 19, a fact many of its detractors are now gloating over as though that indicates a shift in the public opinion towards rationality.
Indeed, even Donald Clarke’s criticism of the highest-ranked black-and-white film is argued as an attack on those voting for it, rather than a discussion of the film itself. He suggests that 12 Angry Men just about hangs on to its high ranking because it’s the only black and white film that the unwashed masses have watched (because they were forced to, no less):
An American pal of mine did, eventually, offer a possible explanation for this (overseas readers can confirm or deny). He claims that American kids are often shown Lumet’s film in school as part of their civics lessons. It explains the judicial system and it argues for the virtues of a liberal democracy. 12 Angry Men is, thus, for many US kids, the only “old film” they’ve ever seen. Sounds plausible.
I’m not convinced of the fact that 12 Angry Men seems to have won its place in our hearts and minds by default. Even among Irish people – whose black-and-white experience in school seems to be To Kill a Mockingbird or Hamlet by default – 12 Angry Men still has a special place in the heart of people. Similarly, I honestly don’t think that too many “regular people” (including friends, family and work colleagues) would object to “a bit of Tarantino. Some Spielberg.”
Indeed, even the harshest critic of the list will grudgingly admit that the Top 250 does contain a wider sampling than most of it’s more vocal critics would have you believe:
- Unlike the movie-going public in general the IMDB voters are not afraid of subtitles with several dozen completely or largely subtitled movies populating the list.
- Silent films are still holding on with a respectable seven titles making an appearance, although I think one mention, The General (135), is not nearly enough for the great Buster Keaton and you should all take a moment to throw some tens his way if you haven’t already.
Credit where credit’s due, that’s reasonably representative, if somewhat flawed. It’s not all Kick-Ass and V for Vendetta, now, is it?
And I’m not even sure the “fanboy” argument holds up. Donald Clarke bases his assumption on the young male demographic’s dominance of the IMDb off the fact that the Twilight films have an abysmally low rating. I know lots of non-young and non-male people (to phrase it politically correctly) who detest those movies as much as I do. But, even if it is, I don’t think it’s fair to blame IMDb for those who participate. The best feature of their list is that anyone can vote. It is as “open” as it is possible for such a poll to be. I don’t think any demographic is “locked out” or “disengaged” from it, it’s just that they choose not to participate. I don’t necessarily buy that just because one group engages more with a poll is a reason to question the validity of the poll altogether (particularly when there are no bars on participation).
There are legitimate arguments against the IMDb list, but you could just as easily launch the same sort of arguments against any list ever. When dealing with lists from prestigious institutions, for example, you could argue there’s an academic bias towards certain films, or a culture of reverence around the classics that will not allow new films to flourish. You could argue that lists by people who study film academically, or lists by people who write about film, or lists by people who watch films for their own entertainment are fundamentally different.
Hell, we have this same argument every year when Oscar season comes around. Hell, I’ll openly admit I’m still a little bitter that patronisingly apologetic The Reader was deemed a film more deserving of a nomination than The Dark Knight – even though I know I should just build a bridge and get over it.
Still, the IMDb seems to come into more criticism than most. I suppose it’s only fair – the anti-populist arguments make a fitting counterpoint to the anti-establishment rants and raves we all have at Oscar time. Still, I admire what they’ve done because, like any list, it does spark discussion and debate. It gets you thinking. And, at it’s very best, it leads to things like this (a wonderful artistic project).
But let’s not take it too seriously, because (and this sounds weird coming from a blogger) they’re only movies. Man, that felt weird to say. But sometimes I forget it. I don’t mean that in a patronising way, or in a way that devalues them – but movies only really matter in the impact that they have on us or in the emotions that they draw from us. You can of course make the point that some films have a cultural impact which stems beyond personal experience – you can add any objective barometre you want (the “first” to do anything, awards, box office, you name it) – but most of a film’s significance (to us) comes from what we ourselves think of a film, rather than what others think.
Which is why I will never let anybody try to convince me Demolition Man is a bad film.
Filed under: Movies Tagged: | 100 years 100 films, afi, bfi, classic films, classics, donald clarke, films, imdb, Inception, irish times, Movies, polls, the internet movie database, top 250 films of all time, toy story 3, voting