Let's begin with a fundamental fact: lists are bullshit. Lists are such blatant bullshit that any magazine person will admit to you that they're bullshit. Some might need to have had a couple of drinks first, others might be more effectively cajoled by having you complain for the millionth time in the course of a conversation about how your own favorite cultural artifact was left off some list or another, but they'll admit it. Furthermore, even lists purportedly based on data and research and objective standards are, at some level, bullshit. That U.S. News and World Report annual list of America's best colleges? Guess what.
Another thing: the bigger and more putatively comprehensive the list, the greater the intensity of bullshit. I should compare this to decibel measurement, wherein each individual decibel represents ten times worth of increase. This is worth remembering when considering that Entertainment Weekly's June 27/July 4 double issue, "The New Classics," purports to present "The 1000 best movies, TV shows, albums, books and more of the last 25 years."
But let's not get ahead of ourselves quite yet. "Glenn," I hear you asking, "if lists are such bullshit, why do magazines and websites do them almost all the frickin' time?"
Well, because lists are putatively "fun." People notice them, argue about them. They take them fairly seriously, pretty much regardless of what their sources are...oddly enough. For a magazine in particular, a list is a potential goldmine of publicity. It gets your product noticed. TV news, radio outlets, they LOVE lists.
Lists are also, in case you're interested, real bears to put together. I say this as someone who, at Premiere, had a hand in a whole bunch of listy features—"The 100 Greatest Movie Lines of All Time," "The 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time," "The 50 Greatest Movie Posters of All Time," "The Ten Greatest Movie Toenail Clippings of All Time," what have you. (One of my most memorable media moments was going on CNN to talk up a "10 Greatest Sex Scenes of All Time" list, which, being Premiere's resident sex expert, I both curated and wrote solo. Operating on the principle that the brain is the most potent erogenous zone, I picked several scenes in which no sex actually occurs, or is depicted—Blow Up's erotic photo session pas de deux was #1, Belle de Jour's buzzing box was in there. My interlocuter for the session was the then-rising star Anderson Cooper. First thing out of his mouth: "How come there are so many old movies on this list?") I won't walk you through the process, but I imagine you can imagine. I'll just say that, as I read Thom Geier wax thusly in the general introduction to the EW double issue:
As the famously cantankerous Yale professor Harold Bloom notes in The Western Canon, "Contemporary writers do not like to be told that they must compete with Shakespeare and Dante." But these days, the Bard and Beethoven must compete with living artists, too: with Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson...
...I dearly wished he hadn't gone there (and indeed, if we were to truly try to take apart all the foul received notions of culture lurking in those mere 49 words, we'd be here all night), but, BUT, I understood why he did—you need to do a lot of reaching to produce anything that's not already list-intro boilerplate these days.
The need to be different—to distinguish your list from other lists—seems to drive a fair number of the choices here. You think Leah Greenblatt really means it when she says "Never mind Nevermind" at the beginning of the entry for Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York, #11 on the music list? Unless you're a devoted, hidebound subscriber to the prog school, to do a ranking of the 100 best (pop) albums from 1983 on and not just leave off Nevermind but actually dismiss it is an act of either insanity or deliberate calculation. I'm voting for the latter. What it most certainly is not is an expression of any kind of individual sensibility. (N.B., lists that do express an individual sensibility tend to be the most bullshit-free kind; Jonathan Rosenbaum's alternative canon in his book Essential Cinema, for instance.) It's the expression of a carefully calibrated corporate sensibility, in which even the curveballs are likely bereft of genuine quirk. And until we're in a socialist world, media professionals who want to actually make a living are going to have to hew, to one extent or another, to a corporate standard. (In case you believe I'm counting on the actual coming of an actual socialist world, incidentally, calm down. I haven't listened to a single Henry Cow record today. Really.)
Every magazine has to determine, not just at one point in its existence but over and over again, the extent to which it is going to toggle between flattering and challenging its readership. This applies as much to Cinemascope as it does to Entertainment Weekly, believe it or not. And for whatever reason—and I suppose we could all guess at more than one—with its "New Classics" issue, for whatever putatively unpredictable choices it offers up, EW falls squarely into the flattery end of things. For its movie list (you were wondering when I was gonna get to that, huh?), the magazine's ballsiest move is giving Lynch's Blue Velvet the #4 spot. But the choice to avoid even perceived challenge at some point leads to actual insult. Put it this way: let's say you, the English-speaking reader of Entertainment Weekly, don't have much use for foreign language films. But that you are, improbably enough but nonetheless, otherwise a reasonably literate, well-informed individual with solidly mainstream tastes. That being the case, what do you make of the proposition that out of every single film released between 1983 and 2008, a mere six foreign language pictures are good enough to be placed in a ranking of the "best" ("most brilliant, outrageous, inspiring, addictive, hilarious, life-changing Classics," as per the art-director-imposed issue-opening spread) one hundred?
Any actually fair-minded individual would have to accept that it is a thoroughly, deeply, absurd, indefensible, proposition. For the record, the six on the EW list are, in ascending numerical order, In the Mood For Love, #98; Y Tu Mama Tambien, #85; All About My Mother, #69; The Lives of Others, #56 (right behind Risky Business!); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, #49; Wings of Desire, #28. America still hates the French, apparently.
Like I said, lists are bullshit. Then again, they sell magazines, start conversations, inspire lengthy blog posts.
UPDATE: My friend Joseph Failla chimes in:
We've spoken about the importance of making film lists when you were doing them for Premiere. I remember you had to fight to get a number of personal choices listed, which couldn't have been easy when these things are done by commitee. The evening news did a story on Premiere's "100 Greatest Movie Stars" and asked people on the street who they thought #1 would be. When they announced it was Cary Grant, most of the reactions seemed disappointed and confused but as you say, lists are created to stir things up.
I was always surprised by how seriously my customers took the AFI listings [Joe ran the DVD section at Tower Video in Paramus], even though I explained they were made to stimulate sales as they were restricted to titles only available on video. I think people like to have these things broken down for them and then enjoy arguing about the results.
I've been particuarly upset by the suggestion of updating classic film lists by saying Citizen Kane has lost its importance among today's movie fans. I can't see how Kane can ever lose it's relevance. At first I didn't take these calls to de-throne Kane seriously but after reading some of the notions of film critics you've taken exception with online, I'm no longer so sure these thoughts aren't out there. Replacing Kane with, let's say, The Godfather because more people today are familiar with it, is truly nonsensical.
When Roger Ebert was questioned what was the greatest film of all time, he said it had to be Kane. The reporter didn't seem satisfied and tried to get Ebert to be more imaginative. Ebert countered, "I'd still have to go with Kane." So say what we will about some of Ebert's more questionable opinions, at least he sticks to his guns and won't be replacing Kane, Welles, Toland, Herrmann, Mankiewicz or any of their contributions anytime soon.
All my observations about lists aside, I am rather proud to say that as far as that Premiere "100 Greatest Movie Stars" package was concerned, the choice of Cary Grant for the top spot was an absolutely unanimous and instantaneous one. Which is one reason that I miss the magazine, and my colleagues, as much as I do.