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We’re approaching a full year of pandemic lockdown, barely leaving the house except to restock the larder. But at least the house is full of books, music and DVDs. It would take more than a single year to run out. 

But it puts me in mind of the old cliche: What book would you take to a desert island? It’s a silly question, really. If you are stranded on a desert island, a source of fresh water is a need infinitely more immediate than a good read. But even if we take it as simply a trope, the answers people give are seldom very satisfying. Most list a book they enjoy, which is fine, except that you can only read most of those books once, maybe twice, before they grow stale. 

No, the trick is to find a book that can reward multiple re-readings. And the same for “desert island music” or “desert island movies” (ignoring the problem of finding a DVD player in the middle of the Pacific, or the electrical outlet to plug it into.) Just picking favorites is a sucker’s game. How long would it take before listening to Stairway to Heaven for the hundredth or thousandth time to reduce you to a gibbering idiot? 

So, I set to make a list of things that could reward many traversals. This is, of course, a game and is utterly meaningless — but then most fun is. I task each of you to find a list of your own of things you could stand listening to, re-reading, or re-watching for endless times. I’m going to present my choices as they would an awards show: nominees and winners. 

Desert Island book

The sign of any good book is its re-readability. But even some of the best have just so much to offer. Madame Bovary is a great book, but once you’ve unwrapped its meaning, you are finished — unless you can read it in French and can unpack its verbal brilliance. I’ve seen many desert-island lists that offer things like Harry Potter books or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. And no knock on them as good reads, they aren’t books you can marry for the long haul. 

My nominees for Desert Island Book are:

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. This may be the best novel I have ever read, full of people who are so real they seem not to be characters in a book, but transcriptions of life. I am in awe of this book. 

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. This counts as my favorite book, and I have indeed re-read it many times — at least I’ve re-read the opening chapter, “Loomings,” scores of times. It was my original problem with the book. I loved Melville’s way with words so much, that each time I picked up the book, I’d start from the beginning, which made it a very long time before I ever actually finished the thing. When I pick it up again, I’ll start with “Call me Ishmael.” Again. 

Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. This is the funniest book I’ve ever read (pace P.G. Wodehouse), but funny books tend not to outlive their punchlines. You can only tell a joke once to the same audience. But Tristram Shandy isn’t a joke book, and its inhabitants are so ridiculously human and its wordplay so trippingly choreographed, that it never wears out for me. 

À la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust. This seems like the perfect choice for the desert island. First, it is exceedingly long — seven volumes and more than 4,000 pages. Second, it is filled with memorable people and discursive episodes that never seem to come to a final conclusion. It goes on. And on. The biggest problem with it, in English, is to find a decent translation that isn’t too Victorian sounding and stuffy, or too modern and chatty. 

Ulysses, by James Joyce. This is a book that not only can stand a re-reading, it requires it. No one can get it all in one go-through. Joyce’s prose, in those chapters that aren’t purposely difficult, is the most perfect prose I know in the English language. Its cadence is musical, its word-choice precise, its flavor yummy. And the difficult chapters — you know who you are — take parsing like so many physics formulae and can keep you fully occupied while you wait for a passing steamship. 

And the award goes to:

Ulysses. It wins because it is in English to begin with. You can never be sure with Tolstoy or Proust, that you are getting what is in the original. They are always at a remove. Ulysses is your own tongue, taken to its stretching point. I can’t imagine, say, reading it in a French translation, or in Mandarin. It is not transmutable. And it can stand a lifetime of re-reading without ever being sucked dry. 

Desert Island Music

This is the category that most exposes the problem. For most people, music means song, and no three-minute ditty can wear long enough to keep you going under the coconut tree. This isn’t a place for your favorite tune. This then requires something like classical music. But even most classical music can’t take the over-and-over again requirements of the island isolation. The obvious choice would be Beethoven’s Ninth, but really, you can only listen on special occasions. Over and over would be torture. 

My nominees for Desert Island Music are:

 —Quartet in C-minor, op. 131, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Really, any of the late quartets. But this is music so profound and so emotional that any barrier between the highest thought and deepest emotion is erased. They are the same thing. The C-minor quartet has six movements and each is distinct and each is a pool to dive deeply into. 

—The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Thirty variations on a simple sarabande tune, arranged with a complex cleverness hard to credit. This is music to last a lifetime. Indeed, it was the first thing that pianist Glenn Gould ever recorded and the last thing. To paraphrase Sam Johnson, “To tire of the Goldbergs is to tire of the world.” 

—Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler. The composer said a symphony “should contain the world,” and no work more completely attempts this than Mahler’s Third, with a first movement that is longer than most full Haydn symphonies (“Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In”) and ends with an adagio just as long, which is built from a theme borrowed from Beethoven’s final string quartet and utters “What Love Tells Me.” I cannot hear the work without disintegrating into a puddle. 

—The Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244, by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the human condition in sound. All of it. No music I know of is more profound nor more emotionally direct. It lasts for nearly three hours and includes not only all the world, but heaven and hell, too. From the opening chorus, with three choirs and two orchestras, to the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” which expresses infinite sorrow, this is music that shoots directly into the psyche and soul. It cannot be worn out. 

—24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, by Dmitri Shostakovich. I considered Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, but I already have Bach down twice. He is the obvious choice for desert island music, so rich is his music, but I also think of Shostakovich’s version, which is just as varied both technically and emotionally. I could live with this for a very long time. 

And the winner is: 

St. Matthew Passion. This is so all-encompassing, so complex technically, so disturbing emotionally, that I cannot bear to give it up. I am not religious and the doctrinal aspects of the story mean nothing to me, but the metaphorical import is overwhelming. This is what it means to be human. And what music!

Desert Island Film

Of course, the film you want on a desert island is a documentary about how to get off a desert island. And if you need a film you can watch over and over, I’ve proved already I can do that with the 1933 King Kong. I’ve watched it a thousand times since I was four years old. But that is not the kind of thing I mean, not what can sustain you through multiple dives into a film’s interior.

My nominees for Best Desert Island Film are: 

Rules of the Game, directed by Jean Renoir. La Règle du Jeu (1939), which many critics have called the best movie ever made, is certainly the most human, humane and forgiving film ever, while at the same time being satirical and biting about human foible and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s in French, with subtitles.

La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini. The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums. The meaning of the movie has been debated for 40 years. It has been seen as anti-Catholic and as a reactionary embrace of religion. It has been seen as an angry critique of modern life, but also a celebration of it. It has been called pornography, and also one of the most moral movies ever made. It’s rich enough to embrace many meanings. Fellini said he was not a judge, “but rather an accomplice.”

Andrei Rublev, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. If La Dolce Vita was ambiguous, Andrei Rublev is close to impenetrable. There is no slower film, outside Andy Warhol’s 8-hour-long Empire State Building. It is not so much a story as a dream, full of significance, but not explainable meaning. It is so unutterably beautiful it simply doesn’t matter what is happening on screen.  I love this film. I don’t mean enjoy, I mean love. 

Fanny and Alexander, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Some films are art, some are great stories, some are deeply understanding. Fanny and Alexander is all three. It exists in multiple versions — a single one for movie houses at 188 minutes and a 312 minute version originally intended as a TV miniseries. I choose the longer version for my desert island. This is Bergman at his most human, least artsy and symbolic. It can engulf you. 

Dekalog, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Polish director Kieślowski made this 10-part film on the Ten Commandments, although not in any literal way. Each film is directed in a different style, and none is religious. The two best concern “Thou shalt not kill” and “not commit adultery,” Your heart will be wrenched from your chest and stomped upon. 

And my choice is:

Rules of the Game. I cannot count the number of times I have watched this film. Not as many as King Kong, I guess, but close. And I know from experience it can hold up under uncounted viewings. There is plenty to enjoy from a filmmaking point of view, just as there is in Citizen Kane, but it is also a profoundly forgiving film — the single most important quality in a human life. 

Bonus 

I have a few more categories, that I’ll suggest in abbreviated form. There you are on the desert island with a bookshelf and a DVD player. You can add a desert island opera, a desert island epic poem, a desert island play. 

Opera

An art form that puts it all together in one package, opera would be an excellent way to spend your island time. But again, we have to consider which opera can stand multiple viewings, that has multiple meanings or interpretations. We all love La Boheme, but there is only so much there under the hood. And Wagner would just wear us out. We are down to Mozart. The Marriage of Figaro is a perfect choice, but I’m going with my favorite: 

Don Giovanni, by W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Is it a dramedy? Whatever it is, it is filled with real people doing things real people do (aside from talking to statues and falling into hell, that is) and with some of the best music Mozart ever wrote. Fin ch’han dal vino

Epic poem

There is not a wide field to choose from, and how can you pick among the Iliad, the Odyssey, Dante’s Commedia, or Milton’s Paradise Lost? (Notice, I did not include Vergil. Dull stuff). Nor can I pick an Icelandic saga or a Medieval droner, like Parzival or the Nibelungenlied. I’ve tried slogging my way through Tasso and Ariosto, but get dragged down in slow motion. There is just one for me, and I re-read it every year: 

The Iliad, by Homer. How can the first entry in the Western canon still be the best? Nothing beats Homer. His imagination is immense, from the largest cosmic scene to the fingernail of a flea, it is all encompassing, and moves with the instantaneity of movie cutting from the one to the other. Actually, if I had to leave behind novel, music, film and everything else, and had only one companion with me, it would be the Iliad. 

Live theater

What do you mean “live theater?” We’re on a desert island. But, if I can imagine a DVD player and an electric socket on the bare sand, I can imagine a stage play. This is all theoretical anyway, remember? 

Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Without doubt the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on the live stage is the original New York production of Angels in America — both parts. It is overwhelming, and will demonstrate to anyone who hasn’t had the experience yet, that live theater is unmatchable by seeing the same thing on PBS Live From Lincoln Center or even in Mike Nichols’ filmed version. Wow. And I’ve seen some great Shakespeare live, even by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Angels rules. 

————————————

And so, we’ve turned an isolated desert island into a library, concert hall, movie house, opera house and legitimate stage. Far from being solitary, we’re crowded. Pandemic be damned.

purple rose 2

Most people, when they go to the movies, go to see aliens blow up the world, or they go to see the lovers win out over odds, or to see the superheroes beat out the supervillains.

end of ricoThat is not much different from why they went to see the movies 80 years ago, except then they might have gone to see the chorus girl become a star, Fred and Ginger glide over the dance floor, or the end of Rico.

In other words, the initial satisfaction of moviegoing is the story, setting up characters and then seeing what happens next. And next after that. We think of them as having happy endings, but such endings are not necessary; some movies end in tragedy.

One is reminded of director Sam Fuller, when asked “what makes a good movie?”

sam fuller“A story,” he said.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story!”

There is, however, another level of satisfaction that comes from watching a film, and that is an awareness of how the film is made. Not everyone understands the process by which the story is told, and not everyone cares. If a story is well-told, it is enough that the story is appreciated.

But there is a separate class of film buff who are moment-by-moment aware of how the pieces of film are put together to tell that story. They are aware of the lighting, the editing, the camera angles, the camera movement, the point of view — and are aware of how all these things are used to manipulate the story and the emotions of the filmgoer. An entire critical apparatus is brought to bear on a film, and especially if it is a film made by a director known to be innovative or astute at using these elements of film. For these people, watching a film is always a dual-track affair, as if they were reading a book in translation, seeing not only the story, but how it has been constructed at the same time.stagecoach

One can look at the studio films of Hollywood’s golden age and dissect them and notice how well made they are, and one can catalog the special habits of some of the better movie directors of the time — William Wellman’s overlapping dialog, Hitchcock’s time distortion, John Ford’s landscapes — and, indeed, whole books have been written (to say nothing about doctoral dissertations, and worse: books made from doctoral dissertations) about what makes Woody Van Dyke different from Gregory La Cava, but this is film-school subculture grist. The people who paid their pennies and dimes to watch those films in the grand movie palaces of the 1930s seldom considered the problems of reverse shots in editing dialog. They just wanted to know what happens next.

citizen kane low angleNowadays, one can hardly turn over a stone and not find someone spotting the use of camera angle in Citizen Kane or yanking our lapels to point out the amazing tracking shot that begins A Touch of Evil.

There is a subset of this sensibility that brings to bear the whole history of cinema — especially genre film — when viewing a film. I call this the Tarantino effect; it is that if we want to truly appreciate what is going on in, say, Kill Bill, one needs to know who Sonny Chiba is, what are the differences between Hong Kong martial arts films and those made in mainland China, and what is more, individual scenes from individual movies that are quoted or referenced in Tarantino’s opus.sonny chiba

This is the foundation of the current bumper crop of superhero movies, too. Fans know the backstory of each character, and the full weight of the “Marvel universe,” or the “DC universe.” The fact that all comic-book superhero movies are basically the same hardly matters if fans argue minutia of the worlds inhabited by these cliches.

The problem with all this is that it becomes a form of in-joke, or worse, a shibboleth separating those who “get it,” from those who don’t. And in this eddy of thought, the references become the subject of the film and the plot becomes incidental. One of the results is that it fosters cliche, with a wink and a nod, and negates original ideas, or at least glibly assumes that original thought is no longer possible. In this it buys into the Postmodern mentality, wherein it is held everything worth saying has been said, and now our job is just to rearrange the game pieces in clever ways. This conveniently forgets the fact that it has always been hard to be original, even for Raphael or Goya.

So, in our film culture now we have two strata of movie appreciation. There are still those who go the movie theater to enjoy a good story, but there is another class that blogs endlessly about the subtext, meta-theory and the film-school techniques of their favorite movies.

However there is a third level to be considered when assessing a film.  If most films don’t aspire to more than story and technique, in the greatest films both story and technique are just tools for for a further end: Expressing something real about life. These are films made by people who have something important to say, something to tell us. They are films that investigate our humanity.

Stories alone can be entertaining, and the meta-view can be engrossing to those whose minds are attuned to “what’s really happening underneath,” but when I make a list of the best movies ever made, it is neither of these levels I care about. Or rather, I assume them as given. No, what I look for is whether the movies have something to say about human existence, that I can weigh against my experience and decide if it is true or not, whether it has something to say about the experience of being alive.

battle of algiers

That is why my Top 10 list does not feature The Dark Knight or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Such films may be diverting, but they don’t say much about the real world. Instead, my list contains films such as Rules of the Game, The Battle of Algiers, and La Dolce Vita. I learn more about love and sex from My Night at Maud’s than from all the Wedding Crashers and Knocked Ups combined. It is this third dimension that is missing from most popular movies. Content to be clever or scary or thrilling, they forget to be human.

Such films put me in touch with the deepest well of my being, remind me that such depth is shared by all of humanity, and that all our lives are complex and what is most important to us is not our jobs or our automobiles, but the emotional connection we have with the earth. One leaves such films profoundly moved and deeply shaken.

uma pulp fiction

Pulp Fiction, to take one example, is certainly a cleverly told story, beautifully written and just scrambled enough to keep us attentive. Yet, unlike Tarantino’s more recent films, it has a third dimension. In Pulp Fiction, death has human meaning and aftermath. There are consequences. When Mia overdoses and Vincent rushes her to Lance’s house for an antidote, her immanent death is something felt by the audience and when Marvin is blown away in the back seat of the car, there is blood everywhere. Yes, it’s a joke, but it’s also very real. In Pulp Fiction, each of the characters is a believable human being. Compare those episodes with the fight scene in Kill Bill where a comic-book Uma Thurman slices and dices her way through “The Crazy 88.” Nowhere is anyone mourning the death of a father or brother. They are tin ducks in a shooting gallery.

Most truly great films have these three dimensions. I don’t want to denigrate a good story, and surely a badly made film won’t move us, no matter how profound the content. But of these three levels, the only one that can elevate a film to classic status is its humanity. Stories and film technique create patterns we recognize and respond to, but what we really need from patterns is more than mere recognition; what we need is meaning.

Of course, it isn’t only in film we need meaning, but in all of art. And so, we search paintings or poetry not just for pretty pictures or clever rhymes, but for what answers that need in us to understand, to find or create meaning.

cassattNone of this is to deny you the pleasure you may get from Captain America or from paintings of pretty flowers. There’s room for that, too. Such things are fine on days when your ambition is cooling out, but the real satisfactions of art come when you are challenged by something more substantive, where you find your life reflected back at you, and you are forced to confront moral dilemmas, the inevitability of death and loss, the complexities of ideas, and the ultimate interconnectedness of all life on the planet. More ambition is good.

So, when we look to justify art in a world increasingly dominated by technology and STEM disciplines on one hand, and an increasing reaction into superstition and tribalism on the other (nativism, fundamentalism, bigotry and its retinue), it is important to make a case for looking inward with a piercing eye to find what is there, at the bottom of the human well.

rules of the game 5In Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic, “The Rules of the Game,” one character sums up the problems of existence: “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons.”

The film, which tops many lists as the greatest film ever made, has no heroes, no villains; it has no right, no wrong; no simple lessons to be learned, no closure. It is as French as it gets, and despite Hollywood’s penchant for remakes, it could never be made in America.

On the other hand, the 1980 “Star Wars” sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back,” has plenty of heroes and villains: It’s the quintessential American film; it could never have been made in France. “Horizontal boosters. Alluvial dampers? Ow! That’s not it, bring me the hydrospanner.” empire strikes back 1

Jamais!

The difference is more than merely language; it’s sensibility. Both excellent films, they sum up the divide between European cinema and Hollywood movies, a divide filled by more than the Atlantic Ocean.

One doesn’t have to take sides. There are great films from both sides of the pond. But it is important to realize when you go into the theater that there is a difference and which kind of film you’re about to see. If you’re looking for an amusement-park ride, European cinema probably will bore you to tears; if you want intense drama about the human condition, Hollywood films will feel trivial. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

This is not to dismiss American films. First of all, they remain the most popular films worldwide. Many countries, including France, have felt the need to restrict the percentage of American films available to their citizens, to subsidize the local product. Steven Spielberg would always sell more tickets than Jacques Rivette. It doesn’t matter where you go, American films remain popular.

Second, American films remain the major influence on world cinema: The tics of Hollywood become the universal style of everyone else, too. There are the editing rhythms, the lenses and equipment, the green-screen technology, the CGI — these are all the lingua franca of movies everywhere. Even a quiet film like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s popular “Amelie” would not be possible without computer assistance: Most of its signature color was digitally added.

One should not forget that the inspiration for the French New Wave in the 1960s were the Hollywood films the movement loved. Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” is his take on American films, with their gangsters and girlfriends.breathless 2

We in the U.S. now are exposed to more foreign films than ever before. There are Hong Kong martial-arts films, Bollywood films, the emerging films of China and Korea, not to mention those from Iran, Israel and the Arab world.

All that is in addition to the many French, German, Italian and British films that traditionally have constituted the world of foreign films.

They’re not only in theaters but frequently available on cable channels, on DVD and from Netflix. Even Turner Classics has its percentage of foreign-language films.

It’s nearly impossible for the curious filmgoer to remain provincial in the comparative flood of world cinema.

It is true there are American indie films, but even those, no matter how gritty they are, tend to follow an American world view.

Americans see the world differently, so their films portray the world differently. We prize directness and informality; we despise hypocrisy and airs; we look for answers, not questions. We are fundamentally optimistic.

It is partly a matter of history. Because we have seldom suffered the devastation of war on our homeland, we have a different relationship with the past. Europe is haunted by history; for Americans, history is largely a matter of colorful costumes.paul schrader

The American writer and director with the most European sensibility is Paul Schrader, who wrote Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” and he puts it simply:

“American movies are based on the assumption that life presents you with problems, while European films are based on the conviction that life confronts you with dilemmas — and while problems are something you solve, dilemmas cannot be solved; they’re merely probed.”

The American sensibility demands we open the box to find out if the cat is dead or alive.

For American audiences, an unsolved story is profoundly unsatisfying. We demand closure.

It’s the Oprah in us.

 
 

A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

bear after me

It was after college that my real education began.

There was one official marriage of three years and one unofficial marriage of seven. There were also several crash-and-burn episodes of affection and desire before, during and after. There were many jobs, too: sales clerk, grounds crew, substitute teacher, delivery driver, teacher of crime-scene photography, editor of a black weekly newspaper, and year spent working at the Seattle zoo, but also a year and a half spent almost homeless and broke. At one point, I was literally down to two nickels and three pennies.

There was nevertheless much travel, north and south along the East Coast and east-west taking a train cross country. I knew what it like to sit in the smelly back of a Trailways bus watching 2 a.m. passing in Virginia. And there was a summer hiking part of the Appalachian Trail and feasting on Velveeta, Slim Jims, and Tang mixed with Blue Ridge spring water.Doug as pervert 1978

In Seattle, I lived in a house with two lesbian medical students and the world’s most obscene man. When I was broke and moved back to North Carolina, I was taken in by my college best friend, who, with his wife, nurtured me back to something like sanity.

One learns a lot this way, although they are often things you wish you didn’t have to learn.

But there was a parallel education, and that came from endless reading.

The thing about hard knocks and waxing maturity is that the books and the knocks come to be mirror reflections of each other. You learn the answer to the surly, snotty question you probably asked in high school: “Why do I have to read Jane Austen? It has nothing to do with my life.” Or Gatsby, or Dickens. At that callow age, it all seems so irrelevant (outside, say, Catcher in the Rye, which you insert directly into your vein with a needle).

It is as if they are trying to make you learn things you don’t want to learn. (Hint: They are; and hint: You’re an idiot at that age). Richard back porch 1975

But with a few divorces under your belt, and a couple of employers whipping you from pillar to post, and a few miles under your tires, the world opens up and you begin to understand things you blessedly had no clue of.

It is that parallel education, then, I mean to write about. Those books that cascaded through the years in the wilderness. I tore through a lot of books. Frequently unemployed, I had a lot of time on my hands.

And I didn’t just read books; I read authors. I read all of Hawthorne, all of Melville, all of Thoreau. And when I say all, I mean Israel Potter and A Yankee in Canada. Reams of Faulkner, Hemingway and Steinbeck. I couldn’t get enough Wallace Stevens, Pablo Neruda or William Carlos Williams.

A few spoke to me most directly.alexandria quartet

One was Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. You have to be a certain age and in a certain state to take in those four books. I was. Thirty is its age, just as 14 is Salinger’s.

The “trick”of the four books is a kind of Rashomon retelling of the story several times. First through the eyes of a man in love, second from the point of view of a disinterested outsider, and third from an omniscient narrator and each version contradicts the previous and fills in missing information and corrects their misunderstandings and misperceptions. It is a byzantine tale set in a duplicitous ex-pat Egypt before and during World War II. The prose is dense and florid; the plot is even more so, and the characters even more than that. It is a huge pile of musk, perfume and offal.

I read it with a dictionary at hand. Durrell rather likes arcane and esoteric words and the list I drew up while reading became a daily vocabulary lesson. Etiolated, pegamoid, ululation, exiguous, exigent, vulpine, objurgations, tenebrous, integument, hebetude, fatidic, pullulation, crepitating, emollient, cachinnation, splenetic, comminatory, plethoric, usufruct, mansuetude, titubating.

The author’s habit leads to such sentences as:  “He has manumitted the colloquial…”

But there is a concomitant grace and directness of balancing sentences, such as: “She took kisses like so many coats of paint.”

It is a baroque style that is meat to only a few. I was hungry for it and the reasons were personal.

I only late found out that the woman I had been living with had had a very active secret life of which I knew nothing. I was as naive as Darley in Justine. I had friends who could have written me a Balthazar, but they didn’t and I fled cross country in exile and in metaphysical pain.

This was a devastating case of literature as a mirror and the face I saw there shamed me. But it also instilled in me a sense of caution, a humility concerning what I think I know and a skepticism for what others think they know.

Balthazar at one point says, “Truth naked and unashamed. That’s a splendid phrase. But we always see her as she seems, never as she is. Each man has his own interpretation.” rules of the game

Or, as Octave says in Jean Renoir’s film, Rules of the Game, “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons.”

We almost never know enough to make informed judgments: The truth is always hidden from us and people act from motives we cannot be privy to.

Durrell taught me to be perpetually in a state of tolerant unknowing.

Or at least he reinforced through art the lesson I had been given but perhaps did not fully comprehend. Some lessons come in the form of a ball-peen hammer to the head.

NEXT: Part 2 Wilderness years: A bigger library

Buster Keaton "The General"

Buster Keaton “The General”

When it comes to movies, everyone has a Top Ten list, or a top 100, or top 500. Tastes differ, of course, and no two persons’ lists should be the same. But when you gaze through so many of these lists online, it is appalling to see just how many of these not only include so many mediocre films, but how many of them fail to include anything older than a decade or so, or anything from anywhere but Hollywood.

Here’s one such online list:

Avengers

Avengers

1. Star Wars Episode VI Return of the Jedi
2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: the Movie
3. Avengers (2012), just so no one thinks of that god-awful film with Sean Connery, Ralph Fiennes, and Uma Thurman
4. Courageous
5. Rudy
6. Dumb and Dumber
7. Independence Day
8. We Were Soldiers
9. Tomorrow Never Dies (Brosnan is my 3rd favorite Bond but this is my favorite Bond film)
10. Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark

If someone thinks Avengers is one of the greatest films ever created, someone doesn’t get out much.

Another, responding on the same website complains:

“These lists have a hole in them without Blade Runner on them. Also, R Scott’s original Alien.

“And no Peter Jackson LOTR (Lord of the Rings) flicks? That’s surprising. I felt they were a bit too long and I prefer the Tolkien books but Jackson’s The Two Towers is epic and on my list ( despite my ambivalence to hobbits lol.)

“And what about Donner’s first Superman?”

It’s easy to think Superman is a great movie if you have never been out of the house, but Sonny, there is a great big world out there, and in it, Superman isn’t even a blip.

This isn’t just about “movies I like,” in which it’s fine to enjoy anything. There are bad or indifferent films I love to watch, too. No, it’s about movies that, if you care about film, you should have seen. At least, should have seen if you want to express an opinion that has some authority to it, and not just the mewlings of an esthetic infant.

Just as there are books you should have read, if you want to consider yourself literate, and music you should be familiar with, and art that should be part of your inner life, there are movies you should have seen.

No one can have seen them all, of course. It is a lifetime’s work to expand one’s horizons and learning never ends.

It isn’t that the movies on these online lists are not good movies, even great movies. They mostly were all worth seeing. It is that the scope of the lists was so narrow, and most of the films mentioned were made in the past 10 or 15 years. One wonders what a modern moviegoer thinks constitutes a great film. It would seem: lots of action, clever dialog, color film, and a whipped cream topping of CGI. Car chases, things blowing up and wizards or werewolves.

Kill Bill

Kill Bill

If you think having seen Kill Bill parts 1 and 2 on a double bill has taught you anything about the potential of film, you are greatly mistaken. And this is not a slight on Tarantino, who is a wonderful filmmaker: It is a slight on your supposed erudition.

The films you should have seen are not necessarily the best films, either (although most are). They are the films that created the course of film development, and changed that course. They are the films that opened up the possibilities.

Some have done so through discovering new potential in the medium itself, like D.W. Griffith or Jean Cocteau. But others have discovered ways of giving the popular medium the depth of the greatest literature. If you think Batman Begins has depth, you are still wading in the shallow end of the swimming pool.

The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery

I am not talking simply about Postmodern referencing: that Martin Scorsese references The Great Train Robbery when Joe Pesci points his gun straight into the camera and fires. Such cleverness permeates current cinema, where you can hardly make a film without some witty reference to a famous film of the past. That’s nothing more than an in-joke.

Rather, I’m talking about the larger film culture that has grown and continues to grow as a living tradition — cinema as a single body of work, seen as a single, long-growing vine with thousands of leaves, stems, flowers and fruit, grown from the seeds planted by the Lumiere brothers, raised through silence, sound and Cinemascope and Technicolor.

I’m talking about movies as a humanistic art: One that can tell us about the experience of being alive. The lists I came across mostly concern film as a theme-park ride — fun, but of little consequence. As if a list of great novels were proposed starting with John Grisham, passing through Jackie Collins and ending with Dan Brown. Again, no slight on any of them: Their books can be fun to read, but they ain’t Proust.

So, Mr. Big-Shot Critic, what would your list be? What movies should anyone have seen before they can consider themselves cinematically literate?

Well, there isn’t anything so simple as a list. Rather, there is a constellation of films you should have sampled from. In other words, you can’t really say you know anything if you haven’t seen a film by Robert Bresson. Can I list Mouchette, or Diary of a Country Priest, or Au Hasard Balthasar as the one film you need to have seen? Not really, but you should have seen at least one Bresson film, and if you do, you will almost certainly then want to go on and see more of them, maybe all of them.

Au Hasard Balthasar

Au Hasard Balthasar

You will find a deeply moral core to all of them, and told in an odd, quiet, straightforward manner, usually with no professional actors, to keep the films from seeming too “theatrical.”

Or, you need to see a few screwball comedies from the 1930s. Is there one to put on a list? My Man Godfrey? It Happened One Night? Bringing Up Baby? If You Could Only Cook? Again, no, but if you watch a couple of them, you’ll want to see more of them, and you’ll never again think of American Pie as a witty movie.

My Man Godfrey

My Man Godfrey

You need to see great silent films, too. Not just old Charlie Chaplin shorts, but the movies that created the great lexicon of cinematic grammar and vocabulary. Murnau’s Sunrise or Stroheim’s Greed. Again, your interest will likely be piqued and you may become a convert to silent movies.

How can you be cinematically literate unless you’ve seen films by Godard, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fellini, Ozu, Bunuel or Satyajit Ray? You can’t. Or German Expressionist films? Or American underground films? Or Busby Berkeley musicals? Ernst Lubitsch? Or The Big Trail — the first American widescreen film? Or Abel Gance’s Napoleon? Max Ophuls’ liquid camera?

Andrei Rublev

Andrei Rublev

Becoming literate doesn’t happen casually: You have to seek out and study. You have to pay attention. Some of these films, such as Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, make serious demands on viewers; they don’t make it easy — it’s like doing homework. But you will feel exhilarated by the time you have ingested them.

So, I’m giving you homework: Here’s my list of a dozen films you need to have seen. Are they all of them? No. You need to see hundreds of them before you can have a meaningful opinion, but these are a good start. None is recent, and only two are American, because most of you have already seen Dr. Strangelove, Pulp Fiction and The Godfather, to say nothing of Apocalypse Now, which would be on my list of Top Ten (which, of course, has at least 40 films on it).

Let’s take a few chronologically:

Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin

There is hardly a more influential film in history than Serge Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), in which the Russian director inventoried the power and magic of film editing to create meaning. It remains a powerful film, even when you recognize it for Soviet propaganda.

Metropolis

Metropolis

If Sunrise is too much to take at first, you could try Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) to see how silent film can tell a compelling story. It has several “special effects” in it, too. And as for special effects, you can only be amazed at the oneiric surrealism of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) — now available in something like its original version.

The studio system in Hollywood produced some of the most perfect craftsmanship during the 1930s. They had pros, who really knew how to light, edit, write dialog, and record sound. They produced many genre films, such as Westerns, gangster films, melodramas and musicals, but one thing they did that has never been matched is comedy, the so-called “screwball comedies.” If you have not seen My Man Godfrey (1936), then you don’t really know how sophisticated comedy can be. Or sexy: Try Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) and see how frank they could be about sex before the Production Code was enforced.

Rules of the Game

Rules of the Game

But this is still American film. The Thirties also gave us Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939), which many critics have called the best movie ever made. It is certainly the most human, humane and forgiving while at the same time satirical and biting about human foible and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s in French, with subtitles.

The Fifties and early Sixties gave us the Golden Age of foreign films, the age of the “art film,” and exposed Americans for the first time in any meaningful degree with movies from around the world.

Sweden gave us Ingmar Bergman, whose Seventh Seal (1957) is still the prototype of the Foreign Film, with its Medieval knight returning from the Crusades and playing chess with Death.

Seventh Seal

Seventh Seal

Italian Michelangelo Antonioni compressed angst, dissociation and anomie into a single intensely beautiful film in L’Avventura (1960), about a woman who disappears on a Mediterranean island and the vague search to find her. It is the apotheosis of existentialism in cinema.

Jules and Jim

Jules and Jim

The French gave us the New Wave, which rethought old American films with a fresh spontaneity. A whole busload of directors came to the fore in the Sixties. The warmest and most engaging is probably Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) about the Parisian demimonde just before and after World War I. It is the kind of movie that makes you not merely enjoy it, but fall headfirst in love with film.

Two gritty films present two poles of movie realism. Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 Battle of Algiers is so realistic that you swear you are watching newsreel footage from the front. It shows an anti-colonialist uprising that doesn’t demonize either side, but shows the miseries and sins of both. In contrast, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is so stylized you might as well be looking at a motion-picture version of a Russian religious ikon. And many of its fans feel as though they have had something like a cinematic religious experience after the “meditation” of seeing the slow-moving film.

The missing element of too many Hollywood films is any sense that they mirror real life, that they consider the moral and ethical questions of existence in favor of pumping adrenaline and presenting a black-and-white, good-and-evil, superhero and archenemy vision of existence. Great films, however, look at the complexities in ways that can be profoundly moving. Fantasy is fine for adolescents, but grown-ups demand something more.

Vagabond

Vagabond

Agnes Varda’s Vagabond (1984) follows a damaged, lost young woman as she wanders aimlessly toward a solitary death. We cannot just watch her decline as observers, but feel we share it, so deeply does Varda make us care about this woman.

A Short Film about Killing

A Short Film about Killing

And Polish director, Krzysztof Kieślowski, takes an unsparing look at a murder and its punishment in A Short Film about Killing (1988), an acrid look at Communist-era Poland and a young man’s pointless beating death of an unpleasant cab driver, and and equally cold-eyed look at the brutal and legal hanging of the young man after he is caught and convicted. Kieslowski expanded this film from an hour-long segment he made for Polish television for a 10-episode series called The Decalogue, in which each episode illustrates one of the Ten Commandments, although never in a simple or obvious way.

See these films, or their many brothers and sisters, and then talk to me about Avengers.