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I opened the front door and stepped outside, where a choir of birds twittered and chirped. There must have been scores of them up in the still-bare trees of early spring, all blasting at once, and a kind of joy crept up in my chest at the sound, a sense that this was beautiful in a way that almost justified existence. 

It is another spring. I have seen 73 of them and the number I have left is dwindling. Now there is a sense, like Takashi Shimura at the end of Seven Samurai, talking to Daisuke Kato, saying: “Once more we have survived.” 

Another spring, another year. I see the bud tips on the maple tree spread and burst out in the million tiny sprays of maroon maple flowers. It is a moment I wait for each year. Another small moment of joy. Those moments are of immense importance. 

I want to avoid sounding like a Hallmark card here. For much of existence for much of the world is misery. People continue to bomb each other; children continue to die; famine spreads; refugees live by the thousands in makeshift tents; ethnic minorities are hounded and enslaved. Even in our so-called First World, otherwise comfortable people face death, betrayal, hate, disappointment and the hounding sense of their own meaninglessness. 

For much of history, we have lived through plagues, wars, superstitions and “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

And yet, you see children in those refugee camps playing soccer in the dust. They are laughing. Mothers find great love in their children. Above the camps, birds still twitter and peep. I don’t mean to downplay the misery being suffered, but to point out that even in the midst of suffering, there are sprints of joy. It is so to be human. 

What affords those moments of joy — which come upon us unannounced always — is that they give us a glimpse of connectedness. To our kin and childers, to nature, even to the larger city in which we live. 

I was reading in Ezra Pound’s Cantos a few days ago, through the Pisan Cantos section of that monstrous, abstruse, inchoate mass of culture-shard, written when Pound, after World War II, was imprisoned in Italy for having given intemperate radio broadcasts lauding il Duce and fascism. He was a cranky, possibly insane old man and he was kept in an outdoor cage with a concrete floor for a bed. He wrote the bulk of his Pisan Cantos there, full of the usual blatherings about economics and world history, mixed with bits of incomparable poetry and the language gave even the most pathetic of imbecilities brief moments of majesty of utterance. But, like most of Pound’s verse, it is almost all literary, with little sense of the poet’s actual life, at least outside of books. 

But in the middle of Canto LXXIX, there appear, popping up in the jumble of classical allusion, several birds on the power lines strung above his cage. “With 8 birds on a wire/ or rather on 3 wires.” They make a melody on the music staff of those wires. And later, “4 birds on 3 wires, one bird on one.” Further on, “5 of them now on 2; on 3; 7 on 4.” The real birds keep breaking into his phantasmagoria of theory and the poet’s tirades about ancient China and Tallyrand seem vaporous in contrast with the physicality of those birds above his cage. Philomel and the Nachtigall give way to pigeons and starlings. 

And you sense, behind all the immense brickwork of culture and reference, that moment of real connection with an actual world. And in the misery of that cage, open to wind and rain, a brief moment of joy, left fleeting and unprocessed. 

Such moments are epiphany — the rending of a veil to see what is most essential. Joy is the ephemeral product of such an insight. 

Such moments come in a flicker; they cannot last long. No one is joyful all the time. We are not living in some Pepsodent commercial, skipping down the sidewalk with teeth so shiny they blind passersby. Indeed, we live the bulk of our lives in neutral, neither miserable nor happy, but plodding on. But then we have that glimpse, periodically, of a bliss that transports us from our own toad-like passivity. It is a seed waiting to sprout in our psyches. 

These moments don’t always stick, but sometimes they do, and inform the rest of our lives. I remember a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC in the 1970s. In the basement at the time, there was a small exhibit of Cezanne still lifes. I had never much valued Cezanne, but I had only seen his work in reproduction or on slides in art history class. But here was the real thing. Who knew there were that many greens in the world? Infinite seeming gradations of blues and greens that glowed almost like fire, “fire green as grass.” And it was, for that moment, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I’ve since been to the big retrospective of Cezanne at the Philadelphia Art Museum in 1996 and was bowled over. The color alone, glowing like neon, gave me intense pleasure.

Another time, I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch play Strauss’ Don Juan and the palpability of the sound, especially from eight horns playing in unison and making the seat under me vibrate, let me feel the sound as a physical presence. Jericho would have shuddered. I know I did. 

Art has been at the root of much of my own experience of joy and epiphany. I could name dozens of concerts and hundreds of art exhibitions that have brought me to this afflatus — for that is what joy is. 

Other sources are family: my twin granddaughters when they were three, riding bouncy-horsey, each on one of my knees and laughing the way only three-year-olds can. Even such a trivial thing as one of them asking for seconds on the pot roast I have cooked for them. Seeing them enjoy what I have prepared is a constant source of joy. I imagine the same for some Syrian refugee in a tent making dinner for her children. These moments come to us as gifts. 

Nature is the third great source. I remember standing on the top of Roden Crater in Arizona, an extinct volcano being reshaped by artist James Turrell. It was dusk and the sun was setting. Turrell pointed out the now-obvious fact that night doesn’t “fall,” but rather, it rises. And you can see the edge of the shadow of the earth cast by the lowering sun against the sky forming a boundary between the light and the dark and as the sun drops, the line of demarkation rises until the night swallows all. It is an effect you don’t get to notice in the cities or suburbs, where the horizon is blocked by human busy-ness. 

I stood by the Rhine River in Dusseldorf at night, with the reflection of city lights flashing off the dark current like firesparks. The river flowed broad with a swiftness and power that felt almost as if it must be a god. This was the river Robert Schumann felt was worthy of writing a symphony about. 

On the plains of eastern Montana, at the Little Bighorn, I stood on a hill — one hill like a frozen wave peak in the ocean among many such peaks — and watched the wind curl the long grass in moving ripples across the landscape. The manifestation of Wakan Tanka, the great spirit that animates the cosmos. I had to stand very still among all the motion to absorb it as a moment of eternity. 

In the early ’70s, I visited Gaddys Pond, just east of Charlotte in North Carolina, which was home to tens of thousands of Canada geese, a midway stop in their annual migrations. And the sound of all of them honking over each other, the din of chaos, remains the single most joyful sound I have ever heard. Ever since I have sought to recapture that moment, my hound, bay horse and turtle-dove.

We talk about joy being an emotion, as if it were some abstract titillation of the neurons, but it is a physical effect: the chest swells to almost bursting. You can feel the inner pressure of the joy wanting to escape the confines of the meat that is your body. And you feel something rising in your throat and your eyes begin to tear and overflow. The experience surges inside you. It may last only a second, or even a fraction of a second, but in that moment, you know you are alive. You know that everything is alive, and that to be alive is everything. 

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.