An Alternative History of American Film

This is my final project from the We Media: Digital Storytelling class I took last term. We were asked to tell a story in whatever form we chose, so I decided to give an alternative take on film history through short clips. This was basically putting into project form a series of ideas I’d been going over for over a year: all the celebration over the first century of film, with tributes like AFI’s “100 Years…” series or Chuck Workman’s montage “100 Years at the Movies,” seemed to focus on a set canon of mainstream, acceptable American films. And, by and large, this is what people tend to assume as their cinematic heritage – the classics, the ones referred to when they say “they don’t make ’em like they used to.” The question, though – the kind you always have to ask – is, who’s making this canon for us? What values do they have in mind when they start making their lists? What kind of canon is this going to be; is it just more received wisdom as to what constitutes “the greats”?

I was heavily inspired by an essay written by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, countering the AFI’s lists with his own. Taking this as my jumping-off point, I began questioning: what movies weren’t being mentioned or seen? Sure, we can all be reminded how great Gone with the Wind and Star Wars are, but are we getting anything new out of the experience?

So I ran through my personal filmic experience with a few criteria in mind. What kinds of movies were being neglected? I focused on a variety of underappreciated genre: adult animation, the avant-garde, horror, exploitation, independents, and cult films. I picked movies that were, for better or worse, ahead of their times, movies with strange traits that endeared them to me. Some of them were great. Others were bad in the most extreme and oddly compelling ways. Some made bold statements about race, gender, and politics, while others were just plain bold. From there, I edited out bits & pieces I remembered as being particularly effective, mixed it all together, and created my project.

I could probably write an individual blog entry about each of these movies, and that’s not at all a bad idea. But the greater point was one that I made more eloquently in a previous draft of this blog, deleted when the power went out. It was this: film history is not dead, buried, and in a textbook. Film history is alive, and it’s reincarnated, reformed, and reconstituted every time you rediscover a forgotten masterpiece (possibly through a blog like this), every time you unearth a dusty old treasure left to rot by corporations who couldn’t find any dollar value in it, and every time you say to a friend, “Hey, you liked Citizen Kane? Well, check out The Magnificent Ambersons” or “You enjoyed The Godfather? Then how about The Conversation?”, to give 2 totally random examples. Film history is ours to study, play with, and redefine. I’m inspired here by the final paragraph of Rosenbaum’s essay:

In the final analysis, selecting America’s 100 greatest movies has to be an ongoing effort of exploration and discovery–something that can happen only if we stop to consider what we still don’t know about and try to set up some mechanisms for educating ourselves. The saddest thing about the AFI’s list is that it proposes that we stop looking, go home, and proceed to pick more lint out of our navels for the remainder of the millennium.

So make what you will of my video, but know that this is the thinking behind it. And now, for your browsing pleasure, here’s a little list of the films I used.

How a Mosquito Operates (Winsor McCay, 1912)

Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure (Unknown, 1929)

Heavy Traffic (Ralph Bakshi, 1973)

Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1936)

Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, 1943)

Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1983)

Just Imagine (David Butler, 1930)

Maniac (Dwain Esper, 1934)

Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)

The Devil with Hitler (Gordon Douglas, 1942)

Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)

Glen or Glenda (Ed Wood, 1953)

Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972)

Sex Madness (Dwain Esper, 1938)

Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller, 1963)

Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968)

The Sniper (Edward Dmytryk, 1952)

Blast of Silence (Allen Baron, 1961)

Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968)

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

Our Daily Bread (King Vidor, 1934)

Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933)

Midnight Shadow (George Randol, 1939)

Salt of the Earth (Herbert Biberman, 1954)

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976)

Born into Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983)

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (Melvin van Peebles, 1971)

Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984)

In the final analysis, selecting America’s 100 greatest movies has to be an ongoing effort of exploration and discovery–something that can happen only if we stop to consider what we still don’t know about and try to set up some mechanisms for educating ourselves. The saddest thing about the AFI’s list is that it proposes that we stop looking, go home, and proceed to pick more lint out of our navels for the remainder of the millennium.

1 Comment

Filed under Cinema, Media

One response to “An Alternative History of American Film

  1. Wow, I loved this – for the excellent words, but especially for the highly enjoyable clip show. My only caveat, if I have one, is that – seemingly unlike Rosenbaum – I don’t think a more predictable canon need exclude an edgier one. Indeed, it may be all the better for providing a starting point from which to bounce off of, and get more adventurous. Indeed, while I’d been a big movie buff for years in ’98 my cinenthusiasm had cooled a bit. The AFI list kicked off a new obsession which led directly, not just to the watching of classic films on that list which I hadn’t seen, but within a year or two to tracking down foreign classics and on and on and on, to the present day. The best canon to me is one in which Gone With the Wind & Star Wars rub shoulders with the likes of Stranger Than Paradise (God, I love that clip & that song), Freaks, and Meshes in the Afternoon (to just name a few of the ones I’ve actually seen in your excellent line-up).

    Great stuff!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s