Ted Mosby: That's it. I'll have to move to another country, one where they're not showing The Wedding Bride.
Robin Scherbatsky: Good luck, Ted. That movie has gone worldwide. It's huge.
Lily Aldrin: Maybe North Korea.
Robin Scherbatsky: No, I heard Kim Jong Il saw it and it's his second favorite movie, right behind one of him running in slow motion in a field of turnips.
—How I Met Your Mother, “The Wedding Bride” (5/17/10)
It’s often fun to go to the movies, if only for the immersive experience that they provide. Plus, there’s the popcorn with the butter-flavored grease (or, if you went to the Senator when Kiefaber was running the place, “real creamery butter”). What I don’t like about them is the excessive hype. You really get the idea sometimes that the guys who are making the ads are being creative about what they pull out of the reviews. For instance, this comes from a real review of The DaVinci Code:
Akiva Goldsman, otherwise not particularly inspired screenwriter, does a solid job with surprisingly faithful adaptation. This is probably due to Brown’s source material not being something exceptional. The novel is nothing more than rehash of secret histories like THE HOLY BLOOD AND THE HOLY GRAIL, neatly packed with some New Age ideas and rather generic conspiracy thriller plot. Goldsman kept most of novel’s flaws, but he, thankfully, didn’t succumb to the usual Hollywood standards of sacrificing exposition in order to provide audience with more brainless action. The exposition is actually the best and most valuable part of the film, providing viewers with more food for thought than they were accustomed to expect from a Hollywood blockbuster. (draxblog movie reviews, draxreview.wordpress.com)
Akiva Goldsman…does a solid job…surprisingly faithful…something exceptional…the best and most valuable…film, providing viewers with more food for thought…a Hollywood blockbuster.
Sprinkle in a few exclamation points and you get the idea. So that gets to be a drag, so I’m pretty careful nowadays about the films I see, and more often than not I just wait until it’s on video or cable. Nice life for a former Communications major, huh?
Some films do manage to rise above the hype by living up to it, however. And we’ve all seen a bunch of the “One Million Greatest Films Of All Time” or whatever kind of lists, and they all bring something to the table, I guess. But they don’t necessarily convey what it is that makes the movies named so special. So herein, I present to you, in no special order, a list of Movies That Changed The Way Movies Are Made.
Kane is one of those films that gets an awful lot of credit for a lot of things, and rightly so, which is probably why it’s tough to remember that it was a box-office flop the first time around despite the good reviews it received. During its initial run, Citizen Kane lost about $150,000, which was roughly 20% of what it cost to make. And it’s not even that Orson Welles invented the techniques used in the film; in fact he didn’t. What he did do was use them to such effect that they became staples of filmmaking: deep focus (sometimes using special lenses, sometimes using in-camera mattes); curtain wipes, miniatures, J-cuts (when the audio transitions ahead of the picture in a scene change), flashbacks and montages. It almost doesn’t matter that the movie begins with a huge hole in the plot. I’ll also concede that it’s not such a compelling movie that it’s an automatic stop if I catch it while channel-surfing, but I’ll usually stick with it for awhile just to bask in the awesomeness of the film techniques.
Here’s a weird little Kane story: when I was in college and taking the “Art of Film and TV” course, we were assigned to go to the library and view the opening scenes of Citizen Kane so that we could discuss it in class next time we met. During the scene where Kane dies (not a spoiler, it’s at the beginning), the nurse comes in and pulls the sheet over Kane’s face. As she does so, the soundtrack for the clip we were viewing encountered a glitch, so that as the sheet came up, the music slowed and ground to a halt, so that we had a moment of silence in the film. It synchronized so well with the action on the screen, that those of us who hadn’t seen it before thought that that was supposed to happen, and we all marveled at this cool audio technique. It wasn’t until the next day, when the teacher showed the clip again as a means of review, that we saw something wasn’t quite right. “Hey! That’s not what happened in the library!” The teacher didn’t realize that the clip was bad and qsuestioned us about it. It made for a great discussion.
Wife hates this film, because of the subtitles (she doesn’t dig any film that’s mostly subtitles), but I love Seven Samurai. And I don’t understand a word of Japanese, but I like to listen to the actors speaking, so I’ll actually keep the volume up even though it isn’t really necessary. Most people know by now that it’s the inspiration for 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, but the biggest contribution by that film was its theme. Seven Samurai was probably the first film to bring a disparate bunch of characters together to achieve a common goal (cf. Ocean’s Eleven or The Dirty Dozen). It’s also the first film to give us the very end of the main character’s previous adventure before moving into the current one (cf James Bond and Indiana Jones). Part of the success of this story is that director Akiro Kurosawa wrote an entire backstory for any character who had a line. It clocks in at 207 minutes, but it’s worth the trip. Fun fact: the Japanese language has no definite article (“the”), so translation of the title into “The Seven Samurai” is idomatically correct, but not a literal translation.
At the top of so many lists because of its compelling story, The Godfather improved upon the Gangster Movie genre in two important ways. Prior to this film, mafia films in the late 1950s and early 1960s were not doing well at the box office, despite all the star power they poured into them. Paramount head Robert Evans decided that the problem was that none of the people making these films—on either side of the camera—were Italian. Consequently they suffered from a certain lack of verisimilitude. It was at his insistence that most of the actors in the film were Italians. (Can you imagine Ryan O’Neal as Michael Corleone? It almost happened.) It’s a well-known story that Evans, upon seeing the first cut of The Godfather, sent Coppola back into the editing room to make the film LONGER. Evans was looking for “the spaghetti”, the family end of the story that ties the whole thing together. Later mafia films did the same: length plus a family of some sort. If The Godfather hadn’t happened, GoodFellas wouldn’t have come along to improve on the model.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
This is another film in the realm of Citizen Kane for me: it’s not necessarily an automatic stop, but it’s so beautifully shot, and some things are done so technically well that you have to admire this piece of work. 2001, like Kane and most of the titles here, is where we get to say “film” rather than “movie”, if you catch my distinction. Part of the attraction, again, is verisimilitude: silence in space, the design of the spaceship Discovery, the little mundane touches like the phone call home. Perhaps the only scene that’s deliberately funny involves Heywood Floyd nervously studying the detailed instructions on the Zero Gravity Toilet. What’s cool is that those are real instructions; it’s not as though Kubrick put some placeholder text on the sign because nobody could read it anyway. Click on the picture to get the full text. Sure, things like Pan Am and Bell Telephone don’t exist anymore, but those companies weren’t the point of the story.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
One of the things I really enjoy about this film is the “slow burn”. It’s a movie that takes place over a long period of time, and offers all kinds of tiny little clues with regard to the way the relationships are developing, what could come along later in the story, and so on. People who are easily bored could conceivably tune out quickly, but for those who manage to hang in there, the payoff is fantastic as the story picks up speed and refuses to let up. I don’t think that this film affected other films so much as it did the television industry. Shawshank paved the way for shows such as The Sopranos and The Wire, which took a long time to set the table and then knocked you on your back with the resolution. The plot line also gave us a denouement that we didn’t necessarily need, but allowed us to breathe a little and see the “ending beyond the ending”.
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
How did a film from 1903 change moviemaking forever? Because it was the first film to have a plot. It was a series scenes, laid out in a specific order, that together told a story. And if you don’t think it’s had any influence on modern-day film, consider the scene in the picture at left. Justus D. Barnes shoots directly at the camera—and therefore the viewer—in a scene that appears either at the beginning of the film or the end, (it was up to the operator where it went; all of the known prints have it at the end). It was a scene that terrified audiences, who weren’t used to the “language” of film yet, and reportedly got out of the way. Both Goodfellas and American Gangster did the same thing; Goodfellas does it right before the closing credits and in American Gangster it happens right after the credits. You could also argue that the idea of rounding up people in a public place and taking their money (rather than stealing from the train) had its influence on the diner scene in Pulp Fiction.
Incidentally, some people would put Pulp Fiction on a list like this one, but I’m not inclined to, mostly because while the nonlinear narrative was groundbreaking in its way, it’s not something that’s influenced the way other movies have been made, which is the criterion for this list. Oh, and Kane did it first.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Truth be told, I kept going back and forth on this one because I didn’t really like the film that much. But whether or not you like it, I think it has to be conceded that this film had two major influences on film making: first, they demonstrated that you can make a decent film on a very small budget and still manage to make a few bucks ($20,000 to make, $250,000,000 in earnings). Second, and perhaps a little more controversial, was the extensive use of the handheld camera. Now, in Blair Witch Project it makes sense, since the camera is proving a specific point of view throughout the movie. But this also inspired many other directors to take a similar approach to their own films, perhaps in order to give their movies a kind of cinéma vérité feel that they haven’t necessarily earned (Public Enemies, I’m looking at you). So there’s good and there’s bad in this one, but I don’t think anyone can argue that this one has had its effect.
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Not the whole film, but the one scene that takes place on the Odessa Steps. In this scene, the Czar’s soldiers march down a huge flight of stairs, firing into a crowd of people. At the bottom of the stairs are Cossacks, marching upward. People are shot, people are trampled, and a baby goes sailing down the stairs in his carriage. There are multiple points of view presented, numerous instances of parallel action, close-ups that emphasize the horror of what is going on, and ultimately we are lulled into feeling exactly what director Sergei Eisenstein wants us to feel. It’s a brilliant piece of propaganda that’s so good, it hardly matters that, in this otherwise historical film, the events in this scene never actually took place.
I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch, and I know a few of you are also former Communications majors. What would you add to the list, and why?