As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of important films.
The first are topically important films. These are movies that touch on contemporary issues and are mean to affect the collective consciousness of the audience.
The second are historically important films. These are movies that have gained renown for something about their production or storytelling that can mark a change in larger trends, or has made a large cultural impact to the world of films.
Like any other type or category of storytelling, there are ranges of quality within each, but I find the first to age poorly fast. The flip side is that the latter films aren’t always actually good.
Topically Important Films
Movies about contemporary issues never really age well, but the degradation of quality of these movies seems to have gone off a cliff over the last twenty years. There’s a greater concern for preaching on a topic than on telling a story, which ages these films really badly.
Lions for Lambs, Redacted, Rendition, and In the Valley of Elah are all movies that Hollywood produced about the second Iraq War and nothing else. There’s little in these movies other than the message itself. Characters don’t feel real. Situations are so ripped from the headlines that they end up feeling like recitations rather than stories. These movies aren’t designed to tell stories or to entertain, but to preach, and they disappear into the ether extremely quickly. They are designed to disappear.
A great example of an “important” movie that has aged horrendously is a small film called Gabriel over the White House. Filmed during the Great Depression, it’s William Randolph Hearst’s fantasy of a government strong enough to do the right thing and fix the economy for once. It’s also a fascist fantasy, quite literally so. The president is milquetoast, gets into a car crash, wakes up as a go-getter to fix the nation. He then runs roughshod over every American institution to institute solutions for America which, obviously, work gangbusters. All we needed, according to this movie was a fascist dictator. It really hasn’t aged well at all.
There can be a balance between the two impulses, though. A topically important movie is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It’s not great, but it’s well told and has real characters in it, which has allowed it to stand the test of time better than some of its contemporaries.
Topically important films also tend to shut down critical thinking elements of people who walk in agreeing about the point of the film. BlackKklansman is a good recent example of this. The movie’s honestly not very good. It’s distracted, unfocused, and stops its story to preach a few times. It’s not worthless, being quite funny at times, but it’s rather massively broken as a film. That didn’t stop people who agreed that America is a racist nation from falling all over themselves in praising the movie because it said the right things.
To move from topically important films to historically important films, I want to talk briefly about a movie that fits both: The Birth of a Nation.
The Birth of a Nation is one of those movies that everyone has opinions about but no one actually watches. Well, I have watched it, and it’s great entertainment. It was the culmination of every technical and narrative lesson of the silent era wrapped up in an exciting 3-hour package about Civil War and Reconstruction. It’s also deeply, deeply racist.
I recently watched BlackKklansman, Spike Lee’s new movie about the black cop in Colorado who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. When I had finished, I searched out Armond White’s review. He’s always an interesting voice, especially when the movie he’s talking about has a racial component. White gets incensed when filmmakers misuse The Birth of a Nation, which, according to White, Lee does. So, I searched out some of his writings about the silent epic, and I was surprised to find that I had a similar experience to the movie’s racism that he viewed from some modern black students.
We both found the racism to be hilarious.
The racism in the movie is so over the top that it feels like a Key and Peele sketch instead of an earnest attempt to convince the audience that black people are lazy rapists (which the movie was, earnest). The modern reaction that I shared with the described students indicates an odd place where The Birth of a Nation now resides. It’s topical important has become a punch line, but it’s historical importance is rather undeniable. D.W. Griffith was a master storyteller and filmmaker, and he made a piece of art out of the film.
Historically Important Films
The history of cinema is not about 120 years old. There have been landmark films throughout that period ranging from The Birth of a Nation to Toy Story for different reasons. But, those landmarks aren’t always the greatest films. The Birth of a Nation obviously has its problems, but its historical importance is for the technical achievements as much as anything else. However, it’s not always technical merits that get a movie to become important to telling the history of cinema.
Easy Rider is vitally important to telling the story of American movies through the 60s and 70s. It showed Hollywood in dramatic fashion that there was a huge market to appeal to and a model of production that lent itself to easier profits than Biblical epics, which had dominated American production the previous decade. They could give a few hundred thousand dollars to an “auteur” who would then produce something that those crazy college kids would eat up in massive numbers.
Does it matter that Easy Rider is barely a movie? In terms of its artistic quality, it’s mostly a curio and not something to be admired on its merits. However, it is important to film history. If you want to tell the history of American filmmaking, you have to dedicate a chapter to Easy Rider because of its influence on film production.
A further example may be helpful. I’ve said it before, but Orson Welles’ best movie is Chimes at Midnight, his telling of the Fallstaff story. However, Chimes at Midnight is decidedly not his most important movie. That’s unquestionably Citizen Kane.
Where The Birth of a Nation was a distillation and culmination of every technical and narrative lesson of the silent era, Citizen Kane is the same with lessons of the early sound era.
Steven Spielberg and 1993
1993 was a great year for Steven Spielberg. He released two films that year, one of his best, and one of his most enduring culturally. They were Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park, and I think it’s a perfect distillation of the two different types of important films.
Schindler’s List was a topically important film. It’s a stark portrait of the Holocaust that pulls the audience in and won’t let go. Spielberg knew exactly what he was doing with that film. His idea to strip the movie of everything beautiful, including color, made the movie even more beautiful to look at. The unflinching view of the processes implemented in Nazi Germany are evocative. Many people complain about the ending, insisting that the Holocaust shouldn’t have anything close to an upbeat ending, but considering the focus of the story is on one man who helped saved lives, I think it’s appropriate.
Jurassic Park, even at the time, was a historically important film. The movie represented a shift in technology that everyone saw coming a mile away. Spielberg, one of the most powerful creative men in Hollywood, was throwing his weight behind the new technology of Computer Generated Effects on a scale that no one had attempted before. He led the creation of dinosaurs purely from computers. He had toyed with some advanced stop-motion techniques, but ultimately gambled on the 1’s and 0’s of a computer, and changed filmmaking forever. The change was certainly inevitable, but Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is the first major motion picture that actually took that leap at that scale to those results.
Steven Spielberg Now
Spielberg’s done similar things in a few other years. 1989 saw both Always and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. 1997 saw both Amistad and The Lost World: Jurassic Park. 2002 saw both Catch Me if You Can and Minority Report. 2005 saw both Munich and War of the Worlds. 2011 saw both War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. He’s been trying to balance popular filmmaking with “important films” for most of his career, and somewhat ironically, his popular films have, on average, had a more lasting impact. Who watches Amistad anymore? Or War Horse? Or Always? The nakedly popular ones seem to have lasted longer like Minority Report, the Indiana Jones movies, and Jurassic Park.
He did this again in 2017-2018 when he released The Post and Ready Player One.
So, I finally checked this out, and it’s not bad, but it’s…weird from a storytelling perspective. The hoopla around the Pentagon Papers is really the story of The New York Times getting its source, verifying everything, and then fighting the Nixon administration on the stories. And yet, the movie focused on…The Washington Post. They’re an also ran in the story, even as the story is told within the film itself. They’re playing catchup from beginning to end, and only end up as supporting players in the court fight to the New York Times.
The script was written early in 2016, at a time when everyone believed that Hillary Clinton was going to win the presidency. With that in mind, it becomes easy to see why the focus fell where it did. Katherine Graham, the female publisher of The Washington Post, played a small part in a large power play in Washington D.C. The movie was meant as a thinly veiled ode to the rise in power of Hillary Clinton, another woman.
When Spielberg was on the rounds for Oscar talk, he ended up playing up a different connection to current events. He took the movie into production after Clinton lost the election, but without changing the script. He talked about the fight for the Pentagon Papers was reflective of the fight against the new Republican president, but the story doesn’t actually fit the analogy particularly well. Spielberg took a topical story that was meant to go one way, twisted it to go another post-hoc, and ended up creating something kind of confusing in terms of point and theme. It’s a Spielberg production, so it looks good, moves well, and is well acted, but the overall portrait is, well, weird.
When someone tells me that a movie is important, they’re usually saying that the movie agrees with them about something. Politics, religion, social issues, whatever. I instantly shut down any interest, because so many of these movies are less concerned with entertaining me than preaching to me.
I remember an interaction where I called The Stoning of Soraya M good, but not great. I was lambasted by a few people, because didn’t I see that it was telling truth? Well, maybe it was, but I had problems with how the movie was built, how the story was told. I don’t care about the movie’s opinions about the world, but I do care about how it involves me in the story. If I need something from outside the movie to “get” it, like a point of view, for instance, I’m going to miss something, even if I already share it. The movie needs to be all encompassing in what it presents.
Historically important films are far more interesting to me, even when the movies themselves aren’t great. Understanding the context around the film can certainly help (especially in the case of something like Easy Rider), but many, if not most, of these films are well told stories to begin with. I feel like greater context is actually not that necessary because it’s so easy to watch Citizen Kane without the context of its importance to the early sound era and still see a marvelously told story.
Ultimately, I want my filmmakers like Spielberg to focus on entertaining me rather than telling me what to think. No one’s going to care about the latter, and the former will stand the test of time more readily.