Smile Politely

The British Film Institute Film Classics Series

Since 1998, the American Film Institute has been issuing lists touting a wide variety of “great” features present in homegrown movies. Not content to rest on its laurels with its 100 best American movies, the 100 greatest movie stars, the 100 best comedies, the 100 best thrillers, the 100 best romances, these rosters have often focused on such minutiae as the 100 best quotes and songs, while revisiting its first list of 100 best movies in order to revise it.

While the AFI continues to make a mockery of itself acting like nothing more than Blockbuster Video’s government sponsor, as promotions for the movies on these lists are prominently featured at the chain’s stores, the British Film Institute has quietly embarked on an ambitious, long term project that will ensure the preservation of key films in world cinema. Known as the 360 Classic Feature Films project, this massive undertaking began in 1982 the brainchild of BFI film archivist David Meeker.

Deciding that Londoners should have the opportunity to view a film masterpiece approximately every day during the course of the year, Meeker approached the board of directors at the BFI with his idea of compiling a list of 360 of the world’s cinema masterpieces, collect brand new, state-of-the-art prints of each film and issue a companion book for each movie.

While the AFI’s lists are done with the input of a massive committee, Meeker insisted that he be the only one involved in compiling this list. “It was extremely difficult to draw up the list (but)…You can’t program by committee: someone has to take responsibility,” was his reasoning. Obviously, this stance and the list itself generated its fair share of controversy when it was announced, the main criticism being that it leaned heavily towards classic Hollywood films. Covering the years 1914–1981, the list does feature 139 American films but also includes works from 25 other countries while including movies from each and every genre. Any collection that features Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead earns points for diversity. Documentaries appear in the form of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia; Walt Disney’s animated classics Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia also made the grade, while features by the Marx Brothers (Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera) and examples of German Expressionism (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis), Italian Neo-Realism (Rome, Open City) and Japanese adventures (The Seven Samurai) were also included. 11 John Ford features are cited, while Renoir, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell were represented with seven films apiece. Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort (The Night of the Hunter) was also added while schlockmeister Roger Corman also made the cut (The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre). The list provides one surprise after another and proves far more rewarding than the AFI ‘s catalogs as it is more diverse and extensive in the films it features. (The entire list was featured at the BFI web site but is no longer posted. The list can be found here.)

New prints have been struck and added to the BFI’s permanent collection for just over half of the films on the list. The organization has yet to begin screening these features but they began issuing the companion volumes for movies on the list in 1992. These sleek, digest-sized editions are highly-readable books that educate, entertain and encourage further exploration of the medium and the films. Like collecting the master prints, the writing of these volumes is a work in progress. 95 books in the series have been published with companion editions for Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves, Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist and Edgar Ulmer’s Detour planned for release over the next six months.

The most unique and rewarding aspect of this series is that, for the most part, these books are written in an accessible but scholarly manner that will appeal to the serious film scholar or the casual movie buff. This is facilitated in large part by the diverse roster of writers that the BFI has gathered to pen these works. As expected, respected film scholars are on board (Richard Schickel’s volume on Double Indemnity, which chronicles the birth of film noir and Billy Wilder’s seminal classic, is one of the best entries, while Jonathan Rosenbaum’s dissection of Erich von Stroheim’s silent classic Greed, is a must), but other inspired choices bring a unique perspective to other film gems. Author Salman Rushdie examines The Wizard of Oz, which he writes “is a film whose driving force is the inadequacy of adults, even of good adults, and how the weakness of grown-ups forces children to take control of their own destinies… “ Citing this movie as “…my very first literary encounter..” and the work that “…made a writer out of me..” Rushdie’s critical analysis is made poignant because he touches on how it effected him personally, making it a standout in this solid series.

Inspired choices such as these set these books apart and make them well worth searching for. Radical feminist Camille Paglia examines The Birds, positing that the film’s themes are captivity and domestication which the main character, played by Tippi Hedren, fights against throughout the movie much like her avian counterparts. Filmmaker Robert Eaton calls Chinatown “the last studio picture” while examining its roots in the film noir genre, while author Simon Louvish joyfully traces the history of the classic gags that make up W.C. Fields’ It’s a Gift. No matter the author, each book is meticulously researched, contains a generous number of still and production photos and is reasonably priced ($14.95).

Unlike the AFI, the BFI has set the standard for film preservation and scholarship by undertaking the 360 Classic Feature Films project and publishing these books. They also haven’t been afraid to change with the times, as the Film Classics series now includes volumes devoted to films not included on the original list, giving the project a sense of relevancy. Having published 48 separate volumes under the BFI Modern Classics label, the organization had recognized the limitations of its original list by issuing volumes on current classic such as Unforgiven and The Thing. However, that series has been under the Film Classics umbrella to give the whole enterprise a more coherent feel.

By making film history accessible to the masses with these handsome, affordable and highly-readable volumes, this organization continues to prove that they’re serious about fostering cinema education in the hopes that future generations will recognize the value of this medium and take steps to preserve it. Hopefully, the AFI will eventually take note of the steps their counterpart is taking and institute a similar program, rather than just providing the American public with suggestions about what to rent on a Saturday night.

More information about the BFI Film Classics series can found at:

Macmillan Publishers and The Unofficial BFI Film Book Guide.

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