The audacious scope of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Essential Cinema exhibition, a visual presentation of its list of the one hundred most iconic and vital films of all time (as chosen by the festival’s expert panel, with significant input from the viewing public), doesn’t fully come across until you’re standing in the room full of its artifacts at the Bell Lightbox galleries. Cinematic exceptionalism looms large over visitors.
An original poster for the hard-bitten romance of Godard’s Breathless takes on the appearance of the best jazz album you’ve never heard. Turn around and you’ll run up against HAL 9000’s lens-eye from 2001: A Space Odyssey, hauntingly detached for your examination. And that’s just across from Robert DeNiro’s taxi license circa 1976, obtained in preparation for his role in Taxi Driver, featuring an ID photo pasted on at just the sort of unnerving angle you would expect Travis Bickle’s to have been.
“When we were constructing the idea of the gallery we convened an artists committee to help us with it, and Clement Virgo, the Toronto filmmaker, said something so beautiful,” recalls Noah Cowan, the Lightbox’s artistic director. “He said, ‘it’s really important that you expose people to the actual props and costumes that were in films, because they hold the magical power of creativity within them.’ So even at this late distance, when you look at Claudia Cardinale’s dress [from The Leopard] or HAL’s eye, there’s a frisson of the moment when that object became part of our culture. And there isn’t another art form which can quite do that.”
It’s all attractively intimidating, just as compiling a list of 100 Essential Anything, let alone movies, surely would be. Cowan told us about that experience, and the meaning of crucial filmmaking.
What kind of debate went into compiling the Essential 100?
You should’ve been in the room! We argued for days about that list. I’m very happy in retrospect that we engaged in a rather complex process to create the Essential 100.
Essentially it’s a marriage of a Top 100 list from the internal experts [at TIFF] and a list of one hundred culled from thousands of surveys completed by our public stakeholders. I think it reflects that push-pull between programmer and audience that makes the festival work so well. It made for some hilarious arguments; we all champion different movies and basically have made our careers on favouring different genres and movements in cinema, so it was contentious to say the least. I mean, my favorite films are hopelessly schizophrenic—everything from Palm Beach Story to the work of Dario Argento. If I was asked to do an essential film series on my own it would be completely incoherent. I’m glad I had the guidance of my peers and the public for this.
Were any of the selections particularly controversial?
D.W. Griffith always inspires a lot of conversation, but most of the challenges came because of a self-imposed rule: only one film per director. So directors who worked in multiple genres or had many different phases of a successful career made it very challenging. Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Billy Wilder were all incredibly difficult because they had so many great films but also so many films that were so different. Hawks [who directed the classic John Wayne western trilogy of Rio Bravo, El Dorado and Rio Lobo] was probably the most contentious because many of us wanted a western which wasn’t a John Ford western, and we found ourselves going through a first draft without a screwball comedy—Ford finally won [with The Searchers, relegating Hawks to his 1938 comedy Bringing Up Baby], but not without a big fight.
More problematically, there’s only one film by a woman on the list, which gave us a lot of pause because that didn’t feel quite right. And I think that the developing world and the movements of the ’60s and ’70s maybe were not as represented as they could have been. Jaws is another one that I think would be controversial for a lot of people.
It’s interesting to see some very recent films like The Lives of Others and Slumdog Millionaire on the list. The vast majority of the selections have at least a few years behind them.
I was actually very happy to see these new films on the list—it makes the list a little less churchy, a little less like a hymn book. I think it actually reinforces the fact that these lists can and must change on an ongoing basis; we might just do this again in five or ten years, and suffer no embarrassment at all if the one hundred are fifty percent different.
“What makes a film great is a certain alchemy between artistic creativity, the business of film, and audience memory. When that mixture isn’t exactly right, films sort of drop away.”
Do you think it’s possible to set out to make an essential film, whether—
[Laughs] Absolutely not!
So it’s all serendipity?
Well, I think that one of the things the exhibition reinforces is that iconography is a slippery thing—just ask all those de-canonized saints in the Catholic church. What makes a film great is a certain alchemy between artistic creativity, the business of film, and audience memory. When that mixture isn’t exactly right, films sort of drop away.
The question arises because one can think of Apocalypse Now (#46 on the list), which clearly intended to be a big “statement” film, versus Casablanca (#8) which was basically a standard Hollywood flick which then caught on.
Well, Casablanca was greatly embraced by audiences immediately, but probably even that film would have faded from popular imagination except that in the ’70s, a Boston cinema called The Brattle championed it and created the kind of Bogey look which now has become a sort of cliché signature of Golden Age Hollywood. So if you go back into the history of cinema there are films which at the time were considered to be far more important than some that are on our list: The Best Years of Our Lives, Mrs. Miniver, Of Mice and Men—these were meant to be the films that were going to last. They were literary; they spoke to a generation; they absolutely would have appeared on the Essential 100 of 1962. But 2010, not so much.
So the Essential 100 list might be more reflective of the era in which it was assembled.
Yeah, different films have different resonance. While F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise is a perennial favorite, it’s also extremely contemporary in terms of what it’s talking about and its impact. Let’s see what some of the contemporary filmmakers who are on the list are able to do in the years to come. I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of them actually remained, but not with the film that’s on the list now.
Is there any artifact in the exhibit which evokes a strong personal meaning for you?
The most meaningful piece for me is Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho Back and Forth and To and Fro [which slows down the Hitchcock film to twenty-four hours in length across two screens, one playing forwards and the other in reverse]. To be perfectly honest, though it’s been a great joy of my life, it’s sometimes hard to watch as many films as I do. I’ve probably seen, I don’t know, certainly fifty, sixty, seventy-thousand films at this point, and some days are better than others when you’re dealing with that quantity of material. And when I first saw 24 Hour Psycho it blew my mind, because suddenly a film which I was so familiar with—I mean ridiculously familiar, because I had Richard Anobile’s frame-by-frame book when I was growing up—suddenly became something very different. It became sculpture, it became photography, it became a meditation on film itself, and really re-energized me in my career. Since then I’ve been working very hard to find more affinities between visual arts and film, and trying to really champion that.
Photos and story by Brendan Adam Zwelling/The Style Notebook.
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