Big fish in a small pond


When I compiled my top 10 movie list a couple of weeks ago, I realized that I haven’t seen very many of the older movies that seem to be on all of the “greatest movies of all time” lists. 

So Friday night Megan and I watched Casablanca, which is #2 on the American Film Institute’s top 100 list.  I really wanted to like this film.  After all, it would open up a whole new world of oldies but goodies just waiting to be watched.  But the truth is that I was underwhelmed.  The acting was pretty bad and the storyline was just OK.

It bothers me that I didn’t like this movie.  Am I so uncultured and/or unintelligent that I can’t see the genius in it?  That’s always a possibility, but in this case I think the truth is that Casablanca is good but not great.

This got me thinking — what makes a movie great?  And should the greatness of a movie be measured in relative terms (compared to other movies of the same period or genre) or in absolute terms (compared to all movies ever made)?

Here are the criteria used by the AFI for developing their top 100 list: 

  • Critical Recognition: Formal commendation in print, television, and digital media.
  • Major Award Winner: Recognition from competitive events including awards from peer groups, critics, guilds and major film festivals.
  • Popularity Over Time: This includes success at the box office, television and cable airings, and DVD/VHS sales and rentals.
  • Historical Significance: A film’s mark on the history of the moving image through visionary narrative devices, technical innovation or other groundbreaking achievements.
  • Cultural Impact: A film’s mark on American society in matters of style and substance.

If you think about it, most of these criteria favor older movies.  I prefer to evaluate a movie in absolute terms — how it stacks up to all the other movies I’ve seen — with no points added for historical significance (and no points subtracted for technological limitations of the era).  How good is the story and how well is it conveyed by the actors, director, and camera crew? 

I have no doubt that Casablanca was one of the best movies of its time — the proverbial big fish in a small pond — but I don’t see how it could be called one of the best movies ever made.

Today there are probably 100 times more people making 100 times more movies than there were in 1942 when Casablanca was made.  And today’s filmmakers have a much larger body of work to learn from and build upon.  It stands to reason that the craft of moviemaking has evolved and improved.  Sure, Hollywood produces a lot of bad movies, but it also produces a few gems each year. 

In mathematical terms, if you believe that the number of great movies created in a year is a function of the total number made and the talent/experience of those making them, then you’d expect most of the best movies to have been made in the past 20 or 30 years.  Certainly there are older movies out there that are true masterpieces, but those would be the exception rather than the rule.

I think there is an analogy here to sports.  In 1936, Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals at the Berlin Olympics and cemented his place in history.  But looking back from 2007, Owens wasn’t so fast.  His 100 meter world record time (10.3 sec) wouldn’t be good enough for a state high school record in Texas today, let alone the world record (which currently stands at 9.74 sec). 

Was Jesse Owens a phenomenal athlete and important historical figure?  Absolutely.  But is he one of the fastest people of all time?  Not even close — the fact is that hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people have run faster.  One could argue that if Owens had been born 70 years later and had the benefit of today’s advanced training techniques, nutrition, and shoes he would have been faster.  That may or may not be true — it’s impossible to know.  He’d have been a big fish in a much bigger pond.

So what is my point?  Simlpy that most of the “top movies of all time” lists rate movies on a relative basis, and therefore don’t live up to their billing.  They should be called “top movies of their time” lists.  I’m going to keep watching some of the more critically acclaimed older movies, but I have a feeling that I may be disappointed more often than pleasantly surprised.


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