April 08, 2003
Pleasure versus art - thoughts on a list of favourite films

Over at 2Blowhards they have one of those lists of films that various people like.

I too am fond of Police Academy, Turner and Hooch, Top Gun, Every Which Way But Loose, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, to mention five that are on their list.

I also like a lot – let's see now – Under Siege (Seagal, battle ship), The Sure Thing, that one with De Niro and Fonda where De Niro finally learns how to read (which would explain a lot), Notting Hill, Clueless, LA Story, The Battle of Britain, The Manchurian Candidate, It's A Wonderful Life, City of Angels (until Nicholas Cage stops being an angel), Moonstruck, About Last Night, The Dam Busters, A Few Good Men, Dave, Overboard, Groundhog Day, all the Fred and Gingers, The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, Pretty in Pink, 16 Candles, Some Kind of Wonderful, Klute, One Hundred and One Dalmations (original cartoon version), Get Carter (Caine – haven't seen the much despised Stallone one), Patton, When Harry Met Sally, Sense and Sensibility, The Electric Horseman, The Day of The Jackal, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Bull Durham, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Stardust Memories (the only Woody not available on DVD for some damn reason), the one with Sarandon and Spader where she plays a oldish but still sexy waitress, The Owl and The Pussycat, The Glenn Miller Story, Six Days and Seven Nights (not sure about the numbers there – it's the one where that lesbian does a fine turn as a hetero (it's called acting)), What's Up Doc, The Train, Flay Away Home (goose rescuing), Into The Night (Pfeiffer and Goldblum), The Family Man, Legally Blonde, the one with Joe Pesci as a dodgy lawyer with the girl friend (Marisa Tomei?) who turns out to be a car expert, Down To You (the gorgeous Julia Stiles), Ten Things I Hate About You (ditto), and Eyes of Laura Mars, to name but some. Oh, and Godfathers 1 and 2. They're good too. Schindler's List was also impressive. And there are lots more that I've forgotten. Yes, add the Edward Fox playing General Horrocks bits of A Bridge Too Far.

(If you like your film titles italicised or emboldened or inverted comma-ed, then I suggest you download this piece and do the job yourself.)

In my list there is a clear bias towards romance, comic or otherwise, with occasional random deviations into violence.

I'm struck by the general absence of special effects. The point there being that I only seem to watch those films once, however much I admired and enjoyed them that first time. Terminator 2 impressed the hell out of me, but now that I can watch it whenever I want, I don't seem to want to. Two other films that I hugely admired when I saw them but don't much relish seeing again are Witchfinder General and The Last Valley. Too scary. In general, I don't like horror. I find it horrifying.

This is not an invitation to my seven regular readers to bombard me with their seven lists of the films they like. They can if they like. I won't delete such comments. But that's not my real point here.

No, my point is: this distinction which I have tended to knuckle under to, but am starting now seriously to shake off, between my "official" list of "great" or at least "good" or "decent" movies that I want you to know that I like, and the actual list of the movies that I actually do like. You think I'm insane for liking The Owl and the Pussycat, or for omitting that black and white one that everyone includes about the French Resistance (and in general for not having any subtitles in my list, not even Amelie), well … my list is my list. Think what you like. Tend to your list.

You know the kind of lists I'm objecting to. The ones in the Sunday newspaper Culture Sections with Citizen Kane at the top and The Godfather 2 near the bottom (even better than Godfather 1 blah blah) and three foreign ones you've scarcely heard of, apart from them being in lots of lists, and just one frivolous one or maybe two, picked with a pin from a list like the one I've just supplied. After all, I am a human being as well as a film critic!

And then there is the unofficial but true list, of the ones the guy actually likes. Mostly smash and grab, or mostly porn, or mostly Catherine Z-J because he is fixated on her but would never admit it in company.

The 2 Blowhards list both challenges and perpetuates this distinction. On the one hand, it is a list of pleasures. This is not the Official Citizen Kane At The Top List. On the other hand it is a list of shameful pleasures. But why shameful?

Looming underneath and towering beyond all this is the distinction between on the one hand, pleasure, and on the other hand, in the completely opposite corner, pleasure's mortal foe, ART. Love-it-but-shouldn't versus ought-to-love-it-but-don't. In other genres: pleasurable reading versus literature, or fun music versus Proper and Serious Classical Music which I really ought to listen to more blah blah.

My list contains quite a few Officially Very Good films, such as recur on other Official Lists, like Some Like It Hot, The Manchurian Candidate, It's A Wonderful Life, and the Godfathers. But most of them wouldn't be allowed in any but tiny numbers on one of those Official Lists, not if I wanted to keep my job as a film critic.

Some of my favourites are, I know, flawed, and I just like them despite their flaws. But others strike me as a great deal better than that. I love them, and I expect Posterity to pay such opinions more attention than it pays them now, if you get my drift.

To put it another way, I think that, of the many posterities out there waiting to have their various turns as Posterity, there is at least one which thinks that Some Kind of Wonderful and Into The Night are better art than Citizen Kane. I'm not saying it's right, mind. I'm just saying.

I'll feel free to change my list without warning. It's there to help me decide what to watch; it's not the boss of me or of my viewing habits. That's an important pleasure principle: never get stuck with what you've told yourself you like, any more than you should get stuck with what others have told you is art.

The 2 Blowhards, one of them anyway, will agree with almost all of this, despite that "shameful". I know, because, this time in a literary setting, he flat says so, here. And it a lot of other places too, is my distinct recollection. If I get him right, this bogus distinction between pleasure and art is one of the major leitmotifs of his entire blogging mission.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:22 PM
Category: Movies