My recent Wall Street Journal piece
about Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, which I declared to be the greatest movie ever made, has drawn quite a bit of reader mail. One person wrote to say that he preferred Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, and asked what I thought of it. Another wanted to know what my Top Five films were.
As it happens, Our Girl in Chicago gave me a DVD of L’Atalante for Christmas. I had to put it aside–things, as you know, have been a trifle hectic of late–so we decided to watch it together last night after coming home from Paul Taylor. The pairing turned out to be serendipitous, since L’Atalante, though it has dialogue, feels more like a silent film (which isn’t necessarily surprising for a movie made in 1934). The words are mere props for the unfolding imagery, and most of them could have been flashed on title cards without impairing the overall effect. It’s a perfectly lovely film, sweet and unaffected and very, very French, and it made me think of The Triplets of Belleville, another oh-so-French movie in which the journey matters far more than the arrival.
A keeper, in other words, though it didn’t crash my Top Five list. David Thomson, who ranks it in his own Top Ten, catches its essential quality nicely: “It is love without spoken explanation, unaffected by sentimental songs; but love as a mysterious, passionate affinity between inarticulate human animals. A fairy tale about plain, even ugly people, its intensity is always to be found in its images.” All true, which probably explains why I still prefer The Rules of the Game to L’Atalante. I’m a writer, after all, and I’ve never doubted for a moment that the place of words in non-silent film is pivotal, far more so than most film theorists are prepared to admit.
Whit Stillman, who makes wonderfully talky movies, once said to me:
Some visual purists still think film is pictures at an exhibition. They seem to forget that we’ve been making sound films ever since the Twenties. Talk is incredibly important….Of course you have to be very careful with it, and I understand why all the screenwriting gurus warn against too much dialogue, but I think they’re making a mistake. Even action films often have very good dialogue, though there isn’t necessarily a lot of it. What’s the charm of a buddy comedy? Just to see two guys shooting bullets? It’s what the two guys say to each other that matters.
I agree. When I want to immerse myself in wordless narrative, I listen to a symphony or look at a plotless ballet. This isn’t to say that wordlessness can’t be a tremendously effective device in narrative filmmaking (remember the first scene in Rio Bravo?), but it is a device, an effect, not the normative condition of the medium. Exceptions don’t prove or test a rule: they define it. Jerome Robbins once made a terrific ballet without music called Moves–but he only did it once. Similarly, moving pictures cried out for sound, and once it came, the silent movie vanished overnight. I don’t think that was a historical accident, much less a mistake.
And what about that Top Five list? Well, I don’t know whether I really care to oblige my curious correspondent. In my experience, it’s usually not that hard to pick a One Best–absolute excellence is by definition self-evident–but no sooner do you venture below the pinnacle than all sorts of other factors crowd into your viewfinder. When Time asked me to pick the best dance of the 20th century, for instance, I didn’t have to think twice before choosing George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, but I found it much harder to decide on two runners-up, though I finally opted for Paul Taylor’s Esplanade and Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas. Up to a point, the problems of choice multiply as the list grows longer, though eventually they subside. I suspect that most serious moviegoers’ lists of the 50 greatest films (as opposed to their 50 personal favorites) would overlap substantially, but their Top Ten lists would wander all over the map.
For me, The Rules of the Game is the obvious Greatest Movie Ever Made, and I expect a lot of other critics would agree with me, or at least consider it a completely plausible candidate. Beyond that, I have my doubts. Right at this moment–and no other–I’d be inclined to follow it up with Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The General (a silent film, please note!), and…er, um…I don’t know. The Searchers? His Girl Friday? Chinatown? I simply can’t tell you. The greatest opera ever written is The Marriage of Figaro, except when it’s Falstaff, but what’s the fifth greatest? That’s a party game, and a good one, and if you’re in the right mood it’s also a way of clarifying your own feelings about art–but nothing more.
I’ll end by quoting myself. This is a snippet from “Living with Art,” the essay I wrote for Commentary about my collection of prints:
Living with art teaches you things about the criteria of quality that cannot be learned in any other way, things I am still in the process of learning. If I had to guess–and it is nothing more than that–I would say the finest piece I own is Milton Avery’s March at a Table, closely followed by Isle au Haut and Piazza Rotunda. But there are many times when I would rather look at Grey Fireworks, Stuart Davis’ jazzy Any as Given, or the gossamer untitled Wolf Kahn monotype that now hangs over my mantelpiece. This never-ending cycle of looking and experiencing is one of the most instructive aspects of living with art. To see a painting or print on a daily basis is to learn from hard experience what makes some works of art durable and others ephemeral. Experienced collectors speak of how certain paintings “go dead on the wall,” meaning that their appeal fades over time and with familiarity. So far, all 15 of my pieces are still alive and well, but I never cease to be fascinated by how my preference for one over another shifts from day to day.
So it is with the making of Top Five lists as with the watching of L’Atalante and The Triplets of Belleville: all the fun is getting there.