Ben Stark’s Shelf of Shame, Revisited

In September, I sacrificed my pride on the Film Nerds alter, confessing that I had not seen five highly regarded cinematic classics. Per the Matt Scalici edict for the Shelf of Shame, I was to give myself six months to watch these “blind spots” and, thinking a challenge was what I needed to conquer a few monsters, gave myself quite a big slate to cover. Two films on my list ran longer than 3 hours… One of them running as long as 10!

Unfortunately, I failed to see them all within the six month period. My original post was written on September 15, 2011.

Regardless, I’m so glad I undertook this challenge, and I wish Ben Flanagan luck on his own recent descent into humility.

Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the five films no longer on my Shelf.

5.) Dazed & Confused
Having not seen any Richard Linklater films outside of A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, this was one that I was very interested in finally seeing. It proved itself to be an obvious pick for a compulsively watchable cult film, and there are plenty of moments here that very accurately sum up the feelings of high school: The glee of the last day of the year, badly organized parties in the woods, and countless hours spent driving around with friends, lamenting a lack of romantic entanglement. All that said, it’s really hard not to compare this film with American Graffiti (D&C fan Ben Flanagan mentioned that Linklater would most likely call for a comparison), and if I have to force myself, American Graffiti certainly takes the cake for its high stakes, amazing cinematography, timeless soundtrack, and relentless pace. Whatever the case, if you haven’t seen Dazed & Confused, it not only sits high on the list of “great high school movies”, but it also makes a strong case for being the ultimate 90’s film, as all of the aimless woes of Generation X are interestingly transferred to the anxieties of teens in the post-counterculture 70’s.

4.) 8 ½
Not only did my collegiate travels through Neo Realism and New Wave cinema somehow swerve around this classic from Federico Fellini, but they also shielded me from the knowledge of its fantastical nature. I had always ignorantly presumed that 8 ½ was a comment on Italian culture in the same way that the marvelous La Dolce Vita was. What makes this realization even more embarrasing is the fact that I’ve seen Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, completely aware that it was a reaction to 8 ½. Somehow the pieces just didn’t stick in my brain, but imagine my surprise when I found myself spending time in the glorious world of this masterpiece. Not only did I enjoy 8 ½ so much more than even La Dolce Vita, I found myself completely wrapped up in Fellini’s mission and plight, his antagonistic relationship to his contemporaries that felt he was turning his back on realism. What Werner Herzog would call “the agitation of the mind” is ever-present in 8 ½, and what struck me was less its reliance on director-as-perspective than its insistance on dismantling masculine psychology. Despite the visual flourishes and overall design of the film, what really sold it for me was the emotional through-line dealing with the hero’s relationship with his wife. The fact that Fellini communicated such a deep understanding of these characters in the midst of flourishes involving mind reading, fantasies, and surrealist flashbacks makes this truly deserving of its high regard as a cinematic accomplishment.

3.) Bringing Up Baby
This well-regarded Howard Hawks gem is the only real trifle on the list, considering Dazed & Confused’s place as a landmark film for a “serious” director. There are different stages of “zany” in the realm of screwball comedies. If George Stevens’ reasonably restrained and socially conscious Talk of the Town is a 0 out of 5 on the zany scale, then Bringing Up Baby is a 5. In fact, the film’s energy is so nerve-wracking that my wife couldn’t get past the first ten minutes or so. Originally, audiences shared her sentiment, as this was the film that earned Katherine Hepburn the title of “box office poison”. I’ll admit that it took me the entirety of the first act to really tune into the film’s frequency, but once I was there, it was a great ride. I still prefer some of Hawks’ other screwballs, such as His Girl Friday and Ball of Fire, but when it comes to bonkers thrill-rides, Bringing Up Baby belongs in the same conversation as Arsenic & Old Lace and my own personal favorite, Preston Sturges’ Palm Beach Story.

2.) Gone with the Wind
This was the true monster. I think, in the back of my mind, I was convinced that I’d die never having seen Gone with the Wind. It just seemed too long, too much of a weepy, and too socially inaccessible for me to make time for. Lo and behold, my wife and I knocked it out over two nights, and boy am I glad I did. It’s tempting to measure this movie up to other all-time box office giants like Star Wars, Avatar, and E.T., but that might need to wait for another discussion. Really, what bowled me over about this movie was its severely dark tone and truly detestable protagonist. I never knew that Scarlett O’Hara is the female Daniel Plainview, and the fact that fans of There Will Be Blood don’t draw this parallel is shocking. Both films take the American spirit to its logical conclusion, positing that self-reliance, when unchecked, will destroy… that we, as individuals, cannot support our own ambitions when turned on ourselves. The fact that this film has so widely been accepted as a testament to post-Enlightenment individuality without a shred of irony is absolutely horrifying, but shouldn’t draw judgment on the film itself. Victor Fleming and David O. Selznick never once ask us to unequivocally cheer Scarlet – even when she shoots a villain square in the FACE we are forced to confront the morality of the situation – and yet, to uninitiated cinephiles like myself, Gone with the Wind is “marketed” as a heroic saga, rather than the dark tragedy it is. A fascinating movie.

1.) The Decalogue
When I picked this as the number one title on my Shelf of Shame, I did it with the knowledge that this project from Krzysztof Kieslowski was not technically a film, but a series for Polish television. My hope was that it embraced cinematic conventions enough to engage me the way a great, ambitious film might, with a visual approach to grammar that would categorize it as “cinema”. Well, I have to admit that The Decalogue is NOT a film. It is a TV series. While there is thematic crossover – even a hair of character crossover – these are individual vignettes dedicated to telling self-contained stories through television grammar, on a television budget: using close-ups, an emphasis on dialogue, and closed spaces. All that said, it is among the five or so most important TV series in the history of the medium. Whether it be the character emphasis of Lost, the complex moral tensions of Breaking Bad, or the lyrical melancholy of Twin Peaks, every great television show since the early 1990s owes a great deal to The Decalogue. And, while I’m a bit disappointed that I did not get to see the full-tilt directorial prowess of Kieslowksi here, there are some exquisitely directed episodes. My favorites include IX and X, the latter of which plays almost like a dark comedy. So, while The Decalogue is not the cinematic director’s workshop I was hoping for, it is certainly is essential viewing for aspiring screenwriters looking for ways to translate theme into story.

So that’s it! I’m surprisingly proud of myself for tackling a few of these, and I’m very happy to lose the obligatory weight that’s been hanging around my Netflix queue for the past six months. In the past, just thinking about tackling a few of the above titles would give me tinges of anxiety.

All that said, there are several titles on my expanded Shelf of Shame: Paths of Glory, The Conversation, Spirited Away, Straw Dogs, Tokyo Story, Strangers on a Train, Scanners, Good Will Hunting, Dr. Zhivago, Birth of A Nation, Some Like it Hot, It Happened One Night, All About Eve, Hannah & Her Sisters and even freaking Ben-Hur (either one).

Oof. Suddenly, the anxiety has returned.