30 October 2010

This List Is Your List, This List Is My List

Unless you're new to this blog (in which case, welcome!) you already know that I've become an enthusiastic follower of Roger Ebert this year.  I don't always agree with his position on a given subject or movie, but I generally find his essays thought provoking.  Tonight, he shared an article from the Wall Street Journal characterizing his contempt for movie lists, and it kicked off some back and forth in the comments section.  I'd been meaning to work up a post along these lines anyway, so it's fortuitous to have this as my impetus.

Lists are often misused and more often misunderstood.  The general idea is that, to make it onto any given list a subject has to meet certain criteria.  You wouldn't put sneakers on your grocery list, for instance, because sneakers aren't sold at grocery stores.  The more specific the theme of the list, the more exclusionary criteria there are.  That's an objective list, though, and does not suit our purposes here because it's hard to have an opinion about an objective list.  They're merely aggregations of data.

Subjective lists, though, are the source of consternation.  Every December magazines and websites compile their obligatory, best-of-the-year lists.  Readers always object to inclusions, omissions and rankings, but that's the whole point: to inspire discourse.  Yes, a lot of times that discourse is vapid, but how is that any more different than any other editorial?  Let's say someone finds my little blog here and reads my review of a book or movie and their entire response is, "I loved it, too!" or "You're crazy, that movie sucked."  Is that any more helpful or insightful than "You left out [insert title]" or "[Insert title] should have been higher?"

Ergo, being a list does not mandate that all responses will be such conversational dead ends.  If a reader articulates why a given inclusion/exclusion/ranking felt out of place, then hasn't the list done its job of provoking discourse?  There's nothing stopping lists from attracting that level of response, and I'm sure there are plenty of letters written every December that are just as engaging and passionate as any formal, non-list review.  It seems to me a mistake to be so dismissive of lists because they happen to be lists.

Readers of this blog will also recall my adoration of Flickchart and ICheckMovies, both movie-centric websites dedicated to lists.  Flickchart asks visitors to choose between two randomly selected movies.  You can use whatever criteria you see fit to make your choice, and you can take as long as you need.  Once you've made a decision, the site ranks (or re-ranks) the selection you made, until you've got a fairly accurate depiction of your personal favorite movies.

The genius is that when you're presented with choosing between The Seventh Seal and A History of Violence, you've got to examine two very different works from a variety of perspectives. In the former, a returning crusader prolongs his demise by engaging Death in a game of chess in the hopes that he can find some satisfactory meaning in dying. In the latter, a former mob hit man's past tracks him to the small town where he has reinvented himself as a family man who runs a diner. One is a philosophical rumination on life, death, God, love and fear; the other is a gripping, gritty drama that tests the limits of devotion. However you decide, it's not easy and it's the few minutes you spend thinking it over that is the real meaning of Flickchart; not wherever either movie is ranked once you've made your decision.

The appeal of ICheckMovies is that they compile lists from various critics (including Mr. Ebert's ongoing "Greatest Movies"), websites, institutions, etc. and you get to check off the ones you've seen.  Should anyone accept these lists as definitive in any way?  Of course not; that would be obscenely subservient.  But they are fairly diverse, covering a healthy range of eras, genres and milieus and are a fantastic starting point for fans wishing to delve into film.  I'm still very much a novice at exploring even the acclaimed classics, much less the niche films that the pretentious cinema snobs insist are so much more important.  It's nice to have a sort of introductory guide to those movies to which I've had no real exposure.

To my way of thinking, then, both these websites demonstrate a positive use for lists.  One is an impetus for considering films in a comparative way; the other is a handy way to begin exploring the medium.  But then, it's worth noting that I'm a nobody.  I don't have to endure the constant deluge of requests for lists that floods Mr. Ebert's in box on a daily basis.  I will say that the one point on which he and I strongly agree is that too often these lists exist for no more apparent reason than to drive up page views for websites by creating an individual page for each entry.  It's obnoxious, I rarely follow through any list presented in such a fashion and I can promise you that whenever I post a list in this blog, it'll all be in one place.  (Unless, of course, it's something like my 2010 DVD Talk Horror Challenge weekly lists, because I've included mini-reviews for each film and having all that in one post would be ridiculously unwieldy.)

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