by Chon Noriega
Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 65-67
In June 1998, the American Film Institute (API) unveiled its list of the 100 greatest U.S. movies on nationwide television. The star-studded hoopla commemorated the first 100 years of U.S. filmmaking, while the studios teamed up for the first time ever in order to promote home video rentals and sales, doing so under the guise of historical and artistic appreciation. The API, which has recently lost almost all of its federal funding, had learned a valuable lesson or two from the Hollywood deal, allowing it to continue fighting the good fight for the preservation of American film .... Happy ending.
But what is American film? In fact, what is film? And why should we care? For the API, American means Hollywood, while film means popular feature-length narratives. That is why the list contains no independent films, no documentary films, no avant-garde films, no short narrative films, and precious few silent films. But it is also explains why the list contains no films directed by women or racial minorities. None! Quite simply, Hollywood is not an equal opportunity employer, and each year the employment numbers get worse.
Such exclusions are of a different order than the galling absence of Erich von Stronheim's Greed (1923-25), F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), or any films by Joseph von Sternberg, Buster Keaton, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, or Busby Berkeley, let alone films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or even Jerry Lewis. These exclusions speak to the present-day market sensibilities and the middlebrow amnesia that guided the API endeavor; but, even if they were rectified, the other exclusions would remain unchanged.[open notes in new window]
But why should we care? Because the list is being done in our name. In essence, the API presented a list of the 100 greatest films directed by white men making big profits — or, in the case of Citizen Kane (1941), good press — for the major studios. It also presented a list that enshrined a handful of living directors most likely to donate money to the AFI. These are not bad things in and of themselves, if called by their proper name. But their gravitas stems from calling the endeavor a measure of our nation's film history. The part becomes greater than the whole. Indeed, when an industry and an institute team up to lay claim to the sum of our nationality, we lose the one thing they are claiming to preserve: our heritage. Our complex, diverse, and rich heritage.
As a film historian, I have spent the past decade researching U.S. film history-digging through archival holdings and personal papers, conducting numerous interviews, even discovering and preserving lost films, such as the first feature film directed by a Mexican American, Efrain Gutierrez's Please, Don't Bury Me Alive! (1976). This independent film, a slice-of-barrio-life that was shot and exhibited in South Texas, outperformed Superman (1978) in some small towns, while it single-handedly broke Mexico's monoply over the 400 Spanish-language theaters in the United States. The film inspired an independent film movement in Mexico, where the state controlled the industry, and among Chicano filmmakers in the United States, who further refined Gutierrez's successful grassroots-marketing strategy. The film, then, is important as an instance of regional filmmaking, as a bicultural and bilingual narrative, and as a precedent that expanded the way films got made in two nations. It is also a compelling film, one made on a dream and a shoestring!
In this respect, Gutierrez is a pivotal figure in the same way as Oscar Micheaux, who directed "race movies" for black audiences from the 1920s to the 1940s, or Maya Deren, whose films, writings, and advocacy efforts provided a paradigm for the development of U.S. avant-garde film from the 1940s to the 1970s, or the multiracial generation of documentary filmmakers who went to the UCLA Ethno-Communications Program in the early 1970s. Need I even mention Spike Lee? If I do, please see Do the Right Thing (1989) and 4 Little Girls (1997), and then take another look at the API list, or watch Samuel L. Jackson extolling the aesthetic merits of D.W. Griffith's Klan narrative The Birth of a Nation (1915) on the API television special. Then ask, what's wrong with this picture? Lee and these other filmmakers are among a number who have made "American film" for audiences that were segregated in theaters and other public spaces, alienated by stereotypes or outright exclusion from the silver screen, or simply uninspired by Hollywood narrative conventions. But none of them are on the API list.
The irony of this situation is that it reconfirms the equivalence between U.S. film and Hollywood, not just in the public mind, but in the field of film studies itself. Since most film scholars write about Hollywood as the American cinema, the exceptions run the risk of being perceived as un-American: Women's Cinema, Black cinema, Chicano cinema, Queer cinema, et al. In order to legitimate themselves, these cinemas must create their own film institutes, stage their own film festivals, and hold their own award ceremonies-duly broadcast on television, of course. But they remain excluded from both Hollywood and the history books that document our national cinema.
Let me be clear. The API is not to blame. Founded in 1967, it is a rather late entrant into the picture, as it were. But its list does exemplify a set of deeply held assumptions we have in this country, and within academia, about film history and its relationship to the nation. Still, you cannot role the dice one hundred times and come up with snake eyes each and every time. And if you do, it means you are rolling loaded dice. You are going through all the gestures of a game of chance, but you are cheating. And if you call the results American film, you are cheating a nation of its history.
In the spirit of exclusion, then, the UCLA Chicano Studies and Research Center is proud to announce the formation of the Aztlán Film Institute, the other API, if you will. Following the American Film Institute model, we developed a pool from which to make final selections, sending these titles to a blue ribbon panel of some 1,500 leaders from the Aztlán film community, along with President Clinton, Vice-President Gore, and the Taco Bell Chihuahua. As the other but more inclusive API, however, we included films and videos in four categories: documentary, experimental, short or television narrative, and feature film. We also stressed diversity, including male and female, straight and queer, Chicano and a few non-Chicano media artists. After considerable debate, we even included Tejanos. We asked our blue ribbon panel to review our pool of 100 titles and make 100 final selections, ranking them in order of importance. But Aztlán is a strange place and it operates on a different set of rules than the mainstream. If only the pretense of democracy is offered, the citizens of Aztlán will not play along, since that is how most atrocities have been committed in this century. Instead, we received nearly 2500 ballots, since the "community" was bigger than we imagined. Almost all ballots included several dozen write-in candidates, resulting in a group of 149 titles in no particular order. The list is by no means exhaustive. To give just one example, experimental film- and videomakers Harry Gamboa Jr. and Willie Varela have produced nearly 200 titles between them since the early 1970s. Rather, the list presents a provisional sense of a Chicano film and video heritage, one that remains outside the official histories of the American cinema. Below we present the selected titles in chronological order by category. If you have not heard of these titles, or if you do not know where to find them, be sure to ask yourself why. There is an answer.
SHORT NARRATIVES AND VIDEO NARRATIVES
1. A case in point is the alternative list by the LA Weekly (July 3-9, 1998), which added all of two women filmmakers (Maya Deren and Amy Heckerling), only to receive a letter to the editor the next week complaining about such "PC" inclusion.
2. As we go to press, the Modern Library, a division of Random House, released its own list of the 100 greatest English-language novels, The list featured a scant handful of white women and black men, but no women of color and no Latinos, among other exclusions. It also featured nearly 60 titles published by Random House. Despite the obvious marketing ploy, the list was treated as a cultural event in the mainstream press. For those of us trained in literature, however, the list comes across as a strange hybrid, one that mixes together half-forgotten books from high school and college freshmen courses with popular titles that can only evoke the response, "No, but I saw the movie."
Rather than release our own list, the Aztlan Publications Unit announces a national boycott of Random House. We will focus our attention on two books from the list: James Joyce's Ulysses (ranked #1) and Finnegan's Wake. If you support our cause, do not buy these books. We already suspect you haven't read them, even if you voted on the list ....