The Worst Thing About the Best

Inevitably, at the end of every year, we’re inundated with Top Ten lists. The ones I get most irritated by are the “Top Ten Films of the Year”, usually followed by a list of “Top Ten Films of All Time” which has been updated to include one or more of the titles from the current year. I hate these lists.

I’ve been a film fan from the age of ten, when I saw Star Wars and was truly awed for the first time ever. After that I devoured films, and structured my weekend expenses down to the penny so that I could afford to take a train into the local city center, watch two movies on a Saturday, and get back home – the exact amount that my allowance would allow me.

I considered myself fortunate that thanks to my height and appearance I was able to pass for an eighteen-year-old at the age of fourteen, and thus had little difficulty getting into R-rated films (quite a feat in Ontario, Canada, where an R-rating meant that you had to be adult to enter the theater – unlike our American neighbors who could get into the theater if accompanied by an adult).

The first time I flaunted the absurd film-viewing law was when I went to see “Outland”. Two hours later I raced to one of the first multiplexes to see “Altered States”. Many years have passed, and my perceptions of the universe have changed radically. “Outland” is still fun, though dated, but “Altered States” remains a favorite film.

I stumbled into a repertory theater at fifteen (these were the days before VCRs became commonplace) and it was a revelation. I spent the next two years heading over to watch movies on more nights than I can count, everything from classic drama to modern soft-core porn, all for ninety-nine cents a pop. On some occasions I was moved in a way that I’d never experienced at any other point in my life.

I also met the guy who, twenty-two years later, I still call my best friend – an usher at the time, who’s gone on to live as varied and unique life as my own. Movies were and remain an integral part of my life; they helped define who I am. But while I work in the film industry, my career is not directly connected to the films that my work influences, and I actually prefer it that way.

A lot of people have aspirations to be members of the production community. They envision a creative and fun workplace – after all, the end product is entertainment, so certainly the process must be exciting.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality of production, with few exceptions, is that it’s a hard and stressful job. Working on a film set usually means long days, weird hours, and a combination of intense boredom with intermittent periods of frenzied activity (often accompanied by people demanding that you get your job done and get out of the way faster than you possibly can). Although the pay is good while you’re working, you can go months between jobs.

Even if you manage to climb up the food chain and reach a moderately senior position, it’s no better. The stress increases, and any additional creative input you though you might have turns out to be subject to everything from budgetary constraints to the whim of a producer’s girlfriend.

The lesson is simple. Don’t work in the business because you love movies. Work in the business because you love making movies. There’s a big difference. I’m fortunate that I’ve found a niche where I can contribute to the process without having to create any of the products themselves.

Now let’s talk about movies.

My favorite film of all time is “Singing in the Rain”. If you’ve never seen it, and a surprisingly large number of folks these days haven’t (though virtually everyone has been exposed to the famous clip of Gene Kelly performing the title song, which was further immortalized in “A Clockwork Orange”), it’s the story of the budding romance between a film star and a chorus girl, set in the early nineteen-twenties, at the precise moment that talking pictures emerged. The movie is funny, romantic, and all-out wonderful, and the musical numbers are all classics.

My second most favorite film of all time is “Galaxy of Terror”, a low budget picture that emerged from Roger Corman’s production company in 1981. The story centers around a team of space explorers sent to rescue the crew of a doomed mission on an alien planet. As they search for survivors, the rescuers begin dying mysteriously, victims of their innermost fears. It’s not particularly gory, nor will it ever be considered a masterpiece. But it’s a movie that was made by talented people who wanted to do the best they could with what they had to work with. Factoid: The second unit director was a young Canuck named James Cameron, who went on to eventually make a movie about a big boat hitting an iceberg.

That these two pictures are so utterly different, virtually from opposite sides of the planet in terms of their audience and appeal, probably says a lot about me. I watch many different movies because each appeals to an aspect of my personality, though none have ever managed to caress every part of my psyche.

Aside from “Singing in the Rain” and “Galaxy of Terror”, I don’t have a top-ten list of my favorite flicks. Unlike the AFI, I’m not interested in judging a movie based on its technical merit or social relevance. My criteria are entirely personal, and my favorite films are a consequence of how I feel on any day that question is asked.

In the broadest sense, if you asked when I was feeling particularly happy, I’d probably rattle off films like “The Evil Dead II”, “Ghost in the Shell”, “The Seven Samurai”, “The Third Man”, “Dead Alive”, and “Clerks”.

However, if you asked me when I was feeling particularly frustrated, my a list might include “Boogie Nights”, “Citizen Kane”, “Run Lola Run”, “Night of the Living Dead”, and “The Producers”.

So you see, my choices are context-sensitive, and not always consistent with the apparent tone of the picture. I think that’s probably the case for most people.

Which brings me back to those top ten lists, because by implication these are lists which are telling you what to think, telling you that your personal list is wrong. Even if you consciously disagree, a seed of doubt may be planted. Maybe, you think, it’d be weird to tell people that you liked “Showgirls” more than “Singing in the Rain”…

Movies are art – they speak to everyone in different ways. For any film you think of as trash, there’s someone out there who has it right up there at number one on their list. So, I’m just going to continue ignoring those top-ten lists. Mine remains ‘subject to change without notice’.

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