Dark Doctrine: “False Witness”

When it comes to movies, everyone has lied at one time or another about famous films that they claim to have seen. It’s not surprising, now more than ever we are creatures of habit who stick to genres, stars or film series we love and don’t really venture much outside our comfort zone without some external form of coercion. There are plenty of films that many of us wouldn’t have been exposed to had a relative, friend or significant other pushed us into watching it along with them.

When it comes to film writers and critics, this can be even more pronounced. We’re in a time when anyone with a keyboard, decent writing skills and a basic knowledge of cinema can claim to be a film critic, yet in some cases neither the second or third of those criteria are visibly present in their reviews. With around two hundred films scoring a wide release and several times that getting a limited release each year, it’s near impossible to see anything beyond a fraction of what’s out there.

Serious film writers often spend so much time writing about film for their work, they have little time to see what’s out now, let alone the many tens of thousands of films from the past century of cinema. Yet with their job description essentially demanding they be an authority on films, they should at least have an understanding of the format and have viewed a few basic films that are considered essential watching.

What those ‘essential films’ are however is a point of conjecture – people have argued over movie lists for decades and will continue to do so for many years to come. Try getting some people, especially film writers, to show some humility and reveal what cinematic classics they haven’t seen yet can be like pulling teeth. People fear a loss of respect or professionalism in other’s eyes if they admit they haven’t seen a particular popular hit or, more commonly, an acclaimed but hard to find classic of yesteryear.

Recently movie rental firm Lovefilm conducted a poll asking what films people lie about having seen the most. Francis Ford Coppola’s epic “The Godfather” sits atop that list with a full one-third of people claiming they lied about having watched it. Others sitting high include “Casablanca,” “Taxi Driver,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Reservoir Dogs”. Why do we do this? To fit in most likely, people want to be part of groups even if they have to lie to do it in some cases. Yet do people really want to associate with others who would think less of them because they haven’t seen a particular film?

I know a few critics who proudly boast of the fact they got through all the AFI’s Top 100 film list in marathon sessions over a few days or weeks. Yet watching a film to simply check off a list is like playing a video game while following a walkthrough – it’s something of a cheat. You may have seen everything, but it’s hard to really understand a film, take the time to savour each one, or be in the right mood to be receptive to a challenging piece of work if you’re ploughing through a checklist. Many of the best critics I know have yet to experience certain key titles and aren’t afraid to talk about it intelligently and honestly without guilt or pride. They’re true cineastes who understand the delight of discovery.

There are plenty of reasons for not having seen some great movies. There are some films that simply wouldn’t work for you at age 20 the way they would at 30 or 50, there are some where the culture you grew up in or interest in the subject matter the film explores will have a big impact on your reaction to it. There’s also the factor of time – not only that some films simply age better than others, but that there are only so many hours in the day and most of us have to work and having something of a life.

Yet stretching beyond one’s comfort zone can yield many rewards. In only the past year or so I’ve discovered the charms of early Kubrick and golden-era Woody Allen, fallen deeply in love with “The Big Sleep” and “Once Upon a Time in the West”, started to get a feel for the quirky stylings of Akira Kurosawa, and enjoyed but been slightly underwhelmed by the odd classic like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Raging Bull”.

There are also some films I still haven’t seen that I want to take my time with and savour like “All About Eve,” “Barry Lyndon,” “On the Waterfront,” “The Seventh Seal,” “Ran,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Life is Beautiful,” “Downfall” and “In the Mood for Love”.

So it’s cards on the table time. What famous films have you not gotten around to yet that you feel you should have seen?