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Spike Lee and Essential Film Lists

Spike Lee and Essential Film Lists


So, this is a bit of old news at this point, but the debate or discussion around Spike Lee’s Essential Film list seems to be as relevant as the legitimacy of his Kickstarter campaign. Much has been made of the fact that the list is fairly standard and canonical, in particular how it almost completely ignores female filmmakers.

The thing is, when making any kind of list, it will inevitably reflect the experiences of the person who makes it, and more often than not — we forget the importance of the audience. As a professor teaching a Film Production course, Spike Lee is making a statement about the art of MAKING film which is different than the art of STUDYING film, and the method from one teacher to the next will change drastically.

My impression of Spike Lee’s list is that he is trying to show the very height of the cinematic medium. His list nonetheless includes films that defy the trappings of high art, and are playful, engaging and “entertaining”. He does not seem to feel that cinema needs to be legitimized along with the other arts anymore; everything from Kung-Fu Hustle to Days of Heaven has a place on the canonical spectrum. However, it should also be noted that this list is different from what Spike Lee considers the GREATEST films of all time: That list is different, more generic, and even more status quo.

Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977)

Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977)

I don’t mean to delegitimize Spike Lee’s experience, he is a greater filmmaker than I will ever be, but perhaps we need to reconsider what it means to be a filmmaker and what is essential to teach the artists of tomorrow. There is no such thing as a tried and true formula, but there is a sense that our understanding of film history is often myopic, dominated by (nonetheless GREAT) men and westerners. It is no surprise that Spike Lee takes the time to feature important films made by important black filmmakers, which is usually a huge blind spot on the list, and with that in mind, should he be held responsible for not representing other so-called minority groups as well? I am not sure a single list can satisfy the true depth of cinema, not without being completely overwhelmingly large. Not that I don’t disagree that asking for a handful of female directors is beyond the scope of any filmmaker or cinephile…

That being said, this list is at least one of the more sincere attempts by a filmmaker to suggest that the wide world of film is wider than we are often taught. Even without seeing every film on the list, I can say with assurance that watching every single one would open up a whole new world of experiences and possibilities for young filmmakers. It can be very important to remind some filmmakers that the realm of experience extends beyond the affluent white man, that people all over the world are making films, and are also worthy subjects.

I was not a film production student; I studied film studies, which are often a strange blend of aesthetics, art history and social studies. It is a different beast entirely from the work that goes into producing a film. I am not qualified in the same way as Spike Lee to make an essential’s list, because I have never made a film, at least none that I could say I was proud of. But like many others, I look at his list and can’t help thinking “mine would be better”, betraying my outward desire to foster the community aspect of the film criticism community above the more high-brow elitism that can so often dominate so called film discussion. Never again do I want to be one of those people who say “If you haven’t seen THIS movie or THAT movie, you should not call yourself a cinephile.”

But deep down, I know that I will once again fall under the lure of “essential” list making, for better or for worse. Lists like these serve a purpose within the community and can often be an eye opening experience. To afford them too much importance or to write them off entirely is a disservice to the way we communicate. Lists are a great jumping point, and sometimes bring us back to the essential question about what we care and love about cinema in the first place.

– Justine Smith