Friday, January 23, 2009

The Art of Listmaking

I’m going to try to make this introduction quick, since I cover this ground quite often: movie lists have a bad name. It’s because of how tedious, uninspired and uncritical they can be at their worst. Done correctly, they can be illuminating, thought-provoking and productively contentious. But is satisfying listmaking merely just a matter of taste? I think there’s more to it.

I’ve oft mentioned my love of the list concept and my penchant for poring over even the most dubious compilations. A great deal of the best films I’ve seen found their way in front of me not by way of advertising, reading, classes or sage advise, but from various miscellaneous lists. Asking someone for their top-ten is often times my handy personality test, secret handshake and conversation starter all in one.

And yet at the same time I have to acknowledge that many lists are tepid duds, get disproportionate deference and don’t substitute for reviews or critical analysis. Many critics and fans can readily shoot of a long list of reasons to dismiss lists completely. As for me, I’d rather [over]analyze the process of putting together a satisfying list and discuss what distinguishes the good from the bad.

Let’s start by considering two types of lists: specific and generic.

Specific Lists:

The specific list is actually much easier to deal with due to its limited scope. Examples would include my Top 10 Food Movies or Top 12 Hobo Films. All you need is some criteria, could be a genre, a country or something more eccentric, and a willingness to research and watch until you’ve comfortably covered a reasonable spectrum of the qualifiers.

Specific lists have a lot of room for creativity and are more fertile soil for sprouting interest. Choosing an inspired topic can often times be more attention-grabbing than the actual films on the list.

There are also two subtly different approaches. One is to rank films by how well they fit the topic and the other is to simply ask which films technically qualify and then rank them by their perceived quality. A concrete example might be comedies: do you rank the films just by funniness alone or do you take into account how the film works overall, including the dramatic and emotional resonance?

Some advice specifically for specific lists:

1) For small lists like top 10s, choose an interesting and focused topic. For broader areas like genres, countries or decades, choose a higher number to overcome obviousness.

2) Whatever definition you choose for qualifying movies, push it to the brink. Take for example westerns. Western genre lists often bore by sticking only to iconic “classics,” occasionally loudly admitting a few big-name revisionist westerns (starring Clint Eastwood or Kevin Costner) to fake variety. I’m often much more interested in hearing about fringe cases (which are also good for sparking debate) like non-Leone spaghetti westerns, “El Topo,” “Tears of the Black Tiger,” “The Terror of Tiny Town,” “Johnny Guitar” or “American Astronaut.” (Note: If you aren’t going to consider fringe cases, go ahead and tighten up your definition; maybe “Top 30 Classical Westerns” in this case).

3) The more specific your topic, the higher the percentage of coverage you should aim for. If you are going to make a list of sports-themed Hungarian musicals, I think you ought to have seen as close to all of them as possible. It might not be that much work.

Generic Lists:

Generic lists generally consider all of cinema and are inevitably more often the subject of skepticism, derision and controversy than specific lists. Many of these lists overlap significantly which, depending on your viewpoint, either unites into a consensus cinematic canon or runs together into repetitive dogma. Both sides of the coin are valid: while it is important not to be too slavish in our acceptance of the critical majority, these lists can be very useful for introducing new cinephiles and providing a cultural and artistic overview.

I’d like to list what I see as the most common strains of generic lists, how to distinguish them in the wild and how I feel about them.

Greatest Films – “Greatest” is possibly the biggest and boldest claim that can be made about films and yet it gets tossed around pretty lightly. “Greatest” lists draw lots of fire whether they recycle the same tired entries or pointedly leave them out. Only the gutsy should attempt these alone, since declaring yourself sole judge of greatness requires no small amount of solipsistic pretentiousness. These lists can be made more interesting by those who detail their methods, sound or otherwise, for establishing that illusive ideal of objectivity. Trying for humongous numbers also helps.

Most Important – The goal of “Most Important” lists is to delve into the innovations, cultural impact and historical role of films. These are slightly easier than “Greatest” lists, since it’s usually less contentious to measure the effect of a film than to assess its quality. They can also be pretty stale. Unless the writer adds unconventional choices (with arguments defending them), these are generally only useful for providing a timeline of cinematic developments, something which has already been extensively documented.

Favorite – One of the few types of list that dispenses with objectivity altogether and embraces the subjective nature of art. I often find “Favorite” lists to be the most honest and interesting, since they admit to revealing as much about the person and their worldview as they do about the quality of films. These lists also have the most variety of titles, with room for guilty pleasures, obscurities and movies that have eschewed consensus. I urge most listmakers to rely on this format as a basis. I consider “Desert Island” lists to be a somewhat confusing variation, since they imply films that you could watch endlessly; not necessarily true of my favorites.

Most Representative – This is a relatively rare type of generic list that might be described as the type of the catalog you’d put in a time capsule, SETI probe or class curriculum. The idea is to provide a list that contains the largest coverage over what cinema offers, usually trying to avoid unnecessary overlap. These lists span history, the world and all genres trying to leave nothing out, often including things that might not make it into traditional “Greatest” or “Most Important” lists like Bollywood musicals, Hong Kong martial arts films, slapstick comedies, essay films, documentaries, animations, etc. Guardian critic Derek Malcolm even included a porno in his 100.

Most Popular – These lists aggregate votes from a large group and apply some system to translate those votes into a ranked list. The goal is to get as many voters as possible, usually resulting in a very democratic result characterized by predictable mainstream films. “Most Popular” lists usually fail to introduce people to new movies and tend to confirm, rather than challenge, people’s artistic sensibilities. I think that most “Most Popular” lists of interest target a specific group, like a country, an online community or a profession, so that it provides insight into the local variations within widespread cultural trends.

Highest Grossing – One of the most objective types of general lists is a ranking of financial success. While it is usually a fairly concrete aspect to measure, there are still important nuances and pitfalls. Does one include rentals and home video sales, for instance? I also advise ignoring any “Highest Grossing” lists that don’t adjust for inflation and the best such lists also adjust for the changing relative cost of tickets (total number of ticket sales is a much more accurate measurement across eras). Yet no matter how you work the details, these list tend to be more flawed than even “Most Popular” ones, reflecting marketing campaigns, seasonal consumer shifts and here-then-gone zeitgeists more so than anyone’s idea of quality.

Creating a List:

Now I’d like to expand on what makes a worthwhile list. Relevant advice will appear in bullets.

First, you should choose a topic.

* Don’t make a list about something you don’t care about. A good list requires a great deal of immersion into the topic and reflects the passion of the compiler.

Then you need to choose an accurate title and write an introduction that reflects the restrictions, style and intent of the list. You should return and fine-tune it as your develop the list.

* Don’t fall into the trap of mixing and matching the rules. I can’t believe the number of times I’ve seen “Greatest” lists that include films like “Birth of a Nation” or “The Jazz Singer” clearly borrowed from “Most Important.” If you are taking into account historical context, please just say so.

* You don’t need a long and wordy title. If there are assumptions or specific rules that you wish to apply, simply state them in the introduction.

* Many lists assume that it goes without saying that they are considering only certain films that meet criteria like feature-length, fictional, live-action, English-language, American, sound-era, recent, theatrically distributed, etc. These do not go without saying. Your introduction should clarify any restrictions you are applying.

* Almost all lists nowadays come with boilerplate disclaimers. These tend to justify the creation of yet one more list, admit the inherit limitations of the format and then discuss the listmaker’s personal philosophy and biases. I’m so sick of reading the justification/limitations fine print that I usually just skip it, but leave it in if you feel the need (I apologize for the number of times I put my readers through it). By all mean, however, include some context about yourself, your tastes and your listmaking process.

Then comes the real heart and soul of a list: what made it in and what didn’t. I find it easiest to do an in/out pass first before actually ranking the titles. I usually feel that, with the exception of highly specific lists expecting few candidates, the inclusion/rejection of a film is much more important than the precise order. As a ravenous reader of lists, this has also made it easier for me to digest the abundance of varying opinions.

My advice in the section is a subjective take on the listmaking process.

* A list should satisfy the reader that the author has a reasonable knowledge of the topic. A general rule of thumb is that you should see at least twice as many contenders as the size of your final list.

* Do your homework. You should spend some time seeking out and watching new contenders after choosing the topic and before presenting the finished list. The last thing we need is more MSN-style lists where the writer has just pulled the first ten suitable movies that came to mind without studying the topic or filling in their viewing gaps.

* In general, I think it’s wise to include enough recognizable films to reassure readers about the titles they won’t recognize. If the reader hasn’t seen any film on the list, they won’t have any point of comparison to judge your taste and decide whether to seek out the remaining movies.

* On the flip side, I believe that a list should always have some obscure titles. One of the main reasons I read lists is to discover something new. I track many lists that interest me, but one of my personal rules is that I only keep around a list if it includes at least one film unique to my list collection.

* A list should challenge the reader with at least a few difficult, rare or arguable films. If there’s one thing I pass over faster than a list I wholly disagree with, it’s a list I completely agree with. Better that it stirs the reader to see a new film, rewatch an old one they’d dismissed, reconsider their opinion, argue for them more passionately or compose a counter-list.

* I always admire lists that strive for a certain level of variety within their restrictions. A common mistake of the green listmaker is to stick too closely to recent history and familiar culture. I have a lot more faith in the open-mindedness and thoroughness of a listmaker when they include films from before they were born and from places they’ve never lived. I impose pretty high standards of eclecticism on the lists I make and respect, but for most a solid handful of worldliness should do.

* Don’t make a list so long that it includes films you don’t even like.

* Don’t make a list so short that an average cinephile could guess every title off the top of their heads.

* An explanation/defense for your choices is often appreciated and can range from a sentence to a couple of pages. Why risk leaving readers scratching their heads or doubting your judgment when you have a chance to persuade them.

Once you have the basic placers chosen, you can begin the process of ranking them. Sometimes it’s not even necessary to apply an ordering and you should remain sensitive to whether it adds something to the list or not. Ranking lists can only increase the chance of someone disagreeing with you, but I often do it nonetheless.

* If you’re as fickle as I am, you’ll probably want to reorder, rebalance and tweak the list quite often, so I encourage everyone to use a spreadsheet utility like Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice Calc to facilitate moving the data around.

* You may have noticed that I said spreadsheet and not word processor. I like to keep around statistical data like the director, release date and country of origin for so that I can easily generate statistics. Spreadsheet programs make this extremely easy.

* You don’t have to number things in a strict 1,2,…,n way if you don’t want to. I often keep track of lists by tiers. This way the best-of-the-best are distinguished within the top tier and the borderline cases can all be found in the bottom tier. When I add a new movie and need to bump out an old one, it’s convenient to have only a small batch of bottom tier films to survey.

* Ranked lists are best used for distinguishing very similar films and worst for ordering very different works that don’t really compare directly.

* Learn to live with cycles (ex: A > B, B > C, C > A) that result from running many direct side-by-side comparisons. Taste often knows no logic.

Now I want everyone to go out and make a slew of amazing lists full of personality, originality and underappreciated masterpieces. Then send them to me for my amusement.

1 comment:

Mad Dog said...

Oh my, just before I'm about to start making my own 2008 list(s)! It's tough, being in Kansas, since some big/interesting movies don't come here until February of the next year. I missed out on There Will Be Blood on my list last year because it came to town after I made my list. So I'm going to be doing a short list of films that should've been included last year.