The worst 'best' films ever made

The Movies


Inspiring? Still from ‘La Dolce Vita.’

I’d like to begin, not with the customary introduction, but by asking forgiveness – because given the passion that cineastes nurture for the films they love, this piece might be seen as a malicious provocation. But it is merely, for me, a clearing of the air – a personal catharsis to shake off the years of tolerating, or even pretending to admire films that, in reality, I profoundly dislike.

What follows isn’t so much an objective article as a personal caprice – the ‘outing’ of a number of films that are claimed by those in the know to be not merely good but ‘great’.

This is the story of why those films leave me cold, bored and searching desperately for the eject button.

Is there anybody today, for instance, who will stand by the once widely held conviction that Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice is a masterpiece? Apparently: Peter Bradshaw of this newspaper asserted in a five-star review that it is “magnificent”. It won a Palme d’Or, an Oscar and a Bafta. It was lauded to the skies for its cinematography.

But as David Mamet once observed, if you come out of a film only admiring its cinematography, then you have probably been sitting through a lousy film. That’s certainly true of Death in Venice, which is a lot of window-dressed camp nonsense smuggling itself into the canon disguised as art. That plot in full: German novelist Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) goes to Venice to recover his inspiration, checks into a hotel and spends the next two hours, as cholera threatens the city, rubbernecking a beautiful adolescent boy in repressed paedophiliac lust. After several months of this,
Aschenbach drops dead in his deckchair. It is beautiful, luscious, leisurely, elegiac and so forth. But it has the regrettable drawback of being staggeringly tedious. It captures none of the nuance of Thomas Mann’s original novella, which was an eloquent meditation on the creative impulse, longing, the fading of artistic powers and the final triumph of the body over the mind. The film, in contrast, is not so much a masterpiece as a colossal piece of soft-focus masturbation.  Many critics have now rumbled Death in Venice. Not so John Ford’s The Searchers. Cahiers du Cinéma rated it the 10th best film ever made. The American Film Institute recently hailed it as the greatest western of all time.

It’s 1868. Comanches attack a homestead, slaughter most of the occupants and abduct a young girl, Debbie Edwards. John Wayne, playing Ethan Edwards, Debbie’s uncle, sets out with a posse to find her. When he does – after several years – Debbie decides she doesn’t want to go home because the Comanches are now her people. Ethan, infuriated, tries to kill the girl, but Martin, her step-brother, prevents him. Then after a brief interregnum, during which Martin and Ethan return to the homestead for some light relief, they track her down once more and Ethan again looks as though he’s going to execute Debbie. But he changes his mind. He tenderly takes a now-willing Debbie home.

The film fails to explain why Ethan would go to such trouble to find the girl if he only wants to kill her. Nor does it explain why he changes his mind at the end (or, for that matter, why Debbie changes her mind about sticking with the Comanches). The rude mechanicals of the piece – such as the absurd Swedish homesteader, Lars Jorgensen, whose verbal repertoire is limited to statements like “Yumping Yiminy!” – add a patina of slapstick that at times drags the film down to the level of Blazing Saddles.

Beautiful landscapes, yes, but you could put Basingstoke High Street in Monument Valley and it would look mysteriously evocative. A critique of racism? Only if you believe that portraying Native Americans as sadistic, rapacious savages is enlightened. A subversion of the whole genre? John Ford would have laughed at the idea.

Like The Searchers, François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim has few detractors. I am definitely and proudly one of them. In fact, I would very happily tell Ethan Edwards that the cast and crew were Comanches and set his psychotic rage on to them.

High concept? It’s a nouvelle vague buddy movie, set in France before the first world war.

A pair of dreary, self-obsessed young men, one Austrian (Jules) and one French (Jim), meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), a ‘free spirit’. They spend the film competing for her affection. They have philosophical discussions about art and literature. Then, to pep up the storyline a bit, war breaks out and J&J are called up. Afterwards, they move to Austria and have some more philosophical discussions about love and poetry. They swap partners, and, despite the agony involved, show no emotion at any time – they are too cool for that sort of thing. Then Catherine dies in a car crash with Jules, or possibly Jim.

Who cares? Fin.

Despite its historical setting, it is a film anticipating attitudes of the 60s by people who have an absurd, privileged and conceited idea of what the 60s should or will be. Its wit is not witty, its insights are nonexistent and its script is mannered and self-indulgent.

Jeanne Moreau is beautiful. That alone does not make it one of the greatest films of all time – or even of 1962. Had Jules, Jim and Catherine been born a few generations later, they could have sustained 10 minutes of interest on the Jerry Springer show. Or at least five.

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