The 20th Century Film Project

What was going on in the 20th century? What were people experiencing then and what did they believe?

You would think I would know. I was born in that century. I came of age in it. But the times have advanced and I have gradually changed. Now that the current century is more than one-sixth complete, perhaps we are just far enough out to look back and see something new across the distance.

And in at least one way, I have markedly changed since then. My awakening to Christian faith took place entirely within the 21st century. For me to look back on the 20th is to peer into a time that I was experiencing with a different metaphysical understanding, a different mind, than the one that informs my experience now.

I have a small project I am beginning, a plan for how I want to look back. I am going to watch the 20th century’s movies. Specifically, I plan to watch or rewatch all of the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movies of the 20th century, and write something of value (hopefully) out of my modern-day viewing of each of these old films.

The idea first occurred me simply because I found myself watching something dumb on TV. Generally, if I surrender to television, it is because I am mentally tired—too tired to choose well. I need a plan for these moments. Defaulting to classic films seemed like a good one. Finding the AFI top-100 list was helpful. And since writing is what I do, it wasn’t a leap to decide that I should meet each of these movies in that way, actively experiencing and appreciating each one by challenging myself to write something about it.

So: I am setting out the goal that I will write 100 pieces about 100 20th-century movies for this blog.

How long it will take to do this I don’t know.  Since this aims to be a project of joy rather than commercial commitment, I won’t promise any pacing. Here are some other notes on how I expect to proceed:

1. I won’t watch these movies in any particular order. Not alphabetically, not by ranking or year, and not by my own sense of which ones I think I most want to watch. To maximize variety and surprise, I will use a device for randomly selecting which one I watch next. (Hint: d100.)

2. I am using the AFI’s 1998 list of top 100 movies. There was a revised list put out in 2007. However, the earlier list has the advantage of representing the 20th century’s take on the 20th century’s best movies. This creates one problem: There is a toxic item on that list, a film from early in the century advancing a premise that deserves no airing. I might watch and write about something else in its place.

3. For movies based on well-known books that I have not read (ahem, Grapes of Wrath), I am letting myself off the hook about feeling obliged to read the book first. Plenty of writers have already compared these films to their literary source material. My aim is something different.

4. In what I write about these movies, I won’t summarize them. Wikipedia does that. I won’t rate them. Critics have done that. Instead, I’ll be looking for something as I watch them. Perhaps something timely—an insight into changing worldview that comes from watching the movie with 21st-century eyes. Or (more often, I expect) something timeless—a truth the movie’s story still conveys after all these decades, perhaps a truth I now see differently with eyes that have been given something new to see.