I love a good movie watching project that involves a list or guidelines to follow. And one that I’ve been wanting to dive into for some time is to see all of the entries on the great critic Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s 1000 Essential Films List that I haven’t already seen. [The full list is on my Letterboxd page.]
I really want to limit it to one calendar year, but that would require the use much more free time than I have available. Instead, I will move through the list at my own pace, and try to catch every last one.
My method will be as mad as this project. At the beginning, I will initially bounce between following it in chronological order and jumping to the films on the list that I have in my collection of DVDs/Blu-rays, but have yet to watch (The Leopard and Fellow Traveler are two that leap to mind right now; I’m sure there are others). Once I’ve exhausted the movies I have here at hand, I will work chronologically through the list with all the films that are freely available to stream online. When those are all done, I’ll start digging for the outliers. I think about this stuff way too much.
So without further ado, I inaugurate The Rosenbaum Project.
The oldest films on Rosenbaum’s list are also the easiest to get a look at. One simple search on YouTube and they’re there for you. They don’t look very good, but there they are, in all their short, one shot, no edit glory. And because they’re so short, I could watch them a few times and really wonder at what I was witnessing. Almost all of us, in some small or huge way, long to be immortalized, to be remembered for centuries after we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. That’s right at the core of why I write as much as I do. The hope is that someone will stumble across my work in 100 years and think about what kind of person I was in my real life.
And so do I stare at the men and women in these two films and wish I could follow them on the train or on their walk/bike ride home. To get a glimpse of their day-to-day existences and what life was like for these common folk back in late 19th century France. I could read all the books in the world that tackle that very subject but it wouldn’t be the same as seeing it firsthand. Alas, I never will get that chance. Yet, for these brief few minutes, I can get a glimpse of them and their hurried walks, gaze at the small window opened up to their world, and goggle at the days of steam-powered trains. These scenes, captured on their early cameras, are going to be available to generations long after I’m gone. Amazing to consider, isn’t it?
All Quiet On The Western Front (1930, dir. Lewis Milestone)
I jumped ahead in the list as this was a DVD I had sitting on my shelf for a long time, sent to me by the folks at the NW Film Center around the time of their short retrospective of films that tackled the subject of WWI. I was unable at the time to write something about the series, which I do regret. With this project hanging on my shoulders, and this within arm’s reach, there was no reason for me to wait any longer.
There have been hundreds of films made since this tackling the absurdity and horror of combat, but the root structure began right here with this bleak, beautiful classic. You’ll see glimpses of Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket, Coming Home, The Best Years of Our Lives, Saving Private Ryan, The Hurt Locker, and so many other classics of the genre within these two hours.
It’s as uncompromising and unrelenting as a war movie could possibly get, with scene after scene of German soldiers losing their minds and their humanity as they face the horrors of trench warfare. Even the small joys that these men receive with the occasional extra portion of food, booze, and, in one particularly devastating scene, sex are all shaded with the understanding that soon they’ll be back on the front lines. And knowing that the reason they got more food is because the cook made rations for 120, but only 80 soldiers returned.
The message isn’t a complex one, of course. And, truth be told, it can be extremely hard to listen to the wails of the men, the madness they suffer from, and the exhaustion in their eyes. But it’s also impossible to turn away from, in part because of how stunning each shot is. The combination of director Lewis Milestone’s vision and the cinematography of Arthur Edeson is breathtaking, using shadows and darkness with noir-like intimidation. Then there are those great sequences like following the pair of boots from doomed soldier to doomed soldier, the tracking shot following the three men as they try to capture the attention of three French women while swimming in a canal, and that amazing shot of the Allied soldiers leaping over the trench through the eyes of Paul (a fantastic Lew Ayres).
The classic quote from Variety‘s first review of the film bears repeating because it still holds true: “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word ‘war’ is taken out of the dictionaries.” It’s a pipe dream, I know. That’s why folks like me got obsessed with films, though: every time we see a great one, we feel its impact deeply and hope that the same would be true for everyone else. Here I am, then…hoping.