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January 16th, 2012 / 10:56 am
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How Many Movies Have You Seen?

Over the past 15 years, I’ve kept track of every movie I’ve watched. What started as a simple task has grown increasingly complicated over time, partly due to ways in which movies have changed, but mainly due to how my thoughts about movies have changed. Still, I’ve kept up the habit, first in a composition tablet (now lost), then a sprawling Excel file (a glimpse of which is above—click through or click here for a larger image). Over time, my list of titles has grown to include more relevant information: the date, location, director, run time, year, whom I saw it with, random thoughts I had.

After 15 years, I’ve seen 1925 features. (I haven’t counted the shorts, or any movies I’ve half-seen—and my list doesn’t take into consideration most of the questions I raised in my last post, “How Many Movies Are There?“, as to what constitutes a feature.) That doesn’t sound like too many, not after fifteen years of avid cinephilia. But to put it in some perspective, that’s roughly 128 feature films/year, or about one every three days. Again, this doesn’t include shorts, or TV episodes, or rewatching any of those films—it’s just counts the total of unique feature films. (I used to watch a lot of experimental shorts that aren’t included here, and I’ve taught film classes, which means I’ve seen lots of films numerous times.) (It also doesn’t take into consideration the fact that I’m a writer first and foremost, a cinéaste second.)

We found last week that there have been at least 268,246 features made. (Since then, the IMDb’s count has grown to 268,601.) So I’ve seen little more than .7% of them—and remember, I think that IMDb count far too low. I’ve seen a drop in a drop in a bucket!

But how many movies does anyone ever see? How does my viewing tally compare to, say, a critic like Roger Ebert’s?

As for Ebert, I haven’t found an official count, but let’s try figuring one out. Ebert’s been working as a professional film critic since 1967. Assuming he’s seen one unique movie a day since then—plausible, although I’d imagine that’s an overestimate, even when factoring in festivals—that would make for roughly 20,000 movies. Again, I doubt he’s actually seen that many, considering days off and rewatching; I’d guess the real total is somewhere between 10,000–20,000. But watching movies is his career and his passion, so let’s say 20,000.

That’s 10 times more than me, although it’s still only 7.5% of total features made. But it’s assuredly more than I’ll ever see. (If I keep watching films at my current rate, by the time I’m 80, I’ll have seen 5715 more, for a total of 7000–8000.)

Obviously watching all of the features out there is totally out of the question. One of the most humbling things I’ve ever read was a small observation made by David Bordwell in his introduction to Planet Hong Kong (2000):

Sometime after [my third trip to Hong Kong], at the urgings of my wife, Kristin Thompson, and my friend Noël Carroll, I decided to write a book. It was a difficult decision, not only because I don’t speak or read Chinese. For one thing, there is already a lot written about this cinema, and there is going to be a lot more. Web pages are sprouting at this moment. Further, I have seen only about three hundred seventy Hong Kong movies. (If you think that’s a lot, you are not yet a hardcore fan.) [my emphasis]

Sheesh!

Given that even no one can see everything, a more relevant question would seem to be, “How many movies should you see?” After all, quality counts more than quantity. Variety should count for something, too. According to the MPAA, 5332 films were released between 2001 and 2010 (see page 13 of their “2010 Film Statistics” PDF), and watching them all would teach you a lot about film. But would you learn much more than the state of the Hollywood art?

Most film critics make year-end top ten lists; that implies there are at least ten movies each year that informed viewers deem essential. We’ve had nearly 100 years of feature films, and that times 10 gives us 1000. That number squares with two other possible benchmarks: Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “Essential 1000 Films,” and the 885 films that received votes in the last Sight & Sound Greatest Films Poll (2002). Conflating those two lists (I’ll assign that to my intern) will probably yield a number north of 1000, but far south of 1500.

1000 movies is still a lot of movies! (It’s 7.5 years of viewing, at my rate.) Hence the tendency of critics to whittle their choices down to 100. (Even Rosenbaum has found a way to cut 900 “essential” films to produce a list of 100.) Roger Ebert has assembled his own (contentious) list of 351 “Great Movies.”

Those lists are of course arguments for best movies out there. But should one watch only the best films? Critic Jim Emerson provides a different take with his 2006 list “102 Movies You Must See Before….” As he puts it in his intro:

This isn’t like Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” series. It’s not my idea of The Best Movies Ever Made (that would be a different list, though there’s some overlap here), or limited to my personal favorites or my estimation of the most important or influential films. These are the movies I just kind of figure everybody ought to have seen in order to have any sort of informed discussion about movies. They’re the common cultural currency of our time, the basic cinematic texts that everyone should know, at minimum, to be somewhat “movie-literate.” I hope these movies are experiences we can all assume we share.

Emerson’s list is a good starting place, although some of his choices strike me as questionable: he includes Howard Hawks’s Red River but not Rio Bravo? And Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West but not The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly? The omissions of Star Wars and The Shawshank Redemption—given the list’s stated purpose—seem curious, too. (How can one claim to be “movie-literate” and not have seen them? As opposed to Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game?) (I’ve seen all but 15 of his 102, although I won’t say which ones I’ve missed.)

That said, the problem with Emerson’s list, and with Ebert’s list, is that they’re very Hollywood-centric. (They include some foreign films, of course, but they’re rooted in Hollywood—and in the sound era, to boot.) Also, like most movie critics, Emerson and Ebert use “movie” to mean “feature film,” and only “feature film”—and in doing so, they ignore vast swaths of cinema: shorts, experimental films, amateur filmmaking, video art, TV, commercials, more. (Jonathan Rosenbaum proves, as usual, an exception here. Of all the professional critics I know, he watches the widest variety of films.)

I think about the quality of the movies I’ve seen, and I rank them by means of a simple color-coding. Dark blue means I thought it was excellent. Blue means I thought it was good. Green means it was OK or problematic. Red means I thought the film awful. Out of my 1925, the rankings stand:

  • 227 dark blue
  • 647 blue
  • 565 green
  • 486 red

In other words, I’ve seen 874 good/excellent films…and 1041 awful/OK/problematic ones. That’s not a very promising ratio for future viewing! (If I do watch 8000 movies, that means I should expect to see 1500 more bad/mediocre ones. Ugh!)

But here’s the thing: most of the feature films I’ve seen were made in the past 22 years. (586 were released in the 2000s; 465 were released in the 1990s). Here are the corresponding quality ratios:

  • 2000s: 39 dark blue + 129 blue + 184 green + 234 red = 586 total
  • 1990s: 34 dark blue + 120 blue + 172 green + 139 red = 465 total

I saw 168 “quality films” in the 2000s—29% of the movies I watched. In the 1990s, I saw 154, or 33%. That trend—of the quality percentage increasing—continues if we keep moving backward in time:

  • 1980s: 35 dark blue + 98 blue + 95 green + 101 red = 329 total / 41% quality
  • 1970s: 34 dark blue + 82 blue + 37 green + 8 red = 161 total / 72% quality

This isn’t because older movies are better than modern ones. Instead, it’s because my viewing habits regarding older films are less random—they’re guided less by the logic of “this is what’s out now, so let’s go see it,” and more by “this is what has persisted throughout time—this is what others have argued we should watch.”

I once had a conversation with a professional film critic who told me he’d seen every new Hollywood release in the theater in the 1970s. And, at the time, he and his friends thought ’70s cinema horrible; they complained endlessly about how the films weren’t as good as the ones in the ’30s and ’40s.

“But didn’t you see The Conversation?” I asked him. “Little Murders? Two-Lane Blacktop? McCabe & Mrs. Miller? California Split? The Godfather movies? Barry Lyndon? Night Moves? Taxi Driver? Annie Hall? Days of Heaven?”

“Sure,” he answered. “And we thought they were great. And they were surrounded by hundreds of other movies that no one remembers now…”

The more you watch from the present day, the more garbage you’re bound to see—but your conclusions will be your own. Conversely, the further back you go, the more you’ll be guided by the opinions of others. (If nothing else, what’s available will be largely determined by what’s remained popular.)

Here are my 2010s data so far:

  • 2010s: 4 dark blue + 10 blue + 7 green + 3 red = 24 total / 58% quality

I can only assume it’ll be sharply downhill from here…

Obviously, “quality film” will mean different things to different people. I’m one one of the few viewers who considers Jane Campion’s mid-’90s feature The Portrait of a Lady “essential viewing”—though I’m happy to say the great director Jacques Rivette agrees with me:

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) is magnificent, and everybody spat on it.

I screened it once for a film club I co-founded, but didn’t make any converts.

Some people will think Ebert’s “Great Movies” list too bland, too mainstream. (I’d agree, although it does include many great movies.) Some folks seem happy watching every movie released by the Criterion Collection (831 and counting). Some folks become aficionados of certain genres or regions or time periods—Westerns, musicals, Iranian cinema, Hong Kong action movies, 1930s cinema, silent films.

And there’s more to watching movies than watching great movies. As the cliche goes, you can learn more from a bad film that a good one—or, you can at least learn something. (This is why I’ve watched Inception numerous times, and written extensively about it, and will no doubt continue writing about it.) Thinking further along these lines: I remember Inception, whereas I’ve forgotten dozens of other movies I thought better of at the time. So it would seem that, for variety’s sake, one should see a mixture of both good and bad….

It should go without saying, also, that there’s more to life than watching movies. And even to making them:

More astonishing than the luminous black-and-white images was [Agnès] Varda’s claim that she had seen virtually no other films before making [her debut feature, La Pointe-Courte (1955)] (after racking her brain, she could come up with only Citizen Kane). Whether Varda’s assertion was true or the whim of an artist who does not wish to acknowledge any influence, La Pointe Courte is a stunningly beautiful and accomplished first film. It has also, deservedly, achieved a cult status in film history as, in the words of historian Georges Sadoul, “truly the first film of the nouvelle vague.”

That makes me feel better about my 1925. As well as the fact that I’ve watched a mere handful of Bollywood films, have never seen a North Korean film (there’s a huge industry there), know next-to-nothing about Italian giallo films, or South Korean cinema pre-1998…

It seems the answer is to make use of what you have. (Varda was an accomplished photographer before turning to cinema. And while Citizen Kane was Welles’s own first feature, he brought to it a wealth of experience gleaned from the theater, radio, literature, and stage magic.) When I write about cinema, I bring my knowledge of literature, music, contemporary visual art, dance, philosophy, fitness, um, Magic cards, …

Next week, I plan to circle back some, and try looking at all of this from another angle. Until then, may you enjoy whatever you watch, however much it is. (Including nothing!)

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