As the cashier canned the goodies I had picked out as part of my latest DVD run, she noted one of the discs in my stack and said, “To Have And Not To...” Then she corrected herself: “To Have and Have Not...Is it any good?”
I smiled. She was a young woman about my age, and our conversation would not have evolved beyond routine customer chit-chat had she not noticed the sultry image of young Lauren Bacall latching fiercely onto Humphrey Bogart. “Honestly, I have no idea,” I said. “It’s actually the only one out of the bunch I haven’t seen.”
“You know…which was it where the girl goes ’Where am I gonna go, what am I gonna do?’, and then the guy goes ’Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’? Might’ve been this one I think.”
“No, that’s actually from Gone with the Wind.”
“You sure about that?”
“All right, well…You better be right, ’cause I’m gonna look it up online when I get home.”
It was only after I had left the register and presented my receipt to the doorman that the oddity of my sure-handed response sunk in: I have never seen Gone with the Wind.
Blind spots. They’re like that itch located smack in the center of our backs. It’s a pain-in-the-ass reach, yet certainly desirable, and there’s a chance that once we do get around to scratching it, we won’t be able to stop. We can justify our blind spots on the grounds of time and money, but there is a limit to the number of omissions that we can pin on these limiting resources, especially if we’ve invested in more than just a few Michael Bay flicks. Measured against all the significant titles, recent and older, that we still haven’t seen, the prospect of missing a few picks from our favorite critics’ 2007 year-end lists suddenly doesn’t seem as distressing, does it?
To date, here are the five biggest holes in my viewing tapestry. Since I’m in the privileged position of selecting films I haven’t seen, I had no set criteria, apart from drawing from memory a pool of titles I’ve come to believe are good and important. My picks are influenced by popular hearsay and academic consensus. Your grounds will vary. Another confession: with the exception of Gone with the Wind’s Victor Fleming, the directors of the other four movies on my list are geographically and personally foreign.
While my level of ambition wilts in the presence of Kevin B. Lee’s ridiculous(ly admirable) quest to conquer TSPDT’s top 1000, my goal these coming months is to patch up all five voids—after which point they will, of course, be replaced by five more.
1. Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming): Yes, Virginia, light the torch fires and bring out the war drums because it’s true: the titan of Hollywood Golden Age is my Holy Grail of blind spots. I can’t think of a single reason why this shouldn’t top my lineup. Quite simply, it’s legendary. While the quoted line in my introduction is indeed one of cinema’s most renowned, my involuntary realization of its origin shocked even myself (eventually)—and Wind’s frequent TV runs make it seem equally improbable that I’ve never laid eyes on a single of the film’s scenes. That predictable word “overrated” is bound to be tossed about—but is there another adjective that can be attributed to almost every film ever made? Credit Mia Kirshner for making me believe I’ve heard Scarlett O’Hara’s “As God is my witness” soliloquy a thousand times outside of her flirtatious impersonation in The Black Dahlia. To my fresh eyes, Vivien Leigh would have to be as unmatched as her Blanche DuBois if she wants to reclaim her proper place as the voice instead of the echo—but that doesn’t seem like a problem.
2. The 400 Blows (1959, François Truffaut): This list’s first runner-up tops a laundry list of foreign language films that I’m plowing through at a Terrence Malick-type productivity rate. The 400 Blows came the closest of the five to missing this list’s eligibility requirement, and the one I have the second-most prior knowledge of. My interest stemmed from the pleasures The French New Wave have already offered, and seeing how Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical film is credited with defining the movement, it seems curious that I’ve kept it in the dark. Remember the time you saw your first Hitchcock/Kubrick/De Palma/Herzog, and how finishing that auteur’s entire filmography became an instant priority? The likelihood that The 400 Blows will spark a similar completist urge is part of the reason why I haven’t seen it yet.
3. Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujirô Ozu): Gulp. A real moment of despair. Rarely a week passes in which I don’t encounter the Ozu’s in some article or another, but the closest I’ve come to the experience of watching an Ozu film is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Cafe Lumiere. If the Taiwanese master’s minimalist exploration of the modernizing world and mundanity of life is in fact reminiscent of Ozu, then Ozu probably likes slow to stationary camera settings and low angles. A lot. And he must love trains too, otherwise Cafe Lumiere is just Hou channeling an age-old passion. Style speculations aside, I’ll be walking into this one cold—which, as they say, is the best way to experience a movie for the first time.
4. Blowup (1966, Michelangelo Antonioni): Admittedly, last July when everyone was lighting two candles for two passing masters, I sat quietly in my room tending to my single flame. Mea culpa. For me, Antonioni’s reputation preceded his work. I never got around to what initially drew me to him: a mesmerizing, grayscale image of a photographer atop a prostrate woman, an image I uncovered some years ago by chance. As with Toyko Story I know nothing of the movie itself besides having seen and loved an homage: Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. So am I making plans to watch the work of a stylish misogynist, filled with sex and violence? This pick was interchangeable with L’avventura, another Antonioni picture I’ve come dangerously close to seeing—but I gave Blowup the edge.
5. The Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica): I had a clear idea coming in what 4 of my 5 picks would be, and still could’ve easily capped it with a Bresson, a Resnais, or a Fassbinder. But I decided to break the unspoken rule I made when I set out to write this thing, and used the Internet to jog my memory; an older Sight & Sound Poll encouraged me to end with the blindest of blind spots. Bicycle Thief is one of few movies—and the only one included on this list—that I frequently see mentioned but have been unable to pin to a director. Having wandered this far into church, I might as well give a complete confession: I have never before heard of De Sica. The Bicycle Thief was shortlisted in the first two Sight and Sound polls, but has since fallen out, which suggests it might have dated over the years. Or not. Maybe the participating critics and directors just got loonier. One thing is for sure: looking forwards or backwards, there are still surprises.
Simon Hsu is a San Diego-based cineaste.