As so often happens, history figures liturgy. Some poems for the present climate:
“Ovid in the Third Reich,” by Geoffrey Hill:
non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare, solaque famosam culpa professa facit. (Amores, III, xiv)
I love my work and my children. God
Is distant, difficult. Things happen.
Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.
I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much upon the damned. They, in their sphere,
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Choir. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.
“Epitaph on a Tyrant,” by W. H. Auden:
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
“Thou art indeed just,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum: verumtamen justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c.
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
A sequel to my election-day post: now that the apocalypse has arrived, what has been revealed? In fact, very little; almost nothing. On the one hand, because everyone already knew how all but a minute fraction of the population would vote; the outcome was surprising, but the intentions behind the outcome were all known in advance. On the other, because, precisely because the outcome was surprising, we thus far have no idea what it means.
This absence of significance reminds me of an essay written by a professor of mine, Miguel Tamen, called “In Defense of King Louis XVI”. (For those not on a university campus it might be behind a paywall. I’m not sure.) Tamen observes that we often insist on the right to determine the meaning of our actions, and argues that
A conflation of psychology and politics appears to be responsible for this state of affairs. Such is the confusion of self-description with self-determination that surrendering one’s right to the former feels like surrendering a civil right. Self-description, however, is barely a right, if at all; it is, rather, a matter of being good, true, accurate, and successful at describing this-thing-here. Some people are naturally good at it, some learn how to become good at it, some forget how good they once were, and some are hopelessly inept. None should be deprived of their civil rights because they failed the introspection exam, just as no one should be granted any additional right because he or she happened to be at the right time in the right place.
Which is to say: you do not get to decide what your vote meant. You cannot say “I voted for A because of X, not because of Y, and so Y is not my responsibility.” Ignorance of Y is not excuse; you might be culpably ignorant. A belief that X outweighs Y is no excuse; you might be culpably mistaken. Even your belief that you did not vote for A because of Y might be mistaken; you have no special insight into your own motives. You cannot know if your conscience is clean. This is, incidentally, why I do not trust Kant as a moral guide: he assumes that the good will will always recognize its own purity.
Note that your ignorance as to your own culpability is increased, not decreased, by the fact that to vote is to participate in a collective action. “We the people” elected Donald J. Trump president. If you voted, regardless of whom you voted for, you are a member of this “we”; you demonstrated your assent to the system of government under which Trump is the lawful president-elect. (If you want to take your assent back because Trump won, it means that all along your vote was in bad faith.) The meaning of this election might already be determined, but it remains to be seen what it signified, and no one has the authority to decide what their vote meant independent of the meaning of the election as a whole.
At least, so we must say if our vote is to make any sense at all. But I worry—are elections epiphenomenal? By which I mean, does any human being have any significant influence on the results, or are they merely the spontaneous overflow of collective feeling? Does it even make sense to think of the election as a collective action—and if not, is democracy any more meaningful than augury?
In favor of the individual-action theory, we can place these facts: that Clinton could have won if she had just campaigned in the states where she most needed to; that Trump won without winning the popular vote because he realized that he lived in a system where he did not have to do so. The former is pure hubris and ineptitude, the latter a winning strategy open to anyone willing to give up on the idea that winning an election conveys, above and beyond the raw power, some sort of moral legitimacy. These are both comprehensible as human actions, and lend themselves, even in these democratic times, to somewhat of a “great man” theory of politics.
In favor of epiphenomenalism, on the other hand: the fact that it came down to these two candidates in the first place; the fact that not only were both candidates wildly unpopular, but also all of the third party candidates were more laughable than usual; the fact that, despite the caution of the most competent data analysts, all of that part of the country that thinks it represents the country was convinced that Clinton would win easily. None of these facts can be blamed on Trump, or on Clinton, or on any other particular person. Rather, we can identify a number of systemic causes: our “first past the post” voting system (a ranked-preference voting system would have led, if nothing else, to a considerably larger third party vote, and might well have changed the results of the Republican primary); the flash-in-the-pan faux-outrage made possible by Facebook and Twitter; the epistemic bubbles made possible by those same technologies. All of these things could have been otherwise, but could only have been changed by people who had no idea why the change might matter.
Implicit in this skeptical doubt, of course, is the feeling that Facebook and Twitter &co. simply exist, independent of anything we do. I’ve written before about how dangerous this feeling is. What I want to mark now is its pervasiveness. “For those not on a university campus,” I wrote earlier, “it might be behind a paywall, I’m not sure.” It’s difficult to specify why, but I can’t help but think that to make such a link while failing to know such a thing is somehow in bad faith. I have no idea what the election will turn out to mean. For now, I can’t help but suspect that what we’ve seen so far is more significant as an epiphenomenon of the history of technology than as an action in the arena of politics.
From the Greek ἀποκαλύπτειν to uncover, disclose, from ἀπό off + καλύπτειν to cover. One does not, of course, expect that anything particularly unexpected will occur. Rarely, in fact, does one feel so fully the difference between the difference between future and preterite, and the difference between certain and uncertain. Nor does one expect anything unusually horrific; undoubtedly the horrorshow of history will continue as per usual.
The verb “to vote” is almost always treated as self-explanatory, which ought to strike us as strange, since the act of voting cannot even be imagined except under political conditions that are far from universal. For those curious: “vote,” from Latin vōtum promise, desire, properly the past participle neuter of vovēre to vow, to wish. Agamemnon desired; Jephthah promised; we vote.
Since voting is not, after all, very much like pulling a lever on a baroque piece of machinery, these two propositions at least seem clear. To “vote your preference” is to endorse a system of government under which decisions are made based only on the aggregation of personal lust. To “vote your conscience” is to endorse a system of ethics under which actions are judged based only on the subjective state of the agent.
Of bloggity-thingy-endorsements, my favorite was that given by SlateStarCodex:, mainly for how unabashedly neoliberal is its reasoning: “Suppose you live in a swing state. If you think (in a well-calibrated way) that it’s 10% more likely that your candidate will use $1 trillion well than that the other candidate will, your vote is worth $500. If you live in a safe state, it’s more like $30. If you value the amount of time it takes to vote at less than that, voting is conceivably a good use of your time.” Of course, “We don’t know for sure that we’re right about politics,” but “if you’re seriously uncertain about whether or not you think more clearly than the average voter, by that fact alone you almost certainly do.” That’s all well and good—but what if the average voter and I differ not in our knowledge, but in our preferences?
In Australia, voting is mandatory, with a small fine—about $30, I’m told—for those who fail to fill out a ballot. Of course, Australia also has preferential voting: I rank this candidate #1, this candidate #2, this one #3…; tally results, kick out the lowest performer, shift the votes of those who supported them to the next candidate on the voters’ ranked list, and repeat until some candidate has a majority. Like all non-dictatorial systems, preferential voting is susceptible to tactical voting (that is to say, lying), but it is more resistant to it than most.
Given the state I live in, I was surprised the other day to see on television an ad for a major party presidential candidate. But then I remembered that the Senate race here is rather close. This observation does not, of course, disprove the claim that local elections matter, but it calls into doubt whether anyone really considers any elections to be local.
In 1939 David Jones wrote to his friend Harman Grisewood, after reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf: “it is amazingly interesting in all kinds of ways—but pretty terrifying too. God, he’s nearly right—but this hate thing mars his whole thing.” The word “hate,” for a devout Catholic, is quite strong, and surely, one would think, sufficient to dispel any suspicion that he was a Nazi sympathizer. And yet many, perhaps most students of modernism are convinced that Jones and his ilk were secret fascists; the moderate position being that they kept their fascism secret even from themselves. To be sure, Jones opposed both liberal democracy and communism, which cannot help but make him a fascist, if “fascist” is our term for all those who are both anti-communist and anti-liberal.
“We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do this,” reasoned the politician. SMBC calls it “the falling problem.” Meanwhile, Alisdair MacIntyre tells us that “The way to vote against the system is not to vote”; since, in the American system at least, abstentions are not counted against either of the major candidates, ones suspects MacIntyre of an equivocation.
The problem with voting for a third party is not that a third party candidate cannot win; it’s that a third party candidate is almost never actually prepared to be president. This poses no practical problem, since of course they stand no chance of winning. But it poses a theoretical problem: if you refuse to vote for a major party candidate because you think them likely to be a disaster in this or that respect, why are you willing to vote for someone who would, if elected, be an absolute disaster all across the board? The same, of course, applies to those who abstain from voting entirely: do you really want to live in a world where the U.S.A. suddenly has no head of state?
Ishmael says of the monkey-rope: “So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death….”
In the intersection of the legal doctrines of felony murder and common purpose, if one bank robber kills a security guard, even if by accident, he and all of his accomplices are guilty of murder. Or so, at least, Denis Johnson’s Angels would have it.
Criminal and corporate law, two-party systems, print radio and television, webcomics and bloggity thingies and websites of statistical aggregation—all these baroque pieces of machinery—are not, of course, to blame. To blame are those who summoned them from the deep without a plan for how to subjugate them to our will. But then, without such mechanisms, we have no way to determine what will, if any, should be called ours.
Is this post’s greatest flaw that it takes all these things too seriously, or that it takes them not seriously enough? The only note I can think to end on is that sounded by the gloriously melodramatic pastiche that is the original Star Wars, when Obiwan Kenobi senses the destruction of Alderaan: “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”
Socrates, in Plato’s Theaetetus:
You, Theodorus, are a lover of theories, and now you innocently fancy that I am a bag full of them, and can easily pull one out which will overthrow its predecessor. But you do not see that in reality none of these theories come from me; they all come from him who talks with me. I only know just enough to extract them from the wisdom of another, and to receive them in a spirit of fairness. And now I shall say nothing myself, but shall endeavour to elicit something from our young friend.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics IX.iv:
Therefore, since each of these characteristics [of friendship] belongs to the good man in relation to himself, and he is related to his friend as to himself (for his friend is another self), friendship too is thought to be one of these attributes, and those who have these attributes to be friends. Whether there is or is not friendship between a man and himself is a question we may dismiss for the present; there would seem to be friendship in so far as he is two or more, to judge from the afore-mentioned attributes of friendship, and from the fact that the extreme of friendship is likened to one’s love for oneself.
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §270:
Let us now imagine a use for the entry of the sign “S” in my diary. I find out the following from experience: whenever I have a particular sensation, a manometer shows that my blood pressure is rising. This puts me in a position to report that my blood pressure is rising without using any apparatus. This is a useful result. And now it seems quite indifferent whether I’ve recognized the sensation correctly or not. Suppose that I regularly make a mistake in identifying it, this does not make any difference at all. And this alone shows that the supposition of this mistake was merely sham. (We, as it were, turned a knob which looked as if it could be used to adjust something in the machine; but it was a mere ornament not connected with the mechanism at all.)
And what reason do we have here for calling “S” the name of a sensation? Perhaps the kind of way this sign is employed in this language-game. And why a “particular sensation”: that is, the same one every time? Well, we’re supposing, aren’t we, that we write “S” every time.
[Second post of two on novels of interest-bearing marriage, the first being this reflection on a scene from Silas Marner.]
From near the end of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier:
Of course you have the makings of a situation here, but it is all very humdrum, as far as I am concerned. I should marry Nancy if her reason were ever sufficiently restored to let her appreciate the meaning of the Anglican marriage service. But it is probable that her reason will never be sufficiently restored to let her appreciate the meaning of the Anglican marriage service. Therefore I cannot marry her, according to the law of the land.
The irony here, in contrast with the passage discussed previously, is dark and bitter—a medicinal tonic, versus a pint a the local pub. And of course here it’s the narrator, not just a minor character, who is unreliable—we have to read past John Dowell’s telling of the story to reach that of Ford himself. At this point in the story Nancy has gone mad, repeating ad nauseum “Credo in unum Deum” and “shuttlecocks”—she is caught, in other words, between the peace of divine simplicity and the multiform chaos of the all-too-human passions that bat us back and forth willy-nilly. Aren’t we all? Like most literary madmen, Nancy understands better than most, and if she cannot “appreciate the meaning of the Anglican marriage service” (the phrase repeated twice for emphasis), neither can anyone else. The Anglican marriage service, Ford leads us to suspect, has no meaning to be appreciated.
But what makes it meaningless? We find a clue in the beginning of the next paragraph: “So here I am very much where I started thirteen years ago.” No one can appreciate the meaning because the meaning does not appreciate; there’s no return on the investment. Or, at least, no intrinsic appreciation—the value of the marriage might increase, decrease, or remain constant, but these changes will have nothing to do with the marriage paying dividends, and everything to do with extrinsic market fluctuations. The important point is that the marriage’s value is always uncertain—at least until it’s cashed in. A marriage a kind of empty cipher, at any moment worth only as much as the interested parties happen to believe it is worth. Ford agrees with Eliot that a marriage can be seen as an economic enterprise, but Eliot can tend towards an overly sentimental view of what this means, analogizing it with the solitary laborer, and opposing to it only miserdom and prodigality. Ford follows Melville in fearing the economic vantage point will have the labor-alienating effect of a joint-stock company, which encourages the vice neither of miserdom nor of prodigality, but rather of speculation.
The narrator here is talking about the Anglican view of marriage, and Ford’s novel is deeply concerned with the difference between the Anglican and the Catholic sacraments, so we might shift our discussion from an economic to a theological register (not that the two can be entirely divorced): the Anglican view in this novel stands for the idea that a marriage does not perdure through time, but is re-created anew ever moment, and at any moment might cease to be re-created and so cease entirely to be. I’m reminded here of Stanley Cavell’s idea of “remarriage”: once marriage transcends its origin in religious and economic necessity and becomes a union based on mutual love, it is dependent on a continuous free renewal of that love, such that whenever the love ceases to be given, the marriage ceases, at least temporarily, to be. The marriage, it seems, is temporally discontinuous—or, perhaps, a marriage is less an action than a state; it would be a bit strange to ask whether, when anger returns after a period of calm, it’s the same anger.
Such a view seems in one way like a natural development of George Eliot’s suggestion that “everything comes to light sooner or later,” that the truth of a marriage depends on whether things “turned out all right”—but in another way, like a complete reversal of it. (A fact which perhaps should not surprise us, given that both Eliot and Cavell were greatly interested in German dialectical philosophy.) A development, in that we have a natural tendency to trace any failure of amatory renewal back to an originary failure: if two people fall out of love, they were never really in love to begin with. Eliot says that we can say whether a marriage was “real” based on how it turns out; Cavell makes explicit the one-to-one correspondence, “love-filled marriage = real marriage, loveless marriage = fake marriage”. But a reversal, in that Cavell excises any sense that a marriage can grow, and particularly, any sense that the natural outgrowth of marriage is children. Put more simply, for Cavell, a marriage is not a thing that either happened, or didn’t; a marriage is something that either is happening, or isn’t.
Which is itself a natural consequence of the economic metaphor, updated for the modern age of easy bankrupcy and no-fault divorce. Cavell thinks that “remarriage” arises when marriage is liberated from economic necessity—but such a liberation is always an illusion, and to succumb to it is to remake marriage along entirely economic lines. Eliot recognizes on some level the problems posed to marriage by modern ways of thinking, by the twin spirits of capitalism (wherein enterprises must thrive to survive) and Protestantism (wherein God makes the world anew in every moment), but doesn’t know quite what to make of them. It’s symptomatic that all of her novels are set at least a generation years prior to their writing, and in a rural England quite different from the cosmopolitan London in which she spent her adult years. It’s perhaps also symptomatic that most of her novels end in more-or-less-happy marriages among skilled craftsmen and minor gentry, whereas Eliot (or, rather, Mary Ann Evans) moved among the literati and lived scandalously for twenty years in the house of married man. (Ford, a not-particularly-devout Catholic convert, had a far less stable romantic life, which perhaps makes him more scandalous qua borgeoisie but less qua Catholic.)
For myself, I think this “remarriage” business is all a great misunderstanding. Truth will out, sooner or later—but that doesn’t mean that the truth isn’t already determined. Though the reality of a marriage cannot be determined through inspection of the moment of the wedding, that moment is still the moment at which it took place—after all, there’s no other moment of significance for the question. (“Her reason will never be sufficiently restored to let her appreciate the meaning of the Anglican marriage service”.) We look to future events, not for their own sake, but for evidence of what took place in the beginning, and it’s the overall trajectory, not any particular moment, to which we attend. Occasionalism is no more plausible when it comes to marriage than when it comes to cosmogony. Just as the world began with a never-to-be-repeated “Fiat lux,” so every marriage began with a never-to-be-repeated “I will.” (Not, contra J.L. Austin, “I do.”)
Which means, crucially, that when we look to see whether a marriage is real, we’re not just looking to see whether it turned out well. We can draw no one-to-one correspondences. An annulment is not just another word for a divorce, because a marriage is not an economic action, but a living sacrament (albeit a sacrament of oikonomia, of housekeeping): a failed enterprise might be no enterprise at all, but a marriage does not cease to be because it’s failing, any more than does a human being. Alas, this is not, it seems fair to say, the Anglican view.
Having learned my lesson from the first two catastrophes (and confident no eu-catastrophe would be forthcoming), I didn’t bother to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies when it came out almost two years ago. I finally got around to it when trapped on a transatlantic flight for seven hours with nothing better to do.
This time around the movie left me far too weary of the whole thing to examine its failings point-by-point. In part, perhaps, because there’s so little point to the whole thing; true to the title, the majority of the film is dedicated to a battle scene on which the book spends only a single chapter. That chapter, of course, looks at the battle from Bilbo’s perspective, a not-particularly heroic one (he wears the ring most of the combat and ends up getting knocked unconscious by a falling rock), so to keep up the audience’s interest for more than ten minutes, the movie has to invent characters and events with only the slimmest basis in Tolkien, and most of the action concerns itself with them. In a sense this isn’t really a film version of the Hobbit at all—it’s Tolkien fan fiction.
The most enjoyable scene of the movie, I thought, was also Tolkien fan fiction in a sense, but this time at least with some basis in the Legendarium (if not The Hobbit)—I mean the attack by the White Council on the lair of the Necromancer. Excerpted here, since it barely connects at all to what’s around it, this ought to be the only part of the movie you watch:
I mention this scene because, while I enjoyed it, I also thought there was something symptomatically wrong with it. What makes it enjoyable? Two things.
First, the action is exciting but still comprehensible. In fact, despite the fact that it’s wizards fighting ringwraiths, it’s more realistic than the other battle scenes in the films—the ringwraiths’ ability to teleport or move with superhuman speed or whatever it is they’re doing keeps things moving quickly enough that Peter Jackson doesn’t feel the need to insert the idiotic gymnastics and gravity-defying leaps that mar so much of the action in the rest of the film. Put differently, while this scene does still have a video-game quality to it, at least it’s a video game that I can imagine wanting to play.
But second, and more importantly, though the characters in the scene are all familiar to us from the Lord of the Rings movies, no longer are they inhabiting the “wise elder” archetype; now they get to enter the spotlight and show off their moves. The effect is much like that of Yoda’s battle scenes in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. There’s something strangely exciting about seeing a character spring into action who heretofore had only held their head high and spoken words calm and wise. Their identity with their previous filmic incarnations is ensured not only through being played by the same actors, but also through frequent allusion to scenes from the previous films, the Fellowship in particular: Elrond wears much the same armor as in the Prologue with Isildur; Saruman wields his staff much as he did in the duel with Gandalf; and Galadriel turns dark and menacing just as in her conversation with Frodo by the Mirror.
If these features make the scene entertaining, they also make it meaningless—and not just meaningless, but in fact possessed of a sort of anti-meaning. Think for more than a few seconds about the setting of the scene, and it makes no sense, except by a video-game logic where everything comes down to a battle between, on the one hand, the player’s diverse quartet of Warrior (Elrond), Cleric (Galadriel), and two kinds of Wizard (Saruman and Gandalf); and on the other, the Big Bad’s nine Henchmen, then the Big Bad himself. Worse, think for more than a few seconds about the allusions to the Fellowship, and it quickly becomes apparent that Peter Jackson has not thought through what his allusions mean.
Consider the appearance of dark!Galadriel. In the original film, she turns dark! when contemplating Frodo’s offer of the One Ring, and it represents what she would become if she accepted it. What, then, are we to make of her taking on a similar appearance when fighting against the Necromancer? The best sense I can make of it is that Jackson associates dark!Galadriel with the elven ring she wears—indeed, right when she turns dark! we can see bright light emanating from the ring on her finger. But what sense does this make? Has Jackson assumed that the three elven rings, just like the nine for mortal men, have been corrupted by the one ring? To think so is entirely to misunderstand the backstory; as Tolkien tells it, anyway, the elven rings were the only ones kept safe from Sauron. And really, who could think that Galadriel, Elrond, and Gandalf would wear rings that had been subjected to Sauron’s will? That would make them no better than the Ringwraiths they fight. But if we want to be charitable and avoid this interpretation of the scene, there is only one alternative: Jackson has associated the use of the elven ring with dark!Galadriel, not because he thinks the ring corrupted, but because the ring is “cool,” and dark!Galadriel is “cool,” and the two ought to go together.
This is just the kind of confusion we would expect if Jackson were attempting, not to make a scene similar in quality to the original, but to make a scene that would remind its audience of the effect the original had on them, but in a concentrated dose—that would be the same, but more. In other words, the scene is mere wallowing in nostalgia. Which is better, I suppose, than wallowing in nonsense—but not by much.
So the BBC has put out a list of the 100 greatest films of the 21st century. Such lists are, if taken literally, an inane exercise, the most extreme version of a tendency already mocked 80 years ago by Auden’s Letter to Lord Byron:
Joyces are firm and there there’s nothing new.
Eliots have hardened just a point or two.
Hopkins are brisk, thanks to some recent boosts.
There’s been some further weakening in Prousts.
Still, contra Auden, I’d suggest that such lists do serve several legitimate purposes; among them: helping those who require initiation in the tradition (students) to educate their palate; helping those already initiated (critics) to step back and notice trends and tendencies that may require correction; and helping those who would understand Culture as a system (economists) to peer into its workings.
So, without further ado, I’ll be engaging in scholarship, criticism, and econometry, in that order.
Scholarship: Almost two thirds of these movies I haven’t seen; of those 66, there are only a handful (bolded) that I have any particular desire to see (though others might make the cut if I knew more about them, and the position of some of them on this list might induce me to seek them out):
100. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
100. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
100. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)
99. The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
98. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
97. White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)
93. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)
92. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
91. The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella, 2009)
89. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
88. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
86. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
85. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009)
83. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
81. Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
80. The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003)
79. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
77. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)
76. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
75. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
73. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
72. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
71. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)
70. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
69. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)
67. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
66. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003)
65. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
63. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011)
61. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
60. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
58. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène, 2004)
57. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
56. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, director; Ágnes Hranitzky, co-director, 2000)
55. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)
54. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)
53. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
52. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
50. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)
49. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)
48. Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)
46. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
45. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
42. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
41. Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015)
40. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
39. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
37. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
36. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)
34. Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)
31. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
30. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
29. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
28. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
26. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
23. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
22. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
18. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
16. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
12. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
11. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
Second, criticism: the other 36 I have seen; there are 27 which I agree should have made the cut (though I’d probably shuffle the ordering)—I don’t necessarily like all of them, but those I don’t like I have no strong feelings about and can recognize their artistry. Whereas there are 9 of whose presence I actively disapprove, thinking them overrated; I’ve bolded and reddened the ones I dislike.
96. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003)
95. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)
94. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
90. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
87. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
84. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
82. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)
78. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
74. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)
68. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
64. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
62. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
59. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
51. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
47. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)
44. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
43. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
38. City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002)
35. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
33. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
32. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
27. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
25. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
24. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
21. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)
20. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
19. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
17. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
14. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
13. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
Curiously, two of the nine movies of whose presence I disapproved were by Christopher Nolan, which might suggest I have a particular dislike for him—but, in fact, I like many of his movies, and think merely that these two movies in particular are quite overrated. In fact, in my suggested replacements for these nine movies, I include one Nolan film that did not make the original list:
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012) –> In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)
The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002) –> Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)
Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) –> Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012)
Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) –> Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) –> The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2015)
Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) –> The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2005)
Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) –> Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) –> Birdman (Alejandro J. Iñárritu, 2014)
Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006) –> Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002)
Note that this is not an attempt to construct my own list of “36 greatest films of the 2000s”; there may be films I’m forgetting that did not make the original list but which I prefer to films on that list. Rather, it aims to replace inferior movies with other movies both similar and superior. This list thus constitutes a critical assertion: watch this, not that! But it’s also fodder for critical reflection. What makes me prefer the movies on the right to those on the left, apparently contrary to the critical consensus?
Some tentative inferences: first of all, my rejection of The Pianist, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Master might suggest that I’m not a big fan of what’s usually called the “character study”—I prefer films with plots; and my dislike of the last one, in particular, might suggest that I have an aversion to slow-paced movies focused on what are often called “powerful” performances, in favor of the frenetic. And I admit—I agree with Kurosawa that the human body in action does a better job revealing character than lingering shots of contorted faces. Second, my dislike of Moonrise Kingdom, Amélie, Her, and Pan’s Labyrinth might suggest that I have an aversion to a certain kind of whimsy, and my like of In Bruges, Ex Machina, and Hero, a preference for fantastical themes played straight. I suppose this is right, though it requires more thought—some whimsy, after all, I do appreciate; but perhaps I prefer my whimsy to be social rather than metaphysical. Finally, my replacement of Inception and Memento with The Prestige and Primer derives, I think, from my like for but also extreme severity regarding what are often called “puzzle” movies. I dislike the former two movies because their puzzles seem to me simplistic and insignificant; it seems as if many people just say “Oh! Puzzle! That must have taken skill to work out!”, and leave it at that.
56% of the films I disliked were in the bottom 25% of the original list, and the bottom 22% of the list of those I’ve seen, which isn’t too surprising; you’d expect the movies nearer the cutoff point to be less obviously “great.”
More surprisingly, 33% of those I disliked were in the top 25% of the original list (though only the top 39% of those I’ve seen–again, it’s unsurprising that I’ve seen more films at the top of the list than at the bottom, since we tend to seek out movies that have a high reputation), and only 11% were in the middle quartiles. This suggests that movies considered “the best” will often be more controversial than those considered merely “good”.
To round it off, some fun with dates: their century includes both 2000 and 2016, and they have three #100s (I guess there was a tie?), which means their list includes an average of exactly six movies per year. Most years are pretty much average, having between 5 and 7 movies on the list. 2004 and 2006 are low, with only 4 each; 2012 and 2013 are high, with 9. 2016 only has 1, but the year isn’t up yet and so this number can’t be taken entirely seriously. Personally, apart from the inconsequential ’16 (I haven’t seen the one movie from this year), I’ve seen the most films (4) from ’01, ’12, and ’13, and the fewest (1) in ’04, ’05, ’06, and ’15; all other years I’ve seen 2 or 3. This tracks pretty well with the distribution on the list as a whole, except for my having seen 4 of the 6 movies from 2001; I attribute this, I suppose, to my usually watching “great” movies gradually over time, not when they come out, and so I’ve had more time to see the movies that have been around the longest, although it may be just a meaningless outlier.