The envelope please . . .

June 19, 1998

CRITICS say the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best American movies of all time is simply a marketing device for studios with a lot of old videos to sell. If so, it is a pretty good one. It was hard to watch the three-hour CBS countdown of the golden hundred this week without making mental notes of things to rent. "Grapes of Wrath" seems to be aging very well.

Most lists of the best of anything suffer from an overemphasis on things that happened during the rankers' lifetimes. But the Film Institute went way overboard, picking only four silent movies. The only world in which "Dances With Wolves" is more important than "Intolerance" is the one that exists at Blockbuster.

A list chosen by a committee, whatever its agenda, is probably never going to be as interesting as selections made by a single person, where all the quirks of individuality can be given full rein.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich's all-time favorite movie list includes three John Wayne features as well as "Being There," the Peter Sellers classic about a man who convinces the world he is a genius by repeating the blandest possible truisms. After nearly four years of running the Republican majority in the House, Gingrich seems unclear whether victory belongs to the brave and the well armed, or simply to those who say dumb things with conviction.

He also nominated the entire "Pink Panther" series, which suggests an interest in productions that start strong and degenerate into pointless incoherence.

There will be an orgy of list-making leading up to 2000. Time magazine has already weighed in on the most influential comic-strip character of the century (Bart Simpson). The Washington Post "Style" section named Genghis Khan the Man of the Millennium back in 1995, and a survey of history professors more recently selected Adolf Hitler as "most significant person of the century." Unlike the movies, history does not always favor the virtuous.

This editorial appeared in the New York Times.

Pub Date: 6/19/98

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