Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Month 47 Status Report and a Brief Look Back

Well, I finished.

For no reason beyond my own geekishness, here are some metrics for you:

Date this blog started: December 28, 2009
Date of first reviews: January 1, 2010
Date of completion: November 25, 2013

Total number of films watched: 1154
Total length of films watched: Approximately 132,208 minutes (roughly 2,203.5 hours, or 11 hours/week)
Busiest month: January, 2010--4,772 minutes
Slowest month: November, 2010--1,893 minutes

The original genesis for what would become something that occupied a lot of my waking moments for more than four years happened when my associate Kevin Kim decided to go for a walk. I’ve never met Kevin face-to-face. It’s difficult to meet for a beer when neither of us drinks. It’s even more difficult when I live in Illinois and he lives in either Virginia or Korea, where he taught for a couple of years and now teaches again. Kevin and I used to hang out in the same places online and we tended to write about the same things. We agreed on a lot—enough that we tended to give each other some slack on things when necessary and not so much that we were redundant.

When I say that Kevin decided to go for a walk, I mean that in the grandest sense. His original plan was to take a flight to the western coast of Canada and walk across the border back to the States. He would then walk all the way across the United States back to his home in Alexandria, VA. He wanted to attempt this for several reasons. One was because he has a particular interest in religion and religious discourse, and this walk was a way to explore the religious diversity of the United States. It would also make a fascinating book. Third, and what I was most taken with, was that he wanted to do something grand. He wanted to do the sort of thing that people talk about, an experience that the average person will never have. He was forced to quit this quest for a couple of reasons including an injury and a sudden, severe, and eventually fatal illness of his mother. But the idea of this sort of grand gesture stuck with me. I was fascinated by the thought of doing something exceptional and grand.

Not long after this, I lost my regular column in my local paper. I had done the column weekly (and sometimes weakly) for about four years and the paper wanted a change. They had an open call for regular writers and they ditched everyone who had written for them for more than two years. Suddenly I was without a regular outlet for my writing.

This became a personal quest for me at some point in 2009. There were still Borders bookstores in 2009, and I used to go to our local one pretty regularly. One of the things I liked about it was the massive racks of discount books. These were often drastically-reduced coffee table books or ones that had simply outlived their general usefulness for most people. There were various almanacs or “collections” books that listed hundreds of places to go on vacation, or 2002 drink recipes and the like. One of those books was called “501 Must-See Movies.” I picked up a copy for the severely discounted price and spent some time going through it. I’d seen about half of them, and more importantly to me, I’d seen virtually all of the genres I considered important. The book was set up in 10 different categories, nine with 50 films and one with 51. Flipping through that book reassured me that I’d seen the things I considered most important. I’d seen the bulk of the Action category and virtually all of the horror and science-fiction sections. The fact that I’d seen maybe a tenth of the musicals didn’t bother me a bit.

Around that same time, I saw Iron Man in the theater, and was suddenly taken with a desire to start writing about movies. I don’t go to the movies that often; my schedule is such that finding that sort of time in my day doesn’t happen very often. I saw Iron Man because I thought I should. It was the sort of film that was very much marketed to someone like me. It’s middle-aged guy wish fulfillment, after all. I didn’t care much about the character and didn’t expect much out of it, but I went anyway. I loved it. It’s a really well made film. It’s smart and it has smart characters. It’s also funny and loaded with great action. And so I started blogging that night. I used the 501 Must-See Movies book as an informal guide. I’d review maybe a half or a third of what I watched, and maybe a half of what I reviewed came from that book. I didn’t take it very seriously. It was a way for me to start writing again more than anything, and it was purely done for my own entertainment and for my own purposes.

Later that same year, I came in contact with the 1001 Films You Must See before You Die. The librarian at the college where I teach had purchased a copy of the fifth edition for the library, and knowing that I considered myself a movie person, she passed it on to me. She had it classified as a reference book, which means it doesn’t circulate. Being faculty has perks, though. I asked if I could take it home for the weekend, and she agreed. I was smugly confident that, much as was the case with the 501 Must-See Movies book, I had seen at least half of the films in the book.

It was humbling to flip through all of the pages and see just how much I was really missing. I think my total was around 230. Worse, in my opinion, I had never heard of half of these films. These were films that were considered the most important and influential parts of cinematic history, and not only had I never seen them, I hadn’t known they existed. I prided myself on not being afraid of subtitles, but of the hundreds of non-English films on the list, my hit count was embarrassingly low. I felt like a poser. In truth, I pretty much was a poser. The decision was made that weekend: I would watch every single film in that book, and I would prove that I had done so by blogging about each and every film.

A little bit of investigation led me to the realization that what Cynthia the librarian had purchased was the fifth edition of the book, meaning that there were other films I needed to see in the previous four. Shortly after I encountered the list, the sixth edition came out, adding even more films to the list. I created massive spreadsheets listing as much information as I could. I did research to see what films could be located in the various libraries I have access to. I scoured used DVD stores and resale shops for cheap DVDs of listed films. I researched running times and genres, and nailed down as much of the general availability of films as I could. I also created some basic ground rules. These were as follows:

1) Films get watched end to end. Staying through the credits isn’t necessary, but if I need to get up and leave the room, I pause the film. While there were a few minor exceptions to this, I stuck to this more than 99% of the time.
2) There would be no order in determining what I watched. The film or films for a given day would be determined by availability, schedule, and desire. Going in order might be interesting, but I didn’t have an interest in spending a couple of straight months in the silent era.
3) With double- and triple-features, a common theme had to be established. This could be as prosaic as films by the same director or films with a short running time, but there had to be some point of commonality in the films I watched on a given day.
4) Every film gets watched. Even those films I had seen a dozen or more times gets watched again. This is not a record of what I thought about a film when I watched it 20 years ago. Instead, this was to be a record of my relationship to a given film now, in this moment in time.
5) On the cheap. I’m a working stiff and I have kids. This means I don’t have anything like a vast amount of disposable income. There would be no trips to the Library of Congress or to obscure film libraries in California. If I couldn’t do this from the comfort of my own home, it wasn’t meant to be.
6) And finally, substantive reviews. The point of this was to do more than check off boxes on a big list. I had to look for the value of each film and try to determine for myself why it was put on the list. Going back to the book and checking their reasons would be a last resort, one I managed to avoid in all but a couple of cases. If I knew what I was talking about, if I really understood film the way I wanted to, finding the reason for a particular film’s inclusion should be within my scope of abilities. Writing substantive reviews would be a way to indicate this. And, it plays to my natural tendency to write like I eat: far too much and in a way that is unhealthy.

And so I planned. Slowly, day by day, the spreadsheets grew longer and longer, with each film painstakingly typed in along with an alternate or foreign title (as applicable), its estimated length garnered from the backs of film boxes or the film’s Internet Movie Database (IMDB) page, and the most likely source of finding that film for viewing. It takes a damn long time to type in that many movie names into library databases, let me tell you. But I had months to prepare. I knew I wanted to start on Jaunary 1. Originally, I thought it might be something I could do in a year. It didn’t take long to realize that that was a pipe dream. It would take watching films at a clip of 40 hours per week to finish in a year (at the list’s current length, it’s closer to 42.5 hours/week). I have a job and a commute and children and a wife who prefers to leave the cooking to me. That simply wasn’t going to work. Even two years would be an incredible strain, particularly with 10% or so of the list being films I couldn’t easily find. Eventually, I settled on four years as being a goal I could reach. At 10 hours/week, it was just a hobby, even throwing in an extra five hours or so for the writing. As shown above, that was pretty close to the average, although there were certainly weeks and months that differed from that.

Now that I'm done, I have a lot of people to thank. First, thanks to my wife Sue and my girls Gail and Maxine who put up with this. They survived this as much as I did. Second, thanks to Squish Lessard who runs the 1001 Movies Blog Club. He's a badass and a mensch for keeping it running. One of my favorite moments in a given week is seeing the reviews go up on Thursday and finding out what's been added to the queue. Another thanks to Chip Lary, without whose assistance this may have been impossible. Chip supplied me with several dozen difficult-to-find films and served as constant encouragement to my finishing. Thanks to everyone who took the time to read a review now and then and to comment, letting me know that I wasn't writing into a void. I genuinely appreciate the comments, even when you tell me I'm wrong.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'd like to watch a movie.


  1. Whoo! Congrats again. Damn impressive, sir. That's a LOT of minutes/hours/time spent. One day I might attempt such a feat, though not now.

  2. Congrats Steve! You are the man!
    So What's next? Didn't you say you are going to the Oscar movies next or am I imagining?

  3. Woaaah congrats man! Pretty awesome achievement. I'd like to undertake this challenge sometime in the future. Thanks for the inspiration :)

  4. Thank you, Steve, for sharing this with us. I am sure we are a lot who are in awe of your persistence. For me personally you are my hero. I always check you review of a given film shortly after I have reviewed it myself, eager to see if you saw the same as I saw (more often than not) and to find out what I missed as your reviews would always be spot on. I quickly found out that if I read your reviews first I would subconciously just copy your review and what is the point of that?
    Your achievement is indeed that "grand" thing and you are my inspiration.

    1. Ditto. Steve, your reviews have always been an inspiration, and I've occasionally gone to yours before writing mine because I'm occasionally utterly at sea with some films (Last Tango in Paris springs to mind, adn I thank you for your highly entertaining analysis on that 'work of art'). The hugest congratulations on finishing the List... or at least finishing it until next October, when the new films go on. I await your next project with boundless enthusiasm.

  5. Congratulations. An amazing accomplishment. I am continually impressed at your dedication to this project, your writing skills and your wonderful insights into film. What will you do with yourself now, indeed. :-)

  6. Thanks, everyone. I appreciate the love.

  7. Congrats! You've achieved your grand goal and you have the most thoughtful reviews.

  8. A little late in checking in on this, but thank you for the background stories on what led to this impressive effort. I knew about the librarian story, but most of the rest of it was new to me. I had a similar experience when I picked up the first edition of the book back in 2003: I had only seen around 300 and there were a ton that I had never even heard of. The big difference is that it took finding people like yourself who were attempting to see the every film in the book before I took the plunge myself.


  9. I am SO, SO sorry. If only this had existed some years ago. :-)

    1. I've seen it. I'm incredibly impressed with the editing of that. I wish I had a tenth of that sort of artistic ability.