- Lawrence of Arabia
Twenty years ago, I was working in the publishing department of the British Film Institute. In the National Film Archive (also part of the BFI) was a colleague, David Meeker, who was responsible for acquiring feature films for archival preservation. His goal, like mine, was to improve the general level of understanding and appreciation of cinema, this educational mission being what the BFI had been founded for. Meeker was concerned that, for a variety of reasons to do with changes in the film industry, particularly relating to film exhibition, it was becoming increasingly difficult for the general public to see classic films in the manner in which they were intended to be seen, in good-quality 35-mm prints in a public theater. He therefore persuaded the director of the BFI to find money for an ambitious program of making new prints of classic films available from the BFI.
The question immediately arose: which films ought the BFI to make prints of? The list that Meeker constructed was largely his personal selection, though it represented a kind of consensus of what knowledgeable film archivists of his age and background might agree on. Eventually he came up with a total of 360 films. The idea was that once new prints had been struck of all these films, they could appear in continuous repertory at the National Film Theatre (yet another part of the BFI), offering over the course of a year's screenings a thorough grounding in the history of cinema. (The full list was eventually published as a supplement to Sight & Sound in 1998.)
It seemed to me that this was an admirable project, wholly in keeping with the educational purposes of the BFI, and that BFI Publishing might also play its part. If people were to understand the history of cinema, they surely needed not only to see the key films; they also needed scholars and critics to explain why these films, rather than others, were essential viewing. They needed, in short, books. And so the idea of BFI Film Classics was born; the BFI would, in the fullness of time, publish a book about all 360 films. [End Page 161]
Since this was not primarily an academic initiative but one aimed at a wider public, it appeared a good idea to extend the range of authors beyond the usual academic suspects. Thus, we invited novelists, filmmakers, journalists, artists, politicians, and others to write for us. Clearly many of these would have been unwilling to undertake a lengthy work of scholarship, but if the book were short (20,000 words maximum) and if it might be as personal as the author chose, perhaps we could entice them to contribute.
The series got off to an auspicious start when Colin MacCabe, my boss at the BFI, brought off the stunning coup of persuading Salman Rushdie to write about The Wizard of Oz. I well remember the launch party for the Classics in 1992, held in a marquee on the bank of the Thames outside the NFT. Rushdie was still in hiding from the fatwa, and was accompanied by several burly types with bulges under their suits. Just as he was signing a copy of his book for me, there was a tremendous bang, and everyone wondered whether to hit the deck. It was only a passing boat backfiring.
For the first fifty titles or so, we stuck to the original list of 360 films. Unfortunately, the most recent film included was Mad Max 2, which dated from 1981. Meeker had argued, reasonably enough, that a film could not acquire classic status overnight. But increasingly, the authors we wished to contract wanted to write about more recent films, and there was no doubt that readers wanted to read about them, too. So a parallel series was launched, under the admittedly oxymoronic title of BFI Modern Classics.
For the Modern Classics, there was no preselected list of films to choose from. Any film might potentially qualify, and some of the titles published might have raised an eyebrow in traditional circles. (Is...