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“If There are Esoteric Titles in the List, the Unfortunate Thing is That They are Esoteric at All”: Sean Price Williams on 1000 Movies

Sean Price Williams outside the Metrograph, NYC

The debut release from Metrograph Editions, Sean Price Williams‘s 1000 Movies is just that — a list of 1,000 movies seen and appreciated in some way by the director/cinematographer, listed chronologically across its 6″ x 4.25″ pages. There is much white space. Not included is any kind of foreword, such as a personal essay explaining the project’s genesis. (For that, you’ll have to look to interviews such as this one, or Matt Folden’s on the Metrograph site.) There are no Letterboxd-style ratings, no film stills, and not even an author bio; there’s just Lizzie Harper’s drawing up front of an old TV set and a fold-out picture in the middle of Lyndon B. Johnson and his dog. But in an era of absurdly overdetermined lists, with rapacious algorithms translating personal enthusiasms into immediate SEO-bait, the extreme minimalism of Williams’s print-only project has both a welcome integrity and an appealing mystery. From its appropriate opener — 1912’s The Cameraman’s Revenge (Wladislaw Starewicz) — to its final entry (Gaspar Noe’s 2018 Climax), Williams has compiled a lifetime of viewing into a list that gives as much as you put into it, with a quarrel or future love on each page. I had a college professor once who said you didn’t really read a book unless you wrote in it, a dictum that Williams has taken to heart with all that white space. “I really encourage people to make this book their own,” he told Folden. “This has to be a book that you have, and if you have the movie, you X it out. If you like it, you circle it, you highlight it. And you touch this book, you have to touch this book maximally. Put your blood on it. Engage with it, physically.”

Below, I ask Williams about these thousand enthusiasms, the decision to commit this list to print, the meanings contained within its minimalist design and more. Now in its second edition (the first sold out in days), 1000 Movies is available from Metrograph.

Filmmaker: I know the list has existed in some form — mostly an Excel list you’d email to friends — since 2005, so nearly 20 years. How did you wind up deciding to commit it to print, and then what sort of pressures or anxieties did that create? I’m wondering if there was a paroxysm of last-minute revisions or changes given the forever nature of print, or if you just cut and pasted the latest version.

Williams: Matt Folden flattered me with the idea to do a print version of the book first probably about five years ago. Up until then, I sort of updated it whenever someone new asked me to email it to them. I had a notebook of some sort on me during all the years of the list that had suggested inclusions and exclusions. So it was only a settled thing for a couple months at a time. At some point, I got pretty far behind and just kept delaying sending to anyone. The list that was posted on Letterboxd was of a 2017 list that I have been very unhappy with. And I realize any list I would share online would have no value other than being quickly out of date.

Committing to print added so much pressure. During Covid, I was whizzing through files of films that I had been meaning to watch for years. But this rush to judgement had me uneasy as well. It’s important to let a film sit with you organically and only with some time you understand its value.

Filmmaker: Is the Excel version of this list as minimal? No notes on where you might have seen a film, what you thought of it?

Williams: The Excel was as minimal. At one point I thought I might suggest my preferred format to see the films on. Some films I truly believe are best on pan-and-scan VHS, as sacrilegious as that is. Ultimately, I think it’s a bit pompous to suggest the “proper” way by my own experiences.

Filmmaker: I believe you designed the book yourself, and the extreme minimalism makes the reader scrutinize every choice. You were asked, for example, by Matt Folden in the Metrograph Journal interview, about the use of em dashes at the bottom of some pages but not others. I wondered why some films, or pairs of films, got their own pages while others are in a long row. For example, on its own pages are Mamoulian’s Applause, Powell & Pressburger’s Gone to Earth, Tati’s Playtime and David Halpern’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself. Bresson’s A Man Escaped and Ford’s The Searchers are paired. Should I be wondering about the significance of these? Searching for the meanings behind their placement?

Williams: Absolutely try to find reasons here. There are many connections and even more dead ends. Often the clusters illuminate the variety of cinemas that co-existed at different times. Bresson and Ford paired, personally, illustrates two titans, whose overly praised cinema I cannot escape, as it would be just too outrageous to deny. Nick Pinkerton gets a kick out of my negative comments about many filmmakers that I include. I am sure my top 25 list would be filled with the ordinarily touted masters.

Filmmaker: You were born in 1977, so as I was reading through the book, I made it a point to think about the films that were dated from 1989 to 1995 or so — films you would have seen in theatrical release during your adolescent years, when, I think, films imprint themselves on you particularly hard. And also, I suppose, films you might have seen in childhood. Maybe Die Hard and Empire of the Sun? Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Whereas a film like Rob Tregenza’s The Arc, I presume you saw that later? I guess I’m asking what place time of life and memory has had in the list.

Williams: The list is shamelessly packed with films from 1974-1989. Those are years of films that combine things I saw and exploded my child brain, mixed with films that contain the essence and atmosphere of the time that I was happiest. Or the time, to which,  I most wish I can escape. I don’t really ascribe to “guilty pleasures,” they are either films that I am absorbed by or not. Revenge of the Nerds was huge for me most of my life, and I think it did help me be who I am. Lately, I find the stupid politics in the film frightening, and I am sure now I would rather live in a world where the jocks won. John Hughes films never meant anything to me. Ferris Bueller, sure, but I can’t really imagine watching that film again. Growing up in the ’80s was pretty great. We had a lot of different universes thrown at us, and Spielberg was absolutely on top of the world. Recently, I sort of put together that in 100 years of Disney, the only time their stock was waaaay down, to the point of almost bankruptcy, I believe, was in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I have to believe this is why so many toy companies and different entities in family entertainment flourished at this moment. The construction of Epcot (Disney’s Death Star) was finally finished in the ’80s, and they resumed their tyranny with Little Mermaid and things like that, none of which I saw.

Filmmaker: Of course I’ve seen very many of these films, and then the list also made me ashamed at the number I haven’t seen that I feel I should have. And then there are the titles I have never even heard of, such as Don Owen’s 1964 Canadian comedy, Nobody Waved Good-Bye. Looking that up I see it’s not available on any platform. How did a title like that wind up on the list?

Williams: I really truly cannot stand people who brag about how many times they have seen Satantango, or my one friend who claims to have sat through Andy Warhol’s Empire. If there are esoteric titles in the list, the unfortunate thing is that they are esoteric at all. Nobody Waved Goodbye is a wonderful film. In fact, I had a couple more Don Owen films on the 2017 list. I saw a handful of them at the Toronto Film Festival about 20 years ago. The Canadians keep a lot of secrets. My friend Luke Rathborne and I have programmed a series of Quebecois films to be played at Anthology Film Archives in April, and it’s absolutely exciting to have discovered so many films that have never screened in America. I hope this book and this series gives the opportunity to have these films exposed. My list is not one of gatekeeping. Of course, the most unseeable film in the book is Promises Written in Water by Vincent Gallo. I had the very good fortune of seeing it also at Toronto and I have an unnatural amount of images from it stuck in my brain. Experiments. Emotions. Beautiful camera work. Faces. It must be included.

Filmmaker: We share a lot of canonical favorites — multiple films you have listed by Hitchcock, Antonioni and, particularly, Fassbinder. There’s some Scorsese here, and I was happy to see “Life Lessons,” his segment of New York Stories as a standalone title. I think about that film quite a bit. There’s one Tarkovsky, I believe: Stalker. Is there a director people are surprised you haven’t included? Do you get friends pushing back on the list or demanding to know why so-and-so isn’t included?

Williams: I love my friends pushing back! There is no question that sharing the list was heavily motivated by arguing with my former Kim’s chums and film friends. I haven’t had pushback on not including Citizen Kane or Potemkin. I wonder who genuinely still gets thrills from those compared to Touch of Evil or Alexander Nevsky. My friends who like to argue prefer to pick on me for including the “wrong” Yuri Ilyenko film…. I mean, come on.

I expect the amount of Fassbinder titles will grow and grow. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to include pretty much everything he made after 1970.  Some are more foggy in my head. “Life Lessons” by Scorsese is just one of those perfect things. The other two films in New York Stories are certainly not in the same league. Talia Ryder discovered Life Lessons and is convinced it’s her favorite film. It’s that damn good. And it feels good to watch! That’s a real achievement. Tarkovsky is tricky for me. Stalker is so monumental that I rarely watch. It’s in me, but I never want to look. Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev are amazing. The other films of his feel like attempts at some sort of European cinema that was very fashionable. Films made for the film festivals. I understand this motive for a Soviet filmmaker. Maybe I have too many Dovzhenko films, but I really love the way he used sound early on. I get tingles.

And I could have really overloaded the ’30s with Wellman. So many of his films are two thirds great. I can watch him all day.

Filmmaker: How often do you rewatch films? How does rewatching shape the list?

Williams: When committing to the list for print, I did do a fair amount of rewatching, just to verify. I like to rewatch my favorite films. Some films I never allow myself to miss when screening in NYC. They Live By Night, for example, I absolutely never skip it. Beau Travail was one like that for me as well. I have seen it close to 30 times on screen. Anything by Stephen Dwoskin is unmissable on screen — the hypnosis.

Filmmaker: Another title I was struck by is In a Glass Cage. As a fan of extreme cinema, that film was a lot. It took weeks for those images to leave my brain. I don’t think I could ever watch it again.

Williams: Villaronga died last year. I only ever saw In a Glass Cage and Moonchild. Not sure if someone can really outdo those films. In a Glass Cage really still shocks thoroughly. As I get more uncomfortable with real unsimulated violence in films, my thirst for expressive violence grows. There are many extremely violent and erotic Japanese films that have become sort of available in the last few years with subtitles. I will catch up gradually. If they had been available 15-20 years ago, I would have consumed them instantly and they probably would have a larger real estate in the 1000.

Filmmaker: Only 37 films from the 21st century? Is that a statement of quality, or how long it takes films to congeal in your memory, or something else?

Williams: A new film has to really stun me to convince me it’s one of the keepers. You know how easy it is to be fooled by the excitement of discovery at a festival. You tell all your friends how great a new film is and months later it totally falls apart on second viewing. I am just cautious with the new stuff. Plus I really just do not enjoy the visual aesthetics of so much modern cinema — this mild, dull electric sizzle makes me sleepy and doesn’t bring the atmosphere I desire. I am able to look past it when other elements are overwhelming me.

I saw Elle by Verhoeven several times in theater. I know it’s great. Huppert’s performance is one of the best screen performances of the century I am sure. As for Climax… I went to see that at a midnight screening at the Toronto Film Festival in such a bad mood. I had no expectations. I almost went just to make my mood even worse. The entire room lifted into the sky, and I had the same experience seeing it on an imported Blu-Ray soon after. His film, Vortex, could make a future list. It’s just too soon. There is one film I shot that I honestly feel that I can objectively love enough to put on the list, but I feel safer not including any right now.

Filmmaker: Finally, in your previous interview you said, “The journey is to replace every movie on that list with something that I don’t now know.” How far along are you on that quest?

Williams: I want to update this book frequently. I won’t do that if it’s just a few titles changing. I am devoting as much time as I can to being moved by movies! It’s my duty to myself and to whoever else feels close to my particular taste. So much is available, and I still have so much to catch up on. For example, I intentionally had never seen a Mizoguchi film because I wanted to save one Goliath for when I need a pick-me-up. But now, there are so many unsung masters we are uncovering that I felt good to casually watch Ugetsu, finally. Terrific film. Totally haunting in indescribable ways. Spoke to my life. Thank God. That title will be in the next edition. Not exactly a discovery for any serious cinephile though. I promise there will be surprises.

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