if you’re my kind of film fan

Film Before I begin, I should offer a warning. I know that only a small fraction of you will be interested in the following, and only a fraction of those will possibly find it useful. But I wanted to finally put this into words and have it somewhere useful where it can be discussed if required. Some of you will probably wondering about my sanity. I expect someone will probably stop reading the blog altogether. So let’s begin.

On classifying films.

Over the weekend I continued the arduous, not to mention rather boring process of cataloguing my dvds (using Eric's Movie Database) (updated 17/08/2013 - I've since migrated to a Microsoft Access database.  It's more flexible even if it has less search option and information upload).

If you’re my sort of film fan you’ll probably also have hundred potentially thousands of the things, shop bought and recorded from the television (dozens of old video tapes too), so many perhaps that you actually sometimes forget what you actually have. I know this afflicts music collectors too; I don’t collect music and I’ve somehow managed to amass three copies of Pet Sounds.

At some point in the past I had to make a decision as to the order in which I was going to store the dvds. The typical view is either genre or alphabetical order by director but me being me, this didn’t seem very satisfactory. In this post-modern world and having written a dissertation on the subject the idea of slotting films into discrete genres has to me become suspect at best – Star Wars of course being a western and Titanic, a romance.

Alphabetical has its virtues but it isn’t not very contextual. I like to be contextual.

When I was at library school in the mid-90s as well as learning all about now obsolete internet search engines and software (Web Crawler and Dbase 4) we where walked through the main classification systems, Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal, LCC and DDC. The first is more likely to be used in academic libraries, the latter in the public. If asked I prefer DDC – it has a clearer structure and everything has a place (visit the wiki links to discover their wonders).

In other words, thinking about classification systems isn’t something I simply began to do randomly recently. I was trained to, for good or ill. And though I wasn’t thinking about classification systems much for the whole of the next eight years, when I went to film school and was using an academic library again, I began thinking about classification systems again. And more specifically how rubbish libraries can be when dealing with films, mostly treating them as artefacts rather than works of art.

To cut a long story short, I decided to make up my own classification system, something which did treat them as works of art. I decided that to take the guess work out of the genre process and also to contextualise films historically, it was best to use a ….

Classification by year.

Or more specifically:

Classification by the year in which it’s set and put the films in historical chronological order.

Pure madness of course, not least because of the sheer man (or woman) hours involved in finding out the year in which a film is set and making value judgements if its not set in a specific year and then arbitrarily deciding on one.

This is how I’ve classified my dvds.

Films about real events are easy – because they have a specific date or group of dates to work from:

A Night To Remember – 1912
Julius Caesar -- 55

Films set within a decade over multiple years are fine too:

Most westerns – 1880s.

Trickier are portmanteau pieces and films with a decadal flashback structure; I used to call this the Forrest Gump problem. But recently I decided to simply use the year in which the umbrellas scene are set:

Forrest Gump – 1980s

How about films set in two decades? Value judgement time – what does this feel like? Titanic feels like a period piece and has the titular ship in its title:

Titanic – 1912

What if there isn’t a particular year. This is often the case in literary adaptation. But often they’re set in the time of publication:

Tess of the D’Urbevilles – 1890s

Fantasy? Take them out of chronology and pop them at the beginning:

Lord of the Rings – FAN

Films set in the future? If there’s a year or decade, keep to it:

Blade Runner 2019

This becomes tricky with films made in the past but now set in our past. Might as well be consistent:

1984 – 1984
2001 - 2001
2010 - oh

And so it goes on. There are plenty of individual hiccups but in the main, if you can be bothered, this works surprisingly well. Then, once it’s done you can reap the benefits.

Miraculously, perhaps unsurprisingly nearly all of the westerns nestle together, and the war films by theatre, and the costume dramas, and the sci-fi films set in the future and the sword and sandal and biblical epics and the gangster films and the noirs. Films about a period begin to interact with those made then. You can begin to see how historical periods that previously seemed discrete and unconnected occurred in parallel on the same planet, how clever Once Upon a Time in China or Shanghai Noon were in identifying that westerns would have been happening at the same time as some samurai epics and bringing those two mythic genres together.

This should make the task even more arduous, and it has, just a little bit, it's also made it more interesting. And intellectually stimulating.

I have the tv recorded films sorted into boxes, labelled. Fantasy. Pre-history to 1799. 1800-1899. 1900-1938. 1939-1945. 1946-1959. You get the idea. Everything in order, everything contextualised. If I'm in the mood to watch something set in the 60s, there they are. My librarian and cineaste genes lovingly massaged simultaneously.

And now that I’m entering them into a database, more easily indentified, the date of creation replaced by the date of context. The other film history flowing down the page in list view. The shop bought dvds are elsewhere, but now they too can have a contextual date swimming in the matrix. Not something you’d want to do for longer an hour at a time, but the gaming element leads to it sometimes tipping over into two.

As an addendum, you might be wondering where the Star Wars films finally pitched up. A quick hunt about online turns up the Star Wars Chronology Gold which through the careful application of an apocryphal story featuring some time dilation Indiana Jones turns out dates in the late eighteenth century.

Just in case you thought I was being obsessive …


Annette said...

It's unconventional, but that system actually makes a lot of a sense the more I think about it. Kind of reminds me of that scene in High Fidelity where Rob is reorganizing his records.

Anonymous said...

Alright then, just as an exercise, where would you file Highlander? Or for that matter, Orlando?

Stuart Ian Burns said...

Highlander -- flashback structure so I'd put it in the year the contemporary scenes are set which is 1985 -- which is also when the major event in the film happens -- The Gathering.

Orlando -- more of a judgement call which demonstrates one of the weaknesses of the system and in fact most classification systems -- there will always be items which could fit in loads of different places and you just have to pick one.

It is a while since I saw the film, but aren't we supposed to be left with the impression at the end that we've been watching the biography that Orlando has written about herself and is shopping around publishers in the 1990s and isn't there a voiceover that reflects back on what is happening?

In which case I would put it in 1992 (year of release) making the assumption that it has a kind of flashback structure. But you could probably make a case for putting it in the Elizabethan period or the year of his/her change (which is what the film is really about).

Like I said, this isn't perfect.

sandra green said...

Interesting way of looking at it...

ive just redesigned the navigation of all of the 65,000 ish film and games titles at lovefilm.

You can see it live on the site right now at

I went for production year as my date facet cos its not subjective in any way.

i love a bit of classificaton ;-)

Tris said...

I think you've got Titanic in the wrong year - essentially it's all flashback.

I am intrigued where you would put the Time Traveller's Wife if you had it?

and finally - shouldn't there be a special section for memento?

Stuart Ian Burns said...

Titanic -- true -- but in those cases I defer to where the main action happens.

Haven't read TTW but I look forward to dealing with it.

Momento --ha! But probably 1990s ...