Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Sight & Sound Poll Reflections

It's been a week or so since Sight & Sound released the attest iteration of their Greatest Films poll. The internets are full of commentary, and I can't help joining in - not that I have anything profound to say about it...

The big story, I guess, is that Vertigo replaced Citizen Kane at the top, a position Welles had held since 1962. I suppose that's a big deal, though it's not exactly surprising - Vertigo has been on the rise in the last couple decades, especially since its big restoration - it got to #2 last time out, and now is over the hump... It is a bit odd, I suppose - me, personally, I like Vertigo better (it's top 10 for me, too), but somehow, Citizen Kane seems a more likely film to top a list like this. But there you have it. Now Tokyo Story - well - hanging on to #3, and this time around, the directors put it at the top of their list - that's a choice I can endorse! Though, being a bit perverse, it's not the Ozu film I would put in the top 10...

There are other changes on these lists - the critics have added a third silent film to their top ten, replacing the musical, at that. And switched out the second silent film - Battleship Potemkin gone, Man With the Movie Camera in - an interesting change itself. Getting past the top 10, the top 50 films are reasonable enough. I suppose if you were of a mind you could find plenty to discuss, in perceived omissions and bad habits by the voters: not enough comedy; only one musical; the waxing and waning of reputations - one Bergman in that top 50? one Lang, and not the Lang(s) many of us Lang enthusiasts would pick? Chaplin reduced to clinging to the 50th spot; no Hawks? Rohmer? Altman? Griffith? Herzog? Or the positives - the newer, or more challenging films that did make it - Satantango, Jeanne Dielman, Mulholland Drive, In the Mood for Love, La Jetee, Close Up; the fact that Godard tops all directors with four, including Histoire(s) du Cinema. These last choices suggest that the expanded voting bloc might have had an affect - Jonathan Rosenbaum raises (or quotes Nicole Brenez raising) the point that the increased film teachers might have helped the more experimental films, and maybe pushed that third silent higher... could be.

Still - there remains a certain air of old hat about it all - I miss the days when a 2 year old film could get to #2, or a 4 year old film to #1. It is strange - you do hear people go on about new films as if they were the culmination of the promise of the medium - you can find plenty of hyperbolic praise for Tree of Life, to name one - but that kind of talk doesn't seem to translate into votes these days. I find this a bit fascinating - why has this list gotten so stuck?

I have theories... 1) film history is twice as long now as when this list started. There are that many more films to consider. The top 50 now is about the equivalent of the top 10 in 1952. 2) Technology - in 1952, it was very hit or miss what you could actually see; now, in 2012, you can see just about everything. And that means you are voting against the whole of film history, and you can vote against all of it fresh - you are able to see anything you would consider, rather than vote against your memory of something you saw 20 years ago. 3) And then - I think voters do put value on novelty - on being the first to do something. To do something new; to embody an emerging synthesis; to break with conventions - or all at once (like Citizen Kane). Later films fight against film history - it is harder all the time to break with film history, harder to seem new - harder, probably, to convince viewers that they are seeing something new. Voters vote for the first film(s) to do something - and they vote for the films that are accepted as being the first to do it. 4) And one more idea - that the film culture has changed - that viewers no longer expect to see anything new, and don't value it the same.

The upshot is that the culture is mature - that it is easier to view the sweep of history as one thing. And that there is no longer the pressures for novelty - no one is expected to reinvent the medium, viewers don't value innovation the way they used to. When films do things differently - Inland Empire, Uncle Boonmee, Tree of Life, say - critics find it easier to assimilate them to film history - even if that means, to a tradition of novelty, or something strange like that. I don't think this is as much as change in how films work as it seems - films like Citizen Kane were not really reinventing film, you could see its antecedents and influences then - but there is an assumption that films in the 30s and 40s were still inventing the medium, and films now are rearranging the elements of an established form. Taking voters back to the notion of being the first - reinventing the medium now is old hat - it's been done so many times before.

So to end - people come up with ideas about how to get fresher films on the list - one I like, practiced by Rosenbaum (per his post on the list), cited by Jim Emerson, suggested by Kristen Thompson, is to make the vote something like a hall of fame. You vote, you have a top 10 - and those films are no longer eligible to be voted for. That would be a cool list to see maintained - but the truth is, there's a reason people care about Sight and Sound's list. The history of the list making matters - it is great fun comparing this year's choices with all the past ones - watching tastes shift. It's also true, and less admirable, that the lists themselves condition subsequent lists - people vote for (or against) Citizen Kane because it has been number one (and isn't anymore.) But that too is part of the interest - you have to weigh this decade's choices against all those previous polls. I can't wait to see what's on 2022's list...

Finally - the lists - and mine. First the critics:

1) "Vertigo" (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
2) "Citizen Kane" (Orson Welles, 1941)
3) "Tokyo Story" (Yasujiro Ozo, 1953)
4) "Rules of the Game" (Jean Renoir, 1939)
5) "Sunrise" (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
6) "2001: A Space Odyssey" (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
7) "The Searchers" (John Ford, 1956)
8) "Man with a Movie Camera" (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
9) "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
10) "8 1/2" (Federico Fellini, 1963)

The directors:

1) "Tokyo Story" (Ozu, 1953)
2) "2001: A Space Odyssey" (Kubrick, 1968), "Citizen Kane" (Welles, 1941) [tie]
4) "8 ½" (Fellini, 1963)
5) "Taxi Driver" (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
6) "Apocalypse Now" (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
7) "The Godfather" (Coppola, 1972), "Vertigo" (Hitchcock, 1958) [tie]
9) "Mirror" (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974)
10) "Bicycle Thieves" (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

And finally - all this poll talk, and all this comparing and considering, makes it impossible not to think about what I would have voted for. (The House Next Door, at Slant, is running just such a series with their writers...) And as I have not posted anything like a top ten of my own since 2007 - why not? and since I posted a list of my own (on AOL, where I did most of my film arguing back in the day) in 2002 - it is a chance to consider what might have changed.


1. M - Fritz Lang
2. It's a Wonderful Life - Frank Capra
3. Rules of the Game - Renoir
4. Early Summer - Yasujiro Ozu
5. McCabe and Mrs. Miller - Robert Altman
6. The General - Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman
7. The Maltese Falcon - John Huston
8. Celine and Julie Go Boating - Jacques Rivette (as expected - seeing it again this weekend pushed it way up. Seeing it twice, actually - nothing else seemed necessary, so I went Saturday and Sunday.)
9. Late Spring - Ozu
10. Vertigo - Hitckcock

in 2002:

1 It’s a Wonderful Life
2 M
3 Rules of the Game
4 Mr Smith Goes to Washington
5 McCabe and Mrs Miller
6 Pierrot le Fou
7 The General
8 Early Summer
9 The Maltese Falcon
10 Vertigo

There are not a lot of changes - Godard and the second Capra are off, to Rivette and the second Ozu. Those are pretty arbitrary selections, though. That 2002 list lasted a long time, actually - most of it was there in 97 or 98; Early Summer got in somewhere in that period (about the time I saw it in a movie theater, which I think was around 2000), the Godard slot fluctuated for a long time between Pierrot and Vivre Sa Vie - but - I didn't play around with it much for a long time. When I did - I don't know... I am very much aware of how arbitrary and pointless such listings are. But it still - maps something, in what I value in films. What I am thinking about, my experiences. I think, at some level, letting your experiences, your momentary obsessions and what not turn up in things like this has a point. The differences are small - though I know that M's return to the top is a result of seeing a bunch of German films, and Lang, reading and writing about Lang and German films - Rivette's appearance reflects the absolute joy of discovering him in the last 5 years... and so on. So - there you have it.

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