Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Critical Cretinisms: Top Tens

Sight & Sound, the longest-running film periodical in English, started a poll in 1952 naming, by a majority vote of film critics, the Top Ten Films of All Time.(1) Every ten years since then the poll has been repeated, with often surprising inconsistencies. Only two films, La Regle du Jeu and Potemkin have made every poll, all six, since 1952. One point is made clear by the three latest polls, 1982, 1992, and 2002: the best films are receding swiftly into the past. The most recent film on the 1982 poll is 8 1/2, which was twenty years old at the time. In 1992, it is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was twenty-five years old. And in 2002, it is The Godfather, nearly thirty years old.

Having succumbed to this "silly editorial game" myself, on two occasions for Senses of Cinema(2), I am more than willing to eat crow. Looking at just about anyone's list of Top Ten Films - of the year, the decade, or even "of all time"(3) - inspires expressions of incredulity, like sez you, what was he smoking? or pull the other one. My own favorite is and then you wake up. Some of the lists include films that are so obscure it can only mean that the critic either has a very narrow range of films to choose from or that he is trying to foist his agenda on us. I will not argue that any agendum that is not an aesthetic one has no business in criticism, but I would insist that a critic state his agenda beforehand, assuming he is aware of them.

I have already made it clear in a prior post that I have a blind spot when it comes to American films. But because it is deliberate on my part, as a consequence of how long it took me to discover that a film could attain the stature of art (which blame I place squarely at the feet of Hollywood), it has not prevented me from considering American films individually, even while condemning them collectively. Citizen Kane was an historical event and not just a miraculous film achievement. It was also almost wholly unappreciated (even by the great Otis Ferguson) when it was released . It is utterly anomalous among Hollywood films of the period, and it took fifty years for an American film to even approach it in stature, despite a comparable amount of controversy.(4)

Most critics are little more than fans - incapable of distinguishing between what they like and what is good, which requires intellectual detachment. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, author of a "definitive" study of Luchino Visconti (and who has the stomach to challenge him?), wrote recently in a letter to Sight & Sound: "Acts of judgement (in the sense of 'this is' not in that of 'this is better/worse than that') are intrinsic to the encounter with a work of art and equally intrinsically subjective. There is no court of appeal against them, except at the notoriously fickle bar of public opinion. No amount of ancillary fact (about budgets, or on set love affairs) or theorizing (about genre or gender or the Unconscious or whatever) can substitute for the encounter of subjectivities around a shared aesthetic object."

Even subjectivities can agree. And trusting in the power of one's aesthetic judgement is as important, if not more so, than trusting in one's subjective reactions. However much the former may be "learned" and the latter "instinctive", for a critic the one is useless without the other.

1. The latest Sight & Sound poll can be found here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/topten/

2. viz: http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/top_tens/archive00.html#harper

3. Try naming the Top Ten Symphonies or the Top Ten Novels, and you immediately see the absurdity of this practice.

4. I mean Schindler's List, which several academics refused to take seriously because it was made by one of Hollywood's greatest showmen: Steven Spielberg. Dr. Strangelove, another film to rival Citizen Kane, is really a British film.

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