Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sight Unsound

In 1962 , Dwight Macdonald - political radical and cultural conservative - was asked to contribute to a poll being conducted by Sight & Sound for, to use their own words, the ten "best films of all time." Macdonald duly submitted his list (1) with the following comment, "What no Chaplin, no Stroheim, no Dovchenko, no Pudovkin, no Clair, no Pabst, no Murnau, no De Sica, no Rossellini, no Visconti, no Fellini, no Ford, no Wellman, no Flaherty? Well, it's your idea." He then wrote a piece for Esquire about the poll, comparing the previous list from 1952 to the results of the 1962 poll (2).

Since I like exercise for its own sake, and since there have been four more Sight & Sound Critics' Polls since Macdonald compared the first two, I will try to bring Macdonald, who has been dead - and sorely missed - since 1982, up to date by examining the polls, their consistencies and inconsistencies. I have expressed my own opinion of such polls elsewhere (3), but there is a mania for them among critics and filmgoers, which is a direct reflection of the absense of serious thinking and discussion about films.

The point of conducting the critics' poll only every ten years is, I suppose, meant to bestow on it some sense of historicality. But by waiting so long between polls, during which time a new generation of critics has appeared with their own pet peeves and axes to grind, not to mention a new generation of filmmakers that has its own ideas about what a film should be, the very notion of consensus is challenged. I am, for one, rather glad that there were no pollsters in the 1940s, '30s and '20s to remind us what a wilderness the film world was before De Sica and Kurosawa, Renoir and Carné, or even before sound was added to sight. Trying to imagine what a 1932 Critics' Poll would have looked like (4), with its purists hanging on tenaciously to the lost art of the silent film, while newcomers dismissed them as prehistoric, is proof of how far film has come in a relatively brief period of time. But even such attempts at comprehensiveness have not prevented the poll from being topical.

In the 1972 poll only five titles survived from the '62 poll: Citizen Kane (#1), Ugetsu (#10), La Regle du Jeu [why the pretense of titles in French but not in Russian or Swedish or Italian?] (#2), Battleship Potemkin (#3) and L'avventura (#5). The rising and falling fortunes of old artists was more to blame than the introduction of new talent. The rest of the list shows the extent to which the reputations of two filmmakers dominated critical thinking then: Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (in the shattered edit, tied for #8) and Ingmar Bergman's Persona (tied for #5) and Wild Strawberries (tied for #10). The dropouts were Greed, Bicycle Thieves, Ivan the Terrible, La terra trema and L'Atalante. (5)

The disappearance of Greed from the poll was encouraging. Stroheim's star would never rise again, not even after the 1999 "restored" version was released to some acclaim. Nor would Visconti's, whose La terra trema was a rather unsettling combination of neo-realism and homoeroticism (Visconti had a predilection for casting catamites in all his films). Ivan the Terrible seems almost sclerotic today. L'Atalante is utterly charming and would reappear in the 1992 poll at #5. Periodically, certain films are re-discovered when restored prints are made available, as with L'Atalante, The Rules of the Game, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vertigo, Sunrise, etc.

Of the new additions in the '72 poll, the most pleasant surprise is Keaton's The General (tied for #8). the realization of Keaton's superiority to Chaplin, even if it does not lessen Chaplin's genius, was one of the most heartening mutations in cinematic taste of the past fifty years. What puzzles me is the rather back-handed tribute paid Ingmar Bergman, whose Wild Strawberries and Persona are considerably overrated. The biggest movement on the '72 poll was the appearance, at #4, of Fellini's 8 1/2.

Not surprisingly, then, by the time the '82 poll appeared, both Bergman films had dropped out, along with Mizoguchi's Ugetsu and Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc, although it would reappear in '92 tied for #10. Welles still clung to the cat-bird's seat with his Kane and Ambersons. Between '72 and '82 an unprecedented seven films clung to a place in the polls: Kane (#1), Rules (#2), 8 1/2 (#5), Potemkin (#6), L'avventura and Ambersons (tied for #7) and The General (tied for #10). Three new titles on the '82 poll show the direct impact of the auteur theory: Singin' in the Rain (tied for #3), Vertigo (tied for #7) and The Searchers (tied for #10). That all three are American genre films did not seem to faze the critics who voted for them. The happiest addition was Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (tied, unbelievably, with Singin' in the Rain). None of the films on the list happened to have been made during the intervening ten years, which is a trend that continued through the present 2002 poll.

Five titles survived the next decade for the '92 poll: Kane (#1), Rules (#2), Vertigo (#4), The Searchers (#5) and Potemkin (in a four-way tie for #6). Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc reappeared in the tie for #6, along with L'Atalante, which makes me wonder if the critics were beginning to keep tabs on the old polls. Kurosawa, #3 in '82, is replaced by Ozu's Tokyo Story. Though magnificent, it seems to be the token Japanese title of the decade. The victims of the interim decade were Singin' in the Rain, 8 1/2, L'avventura, Ambersons, and The General. Two new titles to the poll were Ray's Pather Panchali (#6) and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (#10). The Kubrick film that belongs on the poll is, of course, Dr. Strangelove. But the pseudo-intellectuality of 2001 made the critics seem smarter than they are. The Ray film is obvious lip service, since he died in April of that year.

Having lived with the choices for the latest poll, published in 2002, for seven years, I am as astonished at the persisting critical reason represented by Kane (#1, as usual), Rules (#3), Tokyo Story (#5), Potemkin (tied for #7), and 8 1/2 (tied for #9) as I am at the growing critical aneurism that put Vertigo at #2, The Godfather(s) at #4, 2001 at # 6, and Singin' in the Rain at #9. But where discrimination is most needed, and most to be expected, as when a person involved in the life of international film who has some knowledge of its history and the ability to distinguish between the films that conform to his subjective tastes (gustibus) and those that take powerful exception to them, is called on to submit his list of the Top Ten Films, it is sorely lacking in at least half of those critics consulted by the British Film Institute. But like all the other arts, the talent necessary to make a great film, and to a lesser extent the faculty needed to recognize it, is a matter of only a few. The size of an audience for, say, The Passion of Joan of Arc is miniscule compared to the number of viewers who flock (which best describes it) to see the latest X-Men or Tarantinto film. In fact, to adapt the Matthew Arnold maxim, you can clear a crowd faster with the word "Ozu" than with a firehose. But many critics like to pretend that there is a middle ground on which a popular film can also be deemed art, and that this extremely narrow ground is as broad as the Susquehanna River Valley.

No music critic who is worth reading would argue that Beyoncé is a good singer. No decent food critic would state that pizza is good food. No theater critic worth a damn would claim that Spamalot is a good play. And yet film critics routinely hand out praise for trash like Inglorious Basterds (or is it Basturds?) and The Dark Knight.

While I understand that such things as the Sight & Sound Critics' Poll is compiled from extremely divergent sources, and that de gustibus non est disputandum, I believe there is good reason to question the sanity of a critic who thinks that Touch of Evil and L'Avventura can be mentioned in the same breath. Placing a film like Vertigo or The Searchers alongside The Rules of the Game and Tokyo Story is tantamount to saying that Patricia Highsmith is the equal of William Faulkner or a Japanese manga is comparable to Kawabata.

Singin' in the Rain is a good musical, but it belongs to a genre and is subject to a specialized set of standards that Citizen Kane, obviously, is not. No one would think of judging Seven Samurai according to the quality of its songs or its choreography. And no one would argue, who has any reason at all to argue, that Silk Stockings is a poor musical because its characters and its situations are unbelievable.

So when Sight & Sound persists, as it has for the past sixty years, in proudly publishing the results of its Critics' Poll, with films like 8 1/2 and The Passion of Joan of Arc sticking out between recognizable rubbish like The Godfather(s) and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the significance of the poll is seriously compromised, if not nullified.

(1) Macdonald's list: 1. The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith) 2. Intolerance (D.W. Griffith) 3. October (Sergei Eisenstein) 4. Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton) 5. The Gorky Trilogy (Mark Donskoy) 6. The Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir) 7. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles) 8. Les Enfants du paradis (Marcel Carné) 9. Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais) 10. L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni. (see http://jdcopp.blogspot.com/2007/12/sight-and-sound-ten-best-films-in.html)
(2) The polls can be viewed here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/topten/.
(3) See http://tangodelviudo.blogspot.com/2008/12/critical-cretinisms-top-tens.html.
(4) If I had been around in '32, and lived in Paris, my list would look like this (in no order): The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer), M (Lang), I Was Born, But... (Ozu), The Gold Rush (Chaplin), Potemkin (Eisenstein), L'Age d'Or (Buñuel), Sherlock Jr. (Keaton), The Blue Angel (Sternberg), Le Million (Clair), The Phantom Carriage (Sjöström).
(5) A conspicuous lacuna: from 1952 to 2002, there has never been a film from the French New Wave anywhere near the top ten.

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