Thursday, August 9, 2012

Poll Position

I have always thought that Film's best metaphor is Plato's Allegory of the Cave: instead of looking directly at reality, the best we can do is see its reflected shadow on the back wall of a cave. Why else does every movie screen face the street?

On August 1st the British Film Institute announced the latest winners of its film magazine Sight and Sound's six decade old Critic's Poll of the "Top Ten Greatest Films of All Time". Fifty years ago, Dwight Macdonald wrote about the poll, on the occasion of the submission of his own list to the magazine.

I wrote about the polls 1952-2002 awhile ago (see Sight Unsound). All things being subjective, even subjectivities can agree. Great films manage to appear all the time, often from the unlikeliest sources. Sometimes, as the polls make clear, films overlooked at first may suddenly reappear to great critical acclaim (like Sunrise and Vertigo) on the whims of film restorers whose selection of which film gathering dust in a vault will be restored and which will have to wait another generation, can determine its survival.

The use of the words "of all time" has always struck me as silly, since film is only a little older than a century. ("So far" is more accurate.) The truest evaluation of the worth of any work of art is survival. How does it hold up in ten, twenty, fifty years? Citizen Kane was the number one greatest film on the poll for forty years. Despite the recent rise of Vertigo, there is a much better critical acceptance of Kane as the greatest.

The sense of permanence has long since, I think, gone out of discussions about films - especially Great Films, which the polls have inadvertently, decade after decade, demonstrated. Simply examine the newest film in each of the polls. In 1952, Bicycle Thieves was number one (it now ranks thirty-third) and was just three years old. In 1962, L'avventura was also just three years old. In 1972, Persona was the newest film in the poll, but it was made six years before. This sense that the art of film was a contemporary, ongoing phenomenon quickly began to fade. In 1982, 8 1/2 was the most recent film in the poll, mde nineteen years before. In 1992, 2001: A Space Odyssey made its first in the poll, thanks to its restoration and subsequent rediscovery. But it was a twenty-four year old film by then. By 2002, film's slide into the past was to The Godfather, a thirty year old film. In the latest poll, 2001 is again the newest film, except it has got twenty years older since 1992. So the latest film judged great enough to be in the top ten was made forty-four years ago.

When I first encountered these polls, in the late 1970s, I found them a quite useful index of critical consensus. Jonathan Rosenbaum described how he bought the 1961-62 issue of Sight and Sound and decided to use the critic's poll to further his education: "I vowed to see as many films on the list as I could, and for the next several years proceeded like a butterfly collector, dutifully underlining each title in that issue of Sight and Sound as soon as I'd seen the film."

Thirtysomething years and thousands of film viewings later, they are much more useful as an index of the alterations in critical taste. They now indicate to me what a crowd of movie fans film critics have become, people who I once defined as "the hangers-on of the medium who are in it for ephemeral fame or simply the vicarious thrill of rubbing up against, even in effigy, the likes of Jack Nicholson and Nicole Kidman." The difference is between pleasure and principle. Every critical argument starts out as an emotional response to a film, a book, a piece of music. If the critic is any good, he will push his argument as far away from his initial irrational response as he can and attempt to appeal to some aesthetic standard. The best criticism appeals to some quantifiable standard, even if "objectivity" is an illusion.

Too many critics today make pleasure their first - and last - consideration. I prefer to call them fans rather than critics, and it's no accident that there has been a steady increase in the past three or four decades of Hollywood films in the polls. To be continued . . .

(1) All the Sight and Sound polls, from 1952, can be found here.

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