Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The List Itself

To continue where last month's post, Poll Position, left off . . .

But what about the latest list? Here are the Top Ten Films on the 2012 Critic's Poll:

1. Vertigo
2. Citizen Kane
3. La Règle du Jeu
4. Tokyo Story
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey
6. The Man With a Movie Camera
7. Sunrise
8. The Searchers
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc
10. 8½

Getting the nuts and bolts out of the way, seven films in 2002's Top Ten survived the decade since. In 2002's poll, six remained from 1992's. Only five remained in the 1992 poll from 1982. If nothing else, this trend reveals a kind of homogenization of taste over the intervening 30 years. If I don't find the trend all that comforting, it's because of my conviction that five of the films on the latest list have no business being there.

But there are enough winners and losers to provoke discussion, some big and some incremental. The biggest loser by far is The Godfather(s), falling precipitously in a decade from number 4 to numbers 21 (Part I) and 31 (Part II). Both films first appeared in the Top Ten in 2002. The only notable fact about their sudden - and inexplicable - appearance was that they were made in the 1970s - the first, and perhaps the last, time films more recent than the 1960s, which would seem to be regarded as the last great era of filmmaking, would appear in the polls .

Singin' in the Rain must be suffering from whiplash, having first appeared at #4 in 1982, dropping off the '92 poll, returning at #10 in 2002, and sinking to #20 on the latest poll. Like a monumental yo-yo, Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc was #7 in '92, dropped to #14 in '02, and returns to #9 this year. Eisenstein's daunting cinematic achievement Battleship Potemkin was recognized in every Top Ten poll for fifty years as a model of great filmmaking. Another Russian film, this year's newcomer, Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera, has displaced Potemkin (it fell to #11).(1)

Antonioni's L'Avventura, which sprang to #2 just two years after its release, fell to #5 in '72, to #7 in '82, has vanished from the precincts of the Top Ten ever since. It was #20 in '02 and tied (with The Godfather and Le mépris) for #21 in the latest poll. Its neglect in favor of trash like Vertigo, 2001, and The Searchers is indefensible.

As I pointed out last month, survival is the only real test of a work of art's greatness, even when, with film, we're talking only about mere decades. The Top Ten polls are intended, I suppose, to be Canonical. Yet where is there a consensus among critics brave enough to include a film newer than 1968 in their choices? Is the art of film actually receding further into the past at an accelerating speed, as these polls suggest?

Four of the films in the poll are genre films, Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Man with a Movie Camera, and The Searchers. The American Film Institute, which has its own Top Ten Lists, segregates these films into genre categories: Vertigo is the number 1 "mystery", The Searchers is the number 1 western, 2001: A Space Odyssey the number 1 "sci-fi". This is a somewhat clumsy, but much more practical approach to a genre-driven industry. AFI doesn't have a category for mainstream films, whose subjects are recognizable human beings living in the real world, like Citizen Kane, La Règle du Jeu, Tokyo Story, etc. But at least they recognize, which Sight and Sound doesn't, the quite simple critical idea that calling Citizen Kane a great film and calling Vertigo a great mystery makes mincemeat of the word "great".

2001 is, as John Simon called it, a "shaggy god story". A few years ago, I counted it among the many "films I love to hate". Its director, Stanley Kubrick, made his masterpiece five years before it. Dr Strangelove is far more inventive and memorable. Since the end of the Cold War, however, a growing number of critics who never had to live under the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation, apparently no longer understand it. Too bad for them.

Thanks to the law of averages, there are five worthy films in Sight and Sound's Top Ten: Citizen Kane, La Règle du Jeu, Tokyo Story (2), The Passion of Joan of Arc, and . The odd man out is Sunrise. F.W. Murnau was one of the most revered directors of the silent era who developed his own extremely rigorous style in Germany. He answered the siren call of Hollywood in 1926 and was, predictably, killed there in a car crash. But not before he could make one last silent film, Sunrise: A Poem of Two Humans. The film was lovingly restored (a new negative had to be created from an existing print), and amazed many audiences, finding for Murnau a new generation of admirers. I find the film stultifying because it is made in what I would call a dead language, a silent language, of film. Watching another silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, moved Vernon Young to write: "a silent movie (this, one hour after you've watched it, seems hard to believe)". Murnau would have insisted that the silence of his films was much more than just the absence of sound. But whereas the absence of sound is barely noticeable in Passion of Joan of Arc, so that emotions and ideas come across clearly and powerfully after 84 years years, in Sunrise I felt trapped in an old movie trying to make purity out of an impediment.

Now to the Poll's most controversial revelation, the awarding of the #1 position to Hitchcock's Vertigo. When the results of this new poll were announced by BFI, I was amazed at the amount of coverage it received from every news channel and news website, and at how the news that Hitchcock's film was now the greatest film of all time provoked puzzlement or amusement. There are any number of ways of proving in practical, dispassionate language that Citizen Kane, which held the position for forty years, is not only superior to Vertigo but that one is a work of art and the other does not even qualify as pseudo-art. But such proof would involve invoking standards that too few critics bother to recognize any more. (3)

My predictions for 2022 are ominous. Andrei Tarkovsky has three titles in the top fifty: Mirror at #19, Andrei Rublev tied for #26, and Stalker tied for #29. They combine qualities - obscurity and pretentiousness - that are irresistible to film buffs. I won't be surprised if one of them breaks into the Top Ten. Apocalypse Now, which is #6 on the Director's List is at #14 on the Critic's poll. Since poor old Coppola has lived to see his vastly overrated Godfather(s) decline, the critics may just throw him a bone in 2022. Dzigo Vertov will sink back into obscurity, I'm certain.

What will be #1 in 2022? I feel confident that Vertigo is a passing craze, like any number of turkeys in past polls (Louisiana Story in 1952, La terra trema in 1962, The Magnificent Ambersons in 1972 and 1982). However much I may wish to see Sunrise, 2001, and The Searchers vanish from the list in ten years, it's merely wishful thinking. BFI has published a list of every film that received a vote in its poll. Along with great films like The Battle of Algiers (3 votes), Viridiana (3 votes), and Miracle in Milan (1 vote), there is enough trash to warrant scrapping the silly poll altogether.

(1) Vertov's film owes its place in the Top Ten to the people who got it out of a vault, restored it and re-released it to theaters and DVDs. This is a capricious trend that can only get worse. If you ask me, the restorers are digging in the wrong vaults.
(2) Tokyo Story is moving and beautiful but also, I think, tendentious and inferior Ozu. Late Spring is a much finer example of his rarefied art, but less "accessible". Enough of the voters in the Critic's Poll were aware of this, and so ranked Late Spring at #15
(3) And Vertigo is not even Old Tubby's best effort. The 39 Steps or The Wrong Man are vastly superior.

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