Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Martin's Lists

What is the role of the critic? This is a question that demands an answer today more than ever before. The vast majority of readers, concert-, theater- and movie-goers couldn't care less, since they obviously have no use for criticism. Their likes and dislikes are matters of entirely personal importance. They're never exactly sure why, but they certainly don't want a professional type like a critic explaining to them why they're right or wrong. Since they lead unexamined lives, why should they bother to examine their tastes?

But a few people, including artists, actually pay attention to what critics say, whether they put it into practical application or not. Last week I singled out one artist who thought so much of a critic's remarks about his latest work that he took the time not only to comment on them but to rebut them in a rather passionate essay of his own. Such a reaction from an artist to address his critics personally is always unwise. The reasons are quite straightforward, as I will try to explain.

Everyone should know by now that, aside from being one of the two or three best American filmmakers of the past 50 years, Martin Scorsese is also an avid student of film whose knowledge of the medium rivals that of any film scholar. He has been directly involved in various film restoration projects and is a tireless advocate of film preservation. 

For the past five years Scorsese has been a quite vocal critic of the current state of the motion picture medium, of the manner with which his own films, as well as the films of the past, are being mistreated and trivialized by a critical establishment that only seems to care about blockbusters and box office returns. Scorsese, who turns 75 in November, clearly loves the best that film has to offer, even if his career has had its share of commercial work.

In 2012, Scorsese was asked by the British Film Institute through its venerable film magazine Sight & Sound to participate in a poll by contributing a list of what he considered to be the Top Ten Films Of All Time. Scorsese was among hundreds of film directors to submit a list and the results of the poll were published as an adjunct to another poll compiled from lists submitted by hundreds of contemporary film critics. 

There has been a critics' poll every ten years since 1952 and a directors' poll since 1962. The first poll I became acquainted with was the 1972 poll. The results of the seventh and latest poll were published in 2012. I had my say about the polls in my blog pieces "Sight Unsound" in 2008 and "Poll Position" in 2012. I'm not altogether sure why the poll is conducted once a decade, but the results don't hold out much hope for the future of the medium since, as I've pointed out, the newest film on the list was made in 1968. I can't blame the majority of film critics who submitted their choices for having conservative, "safe" standards, but film art appears to be increasingly a thing of the past.

It's the critics' poll that gets all the publicity, with the directors' poll appearing as a kind of dutiful afterthought, leaving some readers wondering which one is more authoritative. Obviously, the fact that the polls are so different should signify something? For instance, why is La R├ęgle du Jeu ranked the 4th greatest film on the critics' poll but tied for 22nd on the directors' poll? Why is Scorsese's own Taxi Driver ranked #5 on the directors' poll and #31 on the critics' poll? The biggest lapse is Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, #11 for the critics, but tied with fifteen other films (including There Will Be Blood, The Shining, and Jaws!) for #75 for the directors (this is especially unforgivable coming from a group of so-called filmmakers). The Directors' Poll is a Tale of the Ties: 7 films are tied for #30, 7 tied for #37, 11 tied for #48, and 16 films tied for #75 as well as #91.  

Since 2012, Martin Scorsese has been in a list-making mood of his own. After publishing the essay, "The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema" in The New York Review in 2013, Scorsese published a list of his twelve favorite films on the Miramax website, "The 85 Films You Need to See to Know Anything About Film" in Fastcompany Magazine, and, in response to a request from a film student, "39 Essential Foreign Films."

Though there is some unavoidable overlap in these three lists, they each seem shaped to a quite different purpose. Of the films on Scorsese's "85 films" list, which are, we are told, the "films that most influenced" him, only 13 are foreign films, and they're all directed by either Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti. It's an odd, idiosyncratic list, dominated by B-movie film noir like Gun Crazy and T Men, films by Robert Altman, Vincente Minelli and his contemporary Francis Ford Copolla.  

While the list made it clear that Scorsese was never much influenced by foriegn films (with the exception of Rossellini), he responded to a letter from a young filmmaker named Colin Levy with a list of "39 Essential Foreign Films" that partially compensates for the lacunaes in the 85 Films list. Scorsese's "85 Films" list is a revealing glimpse not just into the origins of his taste in films but how it shaped his choices in subject matter. It is a far better tool for understanding his approach to filmmaking than a critical guide. The same can be said for Sight & Sound's Directors' Poll. It provides us with the background from which contemporary film emerged. It tells us what films inspired a generation of directors, while making us wonder where the new Ozu, the new Welles, or the new Fellini may be hiding.

Some observers, including the directors themselves, believe that the Directors' Poll is more authoritative, since it is an insider's view. But what qualifies Scorsese to be an artist disqualifies him from being an effective critic. In his essay, "The Persisting Vision," Scorsese paints an illuminating picture of the time when he caught the film "disease":

My parents had a good reason for taking me to the movies all the time, because I had been sick with asthma since I was three years old and I apparently couldn’t do any sports, or that’s what they told me. But my mother and father did love the movies. They weren’t in the habit of reading—that didn’t really exist where I came from—and so we connected through the movies.

And I realize now that the warmth of that connection with my family and with the images on the screen gave me something very precious. We were experiencing something fundamental together. We were living through the emotional truths on the screen, often in coded form, which these films from the 1940s and 1950s sometimes expressed in small things: gestures, glances, reactions between the characters, light, shadow. These were things that we normally couldn’t discuss or wouldn’t discuss or even acknowledge in our lives.


And that’s actually part of the wonder. Whenever I hear people dismiss movies as “fantasy” and make a hard distinction between film and life, I think to myself that it’s just a way of avoiding the power of cinema. Of course it’s not life—it’s the invocation of life, it’s in an ongoing dialogue with life.


Frank Capra said, “Film is a disease.” I caught the disease early on. I felt it whenever I walked up to the ticket booth with my mother or my father or my brother.


Whenever I'm asked to provide a film ezine with a list of the top films of the past year, of the decade, of the 21st Century or whatever, I always decline. I'm simply not in the position to have access to the dozens of films worth viewing every year. The best I could manage would be a list of favorites. This is in no way a capitulation - allowing pleasure precedence over principle. 

George Orwell touched on the problem in his essay on Jonathan Swift, "Politics vs. Literature":

If one is capable of intellectual detachment, one can perceive merit in a writer whom one deeply disagrees with, but enjoyment is a different matter. Supposing that there is such a thing as good or bad art, then the goodness or badness must reside in the work of art itself - not independently of the observer, indeed, but independently of the mood of the observer. In one sense, therefore, it cannot be true that a poem is good on Monday and bad on Tuesday. But if one judges the poem by the appreciation it arouses, then it can certainly be true, because appreciation, or enjoyment, is a subjective condition which cannot be commanded.

This is precisely the problem with so much of what passes for criticism today. Many critics - certainly many of those consulted for the Sight & Sound Critics Poll - are closer to what I have called fans - unable to distinguish between what they like and what they know (or perhaps don't know) is good. No one would argue with the notion that every critical judgement starts out as a subjective emotional response. But even subjectivities can sometimes agree. This is how we have managed to arrive at the general consensus that Shakespeare is the greatest poet in English, that Rembrandt is a great painter, and that Schubert is a great composer. These agreements may only be starting points for a critic, but they are the foundation of critical thought - appealing to objective aesthetic standards. 

It's fine for a filmmaker of Scorsese's stature to write about how pleasure is his guide, but it's a disaster for a critic. It's the only way I can account for the steady rise of Hitchock's Vertigo to the #1 slot on the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. Or 2001: A Space Odyssey at #6, or The Searchers at #7.    

Spinoza wrote (italics mine): "Love is the feeling of pleasure accompanied by our knowledge of its cause." Who knew that love and criticism were synonymous? If only the critics who voted for Vertigo in the 2012 poll investigated the cause of the pleasure that the film gave them, they would've realized it was nothing but a boyhood crush and not true love. In one of his last statements on the subject of film criticism, a profession he helped to make respectable in the 1960s, John Simon wrote, "Reviewing has become largely simplistic consumer guidance, with the broader, more speculative view rarely in evidence and decreasingly in demand." 

The Sight & Sound Directors' Poll provides a unique window into what inspires current cinema. Whether they manage to measure up to it or not, the poll represents to directors an ideal cinema. The trend for the Critics' Poll is clearly away from an acceptance of principle - that, far from all of our pleasure-seeking, some films will endure as examples of film art, whether anyone still likes it or not. Who knows but that Citizen Kane, which is, to so many of the younger critics, a very old and complicated movie, may disappear from the precincts of the Top Ten, to be replaced by who knows what aberration?

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