How did the film canon get so stodgy?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Aug. 20 2002 4:17 PM

Sight Unchanged

How did the film canon get so stodgy?

Sight & Sound

In an era when best-of lists and expert polls have degenerated into promotional devices, one poll still has a grip on the imaginations of film aficionados the world round. Every 10 years, Sight & Sound, a venerable British film magazine, asks hundreds of prominent critics and directors to list their 10 favorite films of all time. The first Sight & Sound poll was held in 1952, in the midst of the postwar burgeoning of film consciousness; the survey quickly became an institution, eagerly awaited and endlessly handicapped. The 2002 edition of the Top 10 poll is now online at the Sight & Sound Web site, with 253 individual lists to pore over.

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What makes this poll more compelling than others is that it purports to be a snapshot of the evolving film canon. The 10-year interval between surveys is just enough time for taste to change in the world of film criticism, which has undergone several great upheavals in the 50 years since the poll's inception. Despite a few shifts and substitutions, however, those who were hoping for a changing of the guard in 2002 were disappointed. Citizen Kane first grabbed the No. 1 slot in the 1962 poll and has never relinquished it, and this year it withstood a strong challenge from up-and-comer Vertigo to hold onto the crown. A few non-1992 winners climbed onto the critical Top 10, but for the most part they were familiar faces, having already made the list or barely missed it in previous years. The only significant event in 2002 was the rapid ascent of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II to the No. 4 position, and this coup was possible only because of Sight & Sound'sdubious new practice of attributing votes for either of the two individual Godfather films to the collective entity. Looking at the changes in the survey between 1992 and the present, one can perceive a slight shift toward entertainment and Hollywood (six American films made the list in 2002, the most ever) and away from the art house. But the new Top 10 is longer on familiarity than surprise.

The early decades of the Sight & Sound poll saw quite a bit more shuffling of the critical canon. That first critics' list from 1952 now looks quaint and a little museum-bound, with a top three—The Bicycle Thief, City Lights, and The Gold Rush—whose reputations have gradually declined, and five other entries that never again approached the Top 10. (The directors, marching to a different beat, have resurrected TheBicycle Thief for their 2002 list.) By 1972, the art-house boom of the '50s and '60s had swept L'Avventura, 8 1/2, Persona, Wild Strawberries, and Ugetsu into the Top 10. Ten years later, the French-inspired auteur theory, which had forced a wholesale revision of critical attitudes toward the classic American cinema, had lobbied a place for Vertigo and The Searchers.

Up to and including the 1972 poll, each list contained several films that had been made within the previous 10 years. Since then, the gap in years between the survey and the films it celebrates has grown wider each decade. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (1972 and 1974) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) are the most recent items on the 2002 poll.

Does this gap indicate a widespread belief that the cinema is in decline? To an extent. Certainly, the rapid ascent of films to the canon in the '50s and '60s reflects the feeling of many cinema lovers of the day that they were living through exciting times. If cinephilia and foreign film distribution are on the rise again (and there are indications that this is so), the Sight & Sound polls aren't yet reflecting the upturn.

A more convincing explanation for the aging of the canon is simply that film criticism has become institutionalized over the course of the last three decades. Film academia has been entrenched in colleges since the '70s and '80s; movie history now hangs over the heads of cinephiles with something of the force of the other arts' intimidating ancestry. Perhaps film appreciation is moving out of its early period, with the inevitable side effect that the canon has become a wee bit stodgy.

Sight & Sound began polling directors as well as critics in 1992, and it tabulates the results of the two polls separately. The filmmakers seem to be a different breed than the critics, much less likely to include obscurities on their lists, predictably more entertainment-oriented, inclined more toward visceral and kinetic filmmakers (Fellini, Kurosawa, Scorsese) and less toward cerebral and contemplative ones (Godard, Ozu). Still, when it comes to picking the greatest film ever, all differences are laid aside: Citizen Kane dominates the filmmakers' poll as easily as the critics'. Over the course of 40 years of profound changes in cinematic thought, Orson Welles' debut film has managed to appeal to every critical faction and withstand every revolution in taste.

If the compiled lists of consensus favorites necessarily tend toward the conservative and predictable, the myriad lists of individual critics and filmmakers are often entertainingly eccentric. Much of the pleasure that film buffs receive from the Sight & Sound polls is in poring over the ballots, reacting to provocations, noting unfamiliar titles to be hunted down later. Silent film scholar Paolo Cherchi-Usai includes a British Airways commercial on his list; Filipino-cinema expert Joel David chooses two pornographic films and dismisses Kane as "whiney-white-guy precious." Quentin Tarantino reserves a spot for the unknown B-comedy Hi Diddle Diddle alongside his beloved Howard Hawks and Pam Grier classics. Anurag Mehta, director of American Chai, seems at first glance to have submitted a list of the all-time top-grossing films.

Occasionally one even learns something while browsing the Top 10s. Ken Loach (Riff-Raff; Ladybird, Ladybird) reveals himself as a fan of the Czech New Wave of the '60s: In retrospect, the influence seems obvious. The list of Austrian director Michael Haneke (La Pianiste) is almost too appropriate: If you tried to imagine a filmmaker who could put Bresson, Antonioni, Salo, and Psycho on his Top 10, you'd probably come pretty close to Haneke's brand of contemplative sadism. Sight & Sound allows the voters to provide commentary, and some of them, like George A. Romero and Stuart Gordon, get carried away endearingly, or at least readably. And it's not every day that one has the pleasure of seeing filmmakers wax enthusiastic over the work of their peers. Sometimes they even best the critics at their own game, as when Catherine Breillat pays insightful homage to Kiarostami's Ten: "Perfect Kiarostami, because there's no more image, no more mise en scène, just a camera and intelligence, and pure thought." Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, Breillat, Haneke, and other major directors of today's cinema are likely to appear in the Sight & Sound polls only as commentators.

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