'The Greatest Films of All Time': branding change

09 August 2012

Now that some dust has settled following Sight & Sound's decennial Top 50 poll of the "greatest ever" films, it might be time not so much to argue against its choices as its purpose and traits...

“Cinema is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates."
– Werner Herzog

With Poetics, Aristotle left the world the defining foundations upon which tragedy as a dramatic form rests. His follow-up, however, which attempted the same for comedy, was lost, its actual content left to speculation and disagreement.

This might partly account for why, in general, comedy isn’t afforded the same critical status that tragedy and its loftier airs are. Of course, everyone enjoys a good laugh, but comedy’s legitimacy as an artistic approach is regarded casually; many professional critics only pay it lip service, reserving serious discussion for the weighty stuff.

It’s not their fault. The parameters for how comedy functions are less defined than those for tragedy. It’s iffy ground, critically speaking. Laughing’s fine, then, but heaven forbid anyone who takes it seriously (guilty pleasures are almost always comedies, or else funny in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way, whatever that might mean). Laughter is one of those quick emotions – an escapist emotion. You laugh between the daily grind.

As with everything else that has both defined and been defined by history – from Ancient Greece to capitalism’s death agony today – emotions, and especially their social veil in the form of behaviours and tastes, embody class hierarchies. Professional critics, who tend to be of relative social privilege – paid to represent an institution if not pursuing individual by-lines as “freelancers” – are prisoners of such hierarchies. They have tastes to upkeep, and they’re schooled from day one as to how best to do this.

The very notion of a critic being comparatively more informed as to what is worthy and what isn’t is itself a symptom of such class tensions. By implication, official attitudes to the “populist” vote are snooty indeed: Sight & Sound editor Nick James Tweeted, in the aftermath of the magazine’s Top 50 poll, “I don't mean to be mean, but I'd like it out there that THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION got just one vote” (that film, meaningful to many, is always at or around the IMDb #1 spot). Charlie Lyne of Ultra Culture, meanwhile, responded in haste to the same poll by gathering a one-star IMDb user review of each film in the top ten; surely there are less patronising ways to strategise one’s own self-elevation? (I read Lyne’s Tweet only because Nick James re-Tweeted it.)

Professional critics, consciously or not, are paid disciples of the Arnoldian view of culture: there’s a high and a low, and even if there are occasions for both, the latter doesn’t stand a chance when it comes to balloting the meaningful and/or significant.

What makes the Sight & Sound poll of interest are precisely such limitations. Essentially an industry-led survey to collect opinions from its own practitioners, it’s inevitably going to aspire to, extend and reflect the (petty) bourgeois tastes of literary criticism, with a value placed upon the kind of formal innovation and technical precision that define what the Cuban filmmaker Julio GarcĂ­a Espinosa once legitimately decried as a “perfect cinema”. Image-density and a high quota of ambiguity are musts, here; only as good as their last publication, critics and their academic vanguard depend upon such discussion points.

Keen to label those that made the cut the “greatest ever”, the Sight & Sound poll’s organisers nevertheless leave the selection criteria open to the individual. That’s quite a revealing sign that when it comes down to it, nobody has a genuine idea as to what might constitute what makes one film objectively greater than another, other than personal preference. But personal preferences must be resisted – and all references to an “I” eradicated – because acknowledging them might expose the reality that one middle-income culture isn’t in any way inherently superior to another. (I think a far more interesting poll would be for each one of the 800+ critics to provide a short statement on the one film they think they’ve watched the most, and why - see the recommended article at the bottom of this post.)

None of this is to deny any of the Top 50 films their place in the Sight & Sound poll – any argument along those lines begins an infinite regress. But it’s worth noting the list’s trends. Others have pointed out already that there’s an absence of animation on there, that documentaries are underrepresented, and that there’s a short supply of women directors (it should go without saying that the emphasis is still on “the director” as author, which should be an open debate in itself).

Jim Emerson has complained about the lack of funny. The highest ranked comedy on the list, he notes, is Singin’ in the Rain, which fell from tenth in 2002 to twentieth this time round. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that film’s also movie-oriented. It teaches us not only about shifts from silents to talkies but also, in a way, about how to “watch” a film (critic-speak, aware of the benefits literary theory gets from its longer history, prefers the term “read” to “watch” – we read films in order to speak or write properly about them). Singin' in the Rain enjoys the rewards of its genius: an all-out fun film that also flatters the know-mores.

Another casualty of a cultural taste that values particular sensibilities over others is melodrama, that which wears its intentions and its emotions on its sleeve. (No room for Douglas Sirk, then.) Another still is horror.

Funnies, weepies, scaries. Laughing, crying and being scared out of your wits are all visceral emotions, felt ineluctably and unpredictably. No more so, of course, than the sense of intrigue or awe (or irritation) we might feel during a screening of Vertigo or 2001: A Space Odyssey. But crucially, no less so either. I don’t think the list denotes a preference for intellectualism over emotionalism. More precisely, it denotes a preference for one kind of emotionalism over another kind. There’s a casual disregard present, for instance, for the “quicker” or more animated emotions. Even the top ten's weepiest film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, unfolds more like a sustained endurance test than a cumulative narrative in the "classical" sense.

It’s almost as if these people are aware of the need to perpetuate the stereotype of the stiff upper lip. Laughter’s brilliant, but it’s also a sign that you’re enjoying yourself. Our capitalism’s too advanced and efficient for such an emotion to get in the way: indeed, if you’re having fun, you can’t possibly be doing your job. Industriousness is a virtue; critics have to vindicate their profession. Perhaps if critics are seen to be laughing, or enjoying the rollercoaster ride of a horror film – even the thrills of a low-budget slasher – then they run the risk of not being taken seriously themselves. Through no fault of its own, the word “genre” carries a mildly pejorative air.

This recalls a Media Studies lesson I had during my A-Levels. Frowned upon and referred to as "Mickey Mouse courses" by the Head, these lessons only ever went as far as showing us brief clips for the purpose of analysis: a full film was out of the question. Films are entertaining, ergo: they can’t possibly be educative or culturally worthy. Critics avenge this snobbery by expanding their own, seeking works that, on the one hand, can be spoken of in the same breath as literature (how many times have you seen the term “poetic” bandied about on arthouse one-sheets?), and on the other is solemn enough to demand a straight face.

Comedies, horrors, musicals and the like break this rule: watching them, your face is rarely straight. The subsequent assumption seems to be that this isn’t legitimate enough, culturally: what you really need is something to take away from the film in the same way you might take something away from a novel, that most bourgeois literary form – something internal and interpretable, which feeds your need to provide content to a column whose wordcount is already determined.

Some (many?) subscribe to the notion, whether they’re aware of it or not, that this something is somehow objective, attainable – some films have the capacity to excite in this way, though a lot don’t. That’s a nonsensical argument, but it’s sadly implied or explicitly enforced in much of criticism today.

The longer lasting an emotion is, so the argument might go, the more legitimate. Of course, a horror film might keep a child awake at night, but by the point of professional adulthood, the formative years have been rejected as infantile: enjoyable for as long as it lasts, but you don't take it to bed with you. Onward and upward to textbook cases of the aesthetic-fetish, that which treats the term “aesthetic” with privilege, the same way some might employ the term “cultured” selectively - some films are “aesthetic” in the same way some people are “cultured”. How the reverse arguments are meant to be taken seriously – that some films aren’t “aesthetic”, or that some people aren’t “cultured” – is anyone’s guess.

Is it any coincidence that Hitchcock’s winning film is also his most highbrow, the film in which the mystery is prolonged the most and the pathos spread the thickest? (To be fair, Psycho came in at #35. But where is North by Northwest, or his English films that provided that film its template? Are they too "light"?)

Wonderment and curiosity can be contained; laughter, tears and jolts, on the other hand, are visible for all to see. In the cinema, they might embody a social unease or embarrassment at being in touch with your emotions. Even in an age of home viewing (and blogging), critics seem keen to look to some past they wish was recoverable, a past in which the boundaries between high and low culture were as well-defined as those between a professional and an amateur, or those between the learned and the uninformed.

It is in this sense that the Sight & Sound poll functions as a means by which order is retained and history itself is resisted. The impression of change has formed a large part of its marketing: Citizen Kane’s dethronement made the headlines – almost like a self-congratulation for the year-long campaign against it. It feels, however, like a strategic re-shuffling of personnel (Kane’s still second!), whose policies – or class-defined tastes – are unlikely to change without an upheaval of society itself.

Also recommended

Which of the emoticons apply best to the Sight & Sound poll?