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Short guide to the contemporary film canon

Sight & Sound is a British monthly film magazine founded in 1932 and published by the British Film Institute. One of the first very important journals completely dedicated to cinema, this magazine, still in publication, has shaped the tastes of decades of readers. Indeed, with appropriate (yet contestable) distinctions, Sight& Sound indicated, since the first years, those films and directors deemed worthy of artistic merit. Accordingly, apart from the usual reviews, the magazine asks an international group of film professionals, every ten years, to vote for their greatest film of all time, with the most recent poll taking place in 2012. These professionals are film critics, writers, academics and (separately) directors, who are asked to provide their ten preferences in a free interpretation of what ‘greatest films’ means. In fact, the invitation letter received by such experts, the selection of which remains admittedly rather arbitrary on the part of the magazine, states that their choices could be dictated either by historical importance, aesthetic value or more personal contingencies. Analysis of all the ten Top 10s from the first in 1952 allows the identification of a canon of films, present over the decades. This general list, combined with an analysis of the most important changes in the last polls, reveals some of the trends of the changing ways of thinking about the contemporary film canon.

The polls of Sight & Sound represent an astonishing reserve of authoritative assessments, able to provide precious information about the changing inclinations of the ‘elite’ of cinema regarding the greatest films, as well as a huge catalogue of referenced suggestions on what to watch, something that is even more important now that almost every film is easily available. Some of the respondents decide to indicate less than ten films or to send their list with some kind of comment and prescription on how to read it, but this material, even if published, is not considered for the purposes of the survey. In the simplest way, every time a film is cited it obtains a point. So, it comes with little surprise that even the winning film in 2012, Vertigo (1958), only obtained 191 votes on a total of 846 lists, after the number of participants had been strongly increased in comparison to the poll of 145 people in 2002. Additionally, since the 1992 edition, a parallel poll realised with the same method with directors has been published, providing the rich and interesting opportunity for a comparison between the lists. Anyway, the number of directors is smaller, accounting for 358 in 2012. Moreover, on that last occasion, a new rule was established, to treat films that are considered part of a larger whole as separate ones for the aims of the polls. In relation to the Top 10, this new rule has particularly affected The Godfather (1972), previously considered one film along with the Part II (1974) in a powerful combination.

The first place, in the aggregated list, belongs to the film that won almost every time, Citizen Kane (1941) by Orson Welles. This film, that lost the first place in both lists, for the first time after fifty years, two years ago, was so present in nine on ten tops of the lists. It did not appear in the 1952 Top 10 (just for a bit), because it was not known by all the critics, otherwise it might even have won immediately. The second place belongs to La Regle Du Jeu (1939) by Jean Renoir, though this film was not a favourite of the directors who only included it in their Top 10 in 2002. Nevertheless, it is the first among the European films, though it lost one position since 2002 in the Critics’ Poll. The third place is for Vertigo and (1963), tied with 7 presences. Their route is interesting. Both films were not present in the first Top 10 (of course) and not even in the second (it was possible for the former), but since then they have always been there, with only one strange exception for in 1992 in the Critics’ Poll. Before that date, in fact, the Italian film was always higher in rank than the masterpiece of the English director, however from that moment on, even after its return in the peak in the next editions, Vertigo maintained a higher spot. Conversely, the masterpiece of Fellini was always more loved by the directors, who probably recognize so much of themselves in it. Arguably, viewers have increasingly appreciated the dream/nightmare-like experience provided by Vertigo, still today terrifying and magnetic, the most opted among the colour films, while directors just cannot renounce a movie that constitutes a sort of anthem for them. Away from the podium, in this revelatory overall ranking, respectively: Battleship Potemkin (1925), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Bicycle Thieves (1948), Tokyo Story (1953), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Godfather (1972).

The Russian masterpiece by Eisenstein had always been present in the Critics’ Poll, but just on the last occasion went down to the 11th position (by just one vote), defeated in a surprising competition with another masterwork from Russia, Man with a Movie Camera (1929), with this film entering the Top 10 for the first time straight in the eight position. Furthermore, this happened just two years before the magazine proposed another list, Greatest Documentaries of All Time, won just by the film of Vertov, so this is a period of deep valuing of documentary films, even at the expense of classics, a symptom perhaps of a new search for truth at the expense of fiction. On the other hand, it was never signalled by the directors,whose Russian choice was Mirror (1974). The Danish chef-d’oeuvre suffered many mishaps, cuts and faulty attempts of recomposition after its first release, until incredibly a copy of its original version was found. Even so, it has won the hearts and minds of the viewers, entering the top of the lists on the first occasion. The subsequent three films are tied with four presences, yet their stories are not similar. Winner of the first edition, Ladri di Biciclette was rapidly put out of the top ten, to return just lately in the Directors’ Poll. With a slow but inexorable growth of appreciation and interest, Tokyo Story needed almost forty years to appear in the Top 10 of the Critics’ Poll and almost sixty to be included in that of the Directors’ Poll, winning it. How and why this happened is not clear, but the importance of East Asian Cinema, always strong and recognized by the lists, has increased even more in recent years. In addition, two other Japanese films from the same years, Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Seven Samurai (1954) obtained important positions before. As for 2001, it is surprising to find this cornerstone of cinema in the Top 10 only in 1992, even though it has stayed a favourite of the critics ever since, while the directors only elected it in 2012, with the partial excuse of having chosen Doctor Strangelove (1964) ten years before and of appointing now 2001 with the second position (tied with Citizen Kane!). Finally, The Godfather too figures in the Top 10 four times, but only considering the occasions in which it was coupled with its sequel in 2002. It was not present in the Critics’ Poll afterwards while the directors always kept it and similarly the film is very well positioned in many other important lists like the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies, Best in Film: The Greatest Movies of Our Time (from a television special aired by ABC in 2011), The Toronto Film Festival’s Essential 100 Movies, the IMDb Top 250, TSPDT’s Top 10 Greatest Films and The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time, published by another British film magazine, Empire, where it is in the first place. Arguably, there is no other film so famous and considered, it represents quintessentially the heart of the contemporary film canon as fundamental point of reference for filmmakers and public alike. Significantly, these same lists value a great deal more Citizen Kane (achieving 100% on Rotten Tomatoes) than Vertigo.

Moreover, there are other considerations and observations that might be drawn from the polls in Sight & Sound. First of all, I calculated the average date of release of the selected films, discovering that, as regarding the Critics’ Poll, it is approximately the year 1944. This means that even over a period of sixty years the lists remained anchored to the period of the first poll in 1952 and indeed the average date of each Top 10 advanced only by a decade, in a fluctuating way, so that the last peak of the list is only 6 years older than the first. In this regard, Allen and Lincoln argue that “films by established auteurs are more likely to be retrospectively consecrated by cultural institutions” (878) and Long adds that “such polls can only produce canons which include the same narrow set of masterpieces time and again” (34). So, all of them confirm that polls and canonisation “confer legitimacy on a symbolic product long after its initial release” (Mayne, 464), resulting in pretty conservative lists that tend to belittle many great films just because they have not ‘sedimented’ yet. On the contrary, the directors have always prized more recent films, so that the overall age of the top of their polls is 1958 and the newest of the total number of films selected by all Top 10s in the magazine, Raging Bull (1980), is exclusively their choice. Precisely, the total number of films topping the polls in sixty years is 43, with an average date of release in the year 1949, the oldest being Intolerance (1916). Of these films, 20 are American, 18 European and 5 East Asian, even though the number of directors is 33, 19 of which have European origins, 10 American and 4 East Asian. In fact, some directors are present with more films, with the best results obtained by Charles Chaplin and Francis Ford Coppola with three films each. Derived from the results, the polls from 2012 indicate also the favourite directors, with Hitchcock and Fellini winning respectively in the poll of critics and that of directors, with the former winning even in the combined result. Indeed, that was his year.

The most evident change in both of the last polls in 2012 is represented by the defeat of Citizen Kane, a film that reigned for decades. In the case of the Critics’ Poll, the direct challenge with Vertigo lasted just a decade, since in 2002 the latter was second with a difference of 5 votes, while now it is first with a 34 point lead. Interestingly, the Director’s Poll, though declassing Citizen Kane too, did not change its opinion on Vertigo. So, what caused this change? First, a very slow advance of more recent films increasingly tends to prize the newer between two challengers, probably even more if this is a colour film (recently remastered) and the other not. But the masterwork of Hitchcock represents also a totally different concept of cinema than the one of Welles. It is, like the title suggests, an unsettling romance, aimed to the emotional side of the viewer and his or her subconscious, while Citizen Kane is far more a moral parable, focusing on the apparent success and hidden desperation of a rich and powerful man. Vertigo is an odd and confused film (the same director lamented some ‘mistakes’), whereas Citizen Kane wants to be clear, even if it features technical innovations totally revolutionary at the time and still striking. Perhaps, the dizzying and disturbing experience provided by Vertigo is a closer example not only of what we expect or wished from cinema today,  but of the very state of our culture, no more able or willing to express such sharp and accurate objections and claims on society. It seems like the parallel rise of Tokyo Story would balance the new situation, being another old, ethical film in black and white. Moreover, as stated before, the polls also consider Hitchcock to be the best director ever and Vertigo, usually considered his masterpiece, also serves as a symbol of his much valued work. In conclusion, the Top 10 of the Critics’ Poll in 2012 presented a selection older than the one before, while the directors went in the exact opposite way, reaching 1963 as the average release date.

References

Allen, Michael Patrick, and Lincoln, Anne E. “Critical Discourse and the Cultural Consecration of American Films”. Social Forces, 82:3. Oxford University Press, (2004): 871–94. Print.

Long, Christopher. “Revising the film canon”. New Review of Film and Television Studies, 4:1. Routledge, (2006): 17–35. Print.

Lupo, Jonathan. “Loaded Canons: Contemporary Film Canons, Film Studies, and Film Discourse”. The Journal of American Culture, 34:3. Wiley Periodicals, Inc., (2011). Print.

Mayne, Laura. “Assessing Cultural Impact: Film4, Canon Formation and Forgotten Films”. Journal of British Cinema and Television, 11.4. Edinburgh University Press, (2014). Print.

Özgüven, Fatih. “Writing on Film History, Far from the Canon”. Cinema Journal. University of Texas Press, (2010). Print.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, (2004). Print.

Sight & Sound. British Film Institute. Print.

Written by Alex De Gironimo (2015); Queen Mary, University of London

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Copyright © 2015 Alex De Gironimo/Mapping Contemporary Cinema