Posted by Greg Ferrara on August 1, 2012
When I was a young cinephile I was enthralled by the Sight and Sound Poll, which releases its latest ten year ranking today. The first one I was aware of was the 1972 poll which had Citizen Kane at the top of the heap (as it was in 1962 and in 1982, 1992 and 2002). I wasn’t aware of the list in 1972 when it was released but a few years later, probably around 1980 or so. I had purchased The Book of Lists in 1980 and found the poll within its pages. Being deeply immersed in a young cinephile’s love of film, I made sure to see every film on it. That wasn’t easy (in fact, it was impossible at the time and still there are films like Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy only recently available on DVD in most places) but I did my best. I loved having such an elitist guide to my film watching. This wasn’t some popularity poll, for goodness sake, this was film critics and connoisseurs ranking what they felt to be the greatest films ever made. That was important to me at the time and, I think, important for film.
But now it’s not. And I don’t care. And you shouldn’t either. And Sight and Sound needs to stop doing this. Now.
There is a time in the early stages of any art form when it is important to delineate the good from the bad, to encourage the good artists to continue on their path and the mediocrities to fade into obscurity. And when that happens with a modern art form, like cinema, in which it propels through periods at ten times the pace that something like literature or painting do, the early stages are over soon. At that point everyone locks into a handful of movies that represent the good and a handful of others that represent the also-rans and everything just kind of dies. I wrote about this with rock music rankings a while back, elsewhere, in which I ranted about how stale and unimagitive the lists of greatest albums and musicians have become (you can read it here) and the same thing has happened to film. And there’s no need for it.
In 1972, film hadn’t even been around for 90 years. The sound period wasn’t even fifty yet. And Hollywood’s Golden Era had just ended with studio influence waning in the sixties. The French New Wave wasn’t even twenty. Now, we’ve had forty more years and new technologies from VCRS and Laser Discs to DVDs and online streaming which make more movies available to more people than ever before and the internet allows cinephiles like all of us to read about all kinds of films that all those “by rote” movie history books left out. All the Sight and Sound poll does now is encourage stale adherence or insincere contrariness. That is to say, you either have the group that says, “These are the greatest films ever made and we need to recognize that,” and so Citizen Kane and The Rules of the Game and Tokyo Story all get ranked, or you have the group that says, “This is boring. Let’s rank all those forgotten films or the underrated ones or… whatever.” From that group often comes movies that could easily be dismissed as mediocre or uber-niche and yet there they are, enshrined on the movie list of lists. It’s all so ridiculous and dull and adolescent.
Now, full disclosure, I sent an e-mail to Sight and Sound about two or three years ago (and wrote about it five years ago) lobbying them to include many of the critics and bloggers online and, in fact, they did. Whether I had any influence on that, I don’t know (I doubt it), but I’m glad that many of my friends in the critical world were included and this post is in no way meant to be disrespectful of their participation. But I also suggested to Sight and Sound that they change how the list is done or not do it at all and there I clearly had absolutely no influence because they didn’t change it and, by gum, they’re still doing the damn thing. My suggestion was simple: Let the participants submit a list of the top 250 or 500, instead of 10. Ten is moronic. You’re talking about condensing over 120 years of cinema into 10 single works. That’s beyond moronic, actually, it’s insulting.
If participants could submit a list of 250 to 500 (that may sound like a lot but, trust me, to a cinephile it’s a piece of cake), they could include all the movies they know they want to include due to their legacy (like the usual canon material) and have plenty of room to include forgotten or overlooked films and you would have a much more complete representation. There wouldn’t be this need to pick one or the other. But more importantly, a top ten for anything in the arts is a gross under-representation (and, yes, I know the final list includes over 2,000 films of everything that got a vote but the main list is 10 and that’s the one that gets the publicity). After 120 years of cinema, I think a top 5,000 would be more reflective of what there is to offer. After all, in any given year, there are at least one or two movies that I believe qualify as great and plenty more from years past that have never been ranked.
Of course, the main justification for these things that their designers (and/or apologists) always give is “but they inspire debate.”
Please stop saying that.
Look, I’ve been online for twenty years now and I’ve been critically writing about film online for over five and I can tell you that I have engaged in more debate that has illuminated my understanding of cinema from blog posts than any list has ever done! Ever! In fact, the only debate a list inspires is usually between how useful or useless the list is which is a circular, self-contained debate that wouldn’t exist without the list! Outside of that, the debate is usually, “Yeah, that’s a good film but I’d pick this one instead.” YAAAAAAWWWWWWWNNNNN.
That’s debate? That’s baloney! I’ll tell you about a good debate: A few years back when my friends Bill Ryan and Dennis Cozzalio debated the varying qualities of Inglourious Basterds and Jonathan Rosenbaum got involved and then I got involved (somewhere in part three of the discussion, I believe) and Tony Dayoub and Don Mancini and a lot of other intelligent cinephiles and we discussed film technique, history and the Holocaust all without the aid of a single, stupid list! You want to know about some other good debates? I’ll make it easy for you: Go to the main page here at The Morlocks and scroll down through each post and its comments and I’ll be damned if you don’t find some excellent debating going on in the comments and on the message boards here.
I’ve had so many great debates online and seen so many movies I’d never even heard of before thanks to the amazing online cinephile community that any kind of list now, even one as purportedly prestigious as the vaunted Sight and Sound poll, seems a little, well, silly. Like something kids do. Whether it’s baseball or rock and roll, when kids are just learning about something new they’re anxious to classify who’s the best, the worst and every other superlative in between (“superlatives in between” – oh what the hell, I’ll let it stay) and get into heated arguments over it all (“You’re so stupid! Clayton Kershaw is soooo overrated! Verlander could pitch circles around him.”). But we’re not kids anymore and cinema isn’t the fresh new face on the block anymore. It’s been around the corner quite a few times and top ten lists do nothing to further the understanding of the art itself. So Sight and Sound, I’m glad your list was a success, really I am. But let’s make 2012 the last one ever. Let’s move on… and grow up.
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