Sight & Sound and the (Arguably) Ossified Canon

Image 1: Sight & Sound

Editors’ note: Once per decade since 1952, Sight & Sound—the monthly publication of the British Film Institute—has conducted a worldwide poll of critics and filmmakers to determine the 10 greatest films of all time. The 2012 list is set to be unveiled on August 1 via Twitter (those interested can follow the BFI @SightSoundmag or #sightsoundpoll). On the eve of the announcement, Cliff Galiher considers the poll’s impact and importance.

(Note: This post focuses on the Critics’ List in the 2002 Sight & Sound poll, separate from the Directors’ List, except where noted. The lists referenced are available on the BFI’s website.)

David Bordwell, writing on the recent passing of Andrew Sarris,1 noted the great auteurist’s significant role in transforming the orthodox view of film history. With The American Cinema (1968), Sarris helped to move the film canon away from a hierarchical model of technological and stylistic progress (the “pyramid fallacy,” as Sarris termed it), replacing it with a vast landscape of individual artistic visions linked together by mutual influences and thematic concerns. Auteurism, in Bordwell’s words, creates a “decentralized and dispersed conception of film history—not a tree with a solid trunk and clear-cut branches, but a bristling, tangled bush.”

The Sight & Sound poll, preceding Sarris by several years, springs squarely from the old model. With its insistence on ranking films in order of greatness and its conservative slant toward time-honored classics, the poll represents a top-down view of cinema that seems entirely at odds with the revolution that Sarris helped engineer. Half a century later, Sarris and his fellow auteurists’ impact on film aesthetics reverberates throughout the poll—not just in the elevation of Ford, Hitchcock & Co. to the level of Eisenstein and Renoir in subsequent editions, but also in a fundamental shift in the reception of new cinema. If auteurism is a policy of advocacy, then part of its legacy is necessarily the fragmentation of film tastes along personal lines.

Whereas voters had anointed the four-year-old Bicycle Thieves as the Greatest Film of All Time in 1952, put the two-year-old L’avventura in the #2 spot in 1962, and placed the six-year-old Persona at #5 in 1972, fewer and fewer films have garnered less and less consensus ever since. Continue reading “Sight & Sound and the (Arguably) Ossified Canon” »

Review: ‘Red Tails’

Red Tails (2012)
The titular planes that tear across the skies in Red Tails (2012), financed and executive produced by George Lucas, were piloted by none other than the Tuskegee Airmen. I once met a Tuskegee Airman. An alumnus of Morehouse College, my alma mater, he was one of a number of luminaries set to receive a lifetime achievement award for his years of service in the community. He was a man whose then-enfeebled condition belied the amazing contribution he and his brethren made during the Second World War.

In our era of ever-present cynicism, it is refreshing to look back at a time when young men were drafted into military service and defended America with a sense of duty. With that being said, it’s difficult to glamorize the theatrical reproduction of these war films behind the guise of a dramatic shift in race relations on the big screen. Incorporating African Americans into the greater American jingoistic narrative does nothing to reconcile our history of institutionalized segregation on film. The war films that are typically thought of as great pictures—Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Saving Private Ryan, just to name a few—manage to display the action and spectacle of war while still recognizing its terribly destructive effect on human beings, but often they fail to examine race in a truly significant way. Despite having an all-black cast, Red Tails shies away from making any sort of real statement about race—or war, for that matter—and instead focuses on delivering an adrenaline-pumping journey through the skies.

The major narrative surrounding the film is George Lucas’s personal struggle to produce the film over the past 23 years. Continue reading “Review: ‘Red Tails’” »

The Cabal of 2012: 19 Actors Who Have Been Secretly Running the Last Year in Movies

Editors’ note: This week we’re featuring two posts on the 84th Academy Awards. We had hoped to run them closer to the awards ceremony taking place earlier this year, but technical issues delayed the Blog’s launch until recently. Nevertheless, we think both posts have some interesting things to say about the last year or so in movies, so we’re running them now.

A bit of idle musing on last year’s Oscars a month before the triple crown of Venice, Toronto, and Telluride kicks off a new awards season. For those steeped in Oscars lore, the 84th Academy Awards were memorable for a few things:

• The Best Picture nomination for The Tree of Life, joining Grand Illusion and A Clockwork Orange as among the Academy’s most audacious picks
• The overdue nomination for Gary Oldman and the unlikely one for Melissa McCarthy
• The awards phenomenon that was The Artist: for being mostly silent, all black and white, the first French production to win Best Picture, and the first Best Picture winner about the film industry

However, what fascinated me the most about last year’s Academy Awards struck me last September while watching The Ides of March. At the time, I casually noted how funny it would be if Paul Giamatti, George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, and Philip Seymour Hoffman were all to wind up nominated—for other movies! Namely (and respectively) for Win Win, The Descendants, Drive, and Moneyball. Only one of these four gentlemen landed a nomination, but two of the other films did wind up with a nomination in January, and across all of last year’s movies a LOT of familiar faces popped up. Here are the actors I spotted in multiple Oscar-nominated films this year: Continue reading “The Cabal of 2012: 19 Actors Who Have Been Secretly Running the Last Year in Movies” »

Mutual Admiration Society

Editors’ note: This week we’re featuring two posts on the 84th Academy Awards. We had hoped to run them closer to the awards ceremony taking place earlier this year, but technical issues delayed the Blog’s launch until recently. Nevertheless, we think both posts have some interesting things to say about the last year or so in movies, so we’re running them now.

The Age of Freedom Fries is over, at least in Hollywood. The 84th Oscars ceremony served up more than a soupçon of cheek-kissing, from both sides of the Atlantic.

While the French-made Best Picture winner, The Artist, was a love letter to Old Hollywood (and the only major nominated film shot entirely in Los Angeles), the American-made co-top awards-getter, Hugo, proffered a valentine to the French pioneer of special effects, Georges Méliès. Baguetted in between was Woody Allen’s Best Original Screenplay for Midnight in Paris, whose Hollywood screenwriter’s romance with the City of Love derives as much from the American expatriate artist colony of the 1920s as from the allure of the present-day French capital.

More than nostalgia, or a fanciful rewriting of history, is at play here. A key to the phenomenon was voiced by Artist director Michel Hazanavicius, a Frenchman of Lithuanian Jewish extraction, whose acceptance speech concluded with three thank-yous—not to his mother, his agent, and Harvey Weinstein, but to Billy Wilder, Billy Wilder, and Billy Wilder. Continue reading “Mutual Admiration Society” »

‘Drive’: The Unexpected Urban Western

quickly established itself as a critical success, with the film’s director, Nicolas Winding Refn, receiving the Best Director award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and Roger Ebert heralding the film upon its September release last year as having “respect for knowledgeable moviegoers.”1 Drive’s critical acclaim could be attributed to a number of factors, but I feel that its status as a future “It” film is due to a combination of the mythology explored in the narrative, the inclusion of compelling and unexpected casting choices, and Refn’s reinforcement of the film’s central themes through the skillful manipulation of formal style elements (including the cinematography, score, production design, and costume design).

Drive centers on a stunt/getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) who wrestles with his own loneliness and isolation in the middle of his quest to protect his neighbor and budding love interest, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son from sadistic crime boss Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) after a heist gone wrong. Continue reading “‘Drive’: The Unexpected Urban Western” »

Welcome to the Mediascape Blog!

Welcome to the launch of the Mediascape Blog! The blog is a forum for UCLA graduate students to interact with the larger theater, film, and television community about media-related topics. It’s a place to discuss ideas, share opinions, and give feedback on each other’s work. As the blog grows and develops it will offer a variety of ways to keep up with and add to the latest in moving image and media studies. To support this, contributors are encouraged to work with multimedia elements (video, audio, still images, etc.) in their posts.

Although the Mediascape Blog is primarily for UCLA graduate students and faculty, we welcome submissions from scholars and writers outside UCLA. Submissions do not need to be rigorously formal, but should display sound argumentation, clarity, and creative thinking. For full submission guidelines, please click on the “Blog Submissions” link in the right-hand navigation bar, or click here.

We have been particularly fortunate this year to work with our three talented staff writers: Jessica Fowler, Cliff Galiher, and Brandon Harrison. They have contributed very thoughtful pieces that you will see here regularly over the coming weeks, and we hope that you not only enjoy reading these pieces but also take part in discussing them in the comments section of each post. We’ll be updating the blog weekly with new posts, and we anticipate that updates will become more frequent as we receive more submissions over the next months, so check back often!

Since we’ve just launched, you may run into occasional bugs on the site. Please email us if you do—we appreciate your help in making sure the blog is running smoothly.

If you have any questions, comments, or issues to report, you can click on “Contact Us” in the right-hand navigation bar, or email us at

—Karrmen Crey and J.M. Olejarz, Blog Editors