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. In 2002 the highest-ranking film from the previous two decades was Shoah (1985), tied for 45th place with a total of five votes among the critics. Indeed, the directors’ poll (separate from the critics’ poll since 1992) has done a better job of moving the canon forward, though only marginally; the auteurs are more capable of expanding their views than the auteurists, but both are still bogged down in their distinct preference for the old over (rather than alongside) the new.

I’ll go ahead and say it: the mechanism for canon formation is broken. The poll that once argued for considering contemporary masterpieces together with the works of the old masters has become a vessel for reaffirming increasingly ancient classics, albeit while introducing a vast menagerie of single-vote films into the conversation. There has been a great deal of interesting debate over whether this shift marks the liberation of cinema or its death knell. (For two takes on the subject, I’d particularly recommend Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons2 and Brian Hu’s 2005 review of same for Mediascape.3) Personally, I would rather have a poll that made a case for Wong Kar-wai and Paul Thomas Anderson as the peers of F.W. Murnau and Yasujiro Ozu. However, as the 2012 list peeks over the horizon, the real question to me is whether the mechanism has been completely broken or just slowed down.

Ever since the paradigm shift initiated by the auteurists, the list has transformed from one that celebrated the new and the old of film history to one that honors its middle age. The 1952 list included five silent films (Battleship Potemkin, The Gold Rush, Greed, Intolerance, and The Passion of Joan of Arc) as well as three from the postwar period (Bicycle Thieves, Brief Encounter, and Louisiana Story). Since then, however, the list has increasingly favored films made between the 1940s and 1960s, the age just before the philosophy of consensus began to crumble. Indeed, the entire list tends to form another kind of pyramid: a chronological one, with nearly a century’s worth of cinema between all the vote-getting films at its base (spanning from Griffith’s 1913 The Mothering Heart to 2001 highlights such as Mulholland Dr. and Spirited Away). The pyramid narrows to 50 years between the top 25 films (1925’s Battleship Potemkin to 1974’s The Godfather: Part II), and to 20 years between the top three (1939’s The Rules of the Game to 1958’s Vertigo, on either side of 1941’s Citizen Kane).

It is difficult to say whether the 30 years stretching from World War II to the crest of the art-house movement in the late 1960s are etched in stone as the zenith of filmmaking. The fact that an ever-increasing proportion of films (two-thirds of those receiving 10 or more votes in 2002) were made during this period—as well as the fact of Kane‘s five-decade reign in the #1 position—seems to suggest a continued stubborn devotion to this era above all others. Sight & Sound, concerned about this potential ossification of the canon, attempted a remedy in 2002 in the form of another poll, this one of the greatest films of the previous 25 years, with decidedly mixed results.4 That respondents still did not coalesce around any film past the mid-1980s (the top spots went to films made in 1979, 1980, and 1982) indicates that voters are unwilling to fashion a critical mainstream among recent cinema.

However, there are possible signs of movement. Perhaps the biggest talking point from the 2002 list was Vertigo coming within a handful of votes of unseating Kane as the Greatest Film of All Time (Welles’s film owes its preeminent status in the popular imagination largely to its five-decade reign atop the list). Furthermore, the combination of The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, both of which were made in the early 1970s (at least slightly after the hegemonic period), garnered the fourth-highest vote total. While it’s still a far cry from the same-decade debuts in the list’s younger days, the fact that such a large consensus could eventually accrete around these relative newcomers suggests that the film canon might be alive after all. Even if the Sight & Sound mainstream has taken a permanent turn toward the middle of film history (not a guarantee, after all), as long as the pyramid is pinned to a slowly-moving abstract point in time, and not to an arbitrarily fixed era, then consensus, the mechanism of canon formation, is still operational.

That said, the 2012 Sight & Sound poll will almost certainly contain surprises, ones that could refute the basis of this entire post or engage directly with my hypothesis. Regardless of whether Vertigo unseats Kane this time, or The Tree of Life or Three Colors: Red shocks everyone with an appearance among the Ten Greatest, I’ll be looking to see if the saplings of latter-day classics like Fanny and Alexander and Goodfellas have gained any ground. Sarris, for all his arguments against a single hierarchy of cinema, believed inherently in the value of ranking. From his annual Top 10 lists to his ranking of Hollywood directors in The American Cinema to his own three ballots for Sight & Sound, Sarris maintained that canonization was an essential navigational tool for sorting through the endless parade of motion pictures out there. If in 2112 the Sight & Sound poll can still help us enter into the first two centuries of film, then the canon will still be performing its essential task.

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2. ^ Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004
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Author bio:

Clifford James Galiher received his B.A. in Film and Television Production and M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA, and he is currently a Ph.D. student in Critical Studies at USC. His research focuses primarily on film production in classic Hollywood, including a current project on the history of pre-digital visual effects. His other interests include animation, narrative studies, and digital media history, and he wishes he had the money to pursue his dream of ushering full-time.

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