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” »