‘Sight & Sound’ Poll Writes Screenwriters Out of the Movies

When the latest edition of the Sight & Sound poll was published last year, commentators were abuzz over the results. “Hitchcock knocks Welles off top of ‘greatest film’ poll,”1 announced one headline. “Hitchcock dethrones Welles,”2 proclaimed another. Again and again, the ascendancy of Vertigo to the top spot on the critics’ list was dramatized as one auteur vanquishing another. Taking this rhetoric to the limit, one blogger used the poll to decide on “the greatest auteur in cinema.”3 Even some critics who refused to participate in the Sight & Sound poll, such as Peter Bogdanovich, only did so on the grounds that it was impossible to narrow down the list of movies made by favorite directors to such a manageable number.4

If all the talk about directors and auteurs didn’t make the point clear: screenwriters, once again, were left out in the cold. Indeed, coverage of the results might lead one to assume that Vertigo emerged from the mind of Alfred Hitchcock fully formed, rather than from a screenplay by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, itself adapted from a novel (The Living and the Dead) written by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud. To be fair, this oversight isn’t entirely the fault of bloggers and journalists. Directors are so feted by Sight & Sound that they have been invited by the magazine to vote in their own poll since 1992. Screenwriters aren’t afforded the same opportunity (nor is anyone else involved in the filmmaking process, for that matter). Worse, screenwriters aren’t even credited on the Sight & Sound website, which has an entry for every film to place on both the critics’ and directors’ polls but only indicates the films’ directors and most prominent actors. Continue reading “‘Sight & Sound’ Poll Writes Screenwriters Out of the Movies” »

The Sea of Information

When Orgeron, Orgeron, and Streible talk about a “dense, rich, and largely neglected history,” their language carefully situates the state of educational film history as a stand-in for all film history and even the daunting task of the archive itself. I wrote about some of these issues once in a piece for UCLA’s Mediascape Blog, talking about the anxieties over information glut that have attended the history of the archive in western culture, and the compulsive need for hierarchical systems of organization. My central trope—the anxiety of the mis-shelved book, speaks to the fear that a historical artifact can be hidden in plain sight, obscured by the indifferentiable sea of entries that surround it (an idea that finds filmic expression in Citizen Kane, All the President’s Men, and Zodiac, among a host of other movies). Canons, whether personal (an informal list of movies you want to watch again) or institutional (the National Film Registry) are created in order to banish the thought of a lost film by drawing a permanent circle around what’s worth keeping. I’ve been thinking, however, about a number of film screenings I’ve attended in the past few years, and the cycle of loss and recovery as a value-making system. Continue reading “The Sea of Information” »

The Mediascape Roundtable: The Film Studies Canon and ‘Sight & Sound’

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. To discuss the film studies canon in relation to the 2012 poll, which was unveiled on August 1, the Mediascape Blog convened a roundtable of four film studies graduate students. Their conversation can be read or listened to below, or downloaded in MP3 format.


Click to download “TheMediascapeRoundtable_TheFilmStudiesCanonAndSight&Sound.mp3” (66 minutes, 90.4 MB)

Moderator: J.M. Olejarz

Mediascape Blog: Jimmy, why don’t you introduce yourself first, then we’ll go around the circle, so to speak.

Jimmy Gilmore: OK. I’m Jimmy, I’m just about to start the second year of the M.A. [in Cinema and Media Studies] at UCLA.

MB: Cliff?

Cliff Galiher: Am I next? I’m Cliff, I’m a first-year Ph.D. at USC, just finished up my Master’s [in Cinema and Media Studies] at UCLA.

MB: Eliot?

Eliot Bessette: My name’s Eliot Bessette, I’m a first-year Ph.D. student in Film and Media Studies at [UC] Berkeley, and before that I was in Cliff’s year in the M.A. program at UCLA.

Maya Smukler: Hi, I’m Maya, I got my Master’s and Ph.D. at UCLA in the critical studies department, and I’m two years [All But Dissertation]. And that’s it.

MB: I’m Josh [Olejarz], for those—well, I think you all know me, except for Maya. I’m a second-year Master’s [student] at UCLA, and I’ll be moderating tonight. Ready to get started, everybody? I was thinking to begin you could each, one at a time, say what your personal view of the canon is—what you think of it generally, general impressions, is it useful, is it not useful, and maybe we can get something going from that. Jimmy, do you want to start us off? Continue reading “The Mediascape Roundtable: The Film Studies Canon and ‘Sight & Sound’” »

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” »