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.


[audio:http://www.tft.ucla.edu/mediascape/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/TheMediascapeRoundtable_TheFilmStudiesCanonAndSight&Sound.mp3]

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?

JG: Sure. I think that the canon, in theory, is very useful for hierarching and organizing film history, and it especially probably was more useful in its first three decades, but I think as we’ve gone along its singular usefulness has deteriorated and stagnated. We’re at a point where we’re seeing a plurality of canons, which I think personally is more interesting to talk about than Sight & Sound as an individual codified thing.

MB: All right, whoever wants to jump in, feel free.

EB: I suppose I would want to distinguish between the Sight & Sound poll, which happens every 10 years—we’re going to discuss the 2012 version—and the capital-C canon of great films. I think the Sight & Sound poll is very interesting and pretty useful as the representation of the capital-C canon. The latter, I think, is of tremendous importance to common cultural ground and our understanding of the art of film and of ourselves. So I am a big supporter of the canon itself.

CG: For my part, I discovered cinema through institutional lists of films like the AFI 100 Years series, like the IMDb Top 250, like the Sight & Sound poll, and for a while there I made it my mission to try and see all of these films. I’ve gotten sidetracked by other film-viewing projects, but it’s definitely shaped my taste and sensibilities, so I think I’m joining the pro-canon core here.

MS: Hmm. I guess I think the canon and these lists are useful at some point. [They were useful] when I was first getting interested in film, just out of curiosity, just to see what gets ranked, and they are useful in the classroom as an exercise to use with students, but otherwise I rarely think about them at this point in my studies and in my scholarship. Especially the Sight & Sound canon, or the Sight & Sound list, it just seems wacky to me. I hadn’t thought about it in 10 years since the last list, and looking at it in preparation for this discussion it seemed bizarre to me. Which I guess in itself was a good exercise, but…

CG: What seemed bizarre? How did it clash with expectations or the way that you think of film history and tastes being laid out?

MS: There’s so many pieces to that. Being able to come up with your top X number of favorite films and ranking films just seems like an impossible thing. And then the politics of it: who’s on the list, and how many films by so-and-so are on the list, and who’s not on the list. What do you guys think? A couple of you have said that it was very important to you, so, important in what way?

JG: I think that what we’ve all said is that it functions as a gateway and introduction, and I think the question that we can ask as scholars who have taken our tastes beyond the Sight & Sound poll and beyond the established canon is: does the canon function as a suitable introduction? [Are] its inherent biases worthy of being biases? Or should we look at those as throwing up roadblocks to other, perhaps more important films?

MS: I wonder, an introduction in what way? An introduction to what the establishment, whoever that is—critics, famous directors, acknowledged directors—to what they think is most important? Or an introduction to critically thinking about somebody’s Top 10 or the greatest works of cinema art of all time?

CG: I have a sort-of response to that in mind, Jimmy, if you don’t mind me going ahead.

JG: Go ahead.

CG: To me, I think the canon is what people who have seen a lot of movies wish they could share with other people. And I guess I would put this kind of a critical canon in a dialectic with a market forces canon—what the studios want you to be watching, what is out there with a large amount of capital behind it being publicized—and a word-of-mouth canon—what your friends and family may recommend to you on a piecemeal basis. I definitely think of the role of a film critic as [being] “We see films so you don’t have to.” If you see hundreds of films in a year and you see a few that you really think would mean a lot to someone, I think that’s very much what this group of films can do to someone who’s encountering it for the first time, or who’s tracking down a film just because it made it into the Top 10 and they have not seen it by this point in their film-watching careers.

MB: Any other thoughts on that? Because that leads me into something else I wanted to talk about. If people are seeking out these movies because they’re in the canon specifically…the newest Sight & Sound poll, are those actually the 10 best movies of all time? And what does it even mean for a movie to be in that Top 10?

MS: Are you asking us if those are on our Top 10 lists?

MB: No, I mean if the idea of a canon, or one idea of a canon, is, I think Cliff said, people who have seen a lot of movies recommending certain movies—

CG: Banding together to have a sort of consensus endorsement of what films you should watch.

MB: Right. So is that different from a movie being artistically great? Does that affect what should be in the canon?

EB: The problem with talking about the criteria of films that are in the canon is that each individual voter will bring to bear his or her individual criteria. So the final product, the Sight & Sound poll as we see it, is this very strange manticore of a thing that doesn’t really have a clear artistic or aesthetic center. It has many centers of people with competing artistic ideals, so there’s no way to account for the Top 100 films by any one set of aesthetic criteria. So I’m not sure it makes that much sense to say that it accounts for the very best films. It seems like it’s, of its nature, pluralistic and accounting for multiple great films according to multiple systems of analysis.

CG: And [the British Film Institute, which runs the poll] encourages that sort of plurality. In their instructions to voters they said use whatever metrics to determine the 10 greatest films you deem appropriate, whether you think they’re the most historically significant, the most essential for people who want to study film, or the 10 that most influenced you and your artistic or critical personal tastes.

EB: Right, right.

JG: At the end of the day, all film and all film criticism is in part autobiographical. And what I think is great about the Sight & Sound website this year, this decade, is all 800-some lists can be viewed individually with a brief paragraph by each contributor so that you can get a window into the various angles and experiences that all these various filmmakers and critics are bringing to their lists. I, for one, think it’s fantastic that Zoolander is on two lists, because that opens a way for us to think about what do these Top 10 lists mean? How does Zoolander figure into these lists? Or how does Anchorman figure into one list like it does? I think those are important, not just for being contrarian, but for opening up their side dialogue.

CG: That’s why I find the Directors’ List, even though it receives much less emphasis than the Critics’ List, more interesting. To me [it’s] more fascinating that you see the kind of forces that are shaping the people who are making movies today, who have been making movies over the past century, especially some people who are reluctant to talk about their influences. You can take a look at the list and if you look at their Top 10 overall you see which artists have really had a mark, which really have a heritage that’s going to continue on into generations of filmmakers into the future.

MS: You’re talking about the directors who are on the list or the directors who voted?

CG: The directors who voted. They have a separate Top 10 list. Tokyo Story is their #1, which, I thought, of all the films I expected to eventually reach the #1 spot, that one surprised me. And take a look at the different directors who voted for it: sort of a spectrum of filmmakers worldwide. I thought that was very interesting.

MB: Can we jump into the actual Sight & Sound list and talk about the composition of the list, and the directors, and [how] there are no women [in the Top 10], [and how] there are maybe only four or five countries represented in [the Top 10] [Editors’ note: Arguable, depending how one considers films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Sunrise]. Any thoughts on that issue?

JG: Do we want to do the Critics’ or the Directors’ List right now?

MB: The Critics’ List. It’s a big topic, so anyone who wants to say anything on there…

MS: How different were the Top 10 between those two lists? There are a lot of crossovers, right? A lot of the same films?

EB: I thought they were fairly similar.

JG: There are five similarities between the two lists. So, half difference.

CG: One thing I noticed about the Directors’ List is—and this relates to the post I did on the Mediascape Blog [Editors’ note: Cliff wrote a blog post on the film studies canon shortly before the 2012 Sight & Sound poll was released]—they embrace films that, I would say, are comparatively recent: Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now are the #5 and #6 spots, and there are no silent films in the Top 10. Meanwhile, the Critics’ List has, I think, two silent films—[actually] three silent films—and no films after the 1960s.

JG: This is something that I wanted to talk about: The first time we get to a movie made from 2000 or later in the Critics’ List is a tie for #24, which is In the Mood for Love, and then Mulholland Dr. is at #28, and I think those are the only ones in the Top 50. And building off of what Cliff was talking about in his blog post, which I hope Mediascape can link to in this transcript because it’s a really great read [Editors’ note: See link above], is [that] in the beginning of the Sight & Sound list they were propping up pretty recent films: L’Avventura was #2 in the 1962 list and had been out for two years. In a way you can argue that the Sight & Sound list has lost that element of itself, in taking an exemplary contemporary film and propping it up alongside these more respected classical films.

MS: I’m surprised that people don’t change their minds, even about films in a certain generation that the people voting think, Well, actually I would like to vote for a different Fellini film instead of La Strada.

CG: Yeah, that surprised me, too.

MS: Don’t people’s tastes change? And it’s not to say that La Strada isn’t the greatest, but just to shake it up or just to—I mean, we’ll never know, we’re just speculating about how these people are voting, but just personally, don’t your own Top 10 lists change all the time?

JG: If you look at the votes received out of the 846 people, Vertigo, which is the #1 movie, only got 191 mentions, which is 23%. So you only need 23% of the vote to be the #1 greatest movie of all time, which is very odd.

CG: It’s also worth pointing out that Vertigo has climbed onto the list in the last three, I think, iterations, so it was not on the Top 10 twenty years after it was made. That’s definitely one that has risen in critical estimation.

EB: And there are some examples of films changing fairly quickly now in the critical consensus, even if individual critics’ choices aren’t changing. I’m thinking of Late Spring, which jumped rather high on the Critics’ List, at #15, and Mirror, which is #19 on the Critics’ and #9 on the Directors’. Both certainly got some votes in the poll of 10 years earlier, but those have made quite a surprising leap.

JG: My favorite out of the Top 10, my favorite that is a new inclusion in 2012, is Man with a Movie Camera, which has ostensibly switched places with Battleship Potemkin, and I would argue for the better, because there’s been a bevy of scholarship about that film and about [Dziga] Vertov that’s come out and made it a more interesting movie to talk about. And out of the silent movies, I think that really speaks to a current place that we’re looking back to, and scholarship in particular.

CG: I would agree. One thing that I do like about the 2012 version is—I hope it’s part of a future trend—more interest in documentary and animation and short films. This has traditionally been a bastion of feature-length traditional filmmaking, but La Jetée, the Chris Marker short film, made it in at #50—not terribly high, but you also have Un Chien Andalou in the Top 100 and you have animated films gaining a plurality of votes, and I’m not sure whether that has to do with the original core of voters that have been doing this for decades changing their minds as much as the inclusion of three times as many participants on the critics’ side, and I think twice as many participants on the directors’ side, providing a much wider range of perspectives.

EB: That’s interesting. I was expecting the wider net of people invited to vote to lead to a much more populist list, with selections like Gone With the Wind and Casablanca making much higher places, but instead we see Vertov and [Carl Theodor] Dreyer jumping up places, and a new [Yasujiro] Ozu, [Andrei] Tarkovsky re-appreciated, so it seems to have had maybe a slight effect in the opposite direction.

JG: Singin’ in the Rain, speaking of populist entries, was at #10 in 2002 and is now at #20, which is not a huge drop per se but I think does speak to this [idea] when you look at Mirror, Persona, and Au Hasard Balthazar being directly above Singin’ in the Rain, along with Seven Samurai.

MS: I’m also surprised, with how many people are voting on this, that this list still seems to stay pretty consistent, or that the changes are over such a long period of time. I think that’s shocking. Or maybe it’s not shocking—clearly it’s not, because it’s happening, but…

CG: It speaks to the politics of the selection process. I think a lot of first-time voters are probably taking some cues from versions of the list in the past, and there are plenty of people who feel it’s their duty, if they’re a film historian or a lover of silent cinema, to put a silent classic on the list, or to have a Hitchcock on there, regardless of whether it’s Vertigo or Psycho.

MS: I absolutely agree. I think people don’t feel like they can change the list, or they can’t say something different, and so what is that? What does that leave us with?

EB: Right. To the point of the ossification of the canon, someone had brought up earlier that in prior lists there was such excitement over very recent films—L’Avventura premiered at #2, Persona was #6 or something in the 1972 poll, I believe—but now we see not [only] an aging of the films but an unwillingness to put on anything in our lifetimes. And I think that has to do in large part with the maturation of the art of cinema, and at the same time a maturation of the discussion of cinema. Because imagine a list of greatest books, greatest novels. I wouldn’t imagine anyone to put on the most recent Jonathan Franzen work to a list of the 10 greatest novels of all time. We would expect to see the old, silvered classics of the late nineteenth century, the Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Dickens. And when film lists such as this begin to take on that appearance of looking back at the classics that have persevered, that indicates that people have begun treating film in a manner to which we have long become accustomed to treating novels and symphonic works and paintings and such.

CG: I agree, and I do think there is sort of a built-in lag as each decade goes on. If L’Avventura was a two-year-old film that made it to #2 in the 1962 poll, you have Persona, which I think was a six-year-old film, charting lower on the list in 1972, and then 2001: A Space Odyssey barely cracking the list in the 1992 poll, so Eliot’s point that the competition is thicker and tougher as the decades go by, and we do have a greater sense of the heritage of cinema, that’s definitely a valid point.

JG: Cinema has also become a serious field of academic study and research. When Sight & Sound first started doing [the poll], that was not the case, which I think goes hand in hand with respect given toward film as an art form. There’s more access to study it in that kind of environment that’s similar to the study of literature or great composers, something of that sort.

CG: True, though I did find that [of] the people who cast votes, very few of them were classified as academics—a lot more [were] film critics, and I take that to mean journalistic film critics, even ones who cut their teeth online, as bloggers or some such.

EB: But it’s increasingly the case, as Jimmy suggested, that these non-academic voters—the journalists, the programmers, even the directors—are learning about cinema in college courses. Whether in English departments or in film departments, they’re taking History of World Cinema or Intro to Film Theory and are getting exposed to Eisenstein, his films and his writing, and Vertov, his films and his writing, and so there’s more of a feedback loop when the academic types, such as ourselves, [are] getting to pass on our ideas of what is the greatest.

CG: True. Maya, I’m curious, if you’ve taught film courses, if you’ve taken any of these films and taught them, introduced them to a new audience.

MS: From what? From the Top 10 or from the Top 250? [Laughter]

CG: [Laughter] Chances are there are some in the Top 250, but say the Top 10, or maybe the Top 20, that particularly stand out.

MS: No, I haven’t. I haven’t. It’s a really good question. I teach at The New School, I teach online, living here in Los Angeles, and I teach lots of different classes and I don’t think I’ve ever taught any of these. But that doesn’t mean anything, because I’ve probably taught other films that I consider part of a canon, of an established canon, or the establishment’s canon. But I think…I don’t know, why are you asking me that?

CG: I’m just curious to see if these are the most teachable films. Kristen Thompson wrote a really interesting blog post on her and David Bordwell’s blog earlier this year about how she thinks How Green Was My Valley is a superior film to Citizen Kane. She talks about how part of the reason for Citizen Kane‘s popularity is it is a teachable film, it is a film that is easy for people to get their heads around. [That] could also be why it’s such a consensus favorite, that it’s a middlebrow film that’s not too difficult or too polarizing for people to palate.

MS: I think there are just so many teachable films, and clearly the 250 titles on this list show that. Actually, now that I think back and remember what’s on this list, in my American Film History class on regulation and controversial films I do teach Psycho with Texas Chainsaw Massacre together, and that works, so yes, I guess I’m representing the list. And it’s good. It’s a good pairing. And the students love it. How do you guys feel about how the canon has appeared in your education as a film student? Either as an undergrad or as a Master’s or Ph.D. student, how has it been used in your education?

CG: I’ve seen five of these films for classes, maybe not for the first time, but I’ve certainly seen clips or discussed scenes from the other five, and certainly if I haven’t seen Tokyo Story for a class, I’ve seen an Ozu film for a class. I do think there’s a little bit of slippage here between the Top 10 films and the filmmakers who made the Top 10 films. I think these films in many cases stand in for larger swaths of cinema that we’re supposed to be celebrating or studying or appreciating.

EB: I suppose the canon hasn’t figured very prominently in my formal education. Certainly the perennials like Citizen Kane and Battleship Potemkin, but by and large the classes seem to have gone their own way and pursued their own interests. Rather, I think the importance is outside of the classroom, that it’s an invitation to people to consider what we think is the best and the most beautiful, and for those people to look at and decide whether they agree with those assessments or not and why. I’m not sure that activity is best pursued in, say, a college course, which is more interested in a thematically grouped set of films, not in the unfettered pursuit of beauty, however wonderful that might be.

CG: I don’t think all these films are on here because of beauty, necessarily. I don’t think The Searchers is necessarily there because of that. I think The Searchers, if I can venture into the minds of some of the critics who put it on there, is there because it marks a very important moment in Hollywood history: it’s grappling with race and the deconstruction of the classical Hollywood narrative and hero, the myth of the Western hero. And I definitely do think that there are some films that are on here specifically for their aesthetic achievements, but you’re saying that you think these are masterpieces that should be contemplated individually on their own terms?

EB: No, I’m not sure I would say that, exactly. There should be some discussion, or certainly discussion would be furthering of one’s understanding of these films. It’s merely that I’m suggesting that the list as we have it, or the Top 40 films, might not all be very teachable, or might not all really belong in classroom discussion or benefit very much, but that doesn’t detract from their excellence. It just says something about the sorts of ends that typical introductory film studies classes have.

MS: What would make any of these films unteachable?

EB: Not that any of them are unteachable, I suppose—

MS: Or is there an example of one that stands out to you as unteachable?

EB: I’m thinking of films that maybe aren’t great illustrations of a body of theory or a specific technique. Certainly it’s easy enough to take Vertigo and pair it with Laura Mulvey and show that to intro film students and say, This is what a gaze is, look at that man gazing. Or you could show Eisenstein with Eisenstein’s writings. I don’t know that it would be that easy to show the Tarkovsky or Bresson, not because they’re any better or worse but because the topics they’re dealing with—Bresson’s desiccation of his actors—[don’t have] much to do with the academic discussion—college students’ discussion of film, I’ll say. There are things to be said there, but it’s a very grad student-y or professorial thing to say.

MB: Can I throw something in there? I remember as a freshman in college I was reading this random book I picked up in the library, sort of an idiot’s guide to film–type thing, and in the back of the book—it was [by] a film critic for a paper, if I recall right, I can’t remember who—he had this list of his 100 favorite films, and some of them were starred, maybe about 15, and I looked at the bottom of the page and next to the star it said that these are really tough films, whatever that means, [and] you should probably have a Ph.D. in Film Studies before attempting to understand them.

[Laughter]

MS: Do you remember what any of them were?

MB: I don’t, unfortunately, but Eliot’s comment made me think of that, of teachable films and grad students versus undergrads and so forth.

MS: I think you’re giving a lot of credit to grad students there. I took a Bresson class and I still don’t know how to explain what happened or what happened in that class [Laughter] or just studying those films. Maybe that’s just me.

CG: I think if we treat the voters as grad students, there does have to be a level of accessibility for a film to poll that many votes. You could have Last Year at Marienbad, and it is somewhere on this list, but not nearly as high because I don’t think as many people respond to it, or it doesn’t speak to them.

EB: Well, the presence of Béla Tarr and post-’68 Godard suggests that there is at least a cottage industry of people interested in exceptionally difficult films.

JG: I would say, beyond the inclusion of Béla Tarr, Jeanne Dielman, which is a very teachable film in a kind of grad student-y course film, but also a film like Shoah instead of, say, Schindler’s List in that spot, if we were to have a film about a similar topic. Again, kind of a base academic film, but also recognizing perhaps the historic importance of treating an issue in a particular way.

CG: Also, apart from maybe Shoah, I can think of a few films in the Top 100 that I would never see taught in a classroom, [for example] something like Laurence of Arabia because it is four hours long and doesn’t seem to speak to a larger trend in filmmaking. I do think that a lot of these films are personal, definitely when you get to the Directors’ List—they vote for far fewer old films and fewer new films than the critics do. They tend to cluster around, I would say, either films that inspired them to make films as children or as young filmmakers or film students, [or] the ones that they’ve modeled their own films on.

EB: I’m curious as to a film or two in the Top 50 or so that each of you would say is absolutely absurd, doesn’t belong anywhere near the head of a canon.

JG: That’s an interesting question.

MS: And here we’re talking just about the Critics’ Top 10?

EB: Critics’ Top 50 or so.

MS: Top 50, OK. Something we think is crazy.

CG: I think it’s really weird that Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma is in the Top 50. It seems like a cheat to vote for that, or a weird sort of statement to say, I want to vote for all of cinema in my Top 10. It seems like a weird move to me. And I’m also surprised to see a film like Sátántangó on the list, though I’m not offended by it.

EB: I just can’t stand L’Avventura, I’ve never been able to. [Laughter] I like [Michelangelo] Antonioni, actually—I think Blow-Up is great and L’eclisse is pretty good. I have no earthly idea why people have settled on that as his best. I find it endlessly tedious and I’d much rather read a one-sentence recapitulation of its themes of loss and forgetfulness and modernity than [watch] the film again.

MS: Looking at the Top 50, I don’t think any shock me or get on my nerves. It all seems to make sense because they’re with peers that seem matchable. But I guess what stands out to me is things that are missing that I think should be in the Top 50 that maybe appeared later on at #100 or something. Why isn’t—and then again, this is just personally what I’m into—why isn’t Preston Sturges, why isn’t The Lady Eve up there, why isn’t Howard Hawks, why isn’t [Ernst] Lubitsch, if we’re talking about from a classical period, etc. So, for me I see things that are missing rather than things I’m surprised by.

CG: Hawks is an interesting case. I was looking at the Top 250, which is as many as the Sight & Sound website ranks, and Hawks has six films in the Top 250, which is more than almost any other filmmaker, but his votes are spread out fairly—I wouldn’t say completely—evenly. No film has a majority. There is no Citizen Kane or Battleship Potemkin to galvanize everyone who wants to vote for a Hawks films. Instead, films from five different genres that he worked in are on there. And I think that’s pretty cool, even though, yeah, that does make him conspicuously absent at the top—

MS: But they’re so far down. It seemed like there were five Bresson films before any Hawks film showed up, which is just interesting.

CG: It’s true. And Bresson has the most of any filmmaker—Bresson and [Luis] Buñuel each have seven [films on the list]. But I would say if you were a filmmaker like—I think [Francis Ford] Coppola is immensely helped here by the fact that he made three or four films that people would consider among the greatest films ever made, and [he] has not released any other films that would really compete with himself [Laughter] since the 1970s. Hawks, on the other hand, or other filmmakers like even [Ingmar] Bergman—there are a lot of Bergman films that poll very well, but they seem to split the votes, and I think if you were to compile—and I don’t know if the site has done this—the filmmakers who get the most votes overall, both Hawks and Bergman would be further up there.

JG: To give my vote to “which film doesn’t belong,” I thought about this carefully, listening to you talk, [and] at the risk of making some enemies at UCLA, I think that Sunrise

[Laughter]

JG: I really like the film, I do, but it seems just so stratospherically high to me.

MS: Wait, what is it ranked? I’m looking for it.

JG: It’s #5.

MS: Oh, God.

[Laughter]

MS: How did I miss that? I’ve seen it so many times.

JG: I certainly understand and like its inclusion in a Top 50, but #5 just is a head-scratcher to me.

[Laughter]

JG: So, hopefully, something won’t happen to me in my sleep for saying—

MS: [Laughter] If it does, we’ll know why.

EB: That seems to be a beloved film that is also much un-beloved by film students, in my experience. I’ve talked with quite a few people who have expressed incredulity that it is one of the most-taught and highest-thought-of films, so I think you’re not alone in that regard.

JG: Well, I think it’s a very teachable film because it speaks to this moment of [films] right before sound, or [how] sound was starting to happen because [the movie has] a synched soundtrack, and where cinema was in 1927, since that was such a pivotal year and pivotal moment in Hollywood history, so I think it goes back [to that] these are very teachable films, for the large part, so that’s why—

MS: I think if you only had to see it once in film school, you would probably like it better. Probably having to see it so many times in a short period of time, and being forced to study it…

JG: Maybe in a few years I’ll want to put it on my own Sight & Sound ballot.

[Laughter]

MS: Maybe you will.

EB: We’ll have to check back in.

CG: I’d venture to say that it’s on there like Tokyo Story and Citizen Kane—[as movies] that represent an unadulterated artistic vision, a bold film that’s not quite like anything else that’s out there. And for people who get their fix from FW Murnau, they can’t get it from any other filmmaker, and Sunrise is the be-all and end-all film. Same thing for 2001: A Space Odyssey, for people who appreciate this radically different approach to narrative and visual storytelling, that’s probably a film that is head and shoulders above anything else that they would normally consider.

JG: That’s well said, because 2001 is that way for me, so I definitely see where you’re coming from.

CG: It would be interesting, I think, to have a separate list where people rate these films, where the voters rate these films, because I think some of these are very polarizing, [so it] would inspire really passionate responses. I’m curious, as far as head-scratchers, what people thought when they saw that Vertigo had become the #1 film, and what people that they talked to thought about when they heard that.

JG: I was happy that it had happened just for another movie to be there, because as much as I love Citizen Kane, and I do, 50 years for a something to be the #1 movie is a little much. So I like it for the sake of putting another film there. But I’ve also said, from other people that I’ve talked to about this, that you could substitute, just as easily, two or three other Hitchcock movies and be just as happy. So I think it probably speaks more to, at least from my end, the love that people have for Alfred Hitchcock perhaps more than the love that they have for Vertigo, and choosing that film as the one that we’ve coalesced around, pushing it to #1 over the past 30 years or so that it’s appeared on the poll.

EB: I think its abrupt fall from the very, very top of the firmament to one step below the top of the firmament—

CG: You’re talking about Kane here?

EB: About Kane. It’s a very good thing for us, we film people. It seemed a bit pathological, almost, that we were unable to get away from this one thing for so long, and I can’t imagine a comparable case in another medium. There’s no one novel that is the obvious choice of best of all time. Surely many people would support War and Peace or Crime and Punishment, but there’s no obvious consensus favorite. And that [Kane] dropped even one spot shows a healthiness and a liveliness to the ongoing discussion.

CG: I think that’s true. I’m surprised that Vertigo has become such a consensus favorite. A lot of the people I talk to who do not study film would have been less surprised if it would have been, say, Psycho than the fact that it turned out to be Vertigo. I know a lot of people in class who said, Yeah, I think that’s a good film, [but] there are maybe 100 films that I’d put in front of it. But I do think it’s interesting that that film resonates with so many people, and I wonder if it’s just because so many people see it as a metaphor for the art form that they love so much.

JG: If it’s that, then Rear Window is perhaps more overtly, but equally, a metaphor for the art form that they love.

EB: That’s a good example.

CG: Yeah, that’s a good point.

MS: I agree. I think Vertigo is great, I’m fine that it’s #1, but I am always surprised that it is so popular. And I’m always surprised that people would choose Jimmy Stewart over Cary Grant.

[Laughter]

MS: It just seems crazy. I think it’s a terrible thing to have to pick your favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, because there are so many, but North by Northwest should not be so low on the list, in my opinion.

[Laughter]

CG: I agree.

[Laughter]

MS: Purely based on Cary Grant versus Jimmy Stewart.

EB: I have to confess I’m a bit befuddled as to why people have so rallied behind Vertigo. Irrespective of my thoughts on the films, I understand why people like the films [on the Sight & Sound list] from Citizen Kane through, say, Late Spring, to take the rest of the Top 15, but I’m not sure what it is that has inspired people so much about Vertigo. The guesses that I have—that it’s one of Hitchcock’s artistically mature films, that it has very interesting gaze politics, it’s certainly a very layered work—don’t seem to add up to an explanation of consensus best film.

MS: I agree, I agree. I think Rear Window and Psycho have plenty of interesting gaze issues going on. Is it part of its re-release and preservation efforts that it’s just somehow on people’s minds because of that? I don’t know.

MB: Let me jump in for one second and ask this: Hypothetically, if Citizen Kane was somehow the best film of all time, it would make sense for it to stay at #1. Obviously that’s absurd because no one film could be that, so now that something has replaced it, are we going to see other films being #1 10 years from now, 20 years from now?

CG: I think there’s going to be a backlash against Vertigo. [Laughter] I really do, I think there are enough people who were surprised that this film was picked. And to me, I always felt like Citizen Kane just made more sense.

MS: Yeah.

CG: It seemed to encompass more aspects of what people love about film. It’s certainly a historical landmark, technologically extremely proficient, it’s fun—

EB: Yeah.

CG: I think it is a more populist choice than Vertigo is. I don’t know if this means Citizen Kane will make it back, but I do think part of what may have elevated Vertigo to #1 is that there were people who were disgruntled with Citizen Kane always being the #1 film, and they looked at the heir apparent, this film that was a few votes shy in the last poll. Again, I think it would be impossible to suss that out with a flood of newcomers who changed the dynamic of voting this time around.

EB: I think that’s right.

JG: This idea of rallying [behind] a film is interesting because Vertigo was poorly received, relatively, in 1958 and [then] turned around over time, made it onto the poll in—was it ’92 the first year that it was on? Or ’82?

CG: I think ’82.

JG: And then gradually rose to #1. So you have to wonder how many of the people still voting [for] it are doing it out of this sense of, We rescued this film from mediocrity and we restored it, and it is this great answer to what the greatest film of all time is. But I agree that you could easily substitute a number of Hitchcock’s films there and be just as happy, if not more so. So maybe it just speaks to Hitchcock. Who knows?

CG: I really do think that these films go through life cycles, and if it seems like this canon is never changing, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films started out in the Top 5 in both of the first two polls, and now they’re still respectably on the list—they’re both represented in the Top 50—but then you also have these films like The Bicycle Thief, which was #1—it’s now somewhere in the mid-30s. But you also have films that have definitely risen in estimation over time. I don’t think anyone was ready to call The Searchers a classic during the first few ballots in which it was eligible. I’m not sure that people would have put Apocalypse Now up there when it was first released and the years immediately following it. So I’m very curious to see which films will continue to rise—Apocalypse Now overtook the two Godfather films, and Taxi Driver charted very high, especially among the directors, so I’ll be interested to see if a [Martin] Scorsese film is one day considered the greatest ever made.

JG: An opposing hypothetical I could ask is that if we’d seen a film from the last five or six years [chart highly]—and two that come to mind are perhaps There Will Be Blood and The Tree of Life—let’s say one of those two films was #9 or #10. Would we consider that a good move for the canon? Maybe a little bit much? Would there have been backlash or praise? This is certainly hypothetical but ties in with the questions and the conversation that we’re having.

MB: Let me expand that a little, too: What will it take for something from the last 10 or 15 or 20 years to get into the Top 10 like this?

CG: I think [as a filmmaker] you have to do something profoundly different, you have to stake out a really unique artistic ground, and I think that’s getting increasingly difficult to do as more and more films and filmmaking styles have been tried.

MS: What do you think about Mulholland Dr. being #27? That seems pretty high up there for a movie that’s so contemporary, [and it’s by] an American director.

JG: I’m thrilled—I wish it were higher [Laughter] because I think that it’s good for the canon to introduce new films [and] have a debate about whether they deserve to be there, then maybe later on we’ll keep them or we’ll throw them out.

EB: Yeah, the rise of newer films revitalizes the discussion and it invites renewed comparison instead of people 50 years from now [still] talking about Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and Tokyo Story—the dialogue will be long exhausted. So there has to be, if we’re going to do this ranking game, there has to be some sort of movement to keep the discussion going, and that discussion is of vital importance to movies and to the humanities in general.

CG: So what films would people put up there if they could?

EB: Well, I think Jimmy is right on. There Will Be Blood [and] The Tree of Life would certainly be two of my top three of the last decade, and of several other people’s [top picks]. The other would be Inland Empire, which I’ve always thought is superior to Mulholland Dr.

JG: I would put Mulholland Dr. as my pick for post-millennial cinema, if I had to pick one. That might be it. I think it’s a good pick for a lot of reasons and could provoke a lot of discussions about the canon, outside of the fact that I just love it to death. But Inland Empire would certainly infuriate a lot of people if it made it onto the Top 50 or so.

EB: Which would be terrific [Laughter].

JG: Yes, exactly, get the conversation going.

CG: I’m just going to say I want Spirited Away, or some animated film, to make it higher up on this list.

JG: That would be great, for any animated film to be there, but Spirited Away would be a really good choice.

MS: OK, I hate to be the woman who has to say this, but what about the sexism of the list? [Laughter] And I want to know what you guys think, I don’t have an opinion.

EB: You’re just going to drop the bomb and not have an opinion? [Laughter]

MS: I don’t have an opinion. [Laughter] But actually it wasn’t even my original question. It was Mediascape’s question, so it’s not too much of a bomb, right?

JG: I think there are two important biases in the list. One is gender and one is more geographical, which is that the list skews to American cinema and to Western European cinema. That might speak to the dominance of those industries, the availability for them to be seen, but films from Eastern Europe—excluding Russia—films from Asia—excluding Japan—and films from South America are pretty much absent in this list, at least toward the top. I can’t remember how much is there toward the bottom. And then the issue of lack of female filmmakers.

MS: Especially American women, though.

JG: But I think that’s a systemic problem with the film industry’s history as a whole, that when you put this canon together it becomes glaringly apparent, that it has been a problem and continues to be a problem.

MS: But is that really true? If we’re saying that the canon and this list canon should include contemporary films, it’s still including films made by certain kinds of filmmakers. There are endless contemporary women filmmakers, international or from the United States, who could be on the list, but they’re just not.

CG: I think you’ve starting to see that. Beau Travail and The Gleaners [& I] are two relatively recent films by—admittedly non-American, but—female filmmakers. [Editors’ note: The Gleaners & I is not on the Directors’ List, though Beau Travail is on both the Critics’ and Directors’ Top 100.]

MS: Is The Gleaners on here? Oh, I didn’t see it, I just saw Cleo [from 5 to 7]

CG: It’s not in the Top 100 but it’s on the Critics’ List—

MS: The Top 1000? [Laughter]

CG: Yeah. And so is Cleo from 5 to 7. Actually, The Gleaners is on the Directors’ Top 100.

MS: Hmm, cool.

MB: Any other comments there?

EB: No, I’m just gonna let that one sit.

[Laughter]

CG: I will say that one place that we could look for optimism’s sake is [how] East Asian cinema—outside of the classic Japanese auteurs in the mid-[20th] century—has really been on the rise on this list. You’ve got two Edward Yang films in the Top 100, you’ve got Wong Kar-wai. I think that a group of films that really receive a good amount of critical attention like that can linger, [it] can grow. So hopefully the interest in filmmakers like Chantal Akerman, like Clair Denis, will help to canonize them as much as the century’s worth of filmmakers who have a head start on them.

MS: I think those two women are canonized. I think we can say that.

CG: What I should say is I hope they’ll continue to climb on the list in future versions.

EB: Yeah.

MB: All right. This has been a pretty free-flowing discussion, which is what I wanted, but anything else we should mention, any pet peeves before we close it out?

MS: Pet peeves? Hmm. [Laughter]

MB: Anything canon-related?

EB: I have one. It is more than fashionable now to disparage canons of all sorts on multicultural representational grounds or subjective artistic grounds or gerontic ossification grounds, but I’d like to re-state my support for the enterprise as a whole. That doesn’t mean I’m voicing support for every film on the list or every exclusion from the list, but I think this is a vitally important activity, and the discussion that we’ve been having about the discussion is a very important activity, and it’s one of the main engines for furthering thought about the art form, and I’m glad to have had the chance to do it.

JG: I agree 100%. I love doing lists and talking about lists, I always look forward to Top 10s of the year for the sake of having conversations like these, and I agree that it’s not good enough to be dismissive, that these are invitations to have conversations about what they represent and where that conversation can take us and what it means for the medium and the art form, and it’s good that we’re able to have conversations like these.

MS: I agree. I am so not into the list, but the list serves a purpose, but I also think we should always be working to make new lists.

CG: Maya, do you have any other ideas for how people would navigate the great films or discover them?

MS: It’s just [that] there are so many great films. I know that’s a cheesy, sentimental thing to say, but on one hand these kinds of lists and the canon make us aware of that. And again, this is why on one hand I’m really not interested in the canon, because it’s restrictive and it’s complicated and it’s political in a way that I find exhausting, but on the other hand the canon and the list and lists are very useful in the classroom. And I’m thinking as we’re instructors in the classroom you can use any kind of list in anything you’re teaching, in TV studies or in a specific genre [or] American film history, as a way to ask your students to consider the idea of a classic and different kinds of classics, because it’s a very understandable idea. Whether the films are teachable or difficult or whatever, it doesn’t matter—the idea of a list and canon is very understandable for everybody, I think, at an undergraduate level or a graduate level, and so that is where I think it’s most useful, to go into a classroom and ask your students, What did you think of this? And then it’s a way to either try and teach them about the classics or, hopefully, expand and get their input: You’ve had to watch Casablanca a million times, is there something that’s more interesting to you? Put it to your students. And I think my pet peeve is that Cary Grant…

JG: Maybe in a world of Netflix we can continue to expand, because if you tell them you like Tokyo Story, you’ll get four more recommendations.

[Laughter]

CG: Good point.

MS: That’s helpful. Yeah, because that is one of my concerns, that if we’re using this list as the greatest, then what if that’s all we knew? And we never could know anything else? So thank goodness for Netflix.

CG: True. That said, if there were 10 films going into the vault, I think you could do worse than these 10. And I’m always amazed at herding opinions—I can’t get five of my friends to have favorite movies in common, so I’m always encouraged when I see a film that’s able to unite so many different points of view. This is a positive list: you can only vote for a film, you can’t vote against, so I definitely think it’s interesting and inspiring to see that there are films that have stood the test of time. 80 years later, there are people who certainly didn’t see these films when they came out but are still willing to put them above everything else that they’ve seen.

MS: Wouldn’t you want to see that list of what people would vote against?

[Laughter]

CG: For my personal enjoyment, I certainly would.

MS: Yeah. Like The Leopard, I’d want to…

[Laughter]

MB: That would be some kind of anti-canon?

MS: [Laughter] No, I’d just want to know what people would vote against.

CG: Yeah.

MS: But yeah, I think there’s an anti-canon or there’s a list.

CG: I think there are films that many people think are overrated and there are films that everyone agrees are at least pretty good, and I think it’d be interesting to see what those were.

MS: Yeah.

EB: Maybe next time we can work out our anti-canon.

[Laughter]

CG: Oh, we should totally do that.

Special thanks to Maya Smukler, Eliot Bessette, Cliff Galiher, and James Gilmore for their participation.


Participant Bios and Personal Top 10s:

Maya Montañez Smukler is a doctoral candidate in the Cinema and Media Studies program at UCLA, where she is currently completing her dissertation, “Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors of the 1970s.” Since 2002 she has been a part-time faculty member of The New School’s Media and Film Studies Department, where she teaches online and on-site.

1. Moment by Moment (Wagner)
2. Tie: Bury Me an Angel (Peeters) and Mikey and Nicky (May)
3. Girlfriends (Weill)
4. A New Leaf (May)
5. Rabbit Test (Rivers)
6. The Working Girls (Rothman)
7. Old Boyfriends (Tewkesbury)
8. The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean (Compton)
9. First Love (Darling)
10. Chilly Scenes of Winter (Silver)

Eliot Bessette is a doctoral student in Film and Media Studies at Berkeley. He also holds degrees in film studies from the University of Chicago and UCLA. His research interests include horror cinema, the philosophy of film, and narratology. He is quite fond of list-making.

1. The Godfather (Coppola)
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
3. Citizen Kane (Welles)
4. The Tree of Life (Malick)
5. Star Wars (Lucas)
6. The Godfather: Part II (Coppola)
7. Napoleon (Gance)
8. Inland Empire (Lynch)
9. Schindler’s List (Spielberg)
10. Fanny and Alexander (Bergman)

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.

1. Spirited Away (Miyazaki)
2. Sunset Blvd. (Wilder)
3. Nashville (Altman)
4. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa)
5. Casablanca (Curtiz)
6. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda)
7. Citizen Kane (Welles)
8. The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh)
9. Apocalypse Now (Coppola)
10. Love Me Tonight (Mamoulian)

James Gilmore is currently an M.A. student in UCLA’s Cinema and Media Studies program. He received his B.A. in Film and Media Studies from the University of South Carolina. His research chiefly focuses on how films and other forms of media work to construct, critique, or challenge perceptions of the Nation. He also writes about genre, visual analysis, adaptation, and film history. You can follow his mostly sarcastic observations on Twitter @Jim_on_Film.

1. Psycho (Hitchcock)
2. Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone)
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
4. The Seventh Seal (Bergman)
5. La Dolce Vita (Fellini)
6. Chinatown (Polanski)
7. The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo)
8. Blade Runner (Scott)
9. Mulholland Dr. (Lynch)
10. Bonnie and Clyde (Penn)

 

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