Tuesday, September 1, 2009

On the value of lists

In a Salon column posted about a month or so ago, Andrew O'Hehir writes about a poll taken by Iain Stott of the cinema blog The One-Line Review. The poll asked a variety of film critics, historians, and bloggers (with the greatest number of participants coming from this last category, although I can't say how many of these also fit into the other two categories as well) to pick their "fifty greatest films." O'Hehir is at once surprised by the "flexibility and idiosyncrasy" of the list, but also begrudges it for same: taking to task, for example, the ranking of Annie Hall over the likes of Raging Bull, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Grand Illusion. (Whether or not listing a film like Annie Hall, which, to my mind, is already canonized - it has a BFI Film Classics volume dedicated to it, after all - is really a sign of "flexibility and idiosyncrasy" is another question entirely; perhaps if Crimes and Misdemeanors or Deconstructing Harry had made the final list I'd be more convinced). More interestingly, O'Hehir suggests that while the list leans too American (even the sole foreign choice in the top ten, Seven Samurai, is a heavily American-inflected choice, as O'Hehir points out) his main beef is not its tendency to skew close to home, but rather its exclusion of new films. The cinephiles taking this poll, O'Hehir suggests, are most comfortable with old favorites - suggesting that cinephilia itself, at least on the face of it, tends to repeat received knowledge rather than create knowledge anew. "In the bigger picture," O'Hehir writes, "over the last 20 years the tastes of critics and film buffs seem to have ossified around a central canon of classics that may shift position but don't change much. There are only four films on this entire list made since 1980, and only one made after 1990."

This sounds, on the face of it, a damning assessment of the usefulness of canons and lists as catalysts of debate (and maybe also, by extension, the usefulness of cinephilia). As O'Hehir's comments reflect (and many of the comments by readers of his column also bear out), despite its "flexibilities and idiosyncrasies," there's not much on this list that's going to spark debate or incite passion. Looks like a standard Film 101 course to me. Citizen Kane? Check. Vertigo? Check. The Godfather? Check. I admire all three of those films. And now excuse me while I fall asleep.

But O'Hehir's cutting-and-pasting of only the final results of Stott's poll into his own column is somewhat misleading. (There may be something else going on here, for a faint whiff of the professional film critic's antagonism towards the cinephiliac blogger can be detected in O'Hehir's piece. At one point, in cutting and pasting the final results of Stott's list, he suggests - absolving himself from all proofreading responsibilities, even though he's the only one in the room paid to do it - that Stott may have misspelled titles; at another he mentions that he was invited to take part in the poll, but that he "never got around" to it, a missed opportunity for the film critic to participate in, rather than hover above, an actual conversation about the value of movies). If you mosey on over to Stott's website itself, you'll see, arguably, something that contradicts O'Hehir's central claims. Stott writes that he wants a poll of "filmmakers, critics, bloggers, historians, and other assorted cinephiles, attempting, consensusly, to find the 50 Greatest Films." The very cautious tone of this sentence suggests that the "consensusly" designed list he's after is only an "attempt." And you realize this more concretely as you delve beyond the consensus and a little more deeply into the actual lists of the participants, which reveal not parochialism or myopia, but - beyond the films that everyone seems to consider valuable - a varied selection of films that might inform our understanding of theory and history, or at least the tastes of various audiences, in different ways: A.K. (Chris Marker, 1985), Brief Crossing (Catherine Breillat, 2001), Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968), The Butterfly Effect: Director's Cut (Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, 2004), Dracula (Terrence Fisher, 1958), Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987), Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895), Leon (Luc Besson, 1994), Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006), The Merchant of Four Seasons (Fassbinder, 1971), Suture (Scott MeGehee and David Siegel, 2003)....and so on. (And on. It's an incredibly varied list, remarkably unfiltered and un-unified, moreso than these few titles - which reflect only my own inkling of what might be idiosyncratic to a canon - let on). Of course some of these have already made an impact in film study (Lumiere, most obviously). But my only point is that there's more variety there than I think the apparent consensus suggests, and, pace O'Hehir, quite a few more contemporary films.

I don't think this means that critiquing the ossification apparent in the consensus - those films that bubble to the top through their sheer number of supporters - isn't important. There's a lot that's excluded there. But canons are always exclusive. You're going to miss a lot of cinema that you might really like if your focus is only on the canon itself, and not on the process of debating over the canon, which is the only aspect of canons, as far as I can tell, that's valuable (and this is probably the point of Stott's project, too). A surfeit of sociological issues may be involved in tastemaking, but ultimately, when anyone tells me a film is great, I prefer to take it initially not as a stab at ironic cleverness or pseudo-individuality, but as a potentially original expression of value that I need to take time to consider. The fact that someone can appreciate a great film around which a consensus has been built but also direct us to the potential value of a relatively marginal work that has yet to make its impact on the field is precisely the value of film criticism, or at least one of its values. It's that kind of approach that makes writing film criticism not theory, but the creation of propositional - pre-theoretical and pre-canonical - knowledge. (Even a new piece of criticism on an already "accepted" film like The Passion of Joan of Arc is fundamentally propositional. After all, such a piece is itself an implicit contribution to a debate that centers around the question, is this film still worth canonizing?, and it might flesh out the canon's structure with value it used not to have: hence the use of new readings and interpretations. The appearance of Passion in a canon is, in another words, not, by itself, interesting at this stage of film history, but the value that might be ascribed to the film as each successive generation of cinephiles debates the question of its ongoing inclusion is).

In other words, it interests me not so much that Citizen Kane is on this list (yet again), but that one of the people polled who loves Citizen Kane, like I do, also really loves Death Race 2000 (Paul Bartel, 1975). Now that's a double feature worth seeing, and a conversation worth having.


Four brief postscripts:

1) If the films of women directors, or films from the last twenty-five years, do not appear on the "consensus list" - as a few commentators on Iain's blog point out - I wonder what, exactly, this reveals. The lack of women or recent films on the consensus list does not necessarily tell us that the list-makers are sexist pigs or myopic parrots repeating what they have already been told; as the interesting and sometimes recent crop of films in the list above shows, the list-makers are not afraid of dipping their toes into debates about the value of contemporary cinema, and female filmmakers are represented. I prefer to think that the lack of consensus over these two subjects shows that those arguments about what matters now haven't quite ossified in the way that O'Hehir thinks they have. Because recent films and films by women do appear on several of the individual lists by participants, I prefer to think that the debate is alive and well. But perhaps I am being a bit too optimistic.

2) I contributed to Stott's lists. You can find my contribution here. (If I re-did that list today, at least a dozen or more titles would be different, which suggests, again, a lack of ossification - cinephilia is alive and well). When Iain sent me his invite to contribute to the list, he invited me to include more than fifty titles, writing the following: "A few people have struggled to select 50 films, some thinking that number to be too many, and others too few. I would be happy to accept any list between five and 100 titles; although, 50 would be the ideal." The fact that so many felt pigeonholed by the fifty-film limit only gives more support, I think, that film culture's ability to debate is as sharp as it ever was, its desire to point out the affects available away from the center as vibrant as ever, and that it is not willing to consign itself to clean, instrumental consensus.

3) Because of his emphasis on "cinephile" in his description of the project, and my own association of "cinephile" with passions for the margins as well as the center, I felt free not to treat my list of fifty films not as a sober list around which to create a Film Studies curriculum, but an autobiographically true list of films that I can remember seeing for the first time as if it were yesterday, and from which I have taken more than my share of "cinephiliac moments." This is why I had no compunction including certain directors twice, and excluding perhaps more important filmmakers like Antonioni, Murnau, Denis, Chaplin, Keaton, Wong Kar-Wai, Tavernier, and Fassbinder. I consider the excluded to be great directors, and I am conversant with their work. But unlike some of the commentators opining on the Salon page, I think it's wrong to assume that just because a director does not appear on a critic's top fifty list said critic is not aware of him or her - that's just the limit of lists.

4) Turns out Stott is following up the poll I've discussed above with another, the results of which will appear on his blog sometime next month, which asks participants to make a list of those films they feel have been undervalued by the traditional canon (and, presumably, the results of his first poll). This effort, coming on the heels of Stott's first poll, may actually be somewhat redundant, since the individual lists of participants in the original poll contains so much that implicitly suggests what was left out of the consensus. Nevertheless, it seems to further echo my own belief that film culture's interest in lists and consensus lies at the edges and the margins, rather than the center.


thingy said...

Maybe it's not ossification, but more of it's been done, and it's been done well.
But, about `Citizen Kane', please tell me, what is it that is so fascinating about that movie?
I have really tried to find something, anything, that I can take from it.
A film to me is meant to entertain, to make us think, to feel emotion.
The only emotion I get when watching Kane is boredom.
I know that if I don't get it now, the likelihood is, I may never get it, but in layman's terms, I'd really like to know what you see.

Steven Rybin said...

Hey thingy,

Your comment made me think of my first encounter with "Kane." It was on laserdisc, a few years before I would enroll in an academic Film Studies program. But I had already started reading and thinking about movies, so even then, I still had some sense that the movie was "important": its cultural significance loomed over my comparatively minor screening of the film (on my television nonetheless!) and because it was a film I was "supposed" to like, it was hard for me to develop a unique, idiosyncratic emotional attachment to it at all. On some level, it felt like work, an obligation.

As an undergrad I learned about what was striking in Kane's visuals (the importance of Toland's deep focus cinematography, the creative use of non-linear structure and editing by Welles) but in a way I just felt like I was learning terminology. I'm not sure it brought me any closer to the film.

Now, after several viewings (although none recently), I would say my emotional attachment to Kane, as a character, is the fact that he's an enigma: "Rosebud" is supposed to explain everything, but in the end it only opens up more questions. Kane's life feels tragic because he never asks himself those questions. He uses people, becomes larger than life, drifts farther away from his childhood, and loses grip of something very important to his humanity (whatever you think is signified by "Rosebud" is what that's supposed to be). The *viewer* is given a lot of visual keys to "unlock" the puzzle of Kane (even if the answer is ambiguous). But Kane himself never seems to get close to unlocking that puzzle. To me that's kind of tragic.

These comments aren't meant to deflect the very important point you're bringing up, i.e., that it's sometimes hard to develop an affection for movies we're "supposed" to like. (At least, that's how I'm reading what you wrote). I'd have to watch "Kane" again to know if what I've said above is really still moving to me, or if my connection to the world of the film is primarily intellectual and not emotional. Which would not mean it's not a successful film, but since emotions matter, it would make it somewhat less important to me personally.

thingy said...

Thank-you for responding.

I do think a big factor, as you said, was that it's a movie that has been touted as something so original, and thought provoking, it becomes a task to watch, and rather than me taking something from it, I'm looking for what others have found.
I'm really intrigued by filmmakers who see more than just a two hour fill, and the viewer has to find the message the writer or director intended.

On another note: C for the latest Harry?
I thought it was fantastic. Low-key, and I thought it concentrated on relationships, rather than visual trickery.
But I'm just an amateur movie goer. : )