Earlier this month, Sight & Sound released the results of its "Greatest Films" poll, in which critics collaboratively, although not necessarily deliberately, selected Vertigo as the best movie of all time, unseating Citizen Kane, which had earned the top spot for five consecutive (every-10-years) polls dating back to 1962. Now, as Scott Tobias of the A.V. Club put it, we have to "orbit around a different sun." At least, cinephiles do. It's questionable if the general public — in this country, anyway — is even aware of the Sight & Sound poll or ignored news of Vertigo's ascendance amidst headlines about the London Olympics, the presidential race, sporadic mass shootings and so on. That said, I'm not sure cinephiles should place much significance on the poll either, or that we do. After all, any universe in which Vertigo wasn't already a masterpiece, or in which Citizen Kane is ruled to be somehow less magnificent than it was in July, is a dark one, which is why it seems like overstatement to suggest that the cinematic stars have been realigned. Rather, the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, in which no movie more recent than 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey made the top 10, strikes me as little more than an unremarkable rearranging of the china cabinet — the same cherished cinematic heirlooms still in neat little rows, now with the saucers to the left of the teacups. No big deal.
In recent weeks, in the movie obsessed corners of the Twitter-blogosphere, or whatever we're calling it these days, there have been countless reactions to the Sight & Sound poll, which of course makes perfect sense, because the movie obsessed corners of the Twitter-blogosphere are made up of countless reactors — people like me, and (let's be honest about the readership of The Cooler here) probably you, who have opinions about cinema and yearn to share them, 140 characters at a time or in longer, rambling missives. From Peter Bogdanovich to Greg Ferrara, some have found the Sight & Sound poll "absurdly reductive" and "insulting" (I agree), while others like Jim Emerson and Matt Singer have been fascinated by the outliers (I am, too). And then there are all the "If I had a Sight & Sound ballot" pieces that have popped up all over the place, some of them boringly redundant (which doesn't make them insincere), others charmingly unpredictable. But this post isn't about any of that, at least not first and foremost. Because for all the problems and oddities that are inherent to an exercise in which 846 cinephiles from 73 countries are challenged to select just 10 great films each from the entire, ever-expanding cinema catalog, what bothers me isn't what the Sight & Sound list implies about cinema but what it suggests about cinephiles, me included.
If the latest top-10 is even remotely close to accurate, cinephiles have some serious explaining to do. Vertigo (No. 1), Citizen Kane (No. 2), 2001 (No. 6), The Searchers (No. 7) and 8 1/2 (No. 10) — these are great films that fittingly dominate the attention and enthusiasm of cinephiles. The other half of the list? Although Tokyo Story (No. 3) and Rules of the Game (No. 4) get name-dropped occasionally, I truly can't remember the last time I've come across a mere reference to, never mind a detailed appreciation of, Sunrise (No. 5), Man with a Movie Camera (No. 8) or Passion of Joan of Arc (No. 9). You can tell me that says more about me than about the movies, and to a degree you're right. I have many blind spots as a movie lover, and pictures from the 1920s, not to mention major swaths of foreign cinema, are certainly hiding in that darkness, waiting for me to come around with my headlamp to discover for myself the too many cinematic treasures that until now I've only read about. I don't have an aversion to these pictures, let me be clear, but I'm also not a member of the Dziga Vertov fan club (assuming there is one), nor do I spend my reading time perusing message boards related to silent film (although maybe I should). Still, this can't only be about me, can it? Recognizing that Sight & Sound doesn't weight its poll but simply tallies the number of times a film is listed, doesn't it seem impossible that almost half of the 10 movies that received more votes than any others spend nine of every 10 years in near anonymity, spared from the intense analysis and unfettered praise that gets heaped on so many of the other movies in the top 250 (and out of it) with irrepressible regularity?
In 1952, when the Sight & Sound poll debuted, this kind of thing could all be explained away. There were fewer voters then and, even more significant, fewer forums in which to champion great films, especially great films of generations past. But that's not an issue anymore. Not at all. We're sneaking up on a full decade dominated by a blogging/social-media boom. Unless you're one of the few print writers still out there, there's no strict limit on essay length anymore, nor a cap on the number of pieces one can write. Not to mention, even critics who do write for print publications often have a blog, too, in which they can be let off the leash to run free. Simply put, technology has enabled nearly anyone on the planet to champion whatever film they want, at whatever length they want, however often they want. It's also given us the ability to access almost any movie we want, instantly on demand, or, at worst, after a short delay while a DVD is shipped from your nearest Netflix facility. Meanwhile, YouTube is full of cinema — from classic clips to mashups to video essays. How is it possible that in an environment such as this the apparent widespread love of Man with a Movie Camera (to pick just one) is so closeted? (Are all 846 participants hanging out in a private chat room?) If the adoration is true — and, yes, I have my doubts — what will it take to get cinephiles to demonstrate it willingly, instinctively and compellingly in public? You'd think it would be easy.
Let me pause now and recognize that not everyone who participated in the Sight & Sound poll approached it from the same angle. If there's one thing Sight & Sound does right it's to leave the definition of "greatest" open to interpretation. "You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema," the Sight & Sound invitation letter states. But since I'm already up on this soapbox, let me rise up on my tippy-toes to state what I hope would be obvious: ranking greatness is hard, but recognizing it, if you have just a shred of self-confidence, is absurdly simple.
A great movie is one that as you're watching it, and after, makes you think, "This is fucking great!"
That's it. That's the criterion. (Singular, please note.) Aesthetically, a great movie can have the surgical precision of The Shining or the handheld sloppiness of The Blair Witch Project. Thematically, it can be as depressing as Woman Under the Influence or as joyous as Raiders of the Lost Ark. It can be as laborious as something by Tarkovsky or as lively as something by Michael Bay. It can be as long as Shoah or short as something by Stan Brakhage. And so on. All that matters is that you think it's fucking great (not necessarily the first time you see it, but eventually and repeatedly over time), and, especially if you're a critic, that you can articulate why without simply describing what happens.
It's impossible to ignore that the Sight & Sound top 250 is dominated by films that, relative to the whole, are older and darker, more ambiguous and ponderous, less mainstream or funny. Even Vertigo, so well known, so adored, so colorfully composed, exemplifies that trend when we consider it against Alfred Hitchcock's other works. As Tom Shone wrote, "Vertigo has always struck me as the Hitchcock film for those who don't really like Hitchcock all that much (it's long, hasn't got much in the way of jokes and the plot doesn't work, when he is known for his economy, wit and storytelling), or at least wish very much that he had been French." Wouldn't you know it, many of the more recent films to crack the top 250 go along with the trend: The Tree of Life, Cache (Hidden), The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, There Will Be Blood, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Melancholia. (A major exception: WALL-E. Then again, that charming animated flick begins with a long dialogue-free sequence that predicts mankind's almost total annihilation of the environment; it's also the only Disney movie to be recognized. So maybe it isn't much of an outlier after all.)
Just like the high school quarterback can show up at prom with a long-legged, flat-stomached, big-breasted date without any of his buddies bothering to ask if he actually likes spending time with the gal, when it comes to ranking great films there's no safer approach for critics than to keep the list grim and/or challenging and/or pre-1977 and/or non-American. That's probably always been true, but each time a new Sight & Sound list comes out looking like this one, the trend gets another big breath of life. Meanwhile, critics seem pressured to show diversity in their favorites, as if it's unthinkable to suggest that the same guy who made the best film of all time might also have made the second- and third-best. Thus, the Sight & Sound list feels less like a trip around the world — messy and sprawling and organically diverse — than like a vacation at Epcot, where everyone pretends to love all cultures equally.
The idea, many argue, is that critics are being responsible preservationists, protecting great movies from around the world and across eras for future generations. But that ignores that these films are already preserved: in previous Sight & Sound surveys, among other tributes. If at this point all we're doing is dusting off the various wonders of the cinematic world and patting ourselves on the back for remembering that they exist, why not lock down this list and start building a new one, letting the collection of great movies grow along with cinema itself? Because as it is now, we are creating slaves to the groupthink of the past — not prescribing which films new movie-lovers should watch so much as telling them which movies they should love. Big difference.
This will seem like an extremely odd tangent, but bear with me: Last week former Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski's Joe Paterno biography was released. I haven't read it, but I have no doubt that it's written with the greatest attempt at sincerity. (If you've ever read Posnanski, you don't doubt that either.) I'm equally confident that the book is inescapably flawed. When Posnanski started his project, he was telling the story of one of the great icons of character in college sports. Accordingly, the book was planned for release around Father's Day. Posnanski hadn't written a word, hadn't really made use of his exclusive access to the Paterno family, but already both the author and publisher were fairly confident what the story would be. Posnanski would find minor flaws in the man, sure, but mostly he'd find greatness, because that's exactly what decades worth of legend building had conditioned Posnanski to see. Posnanski wasn't wearing rose-colored glasses so much as the legend of Joe Paterno had created a rosy aura around the coach. Paterno's character and greatness were irreproachable, at least where it counted.
While Posnanski was writing his book, the Jerry Sandusky scandal became public, and in turn the disguise was pulled from Paterno, and suddenly this great saint looked to most people like a nefarious demon. All it took was the most disgusting crime in the history of college athletics. The point here isn't that Posnanski's original perception of Paterno was entirely wrong. Humanity is complex, and I bet Posnanski, like many of us, is still wrestling with the reality that the same guy who ignored heinous crimes against children also had a positive impact on the lives of many young men. The point is this: Paterno had reached a place that his greatness was no longer questioned, and that led people to willingly overlook some of the smaller flaws that, who knows, just might have helped point the way to a deeper, darker truth, if only someone was willing to follow the trail.
You see where I'm going with this, and it's an extreme and imperfect comparison. I admit that. Movies and people aren't the same, nor are their "crimes." Still, there's a similar danger in deciding you'll find greatness before you discover it, and cinephiles (by which I mean movie fanboys and fangirls, because that's what we are, whether we kneel in awe of Nolan or Kiarostami) fall into that trap all too often — especially the young ones most likely to place too much stock in the Sight & Sound list.
If this seems like a rejection of Sight & Sound poll, well, it is to a degree. But the poll isn't the real problem. The problem is us. Cinephiles. All it takes to correct the poll, to correct cinephelia as a whole, is a willingness to operate from a place of absolute personal honesty. We need to open ourselves up to the possibility that what other cinephiles deemed great in 1952 doesn't look so great to us 60 years later, or as great as what has come after it (and the reverse, too, of course). We need to ditch this notion of over-praising movies we "respect," which is almost always code for "I didn't like it as much as I think I'm supposed to, but I'm not about to look like an idiot by saying so," and let our heart and our gut guide us. Too many cinephiles that I know feel passionately about too many recent movies, funny movies and completely accessible movies to make me think that the Sight & Sound list is the best reflection of which movies cause even the nerdiest of film nerds to exclaim, "This is fucking great!" And if I'm wrong about that, we cinephiles have only ourselves to blame, because then it's clear we're spending far too much time talking about all the wrong movies. (It would help dramatically if we waited to talk about films until after they were released, but that's another rant for another day.)
It's only fair to note that while I didn't have an official ballot (nor do I deserve one), I declined an invitation to submit my own top 10 for a collection of pieces at The House Next Door. I wasn't protesting the whole Sight & Sound-inspired exercise. I was simply preserving my sanity. Ask me to name the 10 greatest films I've ever seen and I'm going to quickly say something like, Rear Window, Sunset Blvd, Chinatown, The Graduate, Star Wars ... and then before I can say On the Waterfront, or name a single movie by Terrence Malick or David Lean, I'm going to realize I've already filled half my list and neglected too many other movies that mean so much to me, that are fucking great on so many levels, and that's going to make me feel stressed and depressed, and where's the fun in that? Of all the lists I've read, my two favorites are by two of the most heartfelt cinephiles out there, Steven Boone, who recognized the impossibility of selecting from the entire film catalog and thus created his own little angle of approach and went with it, and Kevin Olson, who realized that the only way to do it right was to do it from the heart.
I admire the people who had the balls to put their name on a top-10 list, especially those who felt they were making picks that opened themselves up to criticism from the rest of the movie-obsessed masses (you know, like when Michael Mann put Avatar and Biutiful on his top 10 and folks leaped at the chance to call him crazy or use his picks as evidence that he's overrated as a filmmaker, or similar hogwash). Quentin Tarantino's list of 12(?!) included The Great Escape, and as much as that movie means to me (um, hello!), would I have listed it in my top 10? I'd like to think so, but probably not. The pressures of groupthink are difficult to overcome, even when you're fully aware of them.
It's not that I doubt the sincerity of any of the official Sight & Sound ballots, or the unofficial ones that, coincidently or not, happen to mirror the results of the accessibility-averse voting consensus. Nor am I concerned that the films on the top 10, or even the top 250, are unworthy of praise. Indeed, all of those films are worth watching and grappling with, ideally with our minds open to the possibility that they aren't great anymore, if they ever were, rather than lining up for a prescribed opinion. No, what's wrong with this picture is that the Sight & Sound top 10 makes it clear that too many of us feel guilty about what truly gives us pleasure or remain tightlipped about the greatest movies we've ever seen. Either way, we lose.
As always, there are exceptions. Heck, The House Next Door wouldn't exist if not for Matt Zoller Seitz's need to write about The New World. And then there's Farran Nehme Smith, who constantly spreads her love for those classic black-and-whites, without ignoring the contemporary. And there's Sheila O'Malley, who, if you haven't noticed, thinks that Elvis Presley is worth paying attention to and isn't afraid to show it. And so on, including so many other cinephiles — me included in this, too — who every now and then are bold enough to create a new conversation around our favorite films when one doesn't already exist. On the whole, though, if the Sight & Sound list is an accurate indication of the movies we find fucking great, we're failing as ambassadors for cinema. And if it's inaccurate, we're failing, too.
It's clear what we have to do. The way to protect and promote cinematic greatness isn't to fill out impossibly incomplete eclectic lists every few years. It's to shout about the movies that move us from the highest mountaintops — regularly and repeatedly. Or, you know, at least name-drop them in our Twitter feeds once in a while.
It's the act of championing movies instinctively and passionately that illuminates true greatness.
Addendum: Although many have responded to this piece in the spirit in which it's intended, I've received messages from several folks who feel I'm taking a shot at silent cinema and/or doubting that anyone could possibly love Man with a Movie Camera.
That's not my intent. My intent is to urge cinephiles to passionately advocate for the films they find great -- whatever they are -- with great regularity and persistence. My argument is that the movies that you do advocate for are probably the movies you truly consider to be "great."
I tried to insert enough clarifying language in this piece to make these things clear, but maybe I wasn't clear enough, or maybe some silent movie lovers are naturally suspicious of the motives of a guy who admits he hasn't seen enough silent movies (I can get that).
So, if you've arrived at the piece upset, I ask that you read it again, with all of the above in mind. And if you again reach the end of the piece and think I'm an ignorant silent-movie-bashing asshole, by all means, please articulate as much. Or tear me down for anything else, for that matter.
I welcome the dialogue. That's what this piece is about.
Some of us do write about these late, great films, and at some length.
Man with a Movie Camera: http://djardine.blogspot.ca/2010/01/man-with-movie-camera-1928-russia.html
The Passion of Joan of Arc:
2001: A Space Odyssey:
We can write 'em, but we can't force people to read 'em. Or watch 'em, for that matter.
blue velvet is the greatest movie of all time. last picture show is second.
All well and good, but more often than not, most people seem to ignore me rather than heed my advice.
I did submit a list of Top Ten Thai movies for a new book titled Southeast Asian Cinema. As I wrote about Thai films during the first ten years of this century, my list was limited to that period. I might be considered heretical as not one film on my list was by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
On the other hand, Dziga Vertov rocks!
"Some of us do write about these late, great films, and at some length."
Dan: Absolutely! And I have, too. And it's about more than just writing (although that's a great way to do it, no doubt).
Believe me, I, as much as anyone, need to do a better job of sharing my passion for my favorite films.
We can't make 'em watch (or read), no. But it's worth the try.
"On the other hand, Dziga Vertov rocks!"
Preach, Peter! Preach!
I think trusting pleasure as the sole arbiter of merit is a bit naive. It is not an unalloyed good; pleasure can stem from dark places as well as light. How much of my adoration for Davids Lynch and Cronenberg, the pleasure I draw from their movies, grows out of simple, lazy superiority, the sense that I "get it" and others do not? I'd like to think none, but if as fine a critic as J. Hoberman can succumb (encouraging 1991 audiences to see Naked Lunch in a mall because "it's funnier") who am I to deny it? Why are so many positive notices on Cosmopolis taking notice on walkouts?
Plenty of critics will talk of their need to interrogate their negative reactions, to learn why a movie struck them so strongly. But any conman will tell you the way to hit up a mark is to flatter his self-image; if a film has flattered our (our, not some imagined Mr. Etermon sitting two rows over) image, all the more reason to be skeptical at first.
We are moody and hypocritical and capricious about most things, why not the movies we love?
"I'm also not a member of the Dziga Vertov fan club (assuming there is one)"
Godard, Gorin, and Mielville all still around.
The greatest film of all time is Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train
You can tell me that says more about me than about the movies, and to a degree you're right. I have many blind spots as a movie lover, and pictures from the 1920s, not to mention major swaths of foreign cinema, are certainly hiding in that darkness, waiting for me to come around with my headlamp to discover for myself the too many cinematic treasures that until now I've only read about. I don't have an aversion to these pictures, let me be clear, but I'm also not a member of the Dziga Vertov fan club (assuming there is one), nor do I spend my reading time perusing message boards related to silent film (although maybe I should).
I appreciate your addendum, Jason, but I don't see the big stink about your piece considering you address some of the issues people seem to be having in the above paragraph. Not to take focus away from your essay, but your sentiment here is exactly what I was trying to get across from the initial paragraph of my own piece on this subject. I don't begrudge other lists (why would I?), but I can only share with everyone what genuinely reflects me. I have so much yet to learn about film (like you, I have many blind spots when it comes to foreign and silent cinema). My list reflects how I feel now, and that's all I can report on. Not what I think should be on the list because it's what I'm supposed to think should be on such a list. Does that make sense?
Anyway, not sure where some of the criticisms are coming from because I think you lay out your reasoning well with the above paragraph.
Now, I'm glad you mention Michael Mann's list as it caught my eye, too (as did the backlash against his list), and encapsulates why I think these lists are so much fun and valuable: variety. Variety is what I look for in these lists/polls. I know about Bresson, Ozu, Hitch, Coppola, Godard, et al. It doesn't mean I get pissed if someone throws them on their list, but I get nothing from those kinds of lists; they do nothing for me and fail to introduce me to something that I wouldn't have been aware of prior to such a list being made.
Sight and Sound's top 10 rarely jars me to the point where I say, "whoa, I must see that!" That's why I like Mann's list. I would have never considered spending time watching Biutiful...now, I want to see it. Those are the lists that I gravitate towards more and (this is pure speculation, of course) feel most genuine to me.
I don't where this fits, but it popped into my head when I was reading this: Scorsese's seminar on American film that he did in the mid-90s is some of the most heartfelt championing of cinema I've ever seen. I look for that spirit in these types of lists. Sure, he mentions Welles and Hitch and the silents -- it is because of this documentary that I sought out von Stroheim and Murnau and Lang when I was in high school -- as well as several old-Hollywood stallwarts like Minelli and some not-so-mainstream films and filmmakers, but the point is that it all felt real.
So, of course, no one should ever doubt the authenticity of one's list, but I'm with you, if one of my friends claims Rules of the Game TRULY is one of their favorite movies, but never talks about it, I would think that a little strange. Why wouldn't they constantly be using it as a reference point...
I hope I'm not misreading/misunderstanding your point too much. I have more to say about your piece, but I feel like I'm getting off course here. So I'll stop and return to this later. Great conversation starter, Jason!
If you can't remember the last time you came across a detailed appreciation of Sunrise, please check out my TCM Essentials post for it (you have to click on all the top tabs for the whole post - 'Why it's Essential' 'The Big Idea' 'Behind the Camera' etc). I was honored when I was asked to put that together for this season's Essentials due to my past preaching on the film as well as posts on that other silent masterpiece of the same period, The Crowd.
I think the points about the poll are well-intended and mostly true so don't be bothered by being misunderstood, it happens all the time. I'm agreement with you on most of this and with Peter Bogdanovich on all of it. I have preached, far and wide, for years now that asking a cinephile to submit a list of less than 250 movies is ridiculous and stifling to the process and Bogdanovich backs me up with his dilemma. There should be no universe in existence where one has to choose between Kane, Ambersons or Touch of Evil because to pick all three would mean only seven spots left for everything else! You should be able to pick all three, plus most all of Ford and Renoir and still have multiple slots left for so many other choices including movies made right up to last year, like Tree of Life and Melancholia. I've even written Sight and Sound about it, going back to 2007 and have never gotten a response. I am fairly confident at this point that I will never receive an invitation to vote. Hell, they probably have me on some kind of 'block' list.
I maintain, as does Bogdanovich, that it's impossible to do a sincere top ten list. Every list submitted comes with a caveat of leaving something or other off to make room for something else in the form of an evil bargain. That the voters are sincere in their belief that the films they chose are great I have no doubt. The impossibility has been foisted on them by Sight and Sound and they have done the best they could. But it's absurd.
Last year, Sam Juliano of Wonders in the Dark, hosted a Best Musicals of All Time list in which several of us were asked to vote. To make sure the list would be inclusive and no one would be forced to make ludicrous choices like On the Town over Anchors Aweigh or Top Hat over Swing Time, we were asked to submit a list of 75. At first I thought I might have trouble coming up with 75 musicals until I realizes quite quickly that, nope, it was a piece of cake. I felt there were some movies, at the tail end, that I would have liked to include but 75 was a large enough number to give me confidence that my list was as good as I could get it. I really didn't need any more room and I wasn't forced into making absurd choices. I don't know why Sight and Sound doesn't do the same thing and I have no freaking clue why so many give in and don't protest the limit of ten.
"I think trusting pleasure as the sole arbiter of merit is a bit naive."
Bruce: Great thoughts! I can't remember if I used the word "pleasure" above (I'll have to go back and look), but I'm not thinking about "pleasure" so much as about excitement, passion, enthusiasm.
Maybe that all sounds the same to you. To me, I look at it this way: Movies can move us for ANY reason. We can be moved personally in the present by the message of the film -- if we're the kind of person to be moved by that. We can be moved because of a film's formal construction -- if we're the kind of person to be moved by that. We can be moved by our appreciation of what the film meant in its time -- if we're the kind of person to be moved by that.
The bottom line is that we're moved, and that we're honest with ourselves about why, and that we advocate for the films that move us with the same level of honesty.
So if Lynch movies make you feel superior, then that's your honest reaction, and your advocacy of the film should state as much. And that's a bold thing. Not many people are honest enough to say out loud (or maybe even in their own head) that they like a movie because it makes them feel superior.
Because if we're not evaluating films based on what moves us, well, what we are we evaluating them on? (Honest question.)
P.S. In case it wasn't clear, my "Dziga Vertov fan club" remark wasn't meant in opposition; in that context, I was making it clear that I'm not in any tight-knit social circles that might spend an awful lot of time talking about Dziga Vertov, although I'm sure they exist.
"So, of course, no one should ever doubt the authenticity of one's list, but I'm with you, if one of my friends claims Rules of the Game TRULY is one of their favorite movies, but never talks about it, I would think that a little strange. Why wouldn't they constantly be using it as a reference point..."
Kevin: That's EXACTLY what I'm talking about. Based on comments here, on Twitter and via e-mail, I can't tell how many people recognize that and how many people are getting hung up on the examples I used -- which were simply meant to illustrate a larger point, not to be referendums on those specific films.
There's nothing wrong, nothing, with thinking RULES OF THE GAME is the best film of all time. Or, to use a movie that DOES get referenced ALL THE TIME, that CITIZEN KANE is. I mean, these movies don't rise up to the top of these lists without moving a significant number of people. This isn't some widespread conspiracy to con the world into CITIZEN KANE's greatness. (OR is it!?!? That's a joke, people!) Still, today, someone can watch CITIZEN KANE for the first time and say, man, there's no greater film, and that enthusiasm can be a combination of reflexive emotional response and heartfelt appreciation (potentially equally emotional) over what it meant to make CITIZEN KANE in the early 1940s. I don't doubt that at all.
What would befuddle me would be someone having that reaction and then rarely finding an excuse to discuss and advocate for CITIZEN KANE.
As I've said above and elsewhere: I'm guilty here, too. Not to make this all about written advocacy, but there are too many films that I love too much that I don't advocate for nearly enough. This is a call to action to do that. That's the intent. If we love these movies that much, we owe it to them. Simply putting their name on a list isn't enough.
Greg: It's funny ... I've now received about eight links to appreciations of SUNRISE. And I appreciate them all. Of course, I think the larger point holds true (and I'm not saying you don't see it, but I'm going to restate it anyway): For a film that's so highly regarded by so many people, it should be on the tip of our tongues more often than it is.
My piece is a call to action amongst cinephiles, the 1-percenters, or those just outside of that, who DEEPLY care about movies. That said, I don't want this next point to distract from that, but I'm going here anyway: You would think that most better-than-average movie fans (the kind of people who watch more than just the Oscar nominees but aren't quite obsessive about it) would have at least heard of all of the top 10 films, right? Or at least eight of 10? Not because that's an indication of how great those films are, but because the greatness of those films should inspire cinema's ambassadors (us) to ensure that people know about these movies. That's what I'm after. I'm after advocating for what moves us so that it spreads in a way far more meaningful than pinning it to some specimen board.
Your specific SUNRISE piece, and so many other things you've written, at Cinema Styles and elsewhere, are an example of what I'm talking about: advocating for what moves you (your series on old-school special effects comes to mind), and not settling for listing a movie in an all too limiting poll.
It's a bit funny to me that some have assumed that I'm against silent pictures, and want them off the list, because while I do make the point that modern cinema seems a bit under-represented, it's also true that over time many of these more recent releases will be impossible to ignore, and what will fall off the list? Well, it could very well be a lot of silents.
In my mind, let's lock this list down, so that people are encouraged to go back to lists of years past, rather than using the most recent list as the 'best list,' which seems to be the implication now.
Similar to your suggestion, it wouldn't hurt to do a long best-of lists from each decade, which would provide plenty of room to recognize achievements of each era without being forced to make sloppy comparisons for the purposes of ranking movies across time.
But, again, I'm less concerned with reforming Sight & Sound than in encouraging cinephiles to open up more often about the movies that move them, whatever they are, for whatever reason.
Great article, man! Can't tell you how many times I've had this conversation (less eloquently stated on my part) with friends about movies and music.
The "Rules of the Game" Netflix DVD has been in my computer for over a week, because I just can't get through it, I keep getting distracted, etc. I rented it because I felt like I "HAD" to see it, kind of like I "HAVE" to have The Beach Boys "Pet Sounds" in my record collection (which of course, I do, because it one of the top 10 albums ever made!). But ultimately this film never grabbed me and I'm sure I'll never watch it again.
I've always kind of guiltily thought while reading through Sight & Sound type lists that my own list wouldn't be quite as reverent to the obvious landmarks of film history. Yeah, I think "Citizen Kane" is awesome, for example (I own the DVD, even, and I don't own that many), but there's no way it excites me more than 100 other favorite films of mine, most of which are less esteemed. For instance, since I first saw it as a teen, I've always ranked "Trainspotting" up real high, personally. But if I were suddenly in a room with a bunch of insanely smart, well-versed film critics, I'd probably shy away from mentioning it.
The other night listening to records with a couple fellow music dorks, we all kind of laughed about how we all have The Beatles "Abbey Road" in our collections but rarely pull it out. Almost as if you can't be a TRUE music lover without owning that one. But how often do we listen to it? It's obviously one of the best albums ever made, but it sort of has the "Citizen Kane" effect for me at this point; I'm tired of it. I might even be over it. Which seems unfair in a way.
Maybe it comes down to ranking the Top Ten Movies (or albums) of All Time vs. somebody's Top Ten FAVORITE Movies of All Time. I might put "Abbey Road" on the top ten albums ever made list, but it certainly wouldn't make my personal top ten favorite albums list.
And then there's the messy territory of "if something sounds or looks or tastes great to ME, then that means it's great" discussion. Can't tell you how many times I've had people tell me "Well, (some terrible $3.00 bottle of wine) tastes good to ME, so that means it's good wine!" But if the person buying the poorly made $3.00 wine has never even TASTED actual great wine, then it's hard to fault them, even though on some levels they don't seem qualified to have opinions about wine. It reminds me of Ebert's infamous Transformers rebuttal from a few years ago.
Same with art, right? If my next door neighbor goes to a movie every weekend, but it's always "Iron Man" or "21 Jumpstreet" or something, they are going to have a legitimate Top 10 Movies Of All Time" list, probably, but based on what? All they ever do, movie wise, is eat fast food and drink Franzia.
I feel like maybe some critics just feel compelled to put certain films on their lists even though maybe they don't actually like them as much as they let on.
Anyway, I don't know where I'm going with all this. I'm just glad you wrote this piece. Your analogy to "rearranging the china cabinet" is just perfect.
Jake: Thanks for the thoughts.
Over on Twitter, someone thought I was suggesting that a love of something like THE GREAT ESCAPE must be more genuine than a love of something like SUNRISE. Not at all. On the same day you mentioned feeling unmoved by RULES OF THE GAME I got an e-mail from a friend who mentioned finally getting to that movie not too long ago and going crazy for it. To each their own.
All I'm calling for is honest responses, because pretending to love a great film gets us nowhere. And I think we'd have a much wider definition of what "great" looks like if people weren't looking over their shoulder, ever aware of the established canon(s).
"Have to see it" is a great thing, and S&S inspires a lot of those quests. But no one should feel compelled to celebrate a greatness they don't feel. And any greatness they do feel should be spread beyond best-of lists.
I guess the problem with the Sight & Sound list is that its audience and intent have become unclear.
Reducing the number to a mere 10 makes sense if the list is to serve as a guide to casual or neophyte movie enthusiasts, saying, "Hey, here's some movies you've just GOT to see before the others."
But there are big problems with that approach: For one, the movies you've got to see before others aren't necessarily the best; they might be the most ideal introductions (in other words, maybe viewers weaned only on slasher flicks and lowbrow comedies have been conditioned in a way that won't make them particularly receptive to, say, a silent avant-garde film).
For another, and more importantly, the format these lists take and the discussions they inspire have an "inside-baseball" air. Say what you will about the AFI lists (and some of the inclusions were pretty dreadful), at least they were marketed toward the general public.
But that's become an issue with the public as well as with cinephiles. Simply put, I don't think "cinematic literacy" is as high as it was, say, 40 years ago - when most film history was recent enough to still seem part of the same medium as the big hits of the day, and when new movies didn't have the "also-ran" status most new movies today have, taking their idea and cache from TV shows, comic books, video games, and older movies as if the idea of a movie in and of itself isn't enough to get people excited. Cinema threatens to go the way of the live theater at this rate.
One thing I've struggled with as a blogger is the whole audience thing. Ultimately, I'm not really interested in only addressing a tiny niche of fellow hobbyists. Yet it's easier to write with them in mind, and that's what I feel I often do.
In an ideal world, I'd like to see a better balance between the desire to evangelize among the unconverted curious (reader-friendly pieces on classics that would appeal to those just beginning to dip their toes in the big cinematic ocean), and to broaden the experiences of those already committed (pieces on avant-garde films or forgotten masterpieces or whatever for those who've had their fill of reading about Citizen Kane or Vertigo). The ideal movie blog would mix posts that have a populist tinge with more esoteric fare, able to allowing readers to choose what they want to read and perhaps luring the adventurous to expand their horizons. I'm as far away from creating that blog as anyone, but it's the shining city I have my personal horizon.
I also think blogs should do a better job of mixing media - freely varying between prose, image, and video (something I thought your title might be slyly referring to), as well as allowing readers to jump around more freely than the current most-recent-first columnal platforms generally allow - but that's another story. And as currently my technological capital is rather depleted, I'm in no position to lead be example in this area either, at present. :(
Oh, and count me a member of the Dziga Vertov fan club for sure.
Finally, I don't have a top 10 but I have a top 100 I'm happy with; a satisfying (to me) mixture of favorites & best (two separate categories - something I think you might disagree with based on your above piece - they've substantial, but far from complete, overlap):
side note: Jesus, these captchas are difficult!
Actually I lied; I did compose a Sight & Sound ballot a few weeks ago. Bearing out my distinction between "best" and "favorite", it's a bit different from the top 10 that kicks off the 100 above.
The Godfather Part II
The House is Black
The Man with the Movie Camera
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Red Hot Riding Hood
Disobeying my previous advice, this is not really a good "introductory" list unless the newbie in question has a particularly open mind and high level of curiosity. Rather, it's a list of which I'm comfortable proclaiming, to those who already take cinema seriously, "here are 10 tip-top movies which, between them, really address a wide range of what movies can express, from narrative pleasure to immersive-in-the-moment experience to playful imagination to delight in the natural, and so forth."
If anyone's listening that is, haha...
These films get thrust up to the top ten because these are the root films of the 'language.' They tend to create a genre themselves, inventing an entirely new storytelling manner altogether. Unfortunately from this point in time, they may SEEM unworthy, or trite even ragged, but that's the effects of thousands of hours of trash on your mind. You have to find the endless innovations in them. They're staggering.
The transition from single paths to multiple paths in Sunrise. The lack of a stable horizon in Man with a Camera. The flow of colors from background to foreground through filters then unusually extended darkness ending with artificially amped green, Vertigo isn't merely Freudian (that's too limiting) its dissonance is neural.
You think that's complex? Try 2001. It has famously what most call a match cut two million years wide, but if you look even more carefully, you'll see it's not really a match cut. The bone matches more closely to the floating pen functionally, not the spaceship. How do I know this? Kubrick shows us two watering holes split by the cut: the apes and the Russians on the space station. He shows us two weapons: the bone and the pen, and the result of the second watering hole scene (in space) is deception not brutal clubbing. The weapon has evolved with intelligence.
Now these are my opinions, they're debatable of course, but they're not questions of character motivation (which drive a lot of film criticism these days), they're questions/investigations of complexity of director intent. And when you really take the time to dissect the ultra-complex masterpieces movies have to offer, get ready.
The problem with the S&S list (at least I think) is that too many voters were selecting what they thought were an important film in terms of cinematic history. Greatness isn't an objective measure of film because everyone just gives their subjective opinions. (I didn't go through all the individual lists but one voter tossed in a vote for Cosmopolis -- which hadn't even been released yet.) I think the polls would be much better if people take into account not only films they think are great but ones that hold up over the years and they watch repeatedly. When is the last time anyone you know got a keg, a bunch of snacks and had the gang over to watch Man With a Movie Camera? It might be important in terms of film history but one of 10 best? Citizen Kane and Rules of the Game meet both criteria. I like Vertigo a lot, but I'd rank about five Hitchcocks above it. I think too many of the voters feel that if they're enjoying the experience too much, it must be bad for them.
Good observation re Vertigo transcending Freudianism to create "neural" dissonanace. Maybe other films do.as well.in.their own.way but its arguable that Vertigo generated trauma uniquely and was a watershed in use of color. I have been haunted by Vertigo since I saw it w mom and dad when I was 8, and it altered my admittedly immature sensibility, but it may have imprinted me for worse and for.better. that doesn't make it the greatest film of all.time.but the fact of.its ascent suggests that it has an arcing singularity. You can be moved by other films but Vertigo pursues you, profoundly and. Perhaps dangerously. Jason?
Catching up on comments, and there are some great ones here. Thank you!
I want to start a joint reply to Joel, Anon, Ed and Scotty by recounting a bit of an exchange I had on Twitter the other day with Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder.
In discussing Sight & Sound-type list-building, Tony stated his preference for lists that "demonstrate the eclecticism and elasticity of cinema," and said his approach would be akin to asking, "What 10 movies would I stick on Voyager and send into space?"
Now, as you already know from my piece, I think there are some dangers in this kind of approach: one of them is that it suggests a personal detachment that is either unrealistic (it's still a personal list; you're the one making the choices) or unwise (if the list isn't personal, it's someone else's, and then what's the point?). But as Tony said, and I agree, these things needn't be mutually exclusive. So, for example, it would be entirely possible to make a Sight & Sound-type ballot by first thinking about all the movies that make you think "This is fucking great!" (per my criterion above) and then narrow those still-too-numerous choices down by saying, "Gosh, in this nearly impossible task of picking the greatest of the greats, which 10 films as a collection would demonstrate," as Tony nicely puts it, "the 'eclecticism and elasticity of cinema'?" I think that's noble. Perhaps even ideal. Now, based on the trends of the top 250, which have few musicals, few comedies, few rollicking good times not directed by a guy named Hitchcock, I'd question if the full "eclecticism and elasticity of cinema" has been accurately represented, but there's still validity in the approach, assuming one approaches it honestly.
And I think that fits into the comments by Anon about the "root films of the 'language.'"
Two points there: First, although Richard Brody and others feel my criterion for greatness favors "the more rollicking varieties of cinema," I never thought of it that way. I appreciate and respect that some people are moved first and foremost by the language or construction of cinema, and care very little about, say, plot or acting. I'm not trying to prescribe what moves you. Nor do I mean to imply that you need to be in one camp or another. (You could love the written quality of one film, say, SUNSET BLVD, and be equally moved by the visual language of another, say, 2001.) And that leads to my second point: If the films that made the top 10 or top 250 are there because they are the "root films of the 'language,'" that's great. But the ultimate message of my piece is a call to action, to champion the greatest films by bringing their accomplishments into the general discussion of cinema more often than I think happens now, even in some of the most elite, best-informed cinephile circles. Also, let's recognize that if these films are great because they are the "root" of something, then we can pretty much be done with the Sight & Sound exercise. In fact, at that point we risk more damage than good by keeping it going, because we run the risk that eventually the groundbreaking films of the past -- the true 'root' films -- will be unjustly displaced.
(continued in next comment)
So much of this discussion has become focused on Sight & Sound type lists, and I understand why; I engage with the Sight & Sound poll heavily in the piece. But evaluating Sight & Sound was never my motivation. It was a means to an end. My main motivation was to encourage cinephiles to go beyond list-making when it comes to championing great films, and to feel confident straying from the already-established greats, to consider that maybe the faces on cinema's Mount Rushmore aren't the only achievements worth protecting, and to approach those established films open-minded to imperfection.
And that leads to Ed's quote:
"I think too many of the voters feel that if they're enjoying the experience too much, it must be bad for them."
I think the trends of the Sight & Sound list suggest that's true, at least when it comes to ranking teh greatest of the great. And to respond to Richard Brody's response (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2012/08/great-movies-and-the-sight-and-sound-poll.html), I have no doubt that people listen to Mozart (or watch the cinematic equivalent of Mozart) and feel it in their heart and gut and think, "This is fucking great!" Because I have that experience all the time. All I want is for cinephiles to feel comfortable advocating for greatness that doesn't look like the cinematic equivalent of Mozart. (This isn't an anti-intellectualism stance, in my opinion, although I realize others disagree. It's a pro-honesty stance.)
Bottom line: Open and honest communication of what moves us and why is good for cinema. More than that, it's vital. Otherwise we're confining established greatness under glass, treating it like some delicate artifact that can't live in the sunlight. Otherwise we're avoiding pursuing new angles of pursuit that might strengthen our collective definition of greatness.
A few random points re-reading the discussion.
1) I think I pretty much used your combined-with-Tony criteria for my own top 10. All of those films are personal favorites which directly excite me (although they are NOT all films I want to revisit repeatedly - I agree with Brody, at least I think it was Brody, on that). Yet, within my favorites I chose 10 films I thought demonstrated the 'eclecticism and elasticity' (great terms) of the medium. Which leads me to...
2) One disappointing aspect of S&S and other big-time canons, for me, is that they tend to assume 'movie'=narrative feature, when there are so many other uses to which one can put the form. In that sense, Man with a Movie Camera is a very welcome addition to the top 10 but I'd like to see way more feature AND short examples of the avant-garde, documentary and (especially neglected) animation. Even short-lived TV series could qualify (I think the only exceptions should be episodic stuff where the emphasis is on each program rather than an overarching storylines).
And most importantly:
3) Who and what exactly are you aiming at in your argument? I'm not asking you to name names necessarily but could you give general examples of the lack of advocacy you're talking about? In my experience, bloggers and long-form professional writers have been pretty up front with their references and individual pieces on movies they consider great. Meanwhile movie reviewers are obviously limited by space and particularly audience (or at least editorial Perceptions of said audience) - and to the extent many bloggers follow the reviewer-mode they might spend more time discussing contemporary films than possibly esoteric classics. Which could be a problem, but strikes me as a somewhat different one than that which you're attempting to address.
"Who and what exactly are you aiming at in your argument?"
Joel: Great question. I won't name names because, honestly, I don't have any names in mind. This is really pointed at everyone who loves movies, including me.
At the risk of rewriting the above piece, the basic idea goes like this:
The S&S list suggests to me that there are many very great, very respected films that simply aren't in the discussion enough -- and by "the discussion" I mean everything from casual watercooler discussion to written essays to Twitter non sequiturs to YouTube mashups, etc.
And my proposal is that "we" (anyone who loves cinema, but especially someone who would have selected some of those less-talked-about great films for their top-10 list) collectively strive to fix that, by any means necessary.
Now, let me back up: There are plenty of reasons that these films don't get discussed as much. They include our endless fascination with contemporary films, which of course are perfect for water-cooler conversation, because they're new and seen by both film buffs and casual moviegoers, and everyone in the discussion has seen them recently. Likewise, even among beyond-average but not-quite-extreme movie fanatics, silents are less seen, thus less discussed, thus less "topical." And because some of these films are older, it can be harder to draw links back to them; John Ford's last movie was released in 1976, but there are still plenty of people on the planet who grew up going to his movies who can easily relate those experiences to present-day experiences, and so THE SEARCHERS falls into the contemporary conversation where SUNRISE might now. And so on.
Again, I understand all of this. Just look at the reviews on my site. Mostly, they're new-releases. I need to do better as much as anyone. Maybe more so.
But the thrust of my argument is that if you consider yourself an ambassador of great cinema (professional critics, nonprofessional critics, armchair critics, dedicated moviegoers, whatever), then it isn't enough to advocate for the greatest movies of all time by simply listing them. We need to create conversations about these movies more often. Bring them to the water cooler. Make them more than just (to many even better-than-average moviegovers) obscure titles from a different era. We need to make them present. Because they are.
Some people do a wonderful job of this, but they're in the minority. Most films fans, I suspect, can think: I can do better. That's who I'm addressing.
Did that answer it?
"...and so THE SEARCHERS falls into the contemporary conversation where SUNRISE might now."
That's supposed to be: "...where SUNRISE might not."
It's not that I don't appreciate what a great director can do, but I've never really understood from some quarters the indifference to, or minimalizing of, elements like plot (i.e., writing) and acting. That's like being a basketball fan and focusing exclusively on the coach, oblivious to the contributions of the forwards, guards and center.
"That's like being a basketball fan and focusing exclusively on the coach, oblivious to the contributions of the forwards, guards and center."
Well, I don't know about basketball, but Tony La Russa won baseball games single-handedly all the time. Just ask him.
Ha. I almost said baseball. But knew you'd mention La Russa. Basebauteurist.
La Russa's managing was equivalent to Michael Cimino insisting that the unseen period underwear was folded properly on the set of HEAVEN'S GATE. Admittedly, more successful though.
Granted, his managing of the A's in the 1990 World Series was a bust. But, like Heaven's Gate, let's hold off judgment until we finally see the extended version of that season.
Are we completely off track yet?
That definitely answers my question, but I guess from my perspective these films are discussed and referenced quite a bit. However, given that I hardly see contemporary films anymore (and thus rarely read reviews of them) and tend to frequent blogs which may not be very representative of the overall blogosphere, my perspective may be somewhat skewed! I will say that I wish there was more of a balance between topicality and history; if you feel your film world is too topical and not historical enough I think mine (including what I write) may be the reverse. I think a dual approach is probably the best way to do what I mentioned earlier: reach more people without dropping the ball in terms of deeper exploration. Evangelism and esoterica side by side.
Likability shouldn't necessarily be a factor when choosing favorite or great films. Do people really 'like' 'Satantango' or even '2001' with all its silent longueurs? I think a little cerebration enters into compiling a 10 Best List, also. When does Jeanne Dielman start to crack; what happens to Anna at the beginning of 'L'Avventura'; was 'A' raped in 'Marienbad'; and what the hell is Julie Christie doing in 'Nashville'?
Emotional uplift is only part of the pleasure of experiencing movies.
Great, thought-provoking piece.
Interesting point, Mark, although I think almost all great movies have something visceral AND something cerebral in them. Indeed, Star Wars gives me much to think about it (though I'm not sure how much of it's intentional) and I find watching Satantango, much of it anyway, to be very enjoyable. It might be a different type of enjoyment from watching starships zoom through space, but I think that fundamentally the feelings are linked. Watching Satantango, I feel I'm falling under a spell, as the movie moves along with the swooping camera and the preoccupied characters I disappear into a work of fiction and I find the experience very exciting. That's me, anyway.
A great Rivette or Tarr film is like having a very vivid and eerie dream - at heart, I think all movies have something magical about them. All good ones, anyway.
As I said, my favorite movies (no objective way exists to agree on the greatest or the best) usually fall into both camps. Citizen Kane manages to accomplish all things -- it marks breathroughs in the art in filmmaking and presents a compelling movie at the same time. People float toward 2001 among the Kubricks because of the imagery and the idea that "I'm not sure what it means, therefore it must be great." I take Dr. Strangelove or Paths of Glory any day. On the other hand, you'd think Last Year at Marienbad would be the type of film I'd resist, but I'm hypnotized by it more each time I see it. One thing I require when I engage in the folly of listmaking is that I insist that a film be at least 10 years old before I consider it. Too often, people get so caught up in the rush of their first exposure and when they revisit it later, they wonder what the hell they were thinking at the time. Granted, I've had booster shots that render me immune to Malick (I think he'd be a great nature documentarian. Narrative filmmaking? Not so much.) but the rush of so many people to enshrine Tree of Life on the top 250 that soon after it came out defies reason and sanity. Films need to age like wine. Then go back and see how they hold up -- or if they don't. I think Entertainment Weekly with their constant inane lists started this nonsense since most of their lists fail to include much of anything that existed prior to the existence of their magazine. No wonder cultural literacy of all types is going to hell in a handbasket.
Time to catch up on comments! And, yet again, more great ones. Thank you!
"I guess from my perspective these films are discussed and referenced quite a bit."
Joel: There's no doubt that these discussions are there to be found, if you want to find them. But a good sniff test of our success as advocates might be this: better-than-average moviegoers (people who take movies lowercase-seriously but maybe not ALL-CAPS-SERIOUSLY or obsessively) should at least know what these films are, even if they don't have any interest in them. I think about half of the S&S top 10 enter the conversation enough to be familiar beacons. I don't feel as strongly about the other half. Currently, they remain confined to a niche of cinema super fans. And if we feel that strongly about the greatness of these films, we shouldn't settle for that as ambassadors for cinema.
"Likability shouldn't necessarily be a factor when choosing favorite or great films. Do people really 'like' 'Satantango' or even '2001' with all its silent longueurs?"
Mark S: I'm not talking about "liking" movies -- because, as you suggest, that definition means too many different things to different people.
But can a cerebral film or a plodding film feel "fucking great"? You bet it can!
Saying, "This is fucking great!" doesn't necessarily mean we're bouncing off the wall like a teenager seeing his first R-rated action movie. It can be a somber response, contemplative, devastated.
You mention 2001 and despite its longueurs that's a perfect example: If you're not struck with awe by 2001, then there's no way you think that movie is "fucking great." And then you should feel within your right to be honest about that, because otherwise you're just posing. That doesn't mean that if you don't think the movie is fucking great that you're "right" or that others who disagree with you are wrong. What it does mean is that everyone is being true to his/her actual response to watching a movie.
(Sorry ... rushing to get out the door to a movie that I hope will be "fucking great," so I hope that made sense.)
"I think almost all great movies have something visceral AND something cerebral in them. ... That's me, anyway."
Joel: Building off my comment to Mark, this is what I'm talking about: This is what makes a great film to you. To someone else it might be purely cerebral. Or that cerebral achievement might create a visceral reaction. To each their own. I'm not prescribing what moves us. I'm asking us to be honest about when or if we're moved, and to support the things that move us with equal passion.
"One thing I require when I engage in the folly of listmaking is that I insist that a film be at least 10 years old before I consider it."
Ed: As this conversation carries on, I've found myself thinking of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and not just because of the jokes Craig and I exchanged.
Baseball has a five-year waiting limit. Fine for baseball, where stats do a lot to tell us who is great. But film would benefit from its own "Hall of Fame," rather than one ever-more-reductive list, with a 15-year waiting limit.
We'd have more room to remember great films that way, and to remember them within their own context, rather than engaging in this impossible task of trying to decide if the Coens are as great as Murnau.
Ok, I see what you are saying about film recognition. Does the casual movie buff at least KNOW OF these films. On that test I'd say the very, very casual buff - say, the average younger moviegoer (say 40/45 or under) who would say, yeah I like movies (rather than just shrug) has only heard of Citizen Kane and 2001, and maybe Vertigo. MAYBE Searchers and MAYBE maybe 8 1/2. Of these films they've probably only seen 2001 (and chances are maybe 50/50 they liked it).
For more discerning buffs, or slightly older filmgoers raised in a more film-conscious time (or when some of these classics were relatively now, or for those with a budding interest in classics, I'd bet on recognition for all the American films, plus 8 1/2 and at least a passing familiarity with the existence of Passion of Joan of Arc. Maybe if they have read a book or two touching on film history, they recall references to Rules of the Game and possibly Tomyo Story - and it's just feasible they know of Sunrise as the first Best Picture winner (although I remember the first Oscar books I read making it sound like the Wings prize was the top award). That leaves Man with the Movie Camera as the biggest outlier but since it's only just shot up on the list (and thus in critical consciousness) give it time; before long it will probably start appearing in more references and on more lists (which, like it or not, is actually one of the main ways exposure occurs).
When you get to someone who has a strong interest in classic movies, I'd be surprised if they aren't readily familiar with all of these titles, except perhaps Movie Camera, and most likely they've seen all of the American ones, and a good chunk of the foreign titles (they could at least tell you what country, era, and probably director they come from).
Now, of course, the real question becomes, what to do about this knowledge/exposure or lack thereof? And that's where it gets tricky. Hold on a sec, I think I'm going to need a new comment to finish this thought!
And frankly, I'm not sure that it's fair to accuse cinephiles of 'failing' cinema. To the extent they are, it's due to circumstances that would have made past cinephiles fail as well.
When it comes to other 'hot' interests - food is the perfect example of a cultural concern barely on the radar 15 years ago but now widely embraced and follows, with best sellers written about it, countless show and even channels devote to it, and even hit films like Julie & Julia made about it - public interest doesn't have to be stirred up, just cultivated and maintained, and experts in the field are greeted with respect and awe. Though I don't have stats in hand, I'd guess increasing numbers of people are going into the field, either as chefs or writers/critics or whatever. In all aspects it's a growing field.
Something like music is a steady field. There hasn't been a lot of development on the contemporary front in the past decade (or 2 really, since the death of Cobain and the co-option of hip hop, what vital figures have emerged to widespread recognition?). However, the technological explosion has fostered a compensatory appreciation for the past; it isn't at all uncommon to hear a kid today cite the Beatles or Doors as their favorite band, groups that (believe it or not) their grandparents would have listened to at their age. Popular music, at least from the rock era on, has a certain timelessness to it.
Film has also seen a technological explosion, and the digital revolution has also improved the availability and condition of classics. Yet there isn't remotely the same appreciation for the past. 'Old' movies are discussed in ways no one would discuss 'old' music. I've known people who would gladly listen to esoteric music, and read highbrow books, who scoff at the notion of 'arty' films and throatily proclaim their affinity for superhero movies above all else. At a time when Netflix has made classic cinema available at ones doorstep, the taste for it has evaporated for all except the initiated. A few films break through this ghetto - Godfather most notably, and 80s+ cinema enjoys the kind of continuing currency granted 60s+ rock music. But casual movie fans are far more likely than casual music fans to dismiss older icons as 'dated', to grow restless with the aesthetic of 'serious' attempts at art, and to instinctively define the whole enterprise as one of gut reaction rather than more sensitive appreciation (the 'it's awesome' syndrome Brody somewhat unfairly assigned to your argument).
Consequently, this attitude ossifies the approach new movies take, as they fall increasingly out of line with past traditions and gravitate toward new media for inspiration and validation. It also discourages people from seeing movies as an exciting (vs. merely glamorous) field, and something they could actually do themselves (the DIY aspect is a big part of food's and music's appeal). Less enthusiasm in turn creates less opportunities (a winnowing field might briedly improve the odds but eventually gatekeepers will rightly assume there isn't much to be mined and close up shop). This has pretty dire consequences for the state of the art. Outside of the marginalia of mumble core and neo-neorealism can you name any young directors? I can't. Ours is the first generation this has happened to in decades.
Was the attitude conditioned to create the current marketplace? Is the marketplace a response to 'naturally' arising cultural conditions? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? All I can say for certain is that the cultural conditioning and the seemingly natural inclinations (or disinclinations) are mutually reinforcing. For whatever reason, our zeitgeist does not favor the art of cinema.
So with that in mind, what's a poor boy to do in sleepy cinephile town? Oh, I'm not done yet... ;)
Ugh, my iPhone accidentally signed me off while I was composing an epic Part 3. I've switched to my roommate's computer; maybe it's a good thing and I can try to economize my point a little bit!
Ok then...I would submit that rarely has widespread appreciation of classic cinema been fostered directly by film criticism. Usually it's through pop osmosis or word-of-mouth - more people will hear of Citizen Kane through a Simpsons reference or via a friend's video collection than because the New York Times ran a piece on it.
Individually, talking about Man with a Movie Camera or Passion of Joan of Arc on blogs directed at primarily the third, and nominally the second type of movie buff I mentioned won't make much of a dent in the larger conversation. If we each focus on ways to reach larger audiences, I think collectively the conversation can turn a little bit, although for the dam to really burst larger conditions - which we have little control over - will have to change. In the mean time...
The most important issue, I think, is connectivity. Connecting classic cinema to contemporary (particularly mainstream) cinema. Connecting content to readers in forms they will find appealing. Connecting movies to the larger cultural conditions, and connecting enthusiastic cinephiles directly with the casually curious.
Forgive me if I talk aloud to myself here; no doubt others have grappled with these issues more extensively than myself, but hopefully my musing can be somewhat illuminating or helpful.
First up, connecting the classics and the contemporary. I know that personally I came to Godard after dabbling in foreign cinema, which I approached after beginning to explore Hollywood classics, which I turned to when I saw their connection to the blockbusters of my youth I enjoyed. There was a direct connection between watching Indiana Jones movies on VHS with my father and sister in first grade and sitting down in a Queens theater for two 7-hour shifts to watch Rivette's Out 1 a year after I graduated college. It's what I speak of above - in noting how all films contain elements of the cerebral and the visceral - and as evangelical cinephiles it's our job to establish the fact that "everything is cinema."
I think a lot of people who might otherwise be curious about more esoteric fare, are turned away when advocates of that fare sneer at popcorn spectacles. The curious think to themselves, "Oh, well I guess their love for movies is of a different (and, it would appear, more ossified, less enjoyable) nature than mine, and therefore I'm not really interested."
Of course linking up contemporary blockbusters with past classics can be difficult; CGI, shorter attention spans, the influence of video games and comic books, and the penchant for griming up entertainment with faux-"realistic" grittiness have all made mainstream aesthetics seem further distanced than ever from past styles, in a way Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark (however up-to-date) did not.
But in a way, that sensibility - which I certainly share - just proves that I'm one of those people I'm complaining about. Whatever its drawbacks, there's obviously something in those films that appeals to large groups of people. As someone who would like to see those same people at least curious about classic movies, it would behoove me to find out what that is and tap into it, showing them how the older films share these qualities too. After all, it worked for me.
Then there's the matter of HOW we present this material to them. This question has probably haunted me more than any other in the 4 years I've been blogging. Partly by accident, because it's just how a scatterbrain like me is naturally inclined, I discovered the virtue of diversity, cataloging, and a visual approach. Some people like to read long essays. Others want a short capsule. Still more are primarily visual, impatient with dancing about architecture but eager to see for themselves what a film looks or feels like, via images or clips. And yet more want the content to be as creative as what's discussed - seeking new ways of combining words, images, videos, quotations. People want an experience as much as the information.
Presentation is very important too, but I've found this to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, as I've more heavily designed my own site it seems to have drawn visitors from outside the somewhat incestuous blogosphere - most of my hits are via Google image searches, and while the vast majority must be casual drive-bys, some obviously stick around and (helped by extensive and highlighted directories) even leave a comment on an older piece. On the other hand, in the fast-paced mobile age of Twitter, Tumblr, and iPhone, content has to be malleable. When I finally got an iPhone recently, I discovered how little my site lends itself to a mobile platform. I haven't figured out yet how to balance between these two qualities and am not sure I can. Ultimately, because of my own taste, I will probably chose presentation over malleability but it will cost me and if I really want to evangelize I'll have to find a way to compensate.
The third connection, connecting the film world to other interests and topics, is frankly something I haven't figured out how to do yet, although it may be the most important key. One thing that frustrates me about movie-blogging, or any blogging really, is the feeling of preaching to the choir. That isn't really true; the cinema revival tent is a fairly unruly cavalcade with lots of opportunities to debate, expose, and excite. But still I yearn to reach the unconverted...
In a way (and apologies for the increasingly personal nature of these reflections) I am not well-equipped to serve this evangelical role. I have (as these comments more than evince) a tendency to ramble on and overanalyze, qualities which most readers don't especially seek, especially in casual perusals of the blogosphere. There's still a place for it, but I need to balance it with pithier (yet still piquant) pieces. Just as a reader surfing for a cool image of Roger Rabbit might stick around to read my review, so the casual cinephile drawn in by a capsule on, say, The Big Lebowski, might be willing to dive deeper for a marathon piece on Lawrence of Arabia.
Of course that's only part of the problem - the bigger issue is reaching outside the already-baptized initiates who are usually the people to stumble upon movie blogs in the first place. Again, I really don't have an answer for this I just know it's a problem, and suspect there's a solution. In the past, TV shows and newspaper articles on film could lure in the viewer or reader who came to the channel or opened the paper for something else. But the internet is probably too big for that kind of bait-and-wait approach; it lends itself too readily for niche-ification. Increasingly, we're a society of individual interests which I fear won't cross-pollinate enough. I dunno, maybe someone has a book on this subject they could recommend. I'm stumped!
(continued; final section, I promise!)
I do suspect that people are more likely to check out a new movie than randomly read about one they've seen (speaking of very casual moviegoers here). In that sense, having original content on a blog otherwise devoted to celebration of other films could lead readers down the rabbit hole. In this sense, filmmaking and film analysis could serve as dual engines, powering one another: with the initial analysis reeling in the already cine-enthusiastic, who will then spread the word when the original material appears, thus leading curious web-surfters to the site, and leading in the long-run to their exploring what the filmmaker thinks of other films. It's certainly an approach I've considered and ultimately hope to pursue in one form or another.
Finally, there's the matter of direct connection between cinephiles and the casually curious. Face-to-face encounters are still the most effective way to sell anything; you'll get a higher volume the more indirect your approach, but with a much lower success rate. Even in this virtual age, the best bet for actually flipping someone into a film enthusiast is to discuss with them, person-to-person, your excitement about the medium, let them feel it and respond to it, and giving them opportunities to see what makes you tick.
This needn't be limited to friends & family (who, truth be told, are probably the least likely to respond to your exhortations) - one idea I had recently was to set up a free discussion group week to week, if I could find the space. The online listing/advertisement would be geared towards those who are not dyed-in-the-wool cinephiles but merely curious about the medium. The hook would be a video series I created last year, with 8-minute chapters each containing about a dozen 30-40 second clips from DVDs I own. The streaming quality is hit-and-miss but I also have discs with the same content - I thought it would be interesting to screen a chapter at the end of each session, and then take a vote on what people wanted to see next time, based on the sample taste they'd gotten it. Obviously this same approach could be taken using pictures, or even simply describing the different films but I think the element of choice (within parameters) could be a key attraction for this type of film.
It's just an idea, and something I haven't even begun to explore yet, but I'm sure there are thousands of such ideas out there; all that needs to be done is to put them in place.
Ultimately then, Jason, while we may be on the same page in many regards I think my emphasis is a bit different than yours. Yes, naturally advocating or evangelizing for cinema is important but I think what may be even more important is a very conscious, planned approach to change the way movies are viewed and discussed in this country. I don't know that we can do more than chip away at the problem, but sometimes one little chip can expose a serious gusher. Let's hope so because we need it; it's been a remarkably dry season.
Joel. I think the appropriate response to all that is: whoa!
There's so much there that it would take several long comments to respond to it all. But let me touch on a few things:
The name-recognition of these films is just one example, of course. It isn't everything. And you're correct that there are lots of obstacles to this. I mean, heck, we're in an age where people go to movies and then spend more time on their phones ... and they're at the theater by choice. Not a good sign.
Obviously the more that people love movies the more they are willing to stretch their comfort zones, and that's related to this conversation, of course, but it's also different. That is, I agree it's an obstacle. But independent of that I think cinephiles, on the whole, are still failing to advocate for cinematic greatness IF the S&S list is reflective of the films that cinephiles truly believe are great. And that leads here ...
As far as this piece is concerned, I'm not bothered by HOW we engage with the greatest films of all time. I'm simply insistent that we engage with them.
(continued in next ...)
(continuing from above)
I mentioned baseball before and maybe that's a good example. Let's try it: I just Googled "greatest baseball players of all time" and this was the top result, a list from 1999:
Here are the top 10 players in that list: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner.
I'm 35 years old, which means all of those guys stopped playing before I was born, and half of them were dead. But it would be hard to be even a moderate baseball fan and not know at least who the first eight players are, because they are referenced all the time -- in baseball broadcasts, in coverage of modern players (who evoke memories of players past) and just in baseball geek conversation. Why? Not because some list said these guys were great but because their greatness in the sport is such that they keep falling into the larger conversation. Put another way, you can't avoid talking about those guys if you want to be a baseball fan. Engaging with that past greatness just happens, even if you've never seen them play, even if you don't totally understand the totality of their careers. (It's here that cinema has a great advantage: baseball players can't possibly 'relive' Babe Ruth's career; but we can easily watch any 1940s movie as if it was released yesterday.) Their greatness, their achievements, demand that they enter the conversation.
On that note, if that top 10 is accurate, I'd say that historically minded baseball fans are failing Hornsby and Wagner (the latter of whom is mostly associated with his famous 1909 baseball card at this point), just like any cinephile who voted for MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA is failing that film if the most prominent way that greatness is being referenced is in a list.
I agree: Lists DO have an influence. They are PART of this. But true greatness refuses to be bound by lists. It overflows lists. And, really, if we trust that the films that we can't help but engage with are, in some way or another, great films, then that omnipresence of those films as reference points in the sky should drive the lists, NOT the other way around.
Now, cinephiles didn't pull that top 10 from nowhere. Consensus doesn't happen that way. So there are places where these films are part of the conversation. But do cinephiles talk about TOKYO STORY the way baseball fans talk about WILLIE MAYS? No. They don't. They just don't.
Sure, when movie fans flock to loud, frenetic and thematically empty fare, and simply refuse to give anything else a chance, yeah, that's frustrating. Yeah, that's a challenge. But I think this is true, too: It's a challenge cinephiles should want to accept. We should want to bring the masses to the niche in a way that helps them understand what we see in it. That doesn't mean they'll see what we see. But if we can't articulate that greatness fairly simply, well, maybe that's telling.
Uncle Hokahey over at Little Worlds has a cinema class for middle schoolers. It's a challenge for his students, at first, to watch films without chatting, to see films that don't look like modern mainstream fare. But by the end of the semester, the kids have connected with films they otherwise wouldn't have given a chance. And why? Because the movies he shows them are fucking great. And it doesn't take convincing for them to see it.
True enough; contra the cliche the challenge is getting them to the water. Once they're there, if they're thirsty or simply bored, they'll eventually drink. But you've got to grab the reigns.
The point you make about instinctive celebration is interesting and thought-provoking; I noticed it before in your piece but then kind of lost track of it when a lot of other ideas came to the fore.
I think there are a few reasons for the fact (which I wouldn't argue) that by and large the discussion of Tokyo Story among serious cinephiles doesn't compare to the discussion of Babe Ruth among serious baseball fans.
Some of the reasons still do have to do with the presumed audience. Anti-intellectualism isn't really going to come into play when celebrating Ruth; but it (or self-censoring fear of it) may when bringing up Ozu.
That ties into the criterion at play which is the biggest difference. Baseball greatness is fairly self-evident, no? It's takes more argument to convince someone who sat through Tokyo Story and wasn't moved that the fault lies with them rather than the stars. No one can read about Ruth's stats and say, "that didn't happen" but they can watch Tokyo Story and say, "so what?" (here I should note, ironically, I'm not the best advocate for the film since it's one of my least favorite Ozus! But the general point stands & I'll continue to use it as an example).
I do think there's a way in to the experience for most people - I don't really by into the same notion of subjectivity without overlap that many movie buffs seem to (another strike against the advocacy you push for; a "to each their own" sensibility often reigns in discussions of art). Yet the way in is tricky, it involves active participation on the viewer's part in a way assessing who won a game and who contributed to the victory does not.
On the other hand, this is a bit of a sidetrack. I could see you making the same argument with books where, however difficult it is to read, Ulysses comes up in literary discussions very frequently, whether the topic is the latest bestselling fiction or another classic. So does Citizen Kane in the film world - but let's look at a top 10 books.
About 10 years ago I think the Modern Library came up with this top 10:
by James Joyce
THE GREAT GATSBY
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN
by James Joyce
by Vladimir Nabokov
BRAVE NEW WORLD
by Aldous Huxley
THE SOUND AND THE FURY
by William Faulkner
by Joseph Heller
DARKNESS AT NOON
by Arthur Koestler
SONS AND LOVERS
by D.H. Lawrence
THE GRAPES OF WRATH
by John Steinbeck
Of these, only Darkness at Noon is relatively obscure, and only that & Sons and Lovers aren't ubiquituously referenced not just in literary discussions but in pop culture in general. (Grapes of Wrath admittedly benefits from having a famous film adaptation, but Steinbeck is a household name.) Literateurs, it would seem, are less reticent about their canon than cinephiles.
Why is that?
I'll mull it over and return...
I have to say that I've been loving this conversation, guys. I like what Jason has to say about the novels and how the literary circle is maybe different than cinephiles. I too what to think it over and come back to that list Jason posted.
Great stuff, guys. I may not be contributing, but I'm enjoying the hell out of this conversation.
64In other words, I don't agree with the list, therefore the people who made it don't really feel the way they do, they're just pretending or fooling themselves.
Thanks Greg (Ferrara) for the acknowledgement on the WitD musical polling, and was very happy to have your own stellar contribution. And thanks Joel for the heads-up. Thogh THECOLLER is a regular stop for me, te past weeks have been hectic. I agree with Jason, that what with the Olympics and the presidential race the normally highly-anticipated Sight and Sound decades polling was somewht lost in the shuffle. Agreed to with the slant that if people do ot already know how great VERTIGO and CITIZEN KANE are, well there is no justice to any kind of voting, including this most celebrated of the pollings.
I've tried to put together a Ten Best list, but like so any others who make the attempt it always changes. And it is always tempered by the term "favorite" and by taste. I'll offer one now just for fun and in no particular order, though again it would no doubt be different tomorrow. This is a list of 14, rather than ten, already showing what an impossibility this really is.
Sansho Dayu (Mizoguchi)
Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson)
Barry Lyndon (Kubrick)
Tokyo Story (Ozu)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
The Third Man (Reed)
Fanny and Alexander (Bergman)
City Lights (Chaplin)
The Grapes of Wrath (Ford)
Citizen Kane (Welles)
The Long Day Closes (Davies)
The Last Picture Show (Bogdonich)
But tomorrow, I'd be scrabbling to add some of these:
Diary of a Country Priest
Cries and Whispers
Far From Heaven
The Double Life of Veronique
Une Partie de Campagne
The House is Black
Night and Fog
Day of Wrath
Les Miserables (1933-4)
The Godfather II
West Side Story
Singin in the Rain
The Gold Rush
The Emigrants/The New and
Once Upon a Time in the West
I Walked with a Zombie
2001: A Space Odyssey
Tree of Life
Careful He Might Hear You
Picnic at Hanging Rock
The Gospel According to St. Matthew
The Wizard of Oz
Poil de Carotte
Out of the Past
All Quiet on the Wstern Front
A Clockwork Orange
Rules of the Game
The Last laugh
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
It's A Wonderful Life
The Red Shoes
Empire of the Sun
Henry V (Branagh and Olivier)
A Streetcar Named Desire
On the Waterfront
Hope and Glory
But I have only scratched the surface, as would so many other here who might attempt such a foolhardy venture. But you get the gist.
Tremendous post by Jason, tremendous comment section, tremendous comment from Joel Bocko and others.
Childeroland: In a word: nope.
"...though again it would no doubt be different tomorrow"
Sam: I'm sure that's true of the folks who voted in the S&S poll, too, which is why I mean it when I say that I admire anyone who has the balls to try to pin it down to 10. It makes my head spin just to think about it.
Great essay, Jason. I love your definition of greatness, and I WILL be using it in the future (with attribution, of course).
Lately I've been trying to find the words to express this moment in time we cinephiles live in, where the channels to express opinions about movies have grown exponentially while the overall quality of movies being released by studios (in the US, at least), in my opinion, has never been lower.
The over-idolization of the past may have something to do with the bleakness of the present. That's an idea I need to dwell on a little more on, though.
BTW, my Top Ten list (based on a cursory glance at my IMDb ratings):
Jazz on a Summer's Day
The Usual Suspects
The Shawshank Redemption
Singin' in the Rain
Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
jI understand where you're coming from Jason, but challenging the S&S list, as flawed as it is, by proposing voters disown films they admire while championing the more likeable, populist fare they potentially love is somewhat impulsive and reductive. You're assuming people couldn't possibly love more "high-brow" films like Persona, My Night at Maud's, Celine and Julie Go Boating, L'Atalante, and Red Desert, just to provide a few examples. I agree it's damaging that people are pressured into championing 'gems' from all corners of the globe, since it manipulates film lovers into taking for granted the likes of Kubrick and Bergman while championing lesser but 'interesting' filmmakers like Hou Hsiao-Hsen, and Abderrahmane Sissako. I'm not proposing Bergman and Kubrick are the two greatest filmmakers of all time. They're not. But claiming Hou Hsiao-Hsen is a superior artist to Bergman reeks of contrarian cinephile snobbery no matter how unadventurous a film viewer that makes me appear. It's a fact. Many cinephiles pride themselves on appreciating films to whome a casual viewer would never give the time of day, regardless of their artistic merits. Kiarostami and Bela Tarr are fine filmmakers, even if they're not without their flaws, but just because Waiting for Happiness is far more ascetic, slow-paced, and alienating to a normal viewer doesn't make it superior to The Shining.
Joel brings up a valid point about presentation. An exchange isn't going to end very well when a cinephile patronizes a 'film geek' as a lightweight for liking Kubrick and PT Anderson. One reason cinema isn't valued within the current zeitgeist is the contrarian attitude of neo-cinephilia culture.
I have to gather my thoughts a bit more before I elaborate, but I'll leave you with some preliminary food for thought at the moment.
But the notion that great films are those which are awesome, 'great', and instantly likeable on a first viewing is somewhat problematic. I don't mean to sound like a stuck-up cinephile, and I don't know how else to say this, and I know it's been said numerous times in the past, but films sometimes take multiple viewings to fully appreciate.
RAR, I'm not a big Hou champion - mostly because I've only seen much of his work - but there are definitely contemporary Asian filmmakers like Jia or Weerasethakul whom I'd consider worthy of speaking in the same breath as Kubrick or Bergman, despite their appeal being more esoteric and their style more relaxed (although not less pronounced). I don't know if you had artists like that in mind when making your point - they're more expansive than minimalist - but since you mentioned Tarr I'd just reiterate what I said about Satantango above; I think while it's a very different type of cinematic experience from even something glacial and ponderous like 2001, it still at its core provides an equal frisson, created by any filmmaker who uses camera movement, screen space, and the pacing of the action (not to mention strategic cutting) to evoke an emotional and contemplative state in the viewer.
I think at the core of some of Jason's doubt, and your own (since after taking his skepticism to task, you seem to have some of your own), and probably MY own too - is that perennial 'emperor's new clothes' skittishness: am I missing something here, or is it the others who are full of shot.
And that brings us back to Jason's other point - that if the emperor really is wearing some killer new duds it's up to his admirers to help us see that. Louis Armstrong's classic rejoinder 'if you gotta ask you'll never know' is quotable but I don't think it's really true.
As for the patronize ruin of film snobs, no doubt it plays its role but I feel like its actually a lesser problem with movies than with books, art, or ESPECIALLY rock/pop music where it's practically a point of pride for buffs to be as contemptuous and obscure as they possibly can. There are a lot of reasons for this I suppose but in the end I really do feel like cinephiles are more populist than other buffs, an are punished much harder with ridicule when they aren't (or even when they are, but I sufficiently so).
RAR: Thanks for the thoughts, and I welcome more, but one thing to clear up first:
"...challenging the S&S list, as flawed as it is, by proposing voters disown films they admire while championing the more likeable, populist fare they potentially love is somewhat impulsive and reductive. You're assuming people couldn't possibly love more "high-brow" films like Persona, My Night at Maud's, Celine and Julie Go Boating, L'Atalante, and Red Desert, just to provide a few examples."
See, I'm not trying to suggest that critics should champion populist or "more likeable" fare, and your second sentence actually underlines why: because I'm NOT assuming that moviegoers can't love more "high-brow" films, or less "likeable" ones, for that matter. I wholeheartedly love numerous films that fit that description.
What I'm suggesting is that greatness is a matter of love -- whatever it is you love, for whatever reason -- and that the films you love should be championed not just in lists but all the time.
The only reason I point to the lack of modern or populist fare on the S&S list is to suggest that I think there are some serious cinephiles who seriously love many of those pictures but don't classify them amongst the greatest of the greats in S&S type exercises, perhaps because they're modern and populist, but who knows.
I have no problem whatsoever with a critic filling out his/her top-10 with all silents, or all disquieting films, or all sci-fi, whatever. All I'm asking for is personal honesty, for cinephiles to say, "These are the films that move me, and here's why," rather than continuing to prop up films that don't move us out of some kind of respect or obedience to films that have been classified as "great" by others. Because that obedience only creates groupthink and makes the act of continuing the S&S poll virtually useless, because the vast majority of that list is now etched in stone.
Again, maybe the S&S top 10 list (and top 250) is the perfect collection of cinematic greatness. There's no reason it can't be. But if that's the case, those 10 films should be significant cinema touchstones ALL THE TIME, not just during enshrinement activities. Put another way: Whatever your personal top 10 is, act like it. That goes for me as much as anyone.
Argh, typing on an iPhone with autocorrect I should have used the 'preview' function. Corrections:
*mostly because I HAVEN'T seen much of his work
*As for the PATRONIZATION of film snobs
*or even when they are, but INSUFFICIENTLY so
I think it's probably clear what 'full of shot' was supposed to read (and it wasn't full of snot' though in retrospect I kind of like that even more).
Well said, and I certainly agree with much of your response, so perhaps we're more on the same page than it seemed.
On another note, in response to Joel contemplating the lack of reticence among literature 'connoisseurs' I think part of it can be explained by literature's status as a serious art form being far less tenuous than that of film. It may to take a while to elaborate on this, but I'll post my initial thoughts to provide you with something to ponder.
RAR: Forgot to respond to this part:
You write: "But the notion that great films are those which are awesome, 'great', and instantly likeable on a first viewing is somewhat problematic. I don't mean to sound like a stuck-up cinephile, and I don't know how else to say this, and I know it's been said numerous times in the past, but films sometimes take multiple viewings to fully appreciate."
Back in the post, I wrote: "All that matters is that you think it's fucking great (not necessarily the first time you see it, but eventually and repeatedly over time), and, especially if you're a critic, that you can articulate why without simply describing what happens."
In other words, we don't disagree on that one.
For the record, I'm not proposing all contemporary "high-brow" cinema is inferior. In fact, I'd probably place Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers in my top ten. I also loved 35 Shots of Rum by Claire Denis. It was low-key but sublime. I don't know if what I said came across as a criticism of Tarr or not, but I respect him and find much to enjoy in his work, although I still need to watch Satantango in its entirety. I just haven't gotten around to watching the second half. I wasn't bored by it. I was simply side-tracked and never had the chance to finish it, even if that's a lame excuse since I've clearly seen many other films in the interim.
As for Jia and Weerasethakul, I haven't seen any of the former's work yet, but I've never been particularly enthusiastic about the latter, but that mainly has to do with the atmosphere of his films leaving me cold and rendering me extremely uncomfortable.
Jason, I think that where I might disagree with you somewhat, is that greatness is equivalent to love. I think you can admire something as great without necessarily being deeply moved. That said , and where I might differ for others who disagree with you, these works should have the potential to move you, and it should be that potential you're recognizing.
That's a bit of an abstract argument, but more concrete is the obverse: just because you love a film passionately doesn't mean it belongs on a greatest-film list; there is such a thing as a guilty pleasure largely because what gives us pleasure might have nothing to do with aspects of the work which could potentially affect most viewers. Usually these have to do with individual associations that go beyond the film itself. If you saw an otherwise maudlin weenie right after losing a loved one, it might strike a chord that stays with you, if you saw a cheesy cartoon as a kid it might envelop you in a web of nostalgia on re-viewing, if you are a fly-fisher you might love a really crappy movie about fly-fishing. By all means these should be unashamedly considered favorites - the guilt isn't about the pleasure itself per se. But I am more likely to consider a film 'great' if I can recognize a degree of craftsmanship, thought, or even accidental acid enemy which is there on the screen regardless than if the film gives pleasure for reasons that don't have much to do with the film itself.
There are practical reasons to shy away from this approach (it's harder to convince most people cerebrally rather than viscerally) but as a matter of principle, I'd say it's pretty solid. The question remains then what the purpose of the S&S poll is.
Sorry, I got scatterbrained and began to confuse Joel with Jason. This statement was directed at Jason: "Well said, and I certainly agree with much of your response, so perhaps we're more on the same page than it seemed."
"Louis Armstrong's classic rejoinder 'if you gotta ask you'll never know' is quotable but I don't think it's really true."
Exactly. Or at least, exactly in the context of this discussion.
That's at the heart of my disappointment with the S&S top 10 and my suggestion that cinephiles are failing. If we're doing our jobs, it should be impossible for ANY of the top 10 films of all time to be the least bit anonymous.
Because as cinephiles we should be constantly wrestling with great movies -- and, hey, if they're great, what could be more fun? -- and then we should be sharing what we discovered in the process.
RAR: No worries. Yeah, I think we're very close on this one.
Cinephiles, I think, can be somewhat insecure about the status of their medium as an art form. Since society generally coneives of it as mere 'entertainment', many film lovers will instinctively become skeptical of anything that could possibly appeal to a wide audience. The conclusion will be, "If they like it it can't possibly be a great film, since they don't take film seriously as an art form." The problem is they'd be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Godard once said in so many words that there's been a major misunderstanding if an artistically conceived film becomes a commercial success, and his assumption certainly isn't that commercial success necessarily indicates inferior art. With literature on the other hand, a normal person already approaches the act of reading as a lofty, intellectual activity before even cracking the book open. I know there's probably a more cogent manner in which I could argue my point, but I think it would suffice to say that more people my age have probably read Crime and Punishment than have seen Red Desert or Satantango. I'm 23 by the way.
Also, intellectual curiosity has certainly dwindled within the past 30-35 years which leads me to wonder how wide a reach even more successful and 'mainstream' "art-house" films like Cries and Whispers and 8 1/2 would have in today's market.
Great thoughts. You write ...
"Jason, I think that where I might disagree with you somewhat, is that greatness is equivalent to love. I think you can admire something as great without necessarily being deeply moved. ... I am more likely to consider a film 'great' if I can recognize a degree of craftsmanship, thought, or even accidental acid enemy which is there on the screen regardless than if the film gives pleasure for reasons that don't have much to do with the film itself."
My position on this is that what you described at the end is "love." That we don't automatically connect the two is evidence, in my mind, of our aversion to things that feel good, because we've convinced ourselves that we demonstrate our seriousness and our expertise by eschewing such easily found emotions and instead relying on cold analysis.
But cold analysis reduces cinema to math. And art isn't math. And it's silly of us to suggest that when we're moved by a film's craftsmanship that it represents a different kind of love. It isn't. It's love of cinema. It's seeing something and saying, "This is fucking great!" and meaning it.
Just last night, Matt Zoller Seitz got back from seeing COSMOPOLIS and went on a mini Twitter binge:
"Kicking myself for not seeing COSMOPOLIS sooner. Street theater, super-controlled. Acclimation takes a while, but worth the trouble. Run hot and cold on Cronenberg in the last 20 yrs, and regretting that, too. What a perverse, dark, unsparing, ultimately moral vision. Some of the sustained two-character scenes attain an eerily mordant intensity. Cronenberg gets DeLillo and should adapt all his work."
After a gap of a few minutes, he followed that up with this:
"When you see a film/TV show in which the artists seem in command of every frame, you feel elation + relief. Artistry! Professionalism!"
So, right there, in just four tweets, we have an example of someone who is genuinely moved by a film's artistry and professionalism (it would be almost impossible to call COSMOPOLIS "likeable"), and we not only see that he's moved, we know exactly why, because he tells us so. His emotional response is honest and real, and it's tied to specific things, which might move us or might not, and he connects them for us.
You ask about the purpose of the S&S poll, and, truly, I don't really care. It's the thing that interests me least in this entire discussion (which doesn't mean your question isn't valid). I simply see the S&S list as evidence of a larger trend that must be addressed.
You also cite great examples of all the reasons that different people respond to different films. But here's the thing: if everyone advocates for films that move them with honesty, then in the end those movies that seem made just for us will be offset by those movies made just for someone else. True greatness will rise to the top -- the films that managed to get beyond the individual.
It's often implied (not necessarily by you) that if we obey our heart or our gut that we'll suddenly act like fools. Nonsense. I mention Sheila O'Malley's love of and advocacy of Elvis in my piece. That love is real and deep, obviously. But I highly doubt that Sheila's all-time top-10 list would be dominated by Elvis movies. It might not feature any Elvis movies. Elvis might be "fucking great" to her, but other films can still be "fucking greater," maybe because there's greater overall artistry.
"Cinephiles, I think, can be somewhat insecure about the status of their medium as an art form. Since society generally coneives of it as mere 'entertainment', many film lovers will instinctively become skeptical of anything that could possibly appeal to a wide audience."
Amen! That was part of what I was getting at in looking at the top 250 and seeing so few modern, accessible, or uplifting movies. It's evidence of that insecurity. There's safety in the inaccessible.
When I suggest that people charge me with calling critics dishonest. But that's not quite it. Dishonesty suggests malice. What I'm suggesting is that when we look at the top 250 it should be fairly obvious that it ignores all sorts of feel-good, populist adventure that every year cinephiles praise effusively, and that large-scale omission should bother us. It's a trend that I believe, yes, suggests an insecurity with attaching greatness to films that are modern and/or accessible and/or light. And if cinephiles are incapable of doing that, then we're some of the least flexible fans of cinema out there, and terrible ambassadors.
What are some films you feel you're supposed to respect and admire which you don't particularly care for, aside from the silents mentioned in the initial piece?
Hey Jason, can you delete my previous comment and publish this instead? I had a bunch of typos and plus elaborated on some things while revising this. Thanks.
Damn, too much to respond to all at once. But I'll try anyway!
RAR: I think it works both ways with film being a populist medium. What you say is true but on the flip side there's a kind of defensiveness or apologetic attitude cinephiles have about praising something that ISN'T popular. That ties into what you're saying but also leads to more people who angrily assume the reverse: that if it isn't popular (or at least in a popular mode) it CAN'T be good. The two attitudes together create a kind of uncertain relationship between popular entertainment and artistic experience which is kind of ironic when you consider that cinema probably combines these two modes better than any other medium. The huge popularity and cultural importance of movies in the 20th century is a double-edged sword: the stakes seem higher in some ways than for literature and one of the reasons cinema is in a crisis mode right now is because that popularity and centrality is fading.
Jason: Just to be clear, I think it's a good thing and enjoy reading about people's guilty pleasures whether they acknowledge them as such or not. But I still think it's useful to acknowledge a distinction between great and favorite, even though there's often a happy overlap. The thing is, while nobody wants to approach film analysis as coldly as a math problem (at least I don't) there's still the fact that movies DO have a left-brained aspect. This is especially true when you consider how films are made, which is something I don't think gets nearly enough treatment, particularly in the blogosphere and including my own pieces. Because in a sense creating a film IS like solving a math problem, only some of the variables, maybe most, are emotional in nature. Recognizing a more objective form of greatness, an admiration irregardless of that gut response, is in part a recognition of the sheer effort involved in filmmaking, whether it's an international multimillionaire production or Brakhage painstakingly pasting moth wings on celluloid. I'm not just talking about mechanical effort but rather the brainpower and logistics that go onto achieving a worthy aesthetic effect. This type of success is loaded with emotion - think Truffaut's 'I'm only interested in films which express the joy or the agony of filmmaking' or Sam Fuller's little speech in Pierrot le fou. However I think we have to be able to recognize this achievement through outer signs as well as inner stirrings, especially the more distanced we are from the filmmaking process (it's much easier to respond acutely to sheer craftsmanship when one has just engaged with the practical and aesthetic challenges of film production oneself). The fact is we are imperfect receptors, but we should still be able to cerebrally recognize a worthy achievment even if we don't respond to it in our gut. I'm stating this imperfectly - it sounds like I'm advocating for hollow Oscar bait or something which isn't my intention. Perhaps I'll have to elaborate.
At any rate, as to the guilty pleasure thing I personally am NOT comfortable staking claims of greatness based solely or even primarily on personal reaction (although I am in favor of advocating for great films this way, as a matter of practical evangelism rather than philosophical principle). I'll talk about these films for sure, celebrate them definitely, but I will maintain a separate category for greatness aside from personal enthusiasm.
Let me put it to you this way, to return to the baseball analogy: for many people, watching their child's little league home run gives them as much pleasure as watching Babe Ruth. But can they honestly say they are equally 'great'?
For what it's worth, if I were to create a canon of filmmakers without being too pedantic, it would look something like this. These aren't all necessarily personal favorites. Many are though, and they're all essential in my opinion: Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Alfred Hitchcock, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Maurice Pialat, Jean Vigo, Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Luis Bunuel, Carl Dreyer, Agnes Varda, Chris Marker, Nicholas Ray, maybe Kiarostami, maybe maybe Bela Tarr. You have others who have made great films but whose oeuvres as a whole may be somewhat more dubious. These may include, Resnais, Truffaut, Bertolucci, Fellini, and perhaps others.
OK, first a big thanks to Joel for reminding me that after 14 days these comments need to be moderated.
(What's annoying is I don't get an e-mail prompt to let me know comments are there. I'll be better about proactively checking the queue, but if there's a delay, that's the reason.)
A few quick replies ...
RAR: "What are some films you feel you're supposed to respect and admire which you don't particularly care for, aside from the silents mentioned in the initial piece?"
To be clear, I'm really not trying to pass judgment against the silents that made the top 10. I mean, I think Hitchcock's greatest film, and one of the greatest films of all time is REAR WINDOW, so the movie that I'm most compelled to swap out of the top 10 is the one that's No. 1 on the list: VERTIGO (which doesn't mean I'm upset that VERTIGO made the top 10).
I identified those silents, and a few others, because, to go back to the baseball comparison used in the comments section, I don't think those movies get discussed as the Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, etc, of cinema. But they got voted on that way. My stance is that somehow or another we're getting it wrong: EITHER cinephiles are falling too much into the groupthink and historical gatekeeping of "admiration" when it comes to be list time, OR they truly see these films are the Ruth, Gehrig and Cobb of cinema but don't discuss them that way between polling opportunities. Probably some combination of both. I'm happy if any of the above is improved to make the larger, more consistent conversation about cinema tangle with the greatest films of all time, frequently and constantly, rather than giving them the stage every 10 years.
Joel: "Let me put it to you this way, to return to the baseball analogy: for many people, watching their child's little league home run gives them as much pleasure as watching Babe Ruth. But can they honestly say they are equally 'great'?"
No. But this goes back to what I said a few comments above, the idea that if we rely on our emotions we'll suddenly become stupid. To use the same exact example, if you asked that parent if their child or Babe Ruth was a greater baseball player, who wouldn't say Ruth?
I see the direction you're going: some amount of cerebral, analytical thought should go into movie watching (and, as a natural extension, movie evaluating and ranking), and I agree. Wholeheartedly.
The point I was trying to make a few comments ago with that anecdote about Matt Seitz watching COSMOPOLIS was this: If you are a cinephile who values that cerebral experience, then you will be moved in ways beyond the cerebral. You will still think, "This is fucking great!" At least, that's what I think when I'm presented with a movie that I find masterful on a technical or cerebral or whatever other 'non-emotional' level.
Yes, but I know personally I've seen movies that did little for me on first viewing but which, eventually, I came to admire and even enjoy because I returned to them. When I first saw Au Hasard Balthazar I was quite disappointed, while a first viewing of L'Avventura hardly left me thinking 'That's fucking awesome!'. Yet by the time I composed a 100 favorites (not even best, but favorites) last year, both films were on there. Now, granted, part of what made me eventually 'see the light' was that even after not feeling fully satisfied, something about the films intrigued me enough so they didn't leave my mind. Yet I can't deny that a big part of my inclination to return and reevaluate came from the spur of their reputation. If I didn't value the concept of greatness beyond my own initial subjective response, I might not have given them another chance. This to me is where the collective wisdom of canons (a word that, oddly enough, doesn't seem to have come up much in this discussion so far) comes in handy.
Also, I know my appreciation for both films deepened at a time when I was myself practicing filmmaking on a small scale. That helped me recognize - eventually on a gut level - the value of what the directors are doing. But not everyone will have this experience and there should be a way 'in' to this perception for them as well. Part of it is having good guides/advocates for sure but part of it is also having the willingness to explore beyond a gut reaction. Again, this is a matter of principle vs. pragmatism, though I think it's still important.
On another note, while I think we're not far from each other (despite different emphasis) on the above matter, I'm curious about your take on the other end of this: not the under-valuing of a cerebral appreciation but the over-privileging of visceral enjoyment especially when it comes to advocating for guilty pleasures not just as 'favorites' but as greats, or as if there's no distinction between the two categories.
Joel: More great thoughts. First part first. You write:
"That helped me recognize - eventually on a gut level - the value of what the directors are doing. But not everyone will have this experience and there should be a way 'in' to this perception for them as well. Part of it is having good guides/advocates for sure but part of it is also having the willingness to explore beyond a gut reaction."
First off, I entirely agree that there should be a way "in." But here's what divides us a bit: In that last sentence you're equating "gut" reaction to "initial" reaction. I understand why: in casual conversation we use "gut reaction" to mean a no thought, no reflection, immediate response. But in the context of this larger discussion, and my S&S reaction, that's not what I mean by a gut response at all.
What I'm getting at is the idea that we must FEEL the greatness, rather than ADMIRE the greatness, the latter of which, seems to me, often has less to do with a cinephile actually admiring anything and usually more to do with the cinephile not caring enough to mount a case AGAINST the film they supposedly admire. (Follow that?)
Let me try it this way: If someone says to me, "I admire 2001; it's a great film." I think, how great is it if all you can do is "admire" it? Greatness shouldn't require us to respect it out of duty. Greatness demands our honest, heartfelt appreciation. Otherwise, how great is it?
This is personal, I realize, but I subscribe to the idea that art is meant to have an effect. I don't care about the degree of difficulty that went into that effect, I care about the end result. That's why a single, anchored long take can be greater than the most meticulously designed camera movement. We shouldn't asking ourselves what went into the shot but what the shot achieved. And what's true at a shot level is true at a film level. The rest, in the end, is trivia.
That said, I'm 100% behind the idea of being moved by a film's construction or architecture. That's real. That's what some people are moved by. But if we're being moved by the architecture of a bridge without paying attention to whether that bridge actually crosses the abyss, we're kind of missing the point.
So I'm not against canons. They're part of this larger advocacy process. But we should be challenging those canons constantly, and the canons should be strong enough to welcome the challenge. Often, in my experience, openly questioning a film is the first step in eventually understanding it in a real, heartfelt way. Otherwise it's too easy to simply go down the prescribed checklist handed to us of what the film does, nod our head in agreement that it does that, and "admire" it for having moved someone else, even though it didn't move us. Again, does that sound like greatness?
So, when I use gut, I'm referring to that experience you had with L'Avventura as much as anything. It doesn't matter how long it takes you to think something is "fucking great" as long as eventually you do. Building canons from movies that truly move us (mentally, emotionally, spiritually, whatever) doesn't necessarily mean that those canons will suddenly be filled with trivial, surface pleasures.
Joel: Fun discussion. Second part now. You write ...
"I'm curious about your take on the other end of this: not the under-valuing of a cerebral appreciation but the over-privileging of visceral enjoyment especially when it comes to advocating for guilty pleasures not just as 'favorites' but as greats, or as if there's no distinction between the two categories."
Two thoughts here. The first is pretty simple: any cinephile who wants only one thing -- whether it's visceral or cerebral, happy endings or dark ones, etc -- probably feels stuck on an island. But I'd rather have people being totally honest about what moves them than kneeling in respect of cinematic greatness they don't believe in. And, here's the thing, we should all want that. We should all hope that the people who love VERTIGO or CITIZEN KANE love it with as much truth as they love THE DARK KNIGHT or THE AVENGERS or whatever else is high on their list. If they don't, they should feel comfortable saying so.
The second thought is a bit tricky: In short, I think we should open our minds up to the ideas that our favorite movies are great movies, somehow or another. Maybe only great to us, because they fit us just right. Often, they are probably not nearly as GREAT as so many other films that we also adore. But let's say for example that 9 of your 10 favorite films are identical to the S&S top 10, except that THE SEARCHERS has been replaced by, I don't know, TOMMY BOY. If the movie ranks that high to share the air with those other films, there's got to be a reason for that, and you should explore it and share it. Yeah, maybe it's personal. Maybe others won't get it. But maybe they will. (And this wouldn't hurt any canons, because your outlier would cancel out with mine, and so on, and the greatest of the greats would rise to the top.)
Think of all the great movies that we don't consider great simply because no one ever put them on the table for serious consideration.
Re: the first part, as I said I don't think we're ultimately that far apart here. Certainly I hope that the admiration will lead to enjoyment; I view it as a necessary step in that direction. I guess the question is, when you're still in the admiration stage, should you acknowledge a film as great, or should you regard it with skepticism until it does? My only issue here is that, just as I know I've had fun watching movies for superficial or personal reasons (the subject matter interests me, nostalgic value, whatever) I've also not enjoyed good movies simply because I wasn't in the right mood. I can sense there's something there but it doesn't quite reach me and I can usually tell when the fault is with my attention span or mood, or something down to the circumstances rather than me or the film.
I've also seen movies I love either too many times in succession or in a different frame of mind and not enjoyed them so much. In those cases (unless I notice something particularly flawed in the movie which I didn't pick up on the first time) I'm going to judge the film by its high-water mark, that is to say the time I most enjoyed it.
Ultimately I think you and I probably share Payline Kael's view that greatness is not the opposite of the qualities that appeal to us in 'trash' but rather an extension of them; that is to say, at it's CORE greatness is a measure of emotional/visceral effect even if (as I believe can be done, to a certain extent) we're trying to read signs of this from the outside, which can have the side benefit of being a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ok, on to part 2...
"My intent is to urge cinephiles to passionately advocate for the films they find great -- whatever they are -- with great regularity and persistence."
I suspect I haven't marshaled my thoughts on this well enough to be cogent or, perhaps, clear, so I think it best to start by saying right out that I respect your exhortation, and the arguments made for it in the post and comments, and have even said much the same thing to myself in the past, on more than one occasion. For all that, and I truly don't mean to be flippant in saying this, my first thought on reading that sentence was:
Easier said than done.
It's hard to write about great films and hard to write about films we love, and especially hard to write about the great films we love- to the extent there's a difference, itself a question for endless debate. At least, it's hard for me. Writing, like greatness, being a very personal thing.
Do I have anything new to contribute to what's already been said? Do I have anything perceptive to say? Will I do justice to this great movie that I love? If this is the post that prompts an ugly comment, is my skin thick enough to ignore it?
Most of those fears, or challenges to take the positive view, are personal, and my own responsibility to face head on, but the last is largely out of my control.
And it matters. More than it should, and definitely much more than I wish it did. Realistically speaking it's most unlikely a post I've labored over and poured my heart into will prompt a crass or cruel comment (the good thing about having no readers being... having no readers), but I've lived on the internet long enough to be scarred.
Will I write more about the movies I truly, passionately love after this? I don't know. I think I'll start small, by commenting more often on other people's blogs that are engaging with the great films in a constructive way, like this one.
Joel: First part. We're not far apart here at all. What I'd point out from your comments about not being in the right mood, etc: there will always be barriers. Sometimes we'll be aware of them. Sometimes we won't. I'm all for going back and giving films a second chance. Or a third chance. Or more. And it you "get it" on the fifth chance, it's real. What isn't real is seeing it once or twice and having the movie not connect and pretending that you see the greatness anyway -- whether you're pretending to an outside world or just to yourself. I've made this mistake plenty of times in the past, particularly in my younger days, and it's the thing I now take most seriously. I trust my instincts. I think about what I felt. I try to diagnose it. Often, I write about it, and that usually helps me understand what I'm feeling even more. That doesn't mean my opinion is set there. It might change, for better or worse. And, yes, if I'm surrounded by people connecting with a film and I don't feel it, I'm probably going to be compelled to give it another chance, to try to see it from their point of view. Sometimes that leads to discovery for myself. Other times I simply see what they see, but it has no ultimate effect. The only thing I can do is, well, keep it real.
A quick story: A few years ago on this blog, I wrote about The Big Lebowski and how I didn't understand what people saw in it. I'd seen the movie a few times at that point. That piece was honest. After I wrote it, I watched the movie again. And then parts of it on TV again. And then from the start again. And suddenly I realized I was "getting" the movie now. Not to the extent of its biggest fans. Not all the time. But I was truly connecting. It just took a while. Do I suddenly think that's a "great" movie? Hmm, not quite. Not for me. So I wouldn't rank it as high as others, and the fact that the movie means so much to so many, or that it was directed by the Coens, means nothing to me. I can only trust my own experience and report it honestly.
"It's hard to write about great films and hard to write about films we love."
This is true. Often, I think it's true because when we think a movie is THAT great, we assume its greatness is so fucking obvious, so fucking universal, that it's stupid to try to point it out -- like looking at Shaquille O'Neal and saying that much of his basketball greatness was due to being tall, big and powerful. Well, duh.
And, you know, maybe that is part of the reason why the S&S list is dominated by so many dark or challenging pictures: because maybe it makes us more comfortable to back movies that we think need our support, if not from cinephiles than at least from casual moviegoers who might overlook or disregard subtle nuances or ambiguity or abstraction, etc. Nobody needs a tour guide through a maze that's clearly marked with arrows pointing the way. Maybe we're more comfortable playing tour guide for films that have the potential to leave others lots in the hedgerows. That would make sense.
But what I remind myself -- and, yes, it's still easier said than done -- is that all criticism (written or spoken) should be an honest accounting of one's observations and responses to the subject. And if those wind up looking like every appreciation ever written for a beloved film, well, what's wrong with that? And if instead the appreciation stands alone and inspires others to lash out at it, well, that's precisely why it needed to be written: in the hope that you can make others see.
Oh damn, I actually DID write a part 2. Did it not go through? I'll try to rewrite from scratch if so. :(
Didn't go through. Sorry, man.
I probably messed up the captcha without realizing and then x'd out. Ah well. Maybe this'll force me to be more economical...
The gist of it was that if someone wants to argue for Tommy Boy's greatness by saying, for example, that Duck Soup is considered great on the basis of its jokes rather than its filmmaking, and that Tommy Boy's jokes are just as clever and inventive, or whatever, that's a legit approach. But if the argument for its greatness relies on 'I watched this film with my pal Danny when we were 12, and watching it now brings me back to that time' or 'I own a car dealership, and Tommy Boy's situation reminds me of my own' I would say the arguer has not made a compelling case, or hasn't really made a case at all, for why the film is 'great' rather than, or in addition to, being a 'favorite'.
After all the two terms exist for a reason, as they connote different phenomena, however overlapping. I think greatness must rely on theoretically universal criteria (at least for a majority of people - obviously, a blind person cannot really experience silent cinema) and be at least partially reliant on aesthetic qualities in the work itself.
I'm all for advocating for favorites but if we are retaining a sense of 'greatness' (and whether we should or not is a separate question, but I say yes and based in your terminology so far it seems you think so too) it has to be distinguished from the other term.
This isn't to say one can't artfully combine the two arguments, especially for the purpose of advocacy (for example using the Danny story to say, 'And Tommy Boy's air of innocent adolescent prankishness can take all of us to such a place, whether we experienced that film or even such a time in our own youth' or 'Tommy Boy's ability to connect with the reality of a car dealership show the writer's ability to tap into the average American experience and the vast potential for comedy therein'). But it's important to note that the core of the argument, whatever the rhetorical decoration, does not revolve around the entirely subjective qualities, which are used as means to an end.
Joel: We agree on much of this -- the overlapping and so forth. But I'm not sure I understand what you're saying here:
"But it's important to note that the core of the argument, whatever the rhetorical decoration, does not revolve around the entirely subjective qualities, which are used as means to an end."
If you're suggesting that there should be standards upon which greatness is determined -- standards that I suppose would somehow evaluate whether a film is well written or well shot or well acted or whatever, and standards that apparently remove the subjective (as if that's possible or even desirable), I disagree.
Who made those standards? Why those standards and not others? Etc.
To go back to your first paragraph, sloppy arguments are sloppy arguments. But it doesn't matter if it's a sloppy argument in favor of TOMMY BOY or DUCK SOUP or VERTIGO. It's the argument that's flawed; it doesn't tell us anything about the film. Not on its own.
Yes, I think a movie can be among your "favorites" without you thinking it's "great," simply because you might have a hell of a lot of favorites, and so you might reserve "great" for your favorite of the favorites, if you catch my drift. But it isn't a weakness to have a fondness for easily likeable movies, and the noticeable trend against such films in the S&S top 250 should give us pause. I'm not arguing that all great movies are easily accessible; two of my three favorite films last year were TINKER TAILOR and TREE OF LIFE. But films aren't great because they're difficult to access either. (Not that you're arguing that.)
Maybe I can get to the point better this way: If there are universal criteria upon which films should be considered great, and if those criteria are firm and dependable, isn't the conversation around any movie made more than, let's say, 30 years ago effectively over? And if it's over, why go through exercises like the Sight & Sound list, inviting new people to assign the same grades? What's the point? And why would we want to reduce art to an assembly line quality inspection, which sounds like an extreme comparison, but once we decide there are standards that's kind of what it becomes, isn't it? Thoughts?
My main thought is that this opens up a whole new can of worms!
I think if you're using 'great' simply as 'favorite of the favorites' the term becomes somewhat redundant, and also divorced from its original purpose (and also a lot of the connotations it still carries, which is where its use can become misleading).
At this point the discussion has to move back a step and refocus not on how best to detect greatness but on whether greatness even exists. It's a conversation I've had many times, but it's been a few years! Still, not sure you want to go there given that this weeks-old conversation is already closing in on 100 comments. I'm up for carrying on, vmbut can understand if you would rather postpone it till the next appropriate occasion arises. The most extended, in-depth debate was here: http://checkingonmysausages.blogspot.com/2010/02/citizen-kane_05.html
...and the thread went even longer than this one! It is a fascinating topic though, and goes to the central but largely undiscussed heart of much art and criticism.
Succinctly, I would say that there is a place and value for a kind of shared subjectivity which can be called objectivity for lack of a better term, in which we use the term 'great' to describe movies that have a certain quality, one that is appreciated viscerally (and therefore subjectively) but is no less real - and no less accessible for being so. That doesn't quite get across what I'm saying, but if the conversation continues I'll collect my thoughts and attempt to state the idea more artfully down the line.
Crap, I deleted another comment!
What I'd like to do quickly is respond to a few of your specific questions, whether or not we continue the larger debate. Partly to refresh myself from the sogginess of the more abstract general questions!
Who sets the standards?
I think two overlapping yet distinct groups should: those who want to approach film on a reflective manner, using sensitivity and thoughtfulness to analyze a movie-watching experience, and those who know through study or practice what actually goes into making a movie. The two approaches balance each other nicely - the first by focusing in results and not getting too caught up in respecting the effort that went into it; the second by reminding us that the film arose out of concrete circumstances, and thus encouraging us to see it as something carved out of an often hostile reality, and not merely conjured out of thin air as a magical object. This helps us see the film as a journey with its makers, which in my experience heightens the enjoyment and broadens the experience.
Why these standards and not others?
The first question kind of answers the first. These standards because experience (of both watching many movies and, hopefully, learning how they are hewn) has taught us their value. And because these qualities have a proven ability to evoke an emotional response more often than not. Certain objective gestures are tied to certain subjective responses. Thus if something doesn't 'work' for us but we see the usual outward signals are there we can suspect that may be we missed something. The external signs are cues. Example: we realize that many of our most rewarding experiences in a movie involve tracking shots. We see a well-executed tracking shot and are unmoved. We can then note that this is curious and ask ourselves why: was there a flaw in the execution of the technique? We're we in a distracted frame of mind when we watched it? Did something about the scene that came before (maybe a subject matter we find boring, or an aesthetic approach we don't like so much) set us off on the wrong foot to appreciate a deserving follow-up sequence? Or maybe the technique is fine, but the gesture doesn't work in an overall context. An appreciation of craft can help guide us between dismissals of a film that are deserved and those that are undeserved.
If universal criteria exists, isn't the conversation over?
No, because of the old horse/water analogy, whether one thinks it's easier to lead the horse to water or to make it drink; either way a challenge is involved.
Keep in mind the criteria is potentially universal, that is to say most people can access these experiences, but it may require some work on their part.
A critic's job is to light the path and offer directions.
Hopefully this also answers why all-time canons are necessary, at least in principle, though their practical orientation probably could use some tweaking. (But for a while now we've been more focused on motivating principle & standards rather than pragmatic approach, which is a separate discussion and reliant in large part on settling the question of principle first.)
Why reduce art to a quality inspection?
I would never want to completely turn film appreciation into some kind of cold, purely technical analysis. For one thing this is not pragmatic to the long-term goal of evangelizing, for another it tends to dampen the motivating enthusiasm of the critics themselves, and furthermore it ignores the wild, unpredictable variables that can't entirely be captured by too systematic an approach.
Yet I do think mainstream criticism, and film appreciation as a whole, could use a healthy infusion of more sharp-edged formal analysis. Movie buffs seem too be more skittish about this than say art or food buffs (where the 'I just like it because it tastes good' approach is frowned upon in an increasingly foodie culture). Probably for a few reasons: film's status as a popular medium makes 'artistic' analysis seem beside the point, also, the filmmaking process is far more complicated than the painting or cooking process, and thus harder to comprehend and analyze.
Deciding that there are certain features of films which are typically 'good' or even 'great' gives us more of an anchoring, and makes the passing of judgment less arbitrary and more cohesive. It also creates an interesting dialectic with those more impressionistic, visceral responses which certainly need not (and will not) go away.
"Maybe we're more comfortable playing tour guide for films that have the potential to leave others lots in the hedgerows. That would make sense."
Expanding on this notion, I think we're just generally more comfortable writing about complicated films than films that are straightforward. (I don't like to say simple, only because it's a loaded term and too often taken as derogatory instead of descriptive.)
Signposted is too reductive, but complications in plot, character or what-have-you are a natural starting point when we want to convert appreciation into description and analysis. What did he mean, what was she thinking, what really happened there, what do you think happened after the lights came up... now those are questions we can really sink our critical teeth into. And talk about, equally with cinephiles and casual moviegoers, using concepts and words that everybody is familiar with and uses the same way (he said that, her expression said this, did you notice in the shadows in that one scene...).
A movie doesn't have to be complicated to be great, but a great movie that isn't complicated doesn't have that natural "in" to writing about it. How do I explain why a comedy made me laugh to somebody who doesn't get the joke? Or the visceral excitement of a great chase scene to somebody who doesn't "get" action movies, period? When a drama makes me cry, how do I put that depth of feeling into words? How do I talk about shot composition if the term itself produces a blank stare?
These observations aren't original, and they aren't intended to suggest that it's not possible to write well about uncomplicated movies or that it isn't worthwhile to make the attempt. Because I imagine my typical reader as one of my friends who enjoys movies but very much tends to the passive consumer mode, it is something that informs my own writing.
"A movie doesn't have to be complicated to be great, but a great movie that isn't complicated doesn't have that natural "in" to writing about it."
Well said. Quite true.
Joel: Sorry for the delayed response.
Let me hit your most recent comments all at once.
"I think if you're using 'great' simply as 'favorite of the favorites' ..."
I'm not intending to do that at all. The comment you're responding to there is part of a very loose hypothetical from a previous line of thought. So, just to be clear, that's not how I'm defining "great," no.
"Example: we realize that many of our most rewarding experiences in a movie involve tracking shots. We see a well-executed tracking shot and are unmoved. We can then note that this is curious and ask ourselves why: was there a flaw in the execution of the technique? We're we in a distracted frame of mind when we watched it? Did something about the scene that came before (maybe a subject matter we find boring, or an aesthetic approach we don't like so much) set us off on the wrong foot to appreciate a deserving follow-up sequence? Or maybe the technique is fine, but the gesture doesn't work in an overall context. An appreciation of craft can help guide us between dismissals of a film that are deserved and those that are undeserved."
OK, here goes:
There's a difference between (a) understanding cinematic vocabulary and our own biases (for or against things) and (b) committing to universal, group-think or historically prescribed standards for greatness.
There's no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Understanding cinematic language is a significant part of decoding what a filmmaker is trying to do. So to keep with the above example, tracking shots tend to have a certain effect or message and static camerawork has another, and so on, from the use of light and darkness, to the use of score and silence, etc, etc, etc.
I embrace the idea of returning to films and trying to see them according to their intended angle of approach.
But, again, cinema isn't math. It isn't a machine. A tracking shot (again, just to keep with the example) might have a near universal intent, but that doesn't mean it has a universal effect -- not person to person or, especially, film to film. Our responsibility as good cinephiles is to not simply check the boxes that detail a film's construction but ask ourselves if that construction achieved its intended goal. That is, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck is it indeed a duck, or is it a guy doing an imitation of an Aflac commercial.
You've mentioned food critics a few times, and I imagine that appreciation of food and appreciation of cinema are actually quite similar. You can be a fan of the taste only, manufactured in a lab and injected into your fast-food, or you can be a fan of construction, marveling at how several organic elements are combined to achieve a specific effect, or somewhere in between. But if you're evaluating food and using others' opinions of what good food is to tell you that what you're eating tastes great, well, you've lost your way, and you don't know what greatness tastes like anymore.
(And, to be clear, that's the generic "you," not you specifically.)
Back to what I was saying about Hou Hsiao Hsen and Weerasethakul, I honestly don't feel most recent 'serious' filmmakers to be on the level of Bresson, Ozu, Godard, Antonioni, Rohmer, et al. They can certainly be impressive at times, but as stodgy as this may seem, I honestly believe the likes of HHH, Weerasethakul, Sissako, Ceylan, Hong Sang-soo, and others fall short of the so-called 'old masters' of 'serious' cinema. Kiarostami, along with perhaps Bela Tarr, Panahi, and Philippe Garrel are exceptions. I'd also add Claire Denis when she's at her best, although at her worst she can be excruciatingly tedious. I find her quite erratic. And I'm conflicted regarding Haneke.
Hey Jason, thanks for responding again...I have a pretty busy few days coming up but I'll respond in turn within the week. I'll email you when I do since you're not getting the notifications anymore. I see this as one of those ongoing, slow-paced conversations that unfolds like an old-school critic's correspondence. Sometimes I wish there were more of those in the blogosphere (and sometimes I don't haha).
RAR, in the case of Jia and Weeraesthakul at least I feel these directors - who,importantly are working in cinemas that are in some senses 'younger' than western ones (China's obviously dates way back, but was heavily situated by the extended Maoist period) - are the equals of the classic directors, but in a very apples-and-oranges way. It's the latter-day Western directors I tend to feel suffer in comparison to the past even when - as in the case of,say, the Coens or Wes Anderson - their individual vision and technical craft is the equal of the old masters. Something about the prerogatives of Western cinema at present seems to deter the creation of masterpieces. The only European filmmaker I'd currently rank with the old masters is Lars Von Trier, who manages to forge an expressive originality from the self-consciously post-everything milieu of contemporary Western art cinema. Perhaps I'll elaborate when I return to respond to Jason in a few days.
Actually, re-reading Jason's comment I feel like I actually have a pretty simple response: I think we are in basic agreement on the fundamentals yet the way we are pursing our comments makes it sound like we're disagreeing! Not sure why this is.
2 questions may clear this up:
How do you think the viewer/writer should approach or apply self-questioning (I feel like this may be the crux of whatever disagreement exists)?
How DO you define greatness?
At any rate, this is definitely a 'great' thread!
Joel: The second one is fairly easy, although it won't clarify our conversation any. Truly, I think greatness is defined by a movie that makes me think, "This is fucking great!" What causes me to think that could be, and often is, ANY NUMBER OF THINGS. But I know it when I see it. I trust that. It doesn't mean that I discount the opinions of others who find greatness elsewhere. And I do my best to see the film from their perspective (if they've stated it, and the sad truth is that many don't provide a map). But if I don't feel it, if I don't believe it in my gut, then I don't call it greatness. Because I can only be true to my own experience.
As for the first question ... Can you rephrase that, when you get a chance. I'm not entirely sure what you're asking me.
Oh, one more thing ...
Several times in this conversation the subjective, the personal, has been dismissed as somehow unreliable. That's not unusual. This is something a lot of cinephiles wrestle with. It usually goes something like this: 'Oh, sure, I think HOOSIERS is great, but I grew up in Indiana and love basketball.'
Here's the thing, though: If you broaden that out, this doesn't sound so terrible. For example, if a Japanese person was especially fond of THE MAKIOKA SISTERS, because it reminded them of their family, no one would say, "Oh, then your vote is unreliable. You're too close to it." And only a fool would say, "Well, you can say it reminds me of your family, but I grew up in America and it doesn't remind me of my family at all, so it clearly sucks."
So, to keep with this example, my point is that the Japanese cinephile can only respond according to his/her own experience. And the American can only respond according to his/her own experience. And it could be that THE MAKIOKA sisters does NOT have cross-cultural appeal. Or it could be that it does for many, but not for all. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Our personal histories, our biases, our vulnerable areas ... they are what they are. My position is that it's our job as cinephiles to be good ambassadors to film by describing our own reactions and what we see. If we do that honestly, those personal connections will surface naturally. But to try to offset our biases is impossible, not least of which because it assumes we always recognize those biases, that they're always as obvious as 'Hoosier fan who likes basketball.' Often, those biases are invisible.
1. But what IS greatness? Or at least, if it's similar to 'favorite', what distinguishes it? At this point we're verging on tautology.
2. To rephrase the other question: At what point, an in what manner, should a viewer or writer question his/her own judgement of the film? Purely based on a shift in gut reaction? What should facilitate a reviewing or reappraisal?
3. This is why we need to define terms, though, because you are continuing to use 'like' interchangeably with 'thinks is great'. You want to maintain a distinction between these two modes of appreciation but I'm not altogether clear what defines that distinction for you. As for myself, I have absolutely no desire to say that a Japanese viewer is wrong to 'like' the film for the above reasons and absolutely no problem saying they are wrong to consider that sufficient grounds to call the film 'great.' Is it any different than our imaginary viewer arguing that Tommy boy was great because it reminded him of hanging out with Donny?
Looks like I am not taking that break...yet. ;)
What about Bela Tarr, or do you not consider him Western?
Joel: Well, all these things have a tendency to overlap. If you think something is "great," I would think there's a very good chance it's also a "favorite" and something you "like" and "appreciate," etc.
That said, I'm sure there are a number of reasons why someone would consider something a "favorite" and still not think it's "great."
But my overall point of the previous comment remains: To suggest that the Tommy Boy/Donny bias is any different than a bias toward films of a given culture or genre or period or political slant or theme, etc, is silly. The Tommy Boy/Donny bias is simply easier to spot, because it's more distinctive.
What is greatness? I've said how I define it: It's a movie that as you're watching it makes you think, "This is fucking great!" Again, not necessarily the first time, but eventually and consistently over time. Again, not necessarily in an emotional way, but perhaps in a cerebral way, etc. The point is, the assessment of greatness comes from YOU. If it doesn't come from you, then all you're doing is providing the pencil to go down someone else's checklist of prescribed qualities for greatness -- and bringing your own biases to the table in doing that, too.
I'm all for trying to see things through someone else's eyes, to understand why they think something is or isn't great, or is or isn't something else. What I'm against is preserving someone else's assessment of greatness as if it was our own reaction. To me, that's dishonest. And while some would argue that it cheapens the idea of "greatness" for anyone at any point to put something like TOMMY BOY on the list, I'd refute that with this: The definition of "greatness" is a lie if we don't see it and feel it ourselves. And that cheapens everything.
RAR: good point; he probably didn't come to mind because I haven't seen any of his recent films, or indeed anything he's done other than Satantango. Really my statements on 21st century Eurocinema should be qualified by the fact that there's much I haven't seen yet (for example only Cache by Haneke, who is considered one of the era's major auteurs). But from what I have seen its Von Trier who impresses the most and also most bucks the trend toward a 'minor' cinema.
Though there are some important distinctions between the Donny/Tommy scenario and your other examples, ultimately they are all insufficient as arguments for 'greatness' so we agree there. But a few comments ago, weren't you using the Makioka Sisters example as a valid argument (and this implicitly distancing it from Donny/Tommy which you'd already dismissed)? In truth I'm not quite sure why you brought it into the conversation.
As for the rest I still need to hear your definition of greatness before I can understand what you're talking about. 'That's fucking great!' may be an internal reaction but the word has an external source and is freighted with meaning and history. If it's going to be used, the user must is obligated to define it and defend its application, otherwise they're just coasting on its associations while conveniently distinguishing it from the implications they don't endorse.
Also, 100 comments - woohoo!
This is an aside to the larger conversation, but since you specifically mention The Man with the Movie Camera in your piece, I thought you might want to read David Thomson's essay in The New Republic:
Near the end, he discusses Movie Camera's inclusion and rather than seeing it as a sop to snobby old cinephiles out-of-touch with the masses (a group he somewhat self-loathingly scorns earlier in the piece) he sees it as representing the younger pool of viewers, pointing to a more contemporary way of viewing cinema, as fragmentary, non-narrative, driven by editing rather than a more tightly controlled, photography-motivated mise en scene.
The same day, on the same site, another essay went up, by David Denby, which I found extraordinary:
I responded to it here:
Joel: "But a few comments ago, weren't you using the Makioka Sisters example as a valid argument (and this implicitly distancing it from Donny/Tommy which you'd already dismissed)? In truth I'm not quite sure why you brought it into the conversation."
My point was simply that certain biases/predispositions are considered frivolous (say, identifying with HOOSIERS because you love basketball) while others are hardly considered at all (say, a Japanese person identifying with MAKIOKA SISTERS). Biases are biases. We all have them. Sometimes they are obvious. Other times not. To suggest that some of our reactions to movies are the result of our biases and others aren't suggests we know what our biases are and can control them except in extreme situations; I think that's silly. And the significance to our conversation is this: I don't know why you'd want to, but you can't step out of your body and analyze art without bias -- unless you reduce it to math, plotting points on a graph.
As for the definition of greatness: honestly, I could no more define the term than I could define "funny." I've defined it to the best that I can. I don't believe that my "great" and your "great" need to look anything alike. I expect only that cinephiles can define why they think something is great. But the word is a feeling, a state of being, not a strict unit of measurement, no matter how often it's suggested to be so.
Gotta run. Hope that clarified a few things. Thanks for those links! I'll check those out later this week.
Jason, to be honest I think you just want to use the word 'great' when you mean 'favorite.' Everything you've described and implied leads to this conclusion - the only exception being when you take a direct step back and say they're not synonymous. Bit when it walks, swims, and quacks like a duck...? Why cling to the term great if 'favorite' fits the bill? What is it about its associations appeal to you? That's what has me confused.
And not to belabor the Makioka-Tommy thing but first you acknowledged the Tommy/Donny argument was 'flawed' because 'it doesn't tell us anything about the movie' but then above you suggest that all of our reactions to films are the result of equally valid (or invalid) which would seem to mean there's nothing wrong with Tommy/Donny, so which is it?
Looking forward to your take on the two David's. The Denby in particular has been kicking around in my head since I read it on Saturday. Not to tip the scales, but I suspect we'll disagree there too haha.
What 'minor' cinema are you referring to when you say Von Trier bucks the trend?
In reverse order ...
"And not to belabor the Makioka-Tommy thing but first you acknowledged the Tommy/Donny argument was 'flawed' because 'it doesn't tell us anything about the movie' but then above you suggest that all of our reactions to films are the result of equally valid (or invalid) which would seem to mean there's nothing wrong with Tommy/Donny, so which is it?"
Well, this is the problem with a discussion that carries on over 100 comments: arguments made in the moment don't have enough detail, or the right detail, to be helpful for the evolving conversation later on. In the previous case when I was disregarding the argument I meant only that the simple argument 'I like Tommy because he reminds me of X' is really a comment on X, not the movie. If the 'reminding of' is all there is to it, then, we agree, that's worthless, and sorry if I was suggesting disagreement where we had none. But here's the thing: I really don't know anyone who reveres movies in such a simple-minded way. More likely, even if a reference is personal, it's broader than that. For example, the relationship in FIELD OF DREAMS might remind a son of a relationship with his father. That's specific, personal. It's also broad, thematic. It's not, "I like this movie because my dad wanted to play baseball, too" but more likely, "My dad wanted to play catcher, too, and this movie evokes that experience/feeling that I happen to have seen in life first hand." Following me?
I'd write on, because I know I haven't put all the pieces together, but at this point I've touched on these pieces so much that I feel you're either seeing the direction I'm going or I'm going to have to pick some of these ideas and rewrite them again from scratch, and I don't have the time to do that at the moment.
Which brings me to this part ...
"Jason, to be honest I think you just want to use the word 'great' when you mean 'favorite.'"
OK. Fair enough. Personally, I do see a very close connection to those words, yes. Because I love movies -- they are some of my favorite things. And, not surprisingly, I love great movies more than lousy movies. So great movies are some of my favorite things. Beyond all of that, I do believe that if something is among your "favorites" that it is probably "great" -- in several significant ways or entirely -- and the obligation of the cinephile is to recognize that connection and try to trace it to its source.
As part of that exercise -- this leads us back to the first part -- I think there's room to realize that you connect with something for fairly frivolous reasons. To keep with a similar example: "X makes me laugh because he reminds me of this guy I knew in high school; looks just like him." Yes, I agree, in an extreme example like that -- and I think those are extreme -- that tells us very little about the movie. And most cinephiles can go through that kind of reality check very easily.
I'm hesitant to connect "favorite" and "great" mostly because, for whatever reason, most cinephiles treat those words like oil and vinegar, as if they can't blend together. So I'm comfortable saying that movies that I think are "great" are my "favorites." I think that's accurate. I'm not comfortable applying that translation to others, however, knowing that those words might mean wildly different things.
Truthfully, the words don't matter to me that much. It's the honesty of the response that matters: explaining what a movie did and how that affected YOU and why.
Sorry for the ramble. It probably inspired more confusion. Best I could do tonight.
RAR, maybe it would be better to say 'minor key' which sounds less judgemental. Basically I think the trend is towards more subdued styles, more focused subjects, and more 'local' themes. I like Von Trier's ambition, which seems rare these days. Off the very top of my head, Flight of the Red Balloon (Asian director, but archetypally European in a lot of ways), Summer Hours (which I loved) and Lives of Others (which disappointed me) strike me as minor-key films, though the latter two have some grand themes they are all stylistically rather conservative and narrow in focus.
For further elaboration, I'll repost the link to my blog I included above. The focus of the Denby essay I'm responding to is more on mainstream American cinema but in the comments I had an extended conversation with another blogger which touched more on the major/minor, big/small dichotomy in European art cinema.
1. I follow you, but I know for me personally I might be compelled to watch a movie purely for thematic or nostalgic purposes. If a film is about radical seventies terrorists/guerrillas I'll watch it and probably enjoy it on some level even if it's deeply flawed. Because I'm interested in the subject and even the least interesting movie about it will still interest me - to the point where I'd probably watch it again and maybe even buy it. As for nostalgia, a movie can activate that for me by the simple virtue of having been seen by me when I'm 4. That's all it takes. So I guess I AM that rare person who can respond to a movie so simpleminded a way! That's one reason I maintain a divide between favorite or enjoyment, and great or admiration.
2. Keep in mind that I view this as essentially an academic, theoretical debate. I think it has importance because principles guide us in important judgements and give us a framework to reference when disagreements arise. But it's sort of like military preparedness or nuclear deterrence; you want it in your back pocket for emergencies but most of the time you're not going to use it.
In everyday scenarios, I don't dwell much on the criterion for greatness; in fact the irony in having this discussion now is that I'm in the midst of preparing a 'favorites' series for my blog which will focus mostly on my totally subjective entry points into various films, many of which I do consider great as well. So I completely get where you're coming from in pragmatic terms, its just that additionally I see a bigger picture which I know I might want to grapple with on occasion
As an aside, I won't begrudge you if you publish a comment but don't respond for a while - I appreciate your quick responses but know the obligation to respond right away can be wearying. I'm all for continuing the conversation - and branching it off - as long as you're interested, but am fine with it taking a snail's pace at this point.
Joel: I'm sure this conversation will remain ongoing, in other comments sections at least, even if it slows down or stops in this one. It should continue; and not just because it's fun.
One last note for now on the "favorite" vs "great" thing.
I imagine that more significant than anything in understanding what those words mean to someone is knowing their ratio of one to the other.
For example, let's say there are 10,000 movies I think that are great, but there are only 100 movies I consider my favorites. I suppose it's possible for someone else to look at with those numbers reversed. That's why it's difficult to say the "great" means "favorite" or "favorite" means "great." Often the two will be connected, but they don't have to be.
Your latest example helped a little bit in understanding the point you're making. Because, sure, I suppose someone could predominantly love Westerns and thus think that any movie with a guy on a horse is "great," simply because it meets this very specific taste, even if the same person sees all these flaws in the film. But in that case, what's really happening, I think, is this: the individual thinks the GENRE is great. Now, that might not be the argument the person would make, but that would be the reality, and this is where it links back to my point: any attempt by that film fan to honestly assess the power of the film would reveal -- intentionally or not -- what drew him/her to the film. And when we realize that the traits of a Western is all the movie has going, well, that's probably not going to be very compelling as an argument of greatness.
So, yeah, maybe we are more on the same page than I was thinking for a bit there. Good to toss around the ideas.
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