Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Some Arguments I Have with the Sight and Sound 2012 Critics Poll of Best Films

Sight and Sound recently announced the results of their 2012 poll to find the greatest films ever. (They do it only once every 10 years; for more info, click here.) In my previous post I explained why S & S is my favourite movie magazine, but that doesn't mean I can't violently disagree with their poll. Anyway, the results reflect the opinions of 100s of critics from around the world whom they asked to contribute, so I don’t blame them directly for the fact it’s a such a dry list (no animated films, only one musical, very few comedies).

This is the Top 50:

1. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
2. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941
3. Tokyo Story (Ozu Yasujiro, 1953)
4. La Règle Du Jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939)
5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (FW Murnau, 1927)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
7. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
8. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer, 1927)
10. 8½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
11. Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
12. L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934)
13. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
14. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
15. Late Spring (Ozu Yasujiro, 1949)
16. Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
17= Seven Samurai (Kurosawa Akira, 1954)
17= Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
19. Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974)
20. Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1951)
21= L’avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)
21= Le Mépris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
21= The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
24= Ordet (Carl Dreyer, 1955)
24= In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000)
26= Rashomon (Kurosawa Akira, 1950)
26= Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
28. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
29= Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
29= Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
31= The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
31= Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
33. Bicycle Thieves (Vittoria De Sica, 1948)
34. The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1926)
35= Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
35= Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
35= Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975)
35= Sátántangó (Béla Tarr, 1994)
39= The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)
39= La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
41. Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954)
42= Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)
42= Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
42= Gertrud (Carl Dreyer, 1964)
42= Pierrot Le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
42= Play Time (Jacques Tati, 1967)
42= Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
48= The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
48= Histoire (s) du cinéma (Jean-Luc Godard, 1998)
50= City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
50= Ugetsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi Kenji, 1953)
50= La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962)

There are three films I haven’t seen in this list: Journey to Italy, Sátántangó and Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles. Of the rest, there are plenty that are good, but not that good (Pather Panchali, 8½, Breathless, Close-Up) or over-rated but not terrible (Play Time, Pierrot Le Fou). However, the following to me are the real shockers:

  • Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
  • Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
  • Gertrud (Carl Dreyer, 1964)
  • Histoire (s) du cinéma (Jean-Luc Godard, 1998)
  • L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934)
  • L’avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)
  • Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974)
  • Ordet (Carl Dreyer, 1955)
  • Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)(see note below)
  • Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
  • The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer, 1927)

I can’t understand how anyone could even consider these films for inclusion; I wouldn’t put them in my top 5000, let alone my top 50. And I actually feel sorry for young students of film who are going to watch them for the first time based on this list, for they are real ‘horse-hair shirt’ movies. They’re the filmic equivalent to eating from a bowl of sawdust for two or three (or nine!) hours. When master chefs gather and choose the greatest ever dishes I’m pretty sure they don’t choose sawdust, but for some reason film critics insist on doing exactly that.

Anyway, here’s an edited list of the top 50, showing the films that definitely are worth watching

1.      2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
2.      Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
3.      Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
4.      Bicycle Thieves (Vittoria De Sica, 1948)
5.      Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941
6.      City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
7.      La Règle Du Jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939)
8.      Late Spring (Ozu Yasujiro, 1949)
9.      Le Mépris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
10.  Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
11.  Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
12.  Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
13.  Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
14.  Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
15.  Rashomon (Kurosawa Akira, 1950)
16.  Seven Samurai (Kurosawa Akira, 1954)
17.  Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1951)
18.  Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
19.  Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (FW Murnau, 1927)
20.  Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
21.  The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
22.  The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1926)
23.  The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
24.  The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
25.  The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
26.  Tokyo Story (Ozu Yasujiro, 1953)
27.  Ugetsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi Kenji, 1953)
28.  Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

Note on Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985): 

Since it is controversial to even dare to say you don't like this film I wanted to add this note. The self-righteous director of this 9-hour marathon tried to imply that anyone who spoke against his self-proclaimed 'masterpiece' was an anti-Semite. Pauline Kael dared to give it a negative review and there was an outcry- which is kind of shameful for those leading the outcry, that they could be so scared of one opinion that was not the same as theirs. Her bosses at the New Yorker made her preface her review with a comment that was almost apologising for having a dissenting view. How incredible! As if she were a Holocaust-denier like David Irving! Wouldn't it have just been easier to say: the Shoah is one thing, Shoah is another. 

People are still posting articles online in the 2000's in which they say they're shocked that she could have made 'such a mistake'. They talk about her being 'willfully obtuse' and 'failing as a human being'! They hint at dark motives. I myself am just shocked that people could so easily confuse a film with the event it depicts. I say again: the Shoah is one thing, Shoah is another. When you criticise the film you do not deny the Holocaust and you do not insult the Jewish victims portrayed in it. You could at most be accused of 'insulting' Lanzmann - but really you are just treating him with the same objectivity you give to every other film-maker when you say why you think their film-making technique did or did not work.  

And it is really quite worrying that it seems that everyone must love this movie. I Googled 'Shoah negative reviews' and it was just all positive reviews. It felt eerily like I was in some 1984-type world where the computer gives you not what you ask for, but what it decides you need. The whole notion that we are all duty-bound to love and admire any one work of art, that a different view is frowned upon and oppressed, has unfortunate associations with totalitarian regimes and it's sad that America in the 80's could have seemed quite so similar to North Korea in the 80's. I hope things have changed!

In fact it is an incredibly slow film. There's no archival footage in it at all. It's nearly all talking-head shots and very slow pans across the Polish countryside with little background music to help things along, and Lanzmann, who was often in front of the camera as well as behind it, did not strike me as a sympathetic guide. One of the biggest flaws is just a basic technical problem in the way the interviews are conducted. It's not just that often things are said twice. It's that we have to listen to interviewees say their piece - often at quite some length - in Polish or German or Hebrew and we have no idea what they're saying. Finally it's translated into French for Lanzmann, and only then do we get the English subtitles. So time and time again there are these redundant passages in the film. If they'd just cut out the interpreter and put subtitles over the original language, that alone would have cut out two or three hours of flab in the film.

Such clumsy film-making would be hard to take in a three-hour movie but at 9 hours it's ridiculous; it just becomes a test of stamina and nothing more. Kael complained of getting restless whilst watching it and her critics claimed this was blasphemous; to think of her own comfort in the cinema was to ignore the suffering of the people in the camps. Such a view implies the film was designed to be an unpleasant ordeal. But that is a terribly futile way to think about it. You do not enlighten people by making them bored and resentful. You serve everyone best by making a film which will engage them. And if Lanzmann had edited down his film to a more manageable length, far more people would have seen it so it is really he who did the Jewish people a disservice.

Passenger (Andrzej Munk, 1963) is just one of the many films about Nazi atrocities that is far better than Shoah (see full review here). Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985) is another. But above all, you'd be far better off spending your 9 hours reading a few good books about the subject. Kael said the film did not have ‘the complexity of a great work of art’ and to see what she means just read one of the classic books on the Holocaust which in two or three hundred pages can make you think far more deeply about this subject than Claude Lanzmann can. There must be dozens that are more worth your time than this film. Four excellent ones I can recommend personally are Martin Gilbert - The Second World War, Gitta Sereny - Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, Ron Rosenbaum- Explaining Hitler and Geert Mak- In Europe.

For more on the many accusations of self-righteousness and pomposity made against Lanzmann, see here or here. In the latter, note the letter at the end from someone who was also making a film about the Holocaust in 1981 and asked Lanzmann if they could speak with one of his Shoah interviewees; he flatly refused and told them ‘Forget your film, I am making a masterpiece’. Sad to say, but Mr Lanzmann sounds like a world-class plonker. 

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