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The Radicalization of the Film Canon

Sight and Sound’s 2022 poll is a sign of the times.

· 12 min read
The Radicalization of the Film Canon
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975)

On December 1st, the British Film Institute’s monthly magazine Sight and Sound published its latest list of the 100 greatest movies of all time. The world-renowned poll has been conducted once every 10 years since 1952, when the magazine first invited a handpicked selection of critics to vote on the question. In subsequent decades, the voting pool was expanded to include directors until 1992, when the directors’ poll and the critics’ poll were segregated to produce two separate lists.

The winner of the 2012 critics’ poll was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film under-appreciated by audiences and critics alike upon its release in 1958, but which is now thought to be among its director’s most mesmerising and important works. Cineastes may continue to debate whether Vertigo is superior to Citizen Kane (which it replaced in the top spot), but its influence on the development of cinematic art and language has been incalculable. The young iconoclasts at Cahiers du Cinéma were devotees and it fascinated the film school grads of the American new wave like Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma. Following years of critical re-evaluation and imitation, Vertigo’s emergence as a revered classic in 2012 was hardly a surprise.

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

The winner of the 2022 critics’ poll, on the other hand, raised more than a few eyebrows. Belgian director Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a 202-minute work of glacial minimalism, which painstakingly dramatises the daily routine of a middle-aged woman who earns money by selling herself. It’s deeply admired by the few people who have seen it, but it’s rarely discussed today. Even its most ardent admirers would, I think, struggle to argue that it has had a fraction of the cultural impact of Vertigo or Citizen Kane. Dielman’s surge from #36 in the 2012 poll to #1 in 2022 only really makes sense as a political statement rather than an assessment of artistic importance. This is, after all, the first time that a film directed by a woman has topped Sight and Sound’s poll, and the film’s status as a feminist portrait of a sex worker appears to meet the demand for a more progressive canon, inclusive of previously marginalized voices.

This has led some observers to suspect that the results had been massaged to produce a politically desirable outcome. In a characteristically blunt post on his Facebook page the day after the poll results were published, the veteran American screenwriter and director Paul Schrader spoke for many skeptics when he wrote the following:

For seventy years the SIGHT AND SOUND POLL has been a reliable if somewhat incremental measure of critical consensus and priorities. Films moved up the list, others moved down; but it took time. The sudden appearance of “Jeanne Dielman” in the number one slot undermines the S&S poll’s credibility. It feels off, as if someone had put their thumb on the scale. Which I suspect they did. As Tom Stoppard pointed out in Jumpers, in democracy it doesn’t matter who gets the votes, it matters who counts the votes. By expanding the voting community and the point system this year’s S&S poll reflects not a historical continuum but a politically correct rejiggering. Ackerman’s film is a favorite of mine, a great film, a landmark film but its unexpected number one rating does it no favors. “Jeanne Dielman” will from this time forward be remembered not only a[n] important film in cinema history but also as a landmark of distorted woke reappraisal.

In 1952, the inaugural poll was won by Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves for no other reason than that 25 participants who mentioned it were passionate fans. Citizen Kane replaced it 10 years later and retained the title of the Greatest Film of All Time until it was, in turn, deposed by Vertigo in 2012. But even then there were grumbles about the emphasis on the achievements of a stodgy old guard. So, in 2022, the magazine decided to consult academics and solicit suggestions for how they might further expand the voting pool, which consequently grew from 846 participants to 1,639.

The composition of the electorate duly changed to reflect the broadening influence of virtual platforms and the growing preoccupation with diversity and representation within the film industry and the wider culture. It was no longer dominated by critics from legacy print outlets—bloggers, academics, and festival programmers were all invited to have a say and their input seems to have led to the introduction of new criteria of artistic value. And for these new voters, Jeanne Dielman’s political radicalism—and its feminism, in particular—is at least as important as its formal and aesthetic innovation. The deliberate depiction of mundane chores (cooking, buying groceries, etc.) offers an austere portrait of a protagonist bound by the social expectations of an unwaged housewife scraping a living by degrading herself with strange men.

The film’s director passed away in 2015 at the age of 65, but were she alive today, Akerman might well be nonplussed by the political baggage her film is being asked to carry. In a 2010 interview, she maintained that its subject is “not special” and that the situations Jeanne encounters would scarcely be different if she were male. She was, she insisted, “speaking about people”—that is, she was exploring a human condition rather than a specifically female one, and she resisted the film’s reputation as a “feminist” or narrowly political work:

“When people ask me if I am a feminist film-maker, I reply I am a woman and I also make films.” Throughout her career, she resisted categorisation—structuralist, minimalist, feminist—yet finally admitted: “Maybe [the labels] are right, but they are never right enough.”

By stripping the film of its apolitical complexities and its place in the context of Akerman’s catalogue, critics are doing it a disservice that seems to reflect their own need to feel enlightened rather an attempt to provide a sensitive assessment of the film on its own terms.

In this sense, skeptics like Paul Schrader seem to have understood the film better than its over-promoters. That did not, of course, prevent him from being dismissed and attacked as an aggressive reactionary. In response to a comment from someone taking issue with his post, Schrader added that, “The notion of the canon is based on history and if the history has to be predominantly white and male, so be it.” This may have been clumsily worded but it was at least an honest attempt to grapple with the unfashionable idea that those advantaged by historical circumstance may still have produced works of great importance and beauty. At the very least, this view merited charitable engagement. Instead, Robert Daniels, an American film writer who contributes to Vulture and the New York Times, declared it a “sad, embarrassing white supremacist take by a filmmaker I truly admire” and called it “ugly [as fuck].”

Dielman isn’t the only entry on the 2022 list to receive scrutiny. In particular, the promotion of films from the last decade of cinema was also widely felt to be informed as much by politics as aesthetic quality. Jordan Peele’s Get Out purports to expose the hidden racism of white liberals. Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight sought to subvert the white heteronormative male gaze with a female, queer, or black perspective. And Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite put the genre tropes of the suspense thriller at the service of an anti-capitalist allegory. Many critics regard these films as artistic triumphs, but they are also perceived as important political statements about oppression and exclusion.

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The films that dropped out of the Top 100 between 2012 and 2022 have also generated debate. It is disappointing, but perhaps not altogether surprising, to find that great works by controversial directors like Roman Polanski and Sam Peckinpah have fallen out of favor. The tarnished reputations of these directors notwithstanding, what use is a list of the 100 Greatest Films that finds no room for evergreen classics like The Wild Bunch or Chinatown? And do Get Out or Moonlight really deserve inclusion at the expense of films like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, or Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket?

Daniel Kremer, a filmmaker and film historian who provides commentary tracks for the Kino Lorber Studio Classics label, joined Schrader in expressing his incredulity and dismay at the way in which politics appeared to have triumphed over aesthetics at Sight and Sound:

I was actually prepared to make peace with a radically rejiggered Sight & Sound poll, with some reservations, until reading the following:

- Sight & Sound hired a consultant who vowed on Twitter to “push hard on the straight white male film canon” and “set it on fire.” In other words, he entered into it as a kamikaze mission.

- Eminent, veteran critic Michael Sragow (a longtime participant in the poll) writes, “This year, the editors requested that participants fill out a form profiling our race, age, and gender, with seven categories listed for gender. So I pushed the word count allowed in ‘Comments’ to the max—I wanted to celebrate my choices according to my own personal aesthetic, not my sociological profile.”

Translated: A specific outcome was desired, so they weighed the results to their liking.

Kremer seems to have overstated his case a bit. As the editor of Australian film quarterly, Metro, pointed out in the comments:

Just to clarify on the second point: the form Michael Sragow refers to was emailed to us immediately after our entries were submitted, and the accompanying text explicitly stated that the information provided would be anonymous and not be stored against individual ballots. It was also optional (and I know that because I forgot to fill it out!) So it was really just a demographic survey, and there’s no suggestion that any submissions were weighted or that it had anything to do with contributor selection.

Nevertheless, Kremer did make some eloquent and necessary points about the general direction of cultural travel:

I’m sorry, this is not charting any way forward to progress. Fierce social engineering to foster a kind of … how to put this … weirdly retrograde tokenism is, to me, more racist and sexist and homophobic than the implicitly exclusionary tactics that these measures (faux-)attempt to ameliorate. Like so much else I have seen in the last couple years, it’s a wan, doctrinaire “capital P” Progressivism that sets the fight for social progress back, because it squanders once-in-a-generation initiatives, destabilizing rather than paving real, sustainable ways forward. That’s what most upsets me. Why and how? Because it fosters the heartiest of suspicions in its wake, and appears desperate on the part of the aggregator, hereby demeaning the artists and works that have been promoted under it. Whereas before, these works might have been overlooked (perhaps even unfairly), now in the wake of the above red flags sowing doubt, they will be the butt of jokes. And THAT is unfair.

The unnamed academic consulted by Sight and Sound turned out to be a scholar named Girish Shambu, who appeared in the thread below Kremer’s post to speak in his own defence. He pointed out that he was just one of a number of consultants asked to recommend names that might be added to the enlarged voting pool, and that this had been the limit of his influence. However, he then went on to give a succinct illustration of exactly the kind of moral and cultural relativism with which Schrader and Kremer and many other critics of the poll were taking issue:

why ON EARTH would one assume that a significantly more diverse voting pool would produce THE SAME film choices as canonical favorites from past polls? How ARROGANT it would be of us to assume that Casablanca or the films of Ingmar Bergman (for instance) would be held in the same god-like reverence by (for example) all women, by all Black people, by all queer folks. Let’s be totally honest: The ONLY way to justify this would be by white men (the PRIMARY group that has historically anointed those films) imposing a “universalism” upon everyone else by declaring those films “objectively great.” But as we all know, taste is anything but objective. It is socially constructed, and is powerfully shaped by our life experiences as we move through the world. And we all know that the kind of people we are (men, women, white, Black, straight, queer) RADICALLY affects our life experiences in this world. Which then automatically translates to a BROAD spectrum of taste and value. The great lesson that seems to be emerging from this poll is that the canon isn’t something that is unchanging and uniform for everyone, but a heterogeneous mix of works valued by a heterogeneous mix of people…

The problem with all this is that it fails to fasten on the complaint at issue. The universalism over which Shambu pours so much scorn is precisely what makes works of art great, because it speaks to our common humanity and results in works that can be enjoyed by anyone. One does not have to be white or Swedish to enjoy The Seventh Seal or Indian to enjoy the Apu Trilogy. Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films—as Shambu must surely know—inspired a generation of Westerns, and the Japanese director twice transposed works of Shakespeare to feudal Japan. What Shambu appears to be advocating is a balkanised smorgasbord of parochial, provincial artworks only accessible to those with the requisite life experiences.

Shambu’s remarks on this speak to the current state of contemporary film criticism, informed as it is by ideological dogmatism and obsessively concerned with the politics of grievance and difference. He displays no interest in explorations of human joy and suffering, triumph and loss, yearning and despair. He wants to hear the gripes of those discontented with the capitalist and neoliberal order and to privilege the voiceless and marginalized in the name of social justice and intersectionality. There is nothing to contemplate or learn, just the need to redress and instruct in the cause of vengeance and validation.

The 2022 directors’ poll offered an alternative outlook on the cinematic canon, which better balanced the critical consensus of the past with an effort to satisfy the political priorities of the moment. It placed 2001: A Space Odyssey on top instead of Jeanne Dielman (although Akerman’s film also appeared in the top 10). It included some of the works omitted by the critics’ poll, such as The Godfather Part II, Raging Bull, Chinatown, and Lawrence of Arabia but still found space for Moonlight and Parasite. It also acknowledged some cinema from Latin America, while the critics’ poll—in what was surely an unforgivable diversity lapse—nominated no Latin American films at all. The concessions to political correctness are still irksome, but at least the directors’ poll suggested that aesthetics and politics need not be mutually exclusive.

The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Naturally, a director like Ti West had his choices derided because entries like Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Jaws, and 2001: A Space Odyssey were deemed incurious and uninteresting by the denizens of Film Twitter who wanted ethnic variety not another list of admired staples from white male directors. This specious rationale is only popular with people who spend too much time online or in classrooms reading theory and not enough time actually enjoying cinema for its own sake.

It is unfair to conclude that any of this reflects poorly on the films themselves—either those that were included or those that are now overlooked. The only discredit accrued by this unfortunate episode falls to the magazine and to the voters who have placed the appeasement of activists above the measure of artistic and creative worth. By making people more aware of their supposed cultural biases and working to correct for them, the canon becomes less serious. And still the reformers demand more. Some complained about the lack of Latin American or African representation, while others grumbled that only one black female filmmaker has been included. And so the “work” must go on, with its myopic focus on the identity of the author rather than the profundity or insight of their art.

In a video accompanying the poll, Sight and Sound’s managing editor, Isabel Stevens, declared that Citizen Kane was, for many “cinema’s perfect ambassador, representing Hollywood’s global cultural influence, legitimising the maverick genius auteur theory, and by both celebrating and cautioning against rich, white male power, it reflected a dominant capitalist, patriarchal ideology, the bedrock of the film industry and modern society itself.” Dielman, on the other hand, is celebrated as a “pointed critique of power imbalances and social servile constructs [which] helped redefine the female gaze…”

In the digital age, lists like these are not thoughtful assessments of quality, they are salvos in a culture war, intended to antagonize the mindless and galvanise the mindful. The project may be well-intentioned, but it has nothing to do with an appreciation of what makes art important and valuable. As Kremer put it in the conclusion to his post, “Just because a particular film hits the third rail of the social zeitgeist does not automatically render it worthy of inclusion on a list of the greatest films of all time. We still need to be grading these works cinematically. I still—and will always—believe in the individual. And in individuality. Not in crowds and madness, and hive mind.”

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