U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Canon Wars, The Informationalization of Cinema, and the Sight & Sound Poll

As most readers of this blog are probably aware, Sight & Sound, the venerable monthly film magazine published by the British Film Institute, announced the results of their once-a-decade poll of critics and directors earlier this month.  Since 1952, the magazine has asked a select group of film critics to name the ten greatest films of all time.  The lists are submitted unranked.  The magazine then simply adds up the number of mentions of each film and produces a ranked list of the greatest films of all time. Since 1992, a parallel poll of critics has also taken place.  The big news from this year’s polls is that, for the first time since the inaugural poll of 1952, when De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves grabbed the top slot, a film other than Citizen Kane finished in first place in the critics’ poll: Vertigo, which appeared on 191 of the 846 top-ten lists, beat out Kane (which was on 157 lists). In the directors’ poll, for the first time, Kane also lost the top slot, which went to Ozu’s Tokyo Story (#3 on the critics’ poll).   The results of both the critics’ and directors’ poll can be found here.

From the moment of its release, the poll has been the talk of both film blogs and film podcasts (e.g. this and this…but the volume of commentary on it has been truly extraordinary).  The conversation has also spilled into more general-interest blogs.  I find the Sight and Sound polls oddly fascinating and wanted to do a post taking an intellectual-history angle on them.*  My first thought was to do a fairly comprehensive review what people were saying about the polls, but I quickly got lost in the endless commentary on them.   However, two aspects of the polls–and the discussion of them–that I found interesting seem to be getting little mention.  So they are the subject of this post.

The Sight & Sound poll emerged in 1952, toward the end of a long period in film criticism in which establishing that cinema was a serious art was one of the perennial tasks of those who wrote on film.  Canon construction was an important part of this task. And it’s hard to imagine a purer example of canon construction than the Sight & Sound poll, with its technique of simply counting the mentions that each film receives from those polled.  While this year’s poll has been praised by some and criticized by others, I’ve been struck both by how few people have questioned the entire enterprise and by how mild such criticism has been when it has come. 

Not so long ago, canons were an important front in our ongoing culture wars.  Now, however, they seem to have lost their status as a cultural flashpoint. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the epicenter of the canon wars was, of course, college campuses. But these days, as far as I can tell, the struggles over great books courses and reading lists in general have eased, even as the underlying issues of those struggles very much remain.**

If once canons seemed to some like an invidious attempt to draw a sharp line between a handful of great works (almost inevitably authored by Dead White European Males) and the rest of human culture, today they are more often treated as one might treat a mixtape: a suggestion of what one might profitably consume that represents a personal opinion on the matter more than an authoritative statement from on high.  The status of those taking part in Sight & Sound poll–as professional critics or directors–makes the poll potentially worth listening to. But in no sense does it forestall the possibility of the rest of us coming up with our own mixtape-like Top Ten lists, which we might then blog, e-mail, tweet, or torrent to our friends and beyond.  Rather than shutting down conversations, as some once felt literary canons did, this year’s Sight & Sound poll has been almost universally seen as a conversation starter.

Part of what’s changed, I think, is the way we consume movies these days.  I come from the last generation whose cinematic education began before the home video revolution of the late 1970s and early 1980s. When I first began to watch movies seriously, my knowledge of film was still at the mercy of (pre-cable) television and theaters.  Especially in a town like Berkeley, these could provide an excellent introduction to world cinema.  Repertory theaters like the UC and the Rialto 4, and arthouses like the Northside, provided me with a terrific cinematic education, supplemented by local television’s tendency to fill time with old movies.  My strongest t.v. movie memories revolve around Creature Features, the late-night Saturday horror / monster movie show on Oakland’s KTVU (Channel 2), hosted by the inimitable Bob Wilkins.  Wilkins aired an incredibly eclectic mix of films. His show introduced me to everything from Ray Harryhausen’s work to the Toho studio Japanese monster movies, from the classic Hammer films of the 1950s and 1960s to Night of the Living Dead (which scared the pants off of me).  Here’s Wilkins introducing a particularly obscure horror flick…though I think you’ll get a sense of both his nerdish enthusiasm and the care with which he tried to pass his cinephilia on to his audience:

One could certainly get an excellent introduction to film from these sources. Indeed, the New Hollywood generation of filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, became steeped in the history of cinema largely via watching old films on t.v. But starting when I was in high school, home video became an ever more important method of cinematic consumption.  Over the course of the ’80s, repertory film theaters remained vibrant (though they often became part of chains), but by the end of the decade they had entered into steep decline.  Of the repertory theaters of my college years in Cambridge, one–the Brattle–is still hanging on, but the Orson Welles is long gone (a fire led to its closure while I was still in college).

VHS, and later Laserdiscs and DVD, meant that one was no longer constrained by the programming choices of others. Though which films were available in these formats was–and remains–a source of some frustration.  Nevertheless, the world of cinema opened up in a way that it never had before.  Even when a film was unavailable on VHS, one could often obtain bootleg copies, often recorded off the air. Indeed, there was an outfit in L.A. that used to rent such films by mail.  Yes, the quality was often low. But certainly no lower than that of the films that the young Martin Scorsese watched on his family’s small black-and-white television in the 1950s.

We’re now in the midst of the latest phase of the ongoing home video revolution. For those with an internet connection, streaming video makes an enormous quantity of film instantly available through services like Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, and Amazon streaming video. The Internet Archive has made a large number of films that have fallen into the public domain available via torrent. And, if one is willing to break the law, virtually any film imaginable can be found online for free.

At the time I began high school in the late 1970s, it would have been practically impossible to see Vertigo.  The #1 film on this year’s Sight & Sound critics poll had been withdrawn from circulation by Hitchcock’s estate in the early 1970s; it would return to movie screens with much fanfare in the 1980s.  Today, I could begin viewing it on my computer screen in a matter of minutes without leaving my desk.
We can now, I think, go beyond talking of a home-video revolution and instead consider what one might call the informationalization of motion pictures.  This is, to be sure, a mixed blessing. Seeing Vertigo on my computer screen is not remotely the same thing as seeing it projected in 70mm.  Indeed, even in theaters, digital formats are threatening to kill off celluloid.  But the informationalization of motion pictures fundamental alters the way we consume movies…and the way we think about our consumption of them. And it contributes powerfully to our experience of the Sight & Sound poll as a kind of mixtape–a cultural production we can both experience and re-mix ourselves–rather than as the hermetic declaration of a cultural authority.

* “In the old joke about The Daily Worker, an editor hands a rewrite person a wire service item about a motorcyclist knocked over by a car, and says, ‘Class angle this one, comrade.'”– Alexander Cockburn, The Nation, October 16, 1989.

**  Once again I’ve strayed onto ground that is the professional province of two of my fellow bloggers, so I hope Andrew and L.D. will add to these thoughts about canons and canon wars.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I wrote (in It’s Only a Movie) about the early history of Sight and Sound (first issued in 1932) in the context of other journals like–Hollywood Quarterly and Cahiers du Cinema–to elevate the level of discussion about films. So the attempt to create a cannon of films dates back to at least the mid-1930s, see also MoMA’s film library which opened at almost at the same time as Sight and Sound began publishing. And as you observe, Ben, programming film viewings whether in a society or film festival or an art house enjoyed a privileged place for a while–the golden age moviegoing perhaps. At least what I concluded was that the decline in the need for film programs was overshadowed by the much larger and more intellectually influential development of the decline of authority among film critics.

    • How do you periodize the declining authority of film critics, Ray? The Bosley Crowther generation was replaced by a new generation of film critics, including Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, in 1960s and early 1970s who seem to me to have retained a fair bit of cultural authority, even though they went about their business in a very different way.

    • I think of the polls as “cannon-lite.” The war over cultural authority ended with the decline of critics in the mid-to-late 1970s. There was a canon created among film journals, film festivals, art theaters, and critics between the mid-1930s and early 1970s and that rich history of debate over movies has been reduced to top 100 lists. To me, the fact that those polls get the press they do reveals the sorry state of film culture and film criticism among the public.

  2. What’s interesting about these sorts of exercises is that even if you completely change the voting population, you still can get predictably narrow results. To wit, Pitchfork magazine’s “People’s List” of the top 200 albums released since its founding in 1996. It’s no surprise whatsoever that OK Computer took the top spot. But it is exactly that sort of pantheonization which stimulates the backlash iconoclasm that sets out to knock the idol off its feet of clay. Hence the carping whenever Sgt. Pepper’s tops lists of greatest albums, such as Rolling Stone‘s. And it’s just that sort of contrarian spirit that allows Vertigo to “usurp” Citizen Kane‘s throne. By just about any criterion you want to apply, Kane is orders of magnitude more important to the history of film than Vertigo. It’s not even close. Which is exactly why, in a decade or two, when another edition of the poll comes out Kane will be back on top, when a new generation of voters looks at this poll and wonders, “Vertigo?!?! What the [expletive deleted] were those people smoking?!?!”


    • I completely agree on the relative merits of Kane and Vertigo (though I should add that I think Vertigo is a wonderful film in its own right). But it’s worth noting that Vertigo‘s appearance in the top slot is not simply a momentary bit of contrarianism. It first appeared in the top ten (at #8) in 1982. It climbed to #4 in 1992. And in 2002, it came in at #2. I’m suer contrarianism played a part; it’s appearance at #2 may have made it a good target for people in an anti-Kane mood. But that’s not all that’s going on here.

      It’s worth noting, too, that no film came close to appearing on a majority of ballots. So though there is a very stable pantheon of films, it’s the product of a fairly fractured sense of what the greatest films are.

  3. In the past four years I’ve gone from watching very few movies from before the 1960s – outside of Capra and Hitchcock – to watching probably hundreds now, mostly through TCM and Netflix. I still don’t know a whole lot of film history and often end up looking everything up in the imdb and wikipedia. The latter can be really hit and miss in terms of detail, but one thing is pretty consistent: if critical responses are mentioned you’re almost certainly going to find out what Bosley Crowther thought of the film. I assume the NYT’s digitization of old reviews has a lot to do with this. I hope it doesn’t mean a new generation will grow up on his criticism, but I guess that’s a matter of taste.

Comments are closed.