U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Guest Post: Andrew Seal on Canon Formation and the Sight & Sound Poll

Guest blogger Andrew Seal follows up today on my post from last week on the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. Andrew is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Yale.  His dissertation concerns politics and print culture in the twentieth century Midwest. His other research interests include Jewish studies, queer studies, and 20th/21st century US literature.

Thanks, first of all, to Ben Alpers for allowing me to respond at greater length than a comment might allow to his very sharp and insightful post about the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. He is very right to see the poll as a valuable resource in trying to get a handle on many of the kinds of questions which intellectual historians might ask about film criticism and (mostly elite) film consumption.

It is especially valuable, as he notes, as a snapshot of contemporary cultural politics surrounding canons, which has certainly changed in the past twenty or even ten years, although perhaps not quite, I think, the way that Ben argues it has. Ben makes the case that the positive responses to the Sight & Sound canon reflect an embrace of a sort of DIY approach to canon formation, where even the most authoritative canons are seen more as “conversation-starters,” and less as tools for indoctrination or discrimination. Furthermore, he very compellingly links this new attitude toward the massive increase in casual availability of all kinds of films—an increase which has made it possible for an avid cineaste to feel that she is, as Ben says, “no longer constrained by the programming choices of others.”

Yet I would argue that, far from reflecting a “mixtape” approach to canon formation, the 2012 Sight & Sound poll still shows all the fingerprints of a quite deliberately programmed approach to the cinema and to its history. Less important than the relatively anarchic, “make-your-own-queue” influences of YouTube and Netflix have been the still quite top-down institutions like the Criterion Collection of DVDs, the New York arts cinemas like Film Forum and the IFC Center, and prestigious film festivals like those at Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, and Venice.

First let me say why I think it has been rather difficult to see this less anarchic spirit in the coverage of the release of the 2012 poll. First of all, a huge percentage of discussion of the poll has centered around what is, in my opinion, a non-issue: the toppling of Citizen Kane from the number one spot in the critics’ poll (by Vertigo) and in the directors’ poll (by Tokyo Story). As Ben noted in the comments to his post, “no film came close to appearing on a majority of ballots,” but not only that, the difference between Kane and the two films displacing it was, proportionately, pretty small: Kane appeared on only 4% fewer ballots than Vertigo in the critics’ poll, and less than 2% fewer than Tokyo Story in the directors’. Yet this switch has been granted enormous magnitude: in the words of the Scott Tobias of the Onion AV Club, it’s “like having to orbit around a different sun.”

Secondly and somewhat contradictorily, as that Onion AV Club article also points out, the rest of the top of the list has remained remarkably steady (or stodgy) over the decades and resolutely resistant to more recent films: the “newest” film in the critics’ Top Ten is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out two years before Paul Thomas Anderson, director of There Will Be Blood, was born. Together, these two factors—the Citizen Kane shake-up and the stodginess—make it seem as if the voters are collectively both a little capricious (why the ascendancy of Vertigo after all these years?) and also not paying close attention to the ongoing development of cinema (can it really be the case that nothing since 1968 deserves the hyper-immortalization of Top Ten status?). The picture one might be forgiven for forming is of a voter exploring the back catalogue of films somewhat idiosyncratically, championing a few favorites, but generally insulating herself from newer, fresher currents, or, more charitably, remaining aloof from trendy directors-of-the-moment and cause célèbres.

 I think this picture is inaccurate, though, and a closer look at the whole 2012 list compared to the whole 2002 list shows why. First off, it’s important to note that Sight & Sound itself has made impressive efforts to adapt to a quite different landscape of film criticism and production; most significantly, it has massively expanded its voting pool: from 145 critics in 2002 to 846 in 2012 (a nearly six-fold increase!) and from 108 directors in 2002 to 359 in 2012 (about three-and-a-third times larger). This expansion has meant that the total number of films voted for has increased abundantly as well, but not quite in line with the ballooning of voters: from 884 films in 2002 to 2556 in 2012—an impressive enlargement, but less than three-fold.

Moreover, a detailed look at what the new films on the 2012 list are indicates that this healthy but not overwhelming expansion of the canon also seems to be along some definite, and relatively specific, lines. As Tobias notes in the Onion AV Club article cited above, the one big change in the Top Ten is the introduction of the Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, and this greater enthusiasm for non-narrative film extends strongly to the broader field. While I can’t, unfortunately, be precise in quantifying how many documentaries, avant-garde shorts, and pieces of filmic installation art have been added (Sight & Sound doesn’t have a column for genre, and it would be rather laborious—and subjective—for me to supply it), I can approximate it by listing some of the non-narrative or experimental directors who gained the most from the poll’s expansion: Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, who had no films in 2002 and now have fifteen; Stan Brakhage, whose tally increased by nine; the documentarian Frederick Wiseman, who went up from a single film to ten; and Robert Beavers, Jan Svankmajer, and Bruce Baillie, none of whom were represented in 2002, but who each have seven films listed in 2012. By contrast, Federico Fellini, whose films are artsy but not, I would argue, truly experimental, lost four films from 2002 to 2012. (For more, I have created a spreadsheet with all the data mentioned above and below in this post; it can be found here.)

Most of these non-narrative directors’ films are not available via Netflix, and one would have to look fairly hard to find many of them on YouTube or other free streaming sites (I’m speaking from experience here). And that’s also the point—if one is on one’s own, one has to look hard for them, and to know where to look and what to look for. The presence of so many non-narrative films on the 2012 list suggests to me that the changes between 2002 and 2012 are not due to casual exploration, but rather to focused and guided recuperation of certain films and certain kinds of films.

The Criterion Collection is probably the most famous and most admired effort along these lines and, while it doesn’t have a large number of experimental or documentary films in its inventory, its influence on the list is fairly evident. Alongside the more mainstream re-releases of fairly well-known classics, Criterion runs a series called Eclipse, which “is a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple affordable editions. Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer.” Almost every Eclipse series contains a film that was new on the 2012 Sight & Sound list. A striking number of other new Criterion releases also joined the 2012 list.

The films selected for the Criterion Collection have often been recovered first at New York art cinemas like IFC or Film Forum: a sensible connection, after all, because the curatorial and technical restoration of a film is an expensive and labor-intensive process, and, while the Criterion Collection’s yearly output is impressive, the number of films that can be restored is quite limited, and it is wise to get both a theatrical re-release and a deluxe DVD/Blu-Ray out of each restored film print.

Finally, I think it’s worth putting some numbers out there to check whether the poll’s reputation for stodginess holds over the broader list. (Again, the data for this can be found in the spreadsheet linked above.) Over the full 2012 list (all critics and all directors), the median year of production is 1973, and the average year for the 2012 list is about 1972. So both the median and the mean for the list as a whole are four or five years later than the “newest” film in the Top Ten. Not only that, but both figures represent a full seven-year advance over the 2002 list (median: 1966; mean: 1965). Moving a list this size seven years in just a decade is fairly impressive, and suggests a much more than random movement in the voting pool.

Which leads me to my last, and most conjectural, point, which, like my sense that there are many more non-narrative films in this poll’s results, is more impressionistic than quantified. It seems to me that there are far more films in the 2012 list which are from the global south and from the old Soviet bloc than there were in 2002, and I think it is this, largely, that is pushing the median year forward in time, as more of these nation’s film industries only really took off in the last third of the 20th century, or at the very least only after World War II. This shift is paralleled by what I believe to be a (proportional) decline in the number of films in the 2012 list which could be considered products of Classical Hollywood Cinema, and I would point to this chart to back this claim up.

The decades of greatest change between 2002 and 2012—other than the 2000s, for obvious reasons—are the 1950s and the 1940s. The percentage of films from these two decades declined from 15.3% and 10.2% (respectively) in 2002 to 10.1% and 5.8% in 2012. Now, not all of these films are necessarily Hollywood products, but if we’re talking the 1940s and 1950s, a lot of them are. Furthermore, I did a little bit of checking, and only about three-fourths (663 of 884) of the films on the 2002 list repeated on the 2012 list (in the spreadsheet, I’ve marked the years of those films in italics), and it seems to me that Classical Hollywood Cinema is over-represented in those that didn’t return.

The availability of films from the global South and from ex-Soviet bloc countries on DVD or streaming has swelled since 2002, but it is still much more difficult to view even some of the most acclaimed products of these parts of the world than it is to see a product of Classical Hollywood Cinema. It’s a little easier if one has a multi-region DVD player (which I imagine many professional critics do), but I would offer that the best possibility for seeing these films is not home viewing and not even an arts cinema, but at one of the many international film festivals.

As much as I love Classical Hollywood Cinema, I personally find these shifts very healthy, and I hope they do presage greater availability of some of these (for now) obscure classics. But the shape of the 2012 Sight & Sound list is not really the product of critics and directors programming their own viewing. At festivals, through the Criterion Collection, at arts cinemas, the choices are very much decided, not deliberated. I think most cineastes are happy with that—Criterion and the others do an exceptional job of dusting off mouldering gems. But it is important not to confuse satisfaction with the current arrangement of taste-making and gate-keeping institutions with autonomy. If the Sight & Sound poll teaches us something about how canons work today, I’d say it tells us that the institutions which form canons have gotten better at selling them, not that they’ve ceded authority to make—or re-make—them.