Saturday, 25 August 2012

The BFI/Sight And Sound 100

Great Expectations

The BFI/Sight And Sound 100

A few weeks back, when the British Film Institute’s Sight And Sound magazine made public the results of it’s “once every ten years” poll of, and I quote, “The Greatest Films Of All Time”, there was a much greater backlash from people about the choices that were on the list than I remember ever hearing about before in my spell of being a regular, yearly subscriber. My understanding was that the “en masse”  link clicking to the site after the list was officially “released” caused a lot of trouble for the BFI servers and, kind of, broke them for a while (something I read at Ain’t It Cool News before I’d even tried the clickety-link myself). This was followed, from what I saw of the celluloid battlefield that took place digitally on the internet during the aftermath, was a fairly large, almost collective condemnation of the list by a great number of people. Maybe it’s just the crazy kinds of people I follow. ;-)

I first started subscribing to Sight & Sound magazine around about 23 years ago, so I’ve now seen three of these polls published in fresh issues of the magazine over the years... but there’s never been the technology in place to reach these levels of audience figures before. There could, in fact, be various reasons for this “en masse” criticism of this decades list, but I suspect the biggest problem this year is that the reporting and subsequent reaction to this has been so much more easier and all encompassing than it has for previous lists (not that many would see that as a problem, of course). You have the reactions to the list hitting you from all the social media sites and blogs on the internet, which is one factor in the incredible “buzz” on this year’s poll... but there’s also the fact that the list itself was now freely available to anyone with a web connection... and not just confined to us poor, traditional souls who dutifully renew our yearly subscription charges or buy the magazine over-the-counter.

What this meant was that, for a couple of weeks, the internet became full of people running to the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Wordpress and Blogger to air their opinions and generally make the most silliest comments about the list they could think of which ranged from complaints as to why their favourite films weren’t on the list, accusatory questions as to why the “bunch of academics” who had contributed to the list were watching such “old timey” films like Vertigo and Citizen Kane rather than “newer stuff” and, for me the capper, why isn’t Roger Corman’s Deathrace 2000 (reviewed here) at the number one spot. I promise you I’m not making that one up... I saw someone tweeting it.

So I thought I’d like to take a stab at defending the 2012 BFI/Sight & Sound List from some of the sillier criticisms and maybe get people to think a little bit about why some of those same films are up there on these lists, decade after decade. Also, I’d like to take the opportunity to air my own little criticism of the list because, although I prefer Vertigo as a movie over Citizen Kane (although I’d happily be watching either), it throws up the question of when and why does a personal favourite film suddenly become, in one person’s eyes, a “great” movie. I love Vertigo to bits but there’s no way, I feel, that it should be placed above Citizen Kane. More on that later, though.

If I hate one thing about late 20th and early 21st Century magazine and blog writing it’s the popularisation of the “list article”. When people first started doing them they used to be quaint and addictive and people could have fun with them... but then everyone and their dog started doing them. The downside on these kinds of articles is that they’re damned easy to write and they’ve become, for the most part, just a lazy summation of personal opinion in an easy to swallow format. I even did one myself on here once (see here) and I can’t deny the popularity of these articles and their power to garner more readers (as the BFI web server found out too late, I fear... although I’m sure they’ll benefit greatly from the popularity). It probably won’t be the last one I do because I, too, want readers, just like the next blog waiting in line, but I try not to make a habit of concocting them like some websites seem to do. Lists are pretty impossible to compile honestly anyway... and the fact that they’re based solely on the subjectivity of the writer (in the case of non-voted lists) means that not many people are going to agree with it 100%... which is often the point when a thoughtful list comes to light, to provoke discussion.

Sometime in either the late seventies or early eighties, in my early teens, I decided to do a top 20 favourite films list and I think this demonstrates the intransigent and changeable nature of these kinds of dubious attractions. As I started writing down a list of all my special favourite movies I couldn’t live without, it started growing extremely long. After an hour or so I realised I’d written down over 700 “absolute favourite” films and was still going strong. I gave up on it there and then as a waste of my time and never looked back when it came to making lists... even the list of my top 30 favourite movies on the right hand side of this column and down a bit was questionable as soon as it went live. How could I, I thought to myself, write down all those movies in my top 30 without even putting one of my all time favourites, It’s A Wonderful Life, somewhere on there?

This incident from my formative years serves to demonstrate two things when it comes to compiling lists. One is that a person can keep going on for pages and pages, whittling down to a number of favourites that are always going to be too long a list for people to comfortably look at and consider anyway. Secondly, of course, since this list I made as a kid was a snapshot of my mind at the time, it’s unlikely that all the same titles would come up again... especially with all the fantastic toot that’s being released on DVD and other home video formats since I first tried to compile one. It’s a changing landscape and so not much use to anyone as more than a quick summary of someone’s mind at the time of writing.

Of course, the regular one-poll-per-decade approach adopted by Sight & Sound for its lists means that the editors are, at least, acknowledging the constantly shifting tide which represents the celluloid battlefield, as the tastes and range of the nearly 1000 critics who got their personal top tens to the magazine before their deadline (846 critics, this year, to be precise) is changed by constant exposure to new (to them) celluloid masterpieces. It also, one would hope, means it’s forcing those same critics to distinguish as to what they think a great film is, as opposed to their favourite on-screen entertainments. I think that this is a very important distinction to make and, in my opinion, a critic should not base a review they write solely on whether they like a film or not, but rather on the various technical skills and criteria met or exceeded by a film too. This should help bring a certain amount of balance and credibility to a review and will hopefully instill enough trust in a reader to use the review in the best possible way... whatever that use may be to a specific reader. I personally, for instance, sometimes recommend films on this blog to readers which I didn’t personally enjoy. However, I make it clear if I don’t like a film and try my best to convey, when I am having a good day and am skilled enough to do so, the difference between my gut-reaction to a film and the technical merits of it. Just because I didn’t like, doesn’t mean to say it isn’t worth watching.

So lets have a look at a couple of the backlash complaints I’ve seen about the list and figure out if they have a valid point or not.

Why aren’t “my” favourite films on the list?
Well, to be fair, you weren’t asked to supply a list were you? Well yeah, alright, some of you reading this might have been but ultimately, just because your “personal” favourites aren’t on there... it doesn’t in any way invalidate the films that made it to the top 100. This list wasn’t compiled by voting from a selection of nominations, don’t forget. That would then give you all the problems of a person or a team of people limiting you to a specific selection of movies that they think are worthy. It’s just not the case here, thankfully (or I wouldn’t even be giving this list the time of day, quite frankly). What you have here is various critics (and also directors) sending in their lists and the frequency of films appearing repeatedly generating a score for that film... at least that’s my understanding of it.

Why are all these old-timey films like Citizen Kane and Vertigo on the list?
Seriously? Old timey? The art form of the motion picture has only been  around for a little over 100 years. Some of you might reach that age before dying if you’re lucky (or unfortunate, depending on your view). Criticising the age of a movie is stupid on all kinds of levels, not to mention the fact that the age of a film doesn’t in any way play a factor in the quality of the final product. Unless, perhaps, you just like themes and trends which are fashionable to you right now on the silver screen, and damn anything you’re not personally in tune with. Is that it? Well... if that’s the case then I do feel sorry for you but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it because you’re obviously not really into the art of film. Go eat your popcorn.

As far as the people polled for this survey go... nobody has told all these people to put films like Citizen Kane and Vertigo on their list. They love these movies, and rightly so (because they’re damned good movies), but they also (one hopes) admire them on a technical level and feel inspired by them to the point where they believe this makes them among the greatest movies out there. And these people all come from different walks of life here... it’s not like they’re all in the same club or something. People respond to art in a very personal manner (on some levels) and these kinds of movies, the ones that have made it into the poll, are well loved and well watched pinnacles of motion picture history. So the obvious question I’d have to ask any of the people making these kinds of criticisms here are... “Have you actually seen these movies? If not, try watching one before complaining. You’re in for a treat.”

Okay... so now that’s off my chest, I’d like to just like to say something about Citizen Kane, since people seem to be so incredulous and non-understanding as to why it would even be on the list in the first place, let alone dominating the top spot for all but two of those “once a decade polls” (the first poll and the most recent one where Vertigo broke its winning streak and knocked it off the top spot). Citizen Kane is a great film. It might not entertain a certain segment of the population but, even if it doesn’t, it still has to be acknowledged as a great film. The reason for this is that there is so much “hidden ingenuity” to be found lying just beneath the surface, that one can’t help but applaud the technical brilliance of just what is going on here.

For example, there are shots in this where the camera goes places where a camera just couldn’t go... especially when this movie was made. Parts of a set or model were designed to break away once the camera eye had passed them so the operator could keep going past a place where the “real world” would not let him go.

Or, as another example, what about that shot where Welles is sitting in the office typing and in the background, opposite Welles and watching from afar, is Joseph Cotton... and both are in sharp focus. Oh sure. A great example of a deep focus lens being used to keep everything nice and crisp right? Wrong! A deep focus lens wouldn’t be able to handle that shot... at least not then it couldn’t. So what did they do... yeah, they ran a matte split mask and spliced two shots together so it looks like one shot. And the majority of viewers, myself included, wouldn’t even notice it was two seperate bits of footage spliced together. Good grief people! They were inventing stuff just to get the shots in the way they wanted them. And when they weren’t inventing them...

 Well... I’m not saying that every single dash of brilliance in this film was an original, technical innovation. There were some, but a lot of this stuff goes back to the days when D. W. Griffith was inventing (some say stealing) the DNA of cinematic syntax. The visual shorthand which everyone almost immediately picks up from their earliest days of watching films and which is forever branded into the braincells as the absolutely most instinctive way of decoding the moving visual image. You know what I’m talking about... stuff like two people individually framed, saying a line and then cutting to the other saying their line as a visual shorthand for two people having a conversation. It grew very quickly from there in terms of innovative and subtle manipulations of the human brain and a lot of it is to be found all in one place by 1941... and that place is Citizen Kane.

Every technique in the book, it seems like, was used for Citizen Kane and the movie is a summation, a showcase if you will, for all the brilliant ways of depicting a story through film that had ever been seen up until this point. And that’s why it’s so brilliant... it’s a text book of delights from which people can take inspiration and learn. It deserves every accolade it gets.

Which is why I’m kinda upset myself that Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie (aka Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain) didn’t also make it into the top 100... preferably the top ten. Because, like Citizen Kane before it, Amelie also showcases the absolute state-of-the-art of the technical possibilities of its time and I would have thought that for this reason, it would have rated a bit higher in the general critical consciousness (if there is such a thing). Also, like Welles esteemed treasure, Amelie has some very innovative ideas in it which I’m not aware of being done before this film. One of them involves the way sound is used in two sequences a different points of the film which relies on the viewers subconscious memory of the audio sections of one point to make a hidden connection. And the other involves a visual echo of something which isn’t really happening. I don’t want to go into too much detail as I want to review the film on this blog someday, but I will point out that these innovations probably wouldn’t even be noticed by 95% of an audience who are there to be engrossed in a movie. They don’t deliberately draw attention to themselves in any way and are used purely as a way of moving the narrative forward... this is a brilliant way to use film. And, of course, there’s other more standard stuff going on with the CGI effects, of which there are a surprising amount in Amelie... not that many people realise it though. Things such as lamps being added and changed a different colour to balance the tone of a different, dominant colour in the scene. Object and props which could easily have been real, found items for a set but which were added in post production. Stuff like this shows a true mastery of the form and I think Amelie should be somewhere on that list... but that’s just me griping now. Although I’d like to think I’ve backed up my reasons somewhat.

And what of Vertigo? Well, as I said, I love it. It’s my favourite Hitchcock and, yes, it does have some great innovations in it. Like that kiss in Kim Novak’s hotel apartment near the end where they had to build a split set and put the camera on a turntable with the actors so the scene could completely change behind them as they kiss to a completely different environment and return through a full 360 degree pan. Or, of course, the famous shot in Jaws of Brody on the beach where the camera is pulled back from his face while simultaneously zooming in on it at the same speed the camera is being pulled back. That was invented for those wonderful, downward looking shots in the bell tower during the two climbs in Vertigo... actually done with a model set too, no less. So you would never had got that shot in films ike Jaws (and dozens of other movies) if Vertigo hadn’t done it first... I suspect.

So yeah, Vertigo should be on there but, should it be at number one? Well I could watch it all week (something I couldn’t do for Citizen Kane I suspect) but I have to admit that Welles opus is a much greater showcase of innovation and art than Hitchcock’s greatest masterpiece... although, as I said earlier... personally I prefer Vertigo, so I can’t be too upset that it’s now number one.

All in all, it’s not a bad list they’ve come up with. I look forward to the next one in the hopes that NIghts Of Cabiria will find a place above the Fellini movies that already appear on it. And it’s good to see, also, that 6 of those movies on the list were all scored by the same composer... my favourite composer, the remarkable Bernard Herrmann. Not only that but the top two films, Vertigo and Citizen Kane were both scored by him... so that’s something to shout out about. But the list also reflects his achievements at both ends of his career. Citizen Kane was the first actual film he scored... he was the regular composer for Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio show (including the mentioned conductor on the notorious War Of The Worlds transmission) and Welles brought him with him to Hollywoodland to work on the film with him. Similarly, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), which is also in the list, was Herrmann’s last score. He died within hours of the final, extended recording session on the approach to Christmas 1975.

I’m grateful that Bernard Herrmann has been, quite serendipitously, honoured in this way. It makes the list something very special for me as a die hard Herrmann listener. This is a good list, the 2012 BFI/Sight & Sound List and, to paraphrase one Mr. Travis Bickle from the 32nd spot... “those were good choices.”

The BFI Sight & Sound Poll can be read here. 

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