Gilbey on Film: The Sight & Sound Poll

Modern cinema makes a paltry showing in the Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time.

Picture the scene: the newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane is gravely ill in bed at his crumbling mansion, his staff bracing themselves for the worst. In a misguided attempt to raise the old fellow’s spirits, his butler brings him a hot-from-the-printers copy of the September 2012 issue of Sight & Sound, which is dominated by the once-a-decade poll of the greatest films of all time as voted for by hundreds of international critics, film experts and filmmakers. Slowly Kane turns the pages until he reaches the countdown of the Top 10:

10. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1927)
8. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
7. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
5. Sunrise (F.W Murnau, 1927)
4. La Règle du jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939)
3. Tokyo Story (Ozu Yasujiro, 1953)

And then he freezes in horror. The blood halts in his veins. He scrunches shut his disbelieving eyes and opens them to behold page 53 again as if for the first time. Slowly he reads:

2. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

He has but one breath left in his body, and he uses it to gasp his final word before expiring: “Vertigo…”

It’s true. After remaining in the top spot for five consecutive polls—50 years, in other words—Citizen Kane has been nudged aside by Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece, a study in obsession that remains as disturbing and complex after all this time. The rest of the poll is pretty much the old guard in a slightly new order. Are those who voted paralysed by history or are the finest films really located in the distant past? Admittedly, when Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves took the number one position in the first poll in 1952, only four years after it was released, cinema was a far younger art form, and voters had fewer titles from which to choose. (Bicycle Thieves now stands at number 33, by the way.)

But there is no equivalent newcomer on this latest poll. I had expected Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (from 2007) or David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) to make a significant showing, but only the latter made it inside the top 100 (at no. 28). Among the other comparatively new entries are Kar-Wai Wong’s In the Mood for Love (2000) at no. 24, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999) at no. 78 and Edward Yang’s A One and a Two (2000) at no. 100. (In the Mood for Love already looks set for longevity: the writer-director Paul Schrader included it in his aborted book project modelled on a film counterpart to Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. This was published eventually as an essay in Film Comment magazine, accompanied by a list which accepted alongside canonical works by Dreyer, Renoir, Ozu, Fellini and others the occasional latter-day titles—In the Mood for Love, Alexander Sokurov’s Mother and Son, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski.)

The magazine which is hitting shelves this week contains only a small sample of the 800-plus critics’ and 350-plus directors’ lists submitted for the poll. (All lists will be on the magazine’s website from 15 August.) But a cursory glance at that sample reveals the merest smattering of post-2000 titles, among them Palme d’Or-winners such as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Cristian Mingiu’s Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days. In a short statement accompanying his own Top 10, the critic and broadcaster Matthew Sweet offers a suggestion as to why modern cinema makes such a paltry showing, and why his choices remained tied largely to pre-1950 titles: “[S]o much in cinema of the last 50 years seems a refinement or a reworking of work from its first 50… And a picture from 1980 or after still feels too young for canonical status.”

I didn’t share those reservations when asked to contribute to the poll (an honour in itself when you have grown up poring over the results, as I have). For what it’s worth, here is the top 10 which I submitted to the Sight & Sound poll:

10. Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (François Girard, 1993)9. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942)
8. Touki-Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)
7. Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)
6. Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
5. Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)
4. Accattone (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1963)
3. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)
2. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
1. McCabe and Mrs Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)

The challenge in compiling such a list rests on the division between “great” and “favourite”, and I tried to bridge that chasm in my choices. Groundhog Day is a good example—the artist and director Gillian Wearing, who also put that film in her top 10, describes it as “the perfect mix of mainstream and arthouse cinema.” (By the by, I love what the lists reveal about individual filmmakers: Wearing’s choice of Groundhog Day alongside other lingering mysteries like L’avventura, Last Year in Marienbad and The Exterminating Angel clearly marks her out as someone resistant to the definitive.) So Groundhog Day was an easy choice and a right one: it’s highly enjoyable (hence “favourite”) but also intellectually and philosophically challenging, with a storytelling format that could only exist in cinema (hence “great”).

My number one choice, my favourite film, is Robert Altman’s stoned western, McCabe and Mrs Miller, released (coincidentally) in 1971, the year I was born. If the titles on the list had to meet the criteria of expanding and shaping the listmaker’s ideas about cinema, this film is fully up to the task. Its use of sound, editing, music and cinematography remains innovative; its inquisition into myth is eloquent and affecting (and not just the myths of the western: its irreverence toward its stars, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, still feels revolutionary).

Like most great films, it spills off the screen and into our thoughts and emotions; at the risk of ending up in Pseuds’ Corner, I have to say that it seems to me less a collection of images and sounds than some kind of excavated ruin, with a texture and a smell of its own. Partly this is achieved through the zoom shots which take the viewer right into the grain of the celluloid (the equivalent, perhaps, of cherishing the bite and hiss of vinyl in this digital age), not to mention Altman’s famous use of overlapping dialogue, with Leonard Cohen’s remorseful songs weaved throughout.

But it’s more than that: Altman’s technique was always fully immersive, and you leave his films feeling that you have been marinated in them; there’s nothing passive about watching his work. McCabe and Mrs Miller is, I think, Altman at his most heartfelt and lyrical, but also with fire raging in his belly. I came across the film as part of a triple-bill of his work in a London repertory cinema (now, sadly, full of plush seats and given over to first-run releases) in the late 1980s, and it changed fully who I am. I can still like you if you don’t like the film, but I can’t say I won’t try to change your mind.
 

Hitchcock's Vertigo has topped the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism