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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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era