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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser