30 août 2012

S&S 2012 Canon (5) : 1950s standards

How great were the 50ies? And are there any later films that are better?

When introducing younger generations or casual movie goers to cinema's most prestigious legacy, the natural impulse is of course to turn them to Classical cinema, to Silent films, or to Black&White films in general... because these are fading from the collective memory, from current cultural references, but also from repertoire screenings, from DVD availability and restoration. When confronted with an audience who only watches the current offer, i.e. commercial genre, action entertainment, romance, horror and teen comedies... the imperative to educate their taste and to open up their horizon is to promote and rely on the good, safe oldies. It never fails, and it source of great joys and amazing discoveries about the lost art of caring about mise en scène and content.

However, the formation of a canon is a very different operation, with a different purpose. We can't use a pseudo-canon as a publicity campaign for forgotten (outdated) masterpieces of the past. A canon is produced at a certain point in time and should reflect the standard of greatness attained by cinema. This is not the canon of our youth, or the canon of our ancestors. This must be the canon of 2012, even though we know very well, it's conservative nature will barely make up-to-date with how it should have been in 2002.
That's why, the Top10 entrants of the past must defend their title with the greater masterpieces produced since. If cinema really hasn't improved since 1959, then there is no reason why newer films should make an appearance in the Top10, not the Top250 for that matter. But no matter how high a summit cinema reached in the 50ies... Apparently some people believe that and bath themselves in blissful nostalgia.
I find it hard to believe that the level of cinema excellence, cinema's aesthetic achievements, cinema's depth, cinema's poetry hasn't at least equaled (if not surpassed) the 1959 quality, thus rightfully challenging the highest ranks of the canon with the familiar canonical title of the past. Let's compare...
What is the reason why we endlessly keep Citizen Kane and Vertigo at an unattainable level??? Is it because Tarkovsky or Ozu don't know how to use a camera? Is it because voters didn't bother to watch a single Kiarostami film? Or is it because these safe and proven tokens are convenient, lazy choices?

There are many ways for a newer masterpiece to surpass one of the past. Either straight up : meeting the old standards by their rules, on the old territory, by being superior at filming classically, abiding to the genre codes... (this would be neorealism, New Hollywood...) Another way is to challenge the old establishment, by criticizing or perverting or subverting the old rules, by commenting them... (this would be post-modernism). And probably the most impressive and celebrated, but also the most difficult to sell, is to invent new rules, a new style, a new narration, a new image, new performances, a new medium, a new technique, a new genre (this would be Surrealism, Dadaism, New American Cinema, Structuralist films...) 

1950s Standards

Hypothetical 1959 Canon (spanning the 1895-1959 history of cinema), corrected with 2012 hindsight (alphabetical order), that are still relevant to today's highest standards :
  • Battleship Potemkin   STRONG CONTENDER
  • Citizen Kane  STRONG CONTENDER
  • Journey to Italy   ARGUABLE
  • The Last Laugh   ARGUABLE
  • Late Spring   ARGUABLE
  • Pather Panchali   STRONG CONTENDER
  • Pickpocket   ARGUABLE
  • La règle du jeu   ARGUABLE
  • Sunrise   ARGUABLE
  • Vertigo ARGUABLE
Keep in mind we are voting for the ALL-TIME Top10, so only 10 slots on the ballot. There are many outstanding masterpieces, but we can't keep them all. So which ones could be swapped easily, due to personal preferences of the expert. Some are clearly surpassed today, technically or dramaturgically or in term of content. So even if we save these (like the ones I cited in my second post), they don't stand a chance head-to-head against the 10th best of a 1960-2011 list. The point is to figure out which pre-1960 canon-grade masterpieces are truly considered timeless, and could easily compete today with the contemporary's best standards (given that the cinema excellence has raised the bar since the 1950ies).
"Strong contender" means they easily have a chance to get into today's canon. "Arguable" means they could make a case for their inclusion, if there isn't enough canon-worthy titles post-1960.


Greater (canon-grade) masterpieces made since 1959 (spanning the 1960-2011 history of cinema) :
  • 8 ½
  • 2001 : A Space Odyssey
  • A Brighter Summer Afternoon
  • Aguirre : the Wrath of God 
  • An Autumn Afternoon
  • Andrei Rublev
  • L'Année dernière à Marienbad
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Au hasard Balthazar
  • L'Avventura
  • Ceddo
  • Close-Up
  • Cries and Whispers
  • Death in Venice
  • La Dolce Vita
  • L'Eclisse
  • El espiritu de la Colmena
  • Flowers of Shanghai
  • Hara Kiri
  • High and Low
  • The Hole
  • The Hourglass Sanatorium
  • In the Mood for Love
  • Jeanne Dielman
  • La Jetée
  • Kagemusha
  • Mirror
  • Mulholland Dr.
  • Nostalghia
  • Once Upon a Time in the West
  • Opening Night
  • Persona
  • Play Time
  • Psycho
  • Ran
  • The Sacrifice
  • Sátántangó
  • Songs from the Second Floor
  • Soy Cuba
  • Stalker
  • Taxi Driver
  • Time of Gypsies
  • Touki bouki
  • Trois Couleurs : Rouge
  • Trois vies et une seule mort
  • Veronika Voss
  • Werckmeister Harmonies
  • The Wind Will Carry Us
  • Woman in the Dunes
  • Yeelen
And if we respect the unspoken rule of waiting at least 10 years before proposing a recent film to the canon, these canon-worthy titles should wait till the next poll to be nominated : A Separation; Once Upon A Time In Anatolia; Uncle Boonmee; Caché; Melancholia; Woman on the Beach, The Turin Horse...

Look at this post-1960 list! These films aren't inferior to whatever the height of Classical Cinema was back in 1959. They are easily as great (objectively), if not (arguably) greater for some of them. Obviously the older canon will suffer from the comparison to the latest standard. This is inevitable...
How could anyone think for one second that Some Like it Hot, Intolerance, The Lady Eve, Bringing Up Baby, The Red Shoes, The Wizard of Oz, Black Narcissus, the silent King Kong (1933), His Girl Friday, Le Voyage dans la Lune, The Big Sleep, Duck Soup, Gone with the Wind...  could take any one of the limited spots reserved in a Top10 for later masterpieces??? It doesn't mean they are not great films, but not Top10-worthy any longer. These lesser films still get votes by the dozen from people who don't realize what voting for an up-to-date canon means! You can't keep voting for the same titles just because they've made the Top10 once, or because of their historical importance alone.
All we need is to handpick the 10 best of these post-1960 masterpieces to keep out ANY pre-1960 masterpieces! And there is enough of a taste spectrum there to choose from, and still compose an individual ballot reflecting your preferences, while selecting from a list of objective canon-worthy titles.
But there is always room for a few pre-1960 masterpieces in an up-to-date canon. The masterpieces from the silent and classical era that still defy contemporary achievements on equal footing, those with a chance to win any canonical title (arguably). But this number is a lot smaller than what it was before the boom of the 60ies (which produces a lot of canon-worthy masterpieces) as well as all the following decades (which opened the canon access to a lot more marginal countries).
I only listed 50 films there, the consensus among experts should be restricted to this range of choice, and argue together over which ones of these deserve better the Top10 privilege (even though they are all more or less on equal quality level, all part of the top tier masterpieces. This is my list of 50, but it could be another one if you really think I'm way off-base... I readily admit such pre-selection must not be made by a single individual. A canon must be built around the expertise of many, which should cancel out odd preferences and solidify the safest standards (among expert standards, not the safest among random mainstream beliefs). The point is to build a credible consensus around few potential candidates, not let people randomly pick 2000+ films, which cannot possibly be all Top10-worthy. A top10 is only 10, not 2000! We can allow some room for subjectivity and expert disagreements by extending the pool to 50 instead of 10 and narrow it down by popular vote. But if you START the selection by a popular vote from 2000 nominees narrowing it down to 10 by a "majority" of less than 22%, you'll never get a credible consensus, an expert statement, an historical establishment.

Related :

22 août 2012

Subjective Ice Cream Canon (ironic)

Top10 Favourite Ice Cream Flavours :
  1. Vanilla (29%)
  2. Chocolate  (8.9%)
  3. Strawberry  (5.3%)
  4. Neapolitan  (4.2%)
  5. Chocolate chip  (3.9%)
  6. French vanilla  (3.8%)
  7. Cookies and cream  (3.6%)
  8. Vanilla fudge ripple  (2.6%)
  9. Praline pecan  (1.7%)
  10. Cherry  (1.6%)
As voted subjectively by the association of movie reviewers against objective canons who can't help but participate in every canon they can find anyway. 

Since this is a popular and democratic consensus based on subjectivity, the result shows the most widespread taste among the majority of people polled. It tells us about the people who voted and nothing about the quality of the ice cream itself. When the poll question is SUBJECTIVE, when the poll voters respond SUBJECTIVELY, the addition of the votes could only tell something about the relative demographic size of groups who prefer such or such flavour. 
There are more people who like vanilla flavoured ice cream over cherry flavoured ice cream. But we are not informed in any way about the quality of the product itself, about the proportion of quality vanilla ice creams compared to the proportion of bad vanilla ice creams. Or quality cherry flavoured ice cream for that matter.
How many voters made their choice based on a childhood memory (influential to their life, but from a random ice cream sample that was most likely NOT the best ever made)? How many base their idea of a best flavour on whatever they consume at the supermarket (probably artificial, chemical flavour)? How many are actual ice cream amateurs who weed out the industrially made ones from the superior home-made ones? How many have tried the most prestigious ice creams made by great restaurants?
People pick an ice cream on a menu based on its nominal flavour, as a name tag, as a recognised label, because they are conditioned by their cemented taste to respond to a flavour name rather than the actual taste of the product. People never ask whether the coffee ice cream is better made than the vanilla ice cream... they just know they want anything with vanilla.

Is there only 10 ice cream flavours in the world that are enjoyable by anyone, or at the very least edible? Definitely not. Because such list is not the end all argument of what to eat. It's merely an excerpt from the full poll, the majority opinion... it does not reflect the infinite minority opinions (the long tail), the acquired taste that could never reach a consensus, the little known flavours... all of which may or may not be much superior to the usual suspects, in quality, in ingredients, in texture, in flavour depth, in nuances... but will be ignored because they are not acknowledged by the majority of voters (because they are only expert of their own short-sighted navel! experts in flavour names, not in product quality control).

Here it's normal to see a consensus of only 29% for the first spot, because voters probably only nominated one flavour each (the more flavours getting votes, the less maximum votes the #1 can get), one at the exclusion of all others.
If 70% of voters are lactose-intolerant, will they vote for their favourite fruit instead? Thus screw the results?

People's taste is influenced/conditioned by availability too. Maybe vanilla is what the least people strongly dislike, therefore more ice cream makers put it out to secure safe sales. Thus its (omni-)presence alone will make more converts and continue its dominance. It's harder to escape the mainstream taste once it started the snowball effect of supply-demand mutual influence. The simple presence of a dominant choice, in terms of offer availability and exposure, will inevitably cast a darker shadow all around on the lesser known, lesser exposed, lesser sought after, lesser tried, lesser liked flavours. And people who stick to their comfort zone, their tried-and-true favourites (lifetime establishment once and for all), who are less tempted to risk to be disappointed by a never-tried-before flavour, aren't the ones who will help make the mainstream status quo evolve when necessary.
There are other reasons why we may not have an expert view on ice cream excellence... because sometimes the best ice creams are very expensive, and we cannot eat it every day. Maybe we tasted one once, and base our perception of greatness based on an isolated sample, which may or may not be the best of the best, just one among the bests, and possibly a low tier one.

We only know which ice cream is the GREATEST, when expert ice cream makers, or reknown pastry chef, or food critics, or expert gourmet get together and vote for the best made ice cream according to the objective criteria of its recipe, or the quality of its ingredient, of the perfect execution. Chefs don't just pick their favourite flavour... nobody cares about a chef's favourite ice cream flavour, we care about their expertise on the product, any ice cream, any flavour. And if it's not the ice cream with your favourite flavour that wins, it doesn't matter, because it was not the purpose.

That is why subjectivity is only meaningful to individuals, not to groups, not to consensus, not to canons.


A subjective vote should only be displayed as an individual opinion, which reflects the personal taste of a particular person. (favourite listing)
The participation to a collective project, such as a canon consensus, should follow objective criteria in order to produce a convergent result, the purpose of which every voter knows and agrees with. (all-time best of)

What's the point to compare your subjective taste to the mainstream consensus? It's only a social statistic that a profit-oriented ice cream maker would like to know (in order to predict the relative surplus/shortage of each flavour, and stock accordingly, and bait the widest range of clients by proposing the most liked flavours in priority over a diversity offer)!
Do you feel pride if the majority validates your taste? Do you feel less unique if you realise your individual taste falls exactly into the national average? Will you change your favourite for the sake of individuality, to show your personality more, to prove you're not a sheep? Will you feel comforted that you're not a weirdo who likes something nobody else likes? Would you be pissed off at the canon if they didn't list your favourite flavour? Would you be pissed at yourself if your favourite flavour is on it?
Why do you need your personal subjectivity to be recognised by an objective canon that is there to serve film culture in general (not you specifically and solely)?

So, do you think cinema is like ice cream? Should moviegoers just define greatness from whatever they consume daily (regardless for eventual greater criteria they aren't aware of due to low diversity choice)? Should everyone just pick their favourite flavour in cinema (regardless for the actual quality of the product)? Should whatever we crave supersede what is honorable? Should what we need now be more important than what mankind will remember in the long term? Should we let anyone vote, and skew the results, even though they didn't taste all available flavours in the history of cinema?

This is bullshit! Bullshit-flavoured ice cream...

21 août 2012

Hiroshima-Godzilla-Fukushima (France Culture)

Hiroshima, mon amour (Les grandes traversées; France Culture; 15 août 2012) [MP3] 48'
Le scénario du film d’Alain Resnais tourné en 1959 est lu par l’auteur (Marguerite Duras) et par la comédienne Emmanuelle Riva.
En Août 1957, à Hiroshima, une actrice française termine un film sur la paix. Elle s'éprend d'un architecte japonais le dernier jour du tournage. Ils ont 24 heures devant eux pour vivre cette passion fulgurante. Cet amour impossible réveille en la jeune femme son premier amour : elle avait 18 ans, c'était à Nevers en 1944. Elle aimait un jeune bavarois que les combattants du maquis abattirent. Elle fut tondue, ses parents la cachèrent dans une cave. Son amant japonais lui fait raconter sa tragédie, la soulageant ainsi d'un atroce souvenir. Mais l'amour qui les lie l'espace d'une nuit ne peut résister aux impératifs et aux contraintes sociales.
Diffusé au Japon sous le titre Une histoire d’amour de 24h, le film n’est resté que 15 jours à l’affiche…

La Catastrophe dans l’imaginaire cinématographique (Les grandes traversés; France Culture; 17 août 2012) [MP3] 48'
Tokyo détruite par les flammes, ravagée par un monstre, le Japon submergé par les flots : le cinéma japonais aime à se faire peur et cela ne date pas d’hier. Ou plutôt cela a commencé dès 1954 avec Godzilla, ce monstre à tête de lézard enfoui dans la terre et …réveillé par des essais nucléaires… Comme en écho, des années plus tard, en 1988, Akira raconte la destruction de la capitale nipponne par des armes nucléaires. Avant queLa submersion du Japon ne réalise en images dès 2006 la prophétie de la catastrophe du 11 mars 2011.
Décryptage de cette imaginaire cinématographique avec Claude Estèbe (enseignant à l’Inalco sur l’histoire visuelle du Japon).

Bibliographie : 
  • La submersion du Japon (2000, Sakyo Komatsu)
  • L'Apocalypse nucléaire et son cinéma (2012/Hélène Puiseux)
  • Sinking of Japan (2006, Shinji Higuchi)
  • La Tombe des lucioles (Nosaka Akiyuki)
Filmographie : 
  • Godzilla (1954/Inoshiro Honda/Japon)
  • Le tombeau des lucioles (Isao Takahata)
  • Ponyo sur la falaise (2009/Hayao Miyazaki/Japon)
  • I wish (2012/Hirokazu Kore-Eda/Japon)
  • Hume / Dream (Kurosawa)

La tectonique des images (Les grandes traversés; France Culture; 14 août 2012) [MP3] 48'
La catastrophe du 11 mars 2011 a été vécue et vue en direct par le monde entier. Filmé en temps réel : le séisme. Capturées par téléphone portable : les vagues du tsunami. Enregistrés : les montagnes de débris. Disparus : le corps des victimes. De la destruction partout mais pas de morts… Dans ce tsunami d’images personnelles et médiatiques, quel récit se dégage ?
Analyse du film des événements par Yoann Moreau (anthropologue, spécialiste du Japon, chercheur à l’EHESS sur la catastrophe et son traitement dans l’actualité)

Bibliographie : 
  • L'archipel des séismes : écrits du Japon après le 11 mars 2011 (Cécile Sakai, Corinne Quentin 2012)
  • Le grand tremblement de terre du Kantô (Akira Yoshimura, 2010)
  • Après le tremblement de terre (Haruki Murakami, 2012)
  • Tsunami (Andoche Praudel, 2012)
Filmographie : 

Related :

19 août 2012

S&S2012 Canon (4) : Hollywood Supremacy?

Without data on USA attendance prior to 1946, we'll just focus on post-1939 canon titles. The mid-forties were the all-time peak in theatre attendance for both the USA and the UK. The drop (mainly due to the TV competition) is quite dramatic ever after. And you can notice that the post-1939 titles in the S&S Top50 are very dense in the 50ies and more generally earlier than the mid-60ies. The canon is a lot more picky for the next 50 years!!!
  • More audience in the theatres = More masterpieces in the collective unconscious = More critics recall this period as "important" = Larger consensus around certain masterpieces
  • Less audience in the theatres = Less buzz around cinema greatness in the public opinion = Less critics noticing the greatness of films = No clear consensus around any masterpiece
Does it mean the canon is right, thus cinema was actually greater in the 1950ies and 60ies? Or is the canon really conservative, nostalgic and slow to adapt, thus ignoring newer masterpieces for more than 20 years after their releases?

What about the myth of Hollywood's supremacy?

The heydays of Classical Hollywood, or Golden Age, was THE greatest period of cinema history back in the  50ies, because sound cinema had reached true mastery of the medium in the Hollywood Studios, and they also greatly benefited from the emigration of many great European masters (notably the jewish filmmakers refugees before and during the Second World War, persecuted in the German territories; see Hollywood émigrés). There was a perfect convergence of talent, technique, equipment, infrastructure and budgets like nowhere else in the world. Until 1960, Classical Hollywood (in red) was THE referential standard worldwide (especially thanks to the re-appraisal by French criticism, which American critics rather forget), therefore had a rightful shot at stealing and monopolizing most places on a canon Top10 back then, if they disputed the privilege to the masters of the late Silent era (who equally deserved the crowning title, if not more for some of them). And this was possible because some of the non-English films (Ozu or Satyajit Ray for example) you see in this period on the above graph (in grey), were not acknowledged (or even released at all) in the UK-USA at that time.
The difference of conservative degrees for an English-centric canon is that Hollywood or British films are canonised immediately or within 10 years (the close influences by importation like Germany, France or Italy also get this advantage to some extent), but for Japan, India they have to wait decades. A stricter conservative bias for non-Euro-American cinema.

So in hindsight, we can see today, that the Hollywood-made masterpieces (in red on the graph) aren't as dominant as the American patriots would like us to believe... Even in the 50ies, when they should reign supreme, the red is matched by the grey, if not outnumbered! The last "studio-movie" in the canon (not just from the Golden Age limited period) is Psycho in 1960, the last American-made movie is Apocalypse Now in 1979 (and not even a studio movie, more like an independent film from the New Hollywood secession! like The Godfather 1 & 2 and Taxi Driver). So the last genre-movie coming from the USA in the Top50 is The Godfather 2, which came out nearly 40 years ago! And it's a canon voted by American and British critics!!! How great is recent Hollywood genre again? That's what a canon is for (when done properly), to hold current production up to the highest standards in history, and adjust your own over-praise accordingly.

So where is that supremacy of Classical Hollywood, or American indies, or Hollywood genre??? Even when the Commonwealth votes, the non-English masterpieces (mostly artfilms) dominate, either from Europe or Asia. So now that the (conservative) canon has came to term with this 1950ies mascarade, it's about time that critics start to absorb this fact too, in their weekly writings, and stop deluding themselves in thinking that Hollywood has any exclusive stronghold on canonical laurels or auteurism credits. Citizen Kane is the tree hiding the forest, or the lack thereof... The number 1 title is the only thing remembered by the public opinion, and the commonplace issued from there is that Hollywood is king of the world. But you can't reduce a canon to its (English-biased) first spot.

Hollywood didn't produce any canonical film (Top50) since the 1970ies !!! (No, Mulholland Dr. isn't American, ABC ditched it and France produced it!)

2012 Sight & Sound Poll (Critics votes), Directors ranking (cumulated votes by director's country)
  1. USA (Hitchcock, Welles, Ford, Coppola, Murnau, Chaplin, Scorsese, Lynch, Keaton, Donen, Wilder) 1542 votes !!!?
  2. France (Godard, Renoir, Bresson, Buñuel, Vigo, Lanzman, Truffaut, Tati, Marker) 773 votes
  3. Japan (Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi) 401 votes 
  4. Italy (Fellini, Antonioni, Rossellini, De Sica, Pontecorvo) 389 votes 
  5. USSR (Takovsky, Eisenstein, Vertov) 309 votes 
  6. UK (Kubrick, Powell & Pressburger) 241 votes
  7. Germany (Murnau, Lang) 225 votes 
  8. Denmark (Dreyer) 158 votes 
  9. Sweden (Bergman) 143 votes 
  10. China (Wong Kar-wai) 42 votes
  11. India (S. Ray) 31 votes
  12. Iran (Kiarostami) 31 votes

Are you serious? Talk about an American-centric bias in the poll due to an overwhelming majority of British and American voters. France is also heavily favoured in the number of auteurs, but not as much in terms of votes... So that's the mathematics of this flawed poll, of these biased voters. But does it reflect the actual situation of world cinema history accurately? Not quite!

The mainstream mindset

So, was cinema greater in the 50-60ies or is there a nostalgic bias at work? When you see the density of canonical masterpieces before 1970, you wonder if cinema has declined ever since... As if Wong Kar-wai, Jia Zhang-ke, Zhang Yimou, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, Ozu, Kurosawa, Oshima, Naruse, Kobayashi, Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Abbas Kiarostami, Tarr Béla, Aleksandr Sokurov, Theos Angelopoulos, Alain Resnais, Michael Haneke, Ousmane Sembene... never made masterpieces as great as anything made before the 60ies! This is ludicrous. I know the canon's inertia is full of nostalgia and conservatism... but this is forgivable for 10 or 20 years (2 polls time to adjust), not for 50 years! There are limits to the test of time, if a film critic needs 50 years to assess objectively whether a masterpiece is over-inflated by timely buzz/trend/zeitgeist... why the fuck are they even bothering writing on a weekly basis??? this is pure incompetence, this is bullshit!
We need a referential canon made by people who are more diligent to judge newer masterpieces (10 or 15 years at the maximum is acceptable) and revise the higher standards attained by recent cinema, instead of relying on outdated standards from the Classical era, when storytelling was much simpler, codified, censored and content more superficial. It's about time to give it's due distinction to the superior cinema of Modernity (which should be the center of gravity of cinema standards to date) for one, and to the very contemporary world cinema, from outside Western Europe and the USA. Because the greatest cinema is now made in Asia, Eastern Europe or South America... that's just a fact. And they deserve the recognition, the attention, the support from the critical institution, and from spectators.

From the directors cited in the Top50 Canon (+ the omitted masters; "?" not highest canonical level) :

canonical masters 
Rest of the World
canonical masters
Pre-1960 Hitchcock (UK)
Murnau (DE)
Chaplin (UK)
Lang (DE)
Donen (?)
Wilder (?)
+ Murnau (German period)
Renoir (French period)
De Sica
Lang (German period)
Vigo (?)
+ Buñuel 
Post-1960  Kubrick (UK)
Coppola (?)
Scorsese (?)
+ Cassavetes
+ Altman
+ Malick
S. Ray
Tarr Béla
Wong Kar-wai
+ Hou Hsiao-Hsien
+ Jia Zhang-ke
Akerman (?)
Truffaut (?)
Marker (?)
Lanzmann (?)
Pontecorvo (?)
Powell & Pressburger (?)
Edward Yang
+ Oshima
+ Angelopoulos
+ Sokurov
+ Kurosawa 
+ Ozu 
+ Resnais
+ Ousmane Sembene
+ Buñuel 
+ Lee Chang-dong
+ Hong Sang-soo
+ Kobayashi
+ Roy Andersson
+ Kieslowski
+ Fassbinder
+ Victor Erice
+ Werner Herzog

Related :

17 août 2012

S&S2012 Canon (3) : You are qualified to vote if...

The listmaking game for critics who have seen ALL films ever made (or almost)

Voting for a canon is no casual or trivial endeavour. People may make a number of random lists, and polls and ranking, without meeting any qualification issues. A canon is not a random list like every others. It's a very special election, and you need to know the entirety of cinema history to be able to weigh in, the evaluate the waning aura of old masterpieces and the surge to the summit of the most recent masterpieces, all this in comparison to the established standards over the years and in particular being able to appreciate and contextualize the level of today's standards.
If the umpire shows up one hour late into a tennis match, and counts the score only from this point on, he could come up with a very different winner at the end, without knowing the full picture, the full match.
We can catch up with cinema history and watch the films made before our time, but most people do not, and still want to be part of the vote for the fun, not because they feel capable to judge such a wide scope and depth of history. A film canon is not a venture for just any movie lover, it's for erudit veteran cinéphiles with a considerable cinema culture, curiosity and discernment. If you respect the purpose and importance of a canon, you should have the humility, deference, curtsy to let qualified people take that poll, and pass until you feel properly qualified.

You are qualified to vote in the establishment of an all time canon if...
  1. you've seen more than 10,000 films and are able to recall/judge/compare them
  2. you're familiar with ALL the Top100 titles from the previous poll, especially the long ones and hard-to-find ones (because these are the one suffering from unfavorable lack of votes). Do I need to specify seen ON THE BIG SCREEN?
  3. you know inside out every period of cinema history, all the major aesthetic movements, at least, and more
  4. you're not a self-confessed partisan for a narrow genre/era/country, or are using this for a publicity stunt to rescue a minority (silent films, female films...)
  5. you know what the establishment of a canon consists of
  6. you understand you're not doing it for your own satisfaction, but to participate in a collective enterprise where your individuality will be averaged out
  7. you know a canon is not a random viewing recommendation, a beginner's road map, a dream package to carry with you on a desert island, the list of most re-watchable entertainment, or your idiosyncratic guilty pleasures.
  8. you're not trying to catch everyone off-guard with crazy picks that have no chance to get into a consensual Top100
  9. your ballot (which is supposed to stand until the next decennial poll!) doesn't change every day (a canon is for voters with a stable and sure taste)
  10. you're not going to use quotas and other arbitrary rules to screw the deserving titles
  11. you consider a nominee for its overall achievements, not just for the subject or the story or one performance or one scene or one punchline
All this would otherwise invalidate your participation, and mess up the result at worst (for other titles than those you promote) or do nothing at best (by being statistically insignificant).

These simple rules should bring down the number of canon makers to a more reasonable (and credible) elite of qualified voters, even if the downside is that the age average of these veterans will always tend to be too high for the past-conservatism to go away. But again, it's one of the defining characteristics of a canon to enshrine newer work with a certain delay, after a considerable test of time.

A useful canon is a canon which ballots are compatible for consensus and are tabulated constructively, not by antagonism and friction. 

A constructive consensus is not one that let rise to the top the lowest common denominator because the stronger candidates are diluted in a multitude of disparate selections, but is one that converges towards a limited number of the strongest titles.

There are enough "suitable" masterpieces around today to let every voter free of a personalised choice that will show their preferences and their strong stance (within the academic establishment). Your Top10 should be at least at the level of everyone else's Top100, and the ranking in the final collective Top10 will be determined by popularity among qualified voters.

The Long Tail curve is typical of an exclusive hegemony

846 voters replied before deadline, from a contingent of 1000 invitations extended out to 73 countries throughout the world. They think that expanding the voter base is an improvement, and they advertise the diversity of nationality... However if we omit the doubles due to typos (or the country of "Africa"???), the British/American critics who file in under another vacation-location in addition to UK/USA, and when we look at the proportion of English-speaking territories (56%), the "diversity" is more into the marketing talking points than giving foreigners a real shot at influencing the Euro-American establishment.

  • ENGLISH =56% (233 UK; 173 USA; 26 Australia; 19 Canada; 13 Ireland; 6 South Africa; 4 New Zealand)
  • EUROPE =63% (233 : UK; 50: Spain; 34 : Germany; 32 : France; 24 : Italy; 14 : Russia, Sweden; 13 : Ireland; 12 : Hungary, Netherlands, Switzerland; 10 : Poland; 8 : Slovenia; 7 : Austria, Czech Rep., Romania; 6 : Estonia, Portugal; 5 : Norway, Serbia; 3 : Belgium, Greece; 2 : Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Slovakia; 1 : Belarus, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Ukraine) 
  • AMERICA =28% (173 : USA; 19 Canada; 17 Argentina; 8 Brazil; 7 Mexico; 4 Cuba; 3 Peru; 2 : Chile, Colombia; 1 : Guyana, Uruguay)
  • ASIA + OCEANIA =10% (26 Australia; 12 Japan; 11 India; 13 China; 7 South Korea; 4 Thailand, New Zealand; 3 Taiwan; 2 Pakistan; 1 Philippines)
  • AFRICA + GREATER MIDDLE EAST =5% (7 Israel, Turkey; 6 South Africa; 5 Lebanon; 3 Egypt; 2 Kazakhstan; 1 Abu Dhabi, Algeria, Armenia, Burkina Faso, Dubai, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Tunisa, UAE, Uzbaekistan)
Keep in mind there are redundant counting because some critics are listed under several locations.

Are you surprised now that Europe and the USA hold up over 90% of the Top100 titles?

Sight and Sound is a British magazine, so it's normal and expected they primarily cater to their local readership, their local critics and cinema professionals. No question about it. Maybe also to the English-speaking countries because the language of publication is English. Nonetheless, there is a genuine effort to expand the roster to the world.
Although it might look like a desperate attempt at positive discrimination without any real leverage...
As you can see on the graph above, the English advantage is not merely the largest number, slightly above everyone else, it singlehandedly dominates a large majority by itself. And if English-speaking voters can't even agree on a number 1 (only 22.6% of the votes), what kind of consensus has any chance to rise to the top10 for isolated voters whose indigenous taste will vanish in a multitude of residual orphan picks?

I'm glad that countries like Spain (50 voters), Hungary (12), Netherlands (12), Switzerland (12), Poland (10), Slovenia (8), Estonia (6)... get a powerful lobby at the Sight and Sound redaction for a fat quota in the roster... but other larger countries get ripped off : China (13), India (11), Japan (12), Brasil (8), Mexico (7), Russia (14)!

And when you look at which films the outsider voters pick, they favour American and European masterpieces instead of weighing in for their own culture (which is something they could and should do better than anyone else), or in general for a non-USA-Europe-biased World Cinema!

In a perfect world, even Europe-based critics would be open-minded and not partial toward their own national culture... thus vote impartially for the objectively BEST FILMS IN THE WORLD, not the Best European or Hollywood films... But obviously we can observe that decades after decades, the cultural imperialists declare sacred their local masters, write cinema history accordingly, and impose to everyone else this self-marketing propaganda. Sadly, many people buy into it, and believe there isn't anything else outside of Hollywood and Western Europe (limited to France, UK, Germany, Italy, USSR and Sweden).

A greater balance with a reasonable representation by nationality, YES, although an absolute parity is impossible, nor strictly desirable/practical anyway. But this shouldn't mean to expand and dilute the number of voters to people who have no business dealing with the totality of cinema history. Maybe they are afraid to tell some voters "sorry we won't be needing you anymore", so they just add a new layer on top of an ill-conceived foundation.
The election of the all-time greatest films shouldn't be EVERYBODY's business. When you only organise a poll every 10 years, it should be taken a little more seriously than "here is my favourite memories from the top of my head, as of today". No. If there is only one vote every 10 years, every voter should make use of these 10 years to pounder over their idea of a pantheon, to revise, to rewatch, to cover your blind spots, to watch other voters's nominees, to re-rank your top100, to reconsider new configurations, to re-evaluate the past classics, to re-appraise the new masterpieces. Then maybe we'd be looking at a canon worth taking seriously! A canon which wouldn't insult its name of "canon" by disguising as a populist survey.

Related :

10 août 2012

S&S 2012 Canon (2) : Numbers

Giving all titles on each ballot the same weight gives a more balanced canon. But the top spots are still way above everyone else, out of reach... This is not a healthy competition, nor a credible one. Even if Vertigo and Citizen Kane are THE best films there ever were (which is at least debatable), they shouldn't be superior to the runner ups by a factor of 2 or 5! Because voters gave 10 titles, not just one on their ballot. The head-start is suspicious, most likely due to the myth surrounding the canon status quo : i.e. These films are always cited as the best films, so I must put them on my ballot or else I'll look like a fool. This kind of mentality allows a given film to raise above the rest by sheer popularity alone. Is Vertigo TWICE as great as Tokyo Story or La règle du jeu, which would justify why it gets nominated twice as many times by voters? Hell no! This is B.S. Maybe in 1930, there were a couple masterpieces that were that much superior to all the rest... But not today, not these titles.

All this becomes mitigated by the fact that Vertigo was only mentioned by 191 voters of a total of 846 participants!!!! That's barely 22.6 % of the voters! That's the GREATEST FILM OF ALL TIME for you... only backed up by less than 1 voter out of 4!!! How great and famous it is then? Not even the FIRST one on the poll is cited by EVERYONE? WTF? And the last on the top50 is "consensual" for 1 voter out of 29.

Let's emphasize this : more than 3 out of 4 alleged "experts" disagree that Vertigo belongs to a top50, and 28 out of 29 "experts" think that La Jetée doesn't belong on a top50, but both films (and all the others between them) end up being enshrined on magazine paper for posterity anyway!

What happens is that there are 50 or 100 people amongst voters who play the rules and vote for the established titles that should most likely top this canon, a convergent goal, a common target, and all the others are just shooting astray for the joke, because they don't take their task seriously enough.
That's what you get when you let people take it easy on a canon contribution, they just push their personal favourites with no regard for the actual titles that MOST EVERYONE should recognize as the CONSENSUAL GREATNESS in film culture. See : Critical Fallacy # 13 : Inconsistent Standards 

* * *

Let's forget about the particular titles cited for a moment, and break down this pseudo-consensus into statistical facts.
With an average of about 3000 films produced in the world every year, the centennial history of cinema tallies, at least, approximately 300,000 films (how many of these have you seen?). 
A Top1000 roughly corresponds to 0.3% of the total of all films that ever existed!!! A Top100 roughly corresponds to 0.03% of the total. A sample of 10 titles roughly corresponds to 0.003% of the total. So we're talking about the absolute ELITE of cinema. These films are not merely supposed to be awesome to you, today, they must be the absolute best according to all possible objective consensual criteria, across over a century of history. And if you've seen 10000 (distinct) films in your lifetime (which isn't the case of the vast majority of voters I safely assume), a ballot of 10 titles corresponds to 0.1% of your movie consumption (put that in regard to all the films you haven't seen!). It's much easier for you to select 10 films out of a 10000 seen, than it is for a canon to elect a Top10 out of  300,000 titles in cinema history.
Think about it : every film on this Top100 canon is there not because voters deemed it worthy of placing in a their Top100, but they promoted them as TOP10 MATERIAL!!! 

TOP 10
AUTEURS : 100% Male
No double citation for a single filmmaker (which happened for Chaplin in 1952, Eisenstein in 62, Bergman in 72, Welles in 72 and 82).  But for such a small sample, it's pointless to draw any conclusions on who's missing from the very top of the pyramid (by genre, decades or language)...

GEOGRAPHY : However it's important to note that the films are predominantly from the Western world. Only 4 films from the East made it in a top10 since 1952 (Ugetsu Monogatari in 62, 72; Seven Samourai in 82; Pather Panchali in 92; Tokyo Story in 92, 02, 12; all with decades-long overdue acknowledgements)... the rest are ALL either from Europe or the USA! If this British-made canon proved to be open to the non-English world (France, Italy, USSR, Denmark, Sweden) it never looked very hard outside of their immediate zone of influence (Asia, South America, Middle East), despite a wide spread presence of the Common Wealth British empire throughout the world...

TOP 50
AUTEURS : 98% Male / 2% Female
  • 4 Godard
  • 3 Coppola, Dreyer, Tarkovsky
  • 2 Hitchcock, Ozu, Kurosawa
  • 1 Bresson, Renoir, Murnau, Lang, Kubrick, Ford, Eisenstein, Fellini, Vigo, Donen, Antonioni, WKW, Lynch, Lanzmann, Scorsese, De Sica, Keaton, Akerman, Tarr, Truffaut, Rosselini, Wilder, S. Ray, Tati, Pontecorvo, Chaplin, Mizoguchi, Marker, Kiarostami
GEOGRAPHY : 50 North / 0 South - 42 West / 8 East
  • 25 Europe / 14 North America / 7 Asia / 1 Middle East / 0 South America / 0 Africa
  • 14 USA; 13 France; 6 Italy; 5 USSR, Japan; 2 Denmark, Sweden; 1 Hungary, Iran, India, Germany, China, Belgium
GENRE : 32 Classical / 15 Artfilm / 8 Experimental / 3 Documentary / 2 Musical / 0 Animation / 6 Silent

DECADES : 1920s : 6 / 1930s : 3 / 1940s : 3 / 1950s : 12 / 1960s : 15 / 1970s : 7 / 1980s : 1 / 1990s : 3 / 2000s : 2

LANGUAGE : 14 English / 14 French / 6 Italian / 5 Russian / 5 Japanese...

AUTEURS :  98% Male / 2% Female

GEOGRAPHY : 99% North / 1% South - 89% West / 11% East
  • 63 Europe / 31 North America / 10 Asia / 1 Middle East / 0 South America / 1 Africa
  • 31 USA; 22 France; 9 Italy; 7 UK; 6 Japan; 5 USSR, Sweden; 4 Germany; 2 Denmark, Taiwan; 1 India, Iran, Hungary, Belgium, China, Spain, Georgia, Senegal
GENRE : 63 Classical / 29 Artfilm / 11 Experimental / 4 Documentary / 2 Musical / 0 Animation / 11 Silent

DECADES : 1920s (or before) : 10 / 1930s : 7 / 1940s : 9 / 1950s : 25 / 1960s : 21 / 1970s : 14 / 1980s : 6 / 1990s : 5 / 2000s : 3

LANGUAGE : 38 English / 24 French / 9 Italian / 6 Japanese / 5 Russian / 5 Swedish / 4 German...

A canon should not be built on representational diversity (in order to make everyone happy, and show a politically correct panel), but we may nonetheless take a look at the quota-free poll results, and detect what are the predilections of the voters (not individually, but as a collegiate mind, as a timely mentality). This lack of diversity does not reflect a meaningless canon, on the contrary (if we can trust the voting standards) this shows the hierarchies of the establishment, and possibly the state of cinema in the world.
*IF* the ballots are educated, the first culprit is the world : other countries outside of Europe and the USA just don't make as many masterpieces as well. Which is partly true, sadly, in all objectivity. There are great films made in the world, but when it comes to elect the 100 best films of all time, the competition level is very high (as evidenced by the quality of the films present).
However, we cannot discount the absence of curiosity of the voting panel (which I suspect mainly  consists of English-speaking reviewers or European, even though the electorate increased from 150 to 846 this year). And there are obvious blind spots, overlooked masterpieces that are never included within the "usual suspects". 
There aren't too many candidates which absolutely do not deserve a spot in a top100... it's always debatable to an extent. Personally I would strike out less than 20. Meanwhile, there are more than 20 that I would add to the roster for being superior to the ones locked in... but these choices are arguable (because they only reflect MY opinion). Even though, the ones overlooked would probably improve the ultimate diversity of the canon. Half of the Hollywood-made films, and even some European ones get a free ride, out of deference for an established reputation, out of habit or familiarity, rather than because they persist to earn their spot against newer films. 
The Silent films were all the rage in the 40ies and 50ies, because cinema was half as old than today, there were less existing films, and the sound era was too inexperienced. Gradually, although very slowly, the silent masterpieces met their match and yielded their spot to newer films. Silent masterpieces are still excellent by all means, but 80 years since the peak of the silent era, cinema history lines up A LOT MORE titles, and the number of great films exploded, while the limited space in a top100 doesn't budge. We must judge past history in comparison to today's greatest achievements. Even if most academics and critics are fond for their impressionable youth, truth is we can make films today as great as in the silent era, or the Hollywood classical golden age for that matter.
I'm glad that the canon-making made adjustments in recent decades, not only by stoping this blind worshipping of Citizen Kane this year, but also by letting go of overrated darlings such as Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, Intolerance, The Wizard of Oz, Jaws, Birth of a Nation, Black Narcissus, The Maltese Falcon, E.T., The Red Shoes, Bonnie and Clyde, Broken Blossom ... which belong to a canon of a bygone era; they just look "dull" alongside the greater masterpieces on a list of only 100 bests. And this is not the arguable part of the canon, they lost their edge a long time ago! 

Did you hear anybody complain about the scandalous lack of women in the canon, like it happens every year for the line up of Cannes??? No. Because these clueless pundits don't give a shit about gender equality... they just have an anti-Cannes axe to grind.

Overall (Top50), Godard gets the most citations (4 titles) but fails to place one film in the top10 (161 votes for all his entries). Meanwhile Welles hugged number one for such a long time, but barely place a second film in the top100 (157 votes in total)... Hitchcock is the winner with the most votes (225) from only 2 films.
However Godard is hardly the greatest filmmaker ever! Hitchcock has a defensible shot at the title, but has been surpassed by the apparition of an Eisenstein, a Ozu, a Bresson, a Kurosawa, a Kubrick, a Tarkovsky, a Lynch, a Kiarostami... They are at least as masterful and perfectionist (and Godard doesn't reach this level of perfection). Why would the "establishment" only want to remember one and kind of underplay/overlook the others? We should see at least some fair competition between them, neck and neck, not such a wide gap of notoriety. Welles and Hitchcock already monopolized the laurels for half a century, it's about time to accept to let go of these safe, convenient idols. It's about time to realise the possibility of cinema to improve the quality level (however paramount in its own time) of the Classical age.

Largely overlooked : South America (Mexico, Argentina most notably), China (and Hong Kong), India (obviously), Iran, Taiwan or South Korea. And in Europe we could cite as well Greece, Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Romania... Or Canada in North America.

If we take a look at the language spoken in the world (or at least in the world of cinema-producing countries), Chinese (Mandarin), Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic should dominate film culture... However, only English (mainly thanks to Hollywood) really stands out. India or Japan make the most films in quantity, but unfortunately they don't make the best films in term of quality... there should be more canon-worthy masterpieces in the lot.
If China (Wong Kar-wai, Jia Zhang-ke, Zhang Yimou, Fei Mu, Sun Yu) is a mid-range player in the masterpieces field (except maybe Taiwan with Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang who are Top-range), Japan is one of the world's top players (Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Oshima, Naruse, Kobayashi) and is clearly underrepresented in the canon.
I have to say that given the relatively limited spread of French language in the world, France is making a remarkable show in this Top100 with nearly a 1/4 of the films (and tied with English in the Top50!) for such a small country. And there are still "cinéphiles" who think that Hollywood is THE most important contributor to film culture, auteurism and film literature... But let's be honest, if France objectively deserves one of the top spots in cinema history for all its auteurs, films, critics... a quarter of the Top100 for a single country is way too generous, and denotes an obvious bias in the accounts of the cinema legends.

We can also note that Europe gets almost twice as many spots in the Top100 as the USA does. And this is an English-centric canon made by Sight and Sound (so the bias towards Hollywood and British cinema is overinflated to begin with). Where is the cultural hegemony of Hollywood in the highest spheres of film culture? Everybody keeps talking about it, but I don't see it. Must be a self-affirmative mantra that American reviewers and historians love to tell themselves. MY canon would be more fair toward World Cinema and even less partial for Hollywood.
English and French language films take up 62% of the Top100... which leaves a little more than 1/3rd for all other languages in the world! Is it a fair representation of cinema greatness in the world? Or is it slightly inflated by the exclusivity of self-centric English and French film literature? Objectively we can only recognize this consistent quality in research and development of new film forms... the USA and France do stand out as some kind of leaders in the world of cinema; but maybe not to such extent, and such lopsided fashion, which explains why less obvious countries get shut out of the canon. Marginal countries need more supporters among the "expert-voter" (who would qualify to vote if they were).

Related :

09 août 2012

BFI statistical yearbook 2012

BREAKING NEWS : More arthouse screens in the UK than in the USA !!!
Source : BFI Statistical Yearbook 2012 (released on 26 July 2012) [PDF]

  • USA (Population 314 Million inhabitants) : 250 arthouse screens / 0.6% of total commercial screens [estimation]
  • UK (Population 62 Million inhabitants) : 266 arthouse screens / 7.2 % of total commercial screens [governmental survey]
And the UK boasts a 4% increase in number of arthouses and arthouse screens. So they are working on this shameful shortage and it's working slowly, but at least improving.
Meanwhile, the USA closes down more and more arthouses, without replacing them (forget about increasing the numbers!), and don't seem to care a damn about the dire straits situation they're in. 
Guess where cinéphilia is dying and where it's trying to survive (both against the same overwhelming domination by Hollywood marketing)?


Related :

07 août 2012

S&S 2012 Canon (1) : Number 1

Why it's a good thing that Citizen Kane finally takes the back seat? And why the number one shouldn't matter...

"I'm not a number. I'm a free man"

Citizen Kane was certainly one of the best films made in 1941, even though Sight and Sound, like all American critics, failed to acknowledge it right away back then. So it was anointed late (only since the 1962 poll, 21 years after its première!), and now overstays its welcome by 5 or 6 decades...
Orson Welles's debut is a solid all around masterpiece, the perfect candidate for a canon no doubt, for all its accomplishments, stylistically and dramaturgically. Nobody should discount its presence in a Top100, meanwhile its spot in the Top10 is at least debatable, and the 1st spot is not its exclusive property. Crowning the canon all by itself for 60 years is close to ridiculous.

Ossifying a canon around a single film sends the wrong message in film culture : it suggests that cinema hasn't evolved since 1941, or could not possibly improve on Welles's achievements. It totally ignores the fruitful production of the 60ies for one (Bresson, Bergman, Antonioni, Satyajit Ray, Cassavetes, Fellini, Tati, Resnais, Kurosawa, Herzog, Sembene, Leone...), one of the best decades in cinema history by all standards, and all the subsequent masterpieces made more recently (Angelopoulos, Kieslowski, Lynch, Kiarostami, Sokurov, Tarr, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Fassbinder, Wong Kar-wai, Tsai Ming-liang, Jia Zhang-ke, Weerasethakul, Ceylan...). And these candidates can easily measure up to Citizen Kane. When we remember that the 40ies were the all-time peak of cinema attendance in the USA and in the UK (3 times the number of today's spectators), it comes as no surprise why titles from that period left a more enduring mark in the collective consciousness...

Apparently this year each title on the ballot is worth exactly the same point as the others, so all ballots are effectively unranked for all intent and purpose. I don't know if this was always the case in the past for all the older polls, but it sounds to me to be the best compromise. It relieves the pressure put on having to determine if such film is really better than that one. All voters need to do is to pick 10 films worthy of a top10. It's a puzzle to be asked to order such equally great masterpieces in so little spots. Ranking them is rendered meaningless when thinking about all the runner ups left out in the rest of the top100.

This is also how readers should consider this final top100 canon : only as a bulk, regardless for the fine details of the ranking which only reflect the popularity of each title among voters, the one that most voters thought about (or saw at all) and wanted to include on their ballot. This distinction usually goes to the most "mainstream" film among equally deserving masterpieces, because it is the most widely known, watched,  written about, talked about, analysed, taught, published, cited. So Citizen Kane is this "idol", this diva, this pundit's favourite, this fetish, this token name-drop, this default reference. For this reason, it snatches the most ballots, and therefore, trumpeted as the all-time NUMBER ONE by appearing on every canon... it continues to feed this unquestioned reputation, and more people vote for it because they've been told it is THE "numero uno". It's a cliché perpetuating the cliché to remain a cliché.

The benevolent "anti-Citizen Kane campaign", this past couple years, in the anticipation of the new utterance of the decennial poll, achieved its goal against all odds, even if the means were not really fair play. Making a point NOT TO vote for Citizen Kane (157 votes in the Top50) helped to end its reign, only to let the ex-number 2 (Vertigo : 191 votes) fill the void artificially created. A necessary evil maybe to break the streak.
Sight and Sound also campaigned in their own pages (since January 2011), by promoting potential Citizen Kane substitutes in a written appreciation : Vertigo (191 votes), L'Atalante (58), L'Avventura (43), Mulholland Dr. (40), La Grande Illusion (22), Beau Travail (21), The Magnificent Ambersons (20), The hour of the Furnaces (0)... (not the most decisive list of number 1 contenders... more like random personal favourites)

Unfotunately, Vertigo only moves the top spot toward a slightly more recent era (17 years forward)... The epitome of greatness still remains entrenched in the 50ies, with a very CLASSICAL film if truly masterful. But for a postmodern title to win the prize, it will take more rounds of film education to freshen up the conservative taste of the voters, and maybe by asking them to WATCH more films before being allowed to vote.

Voting for an ALL-TIME GREATEST FILM CANON should be a privilege, requiring a minimal qualification, rather than being a VIP invitation sent out to colleagues and friends as a form of flattery...

You'll never reach an educated consensus by asking 846 random reviewers to share their idiosyncratic taste. But we'll look into this aspect deeper when they publish the detailed ballots online.

Related :

Constructive Disagreement (Margaret Heffernan)

Dare to disagree (Margaret Heffernan; TED talk; June 2012)
Most people instinctively avoid conflict, but as Margaret Heffernan shows us, good disagreement is central to progress. She illustrates (sometimes counterintuitively) how the best partners aren’t echo chambers -- and how great research teams, relationships and businesses allow people to deeply disagree. The former CEO of five businesses, Margaret Heffernan explores the all-too-human thought patterns -- like conflict avoidance and selective blindness -- that lead managers and organizations astray.

Related :

03 août 2012

Forgotten Obsolete English Word #7 : Canon

Literary Canon (Wikipedia English): "A group of literary works that are generally accepted as representing a field."
Aesthetic Canon : "a criterion or standard of judgment. a rule or especially body of rules or principles generally established as valid and fundamental in a field or art or philosophy."

Vitruvian Man (1487) Leonardo Da Vinci
Le Modulor (1945) par Le Corbusier
Do you look like Vitruvian Man? Is your height 1.829m like the Modulor? Likely not...
A canon is not representative of diversity, of particularities, of individualities, of radicality, of edginess, of you personally, of me as I see myself, but is a universal reference for an ideal standard, a perfect (abstract) model, a mathematical equation, a geometrical composition, a flawless silhouette, an identifiable pattern, a respected profile... 

* * *

Cinema Canon 

The establishment of a filmic canon for all of cinema history is meant to represent the aesthetic values invented, developed and solidified by film artists, film technicians and film theorists. It consists of standardized shot scales, points of view, composition, blocking, camera movements, timing, lighting, contrasts, colorimetry, soundscape, sound design, dramaturgy, acting performance, diction, storytelling, character development, plot articulation, photo chemistry/digital recording, cinema technique, cinema aesthetic, cinema artistry... moreover the socio-political perspicacity, the philosophical aspiration, the original poetry.

These are objective criteria providing a point of reference for everyone working in the cinema industry, an ideal model to attain, to transcend or to transgress. This objective canon allows the existence of ANY POSSIBLE comparison between two given films, two given shots, two given actors, two given directors... Without a common reference, a golden standard, to measure the quality or failure of any cinematic achievement is baseless, arbitrary and unaccountable. A film canon is what helps any cinéphile (with the necessary film history education at their disposal) to engage in a constructive conversation with another interlocutor. Objective references give the framework that positions, qualifies and values each and everyone's subjective perceptions, opinions, tastes and hierarchies.

Like in literature, sculpture, painting, music or dance... the canons of cinema could be illustrated by a series of EXEMPLARY models (films or filmmakers). 

Some people believe they can publish a canon all by themselves with a self-centered list of 1000 titles. The other mistake is to confound a canon with a democratic poll... by expanding the number of voters to representational statistics! These two extremes interpretation, even though quite widespread, are both a misuse of the word canon, and contribute to undermine cinema culture by discrediting the idea of standard levels. 
A canon is necessarily a collective endeavour (precisely to negate any personal bias or conflict of interest) and the EDUCATED selection by a chosen few EXPERTS (to avoid great films faring poorly because too many voters didn't see them)! 

When you put together a list of THE BEST FILMS OF ALL TIME, voters are not just sharing their whimsical personal taste nor their daily random draw, but are expected to KNOW ALL the meaningful cinema history milestones, to be familiar with film theory and film technique, to be capable to distinguish their subjective taste from their understanding of an objective, universal cinema greatness. Voters who don't know some of the most prominent candidates for a top100 will alter and offset the final result!!! All the better if you know "better" films on the side, but to give value to your alternative canon contribution, you need to have seen the consensual canon first (as established earlier). 

A canon is not the space to promote your personal agenda... it is a collegiate contribution to cinema history, where you don't represent YOURSELF, but you put your knowledge of cinema history to the service of the society, as ONE OF MANY expert opinions on the subject. The goal of a canonical poll is understood to produce a meaningful compilation of votes that CAN add up to eachother because they rank films according to the same scale of greatness and the same definition of greatness.

Nick James (Sight & Sound editor, invitation memo to the Top10 list of Greatest Films) : "We realise that this is not the easiest of tasks, but we want you to know that this is a major worldwide endeavour that will help us all to remind people of film's rich history and to refine what we mean by the best of cinema.
Please draw up a list of ten films only, in order of preference or, if you'd rather, alphabetically. The order does not matter to the voting system - we will allot one vote only to each of your ten films. We also invite you to add a short commentary after the list explaining why you have chosen the films in your top ten.
As for what we mean by 'Greatest', we leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema."
Opening the poll to mediocre reviewers with a weak knowledge of film history, with an infamous bad/limited taste, leaving the definition of greatness up to the voter, showing a laid-back, lax attitude towards to content of everyone's contribution, is a sure way to end up with a bullshit ranking that is not worth tabulating, and sharing to the public eye. See : Critical Fallacy #13 : Inconsistent Standards / Double Standards (Film Comment) 4

A canon is not the place to impose quota limitations (by decades, by country, by gender, by genre, by filmmaker...) which would give a positive affirmation spotlight to "runner-ups" by disqualifying arbitrarily GREATER films/filmmakers just because they made TOO MANY great films. A canon ranks ALL GREAT FILMS regardless for who made them. If the council of experts all agree that one filmmaker hogs 4 spots in the top10, so be it. It only weakens the value of the final canon to give visibility to inferior films out of charity. A canon is not a platform to flatter as many artists's egos as possible. To reflect the true achievements reached by the art of cinema at a given point in history (to the best of the experts's objective estimation), it should feature all the prominent titles, and only those, considered to be representative of the highest achievements.

Now, if a canon is structurally educated and objective (ideally), it could be (and generally is) rather conservative, by definition, because experts are asked to judge by the current accepted standards of appreciation. This might be unfair to the most recent film form that escape or explode the current rules of cinema, or the most experimental, challenging the most commonly accepted criteria...
Thus, contrary to populist belief, a canon is not meant to SURPRISE or to IMPRESS by its boldness, broad taste and contrived representativity. A canon is not a user guide to DISCOVER new, underexposed titles... If the voters qualification, the voters's choices and the tabulation are done right, it should surprise no one (nobody who is familiar with cinema history, past canons and film literature). We do not expect a canon to change entirely from one poll to the next, even if they are 10 years apart. The fact that titles remain in the top10 many times in a row is proof that it was a good idea to elect them in the first place, because they stand the test of time, and compete head to head with the other masterpieces made after their time.

This said, a canon can be wrong, and take time to correct itself (partly for the limitations and conceits cited above)... We can question and challenge the establishment of a canon, but only for the good reasons, and not against features that a canon is NOT EXPECTED to perform in. Criticizing a canon for conservatism (at least as a principle), for poor diversity, for redundancy, for safeness, for predictibility is all wrong.

However we could interrogate why the council of experts (if their qualification is not suspect) fails to embrace a radical change in cinema history (like the transition to sound and colour, like the revolution of La Nouvelle Vague, like the emergence of Modernity, like the development of the Contemplative mode...). Sometimes a legit canon can be wrong, or outdated. But we expect a canon to reflect conservative values, conservative taste, and a certain inertia to sudden changes... this is the very nature of a canon.

The purpose of a canon is to protect a safe, stable, uncontroversial establishment. It should eventually update and adapt to the always evolving cinema history. It only takes more times than for early adopters. Even some reviewers, individually, some critics, some historians, some filmmakers and of course the audience, to embrace new standards right away... The process of a consensual film canon, its voting system, its slowness, its respect for the test of time for any new masterpiece will make the incorporation of the cutting edge of film form incremental and prudent. Inevitably. 

We can also notice the total hegemony of Hollywood-centric (50ies) and Europe-centric (60ies) taste, by American and European voters for a Western public. The fact is that cinema production has dominated in visibility, superiority and self-congratulation in this area of the world, to the detriment of the East and the South. Ditching the Western masterpieces (by pretending they are NOT masterpieces worthy of a canon) is obviously a fallacious way to deal with it, and it cheats the canon. One way to counterbalance this lopsided influence, is to get voters to WATCH, FAMILIARIZE, UNDERSTAND the underexposed, underestimated titles coming from the corners of the world too often overlooked by film literature, film distributors and movie reviewers... 

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