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 We can't use a pseudo-canon as a publicity campaign for forgotten (outdated) masterpieces of the past.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.

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