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Sight & Sound Poll Roundtable Part 1/2 – When Institutions Collide: Academics Reading the Sight & Sound Poll

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Today begins a two-part 2012 Sight & Sound poll roundtable by PhD students and candidates at the University of Pittsburgh’s Film Studies program. In this roundtable we take on a variety of issues raised by the recent release of Sight & Sound’s 2012 Greatest Films of All Time poll in both its aggregate list and its individual critics’ lists. We also discuss some of the reception and debates in the weeks surrounding the release of the poll. In particular we sought to highlight how the poll is situated in the academic film studies community and the cinephilic community at large in its canon-building debates. We especially wanted to ask what the S&S poll really says about these institutional relationships (between academics, film institutions, critics, filmmakers, and cinephile audiences). Part One of the roundtable will explore in depth how the S&S poll participates in or evades a project of canon-building, how and if at all academics should engage with the S&S poll, and finally how much the Vertigo/Citizen Kane upset really has to do with an increase in academic participation in the poll. Part Two of the roundtable will take a closer look at the individual critics’ lists and the politics of participating in such a project. Participating in today’s conversation are Jeff Heinzl, Natalie Ryabchikova, Ryan Pierson, Felipe Pruneda Sentíes, and moderated by myself, Katie Bird.

Part I: When Film Institutions Collide: Academics Reading the Sight & Sound Poll

Katie: The first question I wanted to pose for the roundtable is: What role does the Sight & Sound poll serve in today’s (2012′s) film environment? (In a variety of contexts: cinephilia, criticism, film studies, etc.?)

Jeff: I think of the S&S critics’ list, even sixty years after the original S&S list, as a starting point of sorts (and a lot of people who have written about the S&S list seem to share this view). It’s a place for those who are interested in film to begin exploring or continue exploring. For those of us who have been looking at these sorts of lists (or canons?) for quite a while now, it may not be quite as mysterious or exciting as we would like it to be, but it signals blind spots – films lots of people have seen, possibly important, that I just haven’t gotten around to (“I” both as a cinephile and a film studies representative).

Felipe: A first impression of the list reeks of a certain nostalgia, one that brings to mind the mindset that, with the advent of the digital image, film has become irrevocably impermanent. The list remains, for some, stodgy, precisely because it seems to resist change.

Ryan: The list continues to speak from a particular time and place of tastes, the kind of cosmopolitan film culture that flourished after WWII; going over even the newer entries, you get a relatively stable profile of cinema as technically stylish, on the ponderous side, and serious … basically the sorts of traits Bordwell pointed out in his “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Practice”.

Natalie: It’s not a response exactly but I would like to propose for us to use Adrian Martin’s distinction between individual “lists” and a collective list, i.e. a “canon” or “poll” instead of “canon.” In this case, maybe according to Martin, and evident from individual critics’ and directors’ lists, they are not at all stodgy, stable or even serious. Then they get boiled down to a poll, or a canon, which can be described in a way Ryan did. (You could say that the canon resists change that individual lists try to bring in.)

Ryan: This becomes more evident the more people you poll; idiosyncrasies and outliers have less power over a list of 846 items than they do over 145 or 85.

Natalie: So the larger number of the respondents might be this poll’s drawback, not, as everyone seems to think, its merit!

Felipe: I would say it is the other way around: the canon is always evolving, whereas lists try to crystallize it because they try to fix it, however temporarily. The list is a report of the state of the canon and realization of what could be potentially canonical, so when a writer nominates a film, it inevitably enters our collective consciousness and effectively, a sense of the canon as something that is acknowledged, talked about, written and rewritten, but not set in stone. The canon is almost implicit, a tacit agreement that evolves depending on what films become relevant.

Natalie: The current evidence doesn’t support that. We essentially have the same films in the top ten over and over again, whereas, if we read Žižek’s list, or Rosenbaum’s list, they are very far from the canon.

Ryan: In some ways S&S encourages that more critical stance (publishing individual lists), but there’s also a real effort on Nick James’ [Sight & Sound editor] part to solidify it as a kind of definite authority, which comes out in some of his language.

Natalie: It is also a starting point for debates – for example, between the critical and academic communities.

Katie: I’m glad you mention the academic response, Natalie. In Girish Shambu’s most recent blog post on the canon and the S&S poll, he laments the fact that film academics have very little interest in responding to the S&S poll, both in terms of participation (though obviously a greater amount this year), but also in response to its release. What do we think of this? Should we (as academics) engage in this list critically or is it a waste of time?

Felipe: I too think we should respond. And I agree that the value of the list is in the discussion that this generates, but how much of that discussion is fueled by the always-confrontational assertion that the list says “these are the greatest films of all time”? Then from that point, other responses can be formulated, but how much time is wasted in trying to reconcile the perceptions that taste is subjective or that debates on film are only valuable if there is a sense that there is such a thing as objectively measurable greatness. These are not mutually exclusive propositions, but a lot of the debates on the internet, it seems to me, revolve around that.

Jeff: I definitely think we should respond – and I also think we should respond to year-end aggregate lists as well.

Natalie: And to Oscar nominations? It’s hard to draw the line then – what merits response and what doesn’t.

Katie: I say yes to Oscars, but maybe that’s because I think we need to pay more attention to economic, industry politics and not less (Oscars are a perfect example of the politics of list-making in action).

Jeff: Well, it doesn’t have to be all of us responding to everything. But I would love to see some academics respond to these lists (and things like Oscar nominations) by critiquing and exploring them at length. In other words, by not letting them be quite as ephemeral as they are at the moment.

Felipe: I find award ceremonies and year-end lists tend to play the useful role of speeding up the process of considered, careful reflection upon a film. Such was the case with The Artist: the hype created such a speedy backlash that many took the very productive middle ground where the film could be seen not for its quality (which is something that academics do not treat the same way as journalists), but for whatever ideas it inspired.

Ryan: I don’t think film studies participates in a canonization project in quite the way that Shambu implies.

Katie: What way does film studies participate in a canonizing project?

Ryan: In having films that are frequently taught and written about; but this is because of their source of academic interest, not necessarily of their quality. The two can be related but they’re not the same.

Katie: Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian cited the rise of Vertigo to the top spot as a result of academic inclusion in the poll. He writes: “My own theory is that Vertigo‘s rise in esteem coincides with academic critical fascination with female sexuality and the male ‘gaze.’” This implies that academics value Vertigo over Kane because Vertigo fits more neatly into models of academic film theory and provides clearer examples of such theory in action.

Natalie: I feel that Vertov’s surprising inclusion in the top-10 is the result of such participation.

Katie: Yes, but I do think it may be more than that. Take this hypothetical: In his preface to the list, S&S editor Nick James suggests that the critics’ and directors’ individual lists are not that dissimilar. What if we had a third category: academics (take them out of the critics poll and organize them separately). Would the list be drastically different?

Jeff: I’m not sure a separate list for academics would mean much to me. I’m interested in what “writers about cinema” think, and that category includes both popular critics and academics.

Felipe: (And to add an additional question), what is the place of evaluation and quality for academics?

Ryan: More avant-garde items. And, perhaps ironically, probably more Hollywood/popular cinema.

Felipe: Is that something academics in general care about? Or is it rather a problem? I know professors who are very open about their tastes and encourage students to construct their own, and professors who refuse to enter the question of quality in the classroom.

Ryan: I think it is something academics should care about, but not to the extent that critics do.

Natalie: To paraphrase Felipe, professors have their internalized canons so firmly in place that there’s no room left for personal taste.

Ryan: Critics have the privilege of caring solely about evaluation; often, such matters just aren’t relevant to study.

Felipe: Yes, but should we care about quality in terms of studying the sources of taste, or in some other way? And some professors do speak of personal taste. That might in fact say something about “taste” in the classroom. I am becoming more and more convinced that sometimes our enthusiasm for films during a class or in an article is impossible to hide, and that going with it makes sometimes for more engaging writing. On the other hand, I’m starting to believe that taking a professor’s or critic’s word for the greatness of a film is necessary for our discipline.

Ryan: I think that largely the temptation of study is that my evaluation “x is great” say more about me than about x, but I’d want to resist it, at least in some places.

Katie: The panel Nick Davis moderated earlier this year, “Illuminating Shadows: Film Criticism in Focus,” highlights this exact debate between critics and academics on the task of evaluation. The panel included responses from Martin, Shambu, and Elena Gorfinkel.

Natalie: Adrian Martin also states in his discussion of canon-formation that, “Critics who are truly cinephiles, I believe, often champion extremes. They go for the highest and the lowest. They champion the most difficult, severe, rigorous, minimalist, experimental films; and, equally, they also champion the often despised, maligned and overlooked products of popular culture – like vulgar teenage comedies, gross horror, trashy exploitation, ultra-violent action, even pornography.”[i] This might also be where the difference between critics and academics lies.

Felipe: Bordwell once made a distinction in a 2010 Film Comment article between cinephile critics and academics, saying that academics are “right to be curious” about how and why film speaks to audiences in very powerful ways, but that academics could learn from critics to “stay close to the sensual surfaces of cinema” in their writing.

Katie: What do we make of Vertigo unseating Citizen Kane for the top position in the poll? Does it have any connection to canon-formation and the academy?

Natalie: I’ve personally always liked Vertigo more. But academically speaking, I think it’s the most noticeable sign of the changes the canon undergoes, even if very slowly. The best film is now in color, at least.

Felipe: I do prefer Vertigo.

Katie: You typical academics (he he). I vote Citizen Kane always; it gets better every time, while Vertigo gets less exciting for me. I can watch Kane every year; I have no desire to watch Vertigo every year.

Ryan: Do (we) think Vertigo will still be on top in ten years?

Katie: I suspect in ten years, Sunrise will beat them both.

Natalie: I think by that time neither Vertigo nor Citizen Kane will be. Maybe Avatar?

Katie: Ugg, by that time all the real cinephiles will be dead (or they will have to die … I’m joking of course. I don’t want to live in a world without cinephiles).

Felipe: Are traces of Vertigo more visible in subsequent films than in Kane? Or is Kane so influential that its influence is more about technique, and that of Vertigo more one of quotation and reference? Off the top of my head, I can think of many films that contain references to Vertigo‘s images or plot, but also many films that play with structure and the image in ways that Kane made available.

Katie: Kane also has the historical aspect going for it. Which I think always helps.

Natalie: I think with Kane it’s more about technique that got assimilated, and with Vertigo it’s more about everything else – the gaze, the desire, the dream … So that Vertigo remains more a thing in itself, whereas Kane is a sort of precursor to everything.

Felipe: I get the impression that Vertigo inspires more imitation than Kane, but that Kane opened up ideas about how to put films together. Which Vertigo didn’t.

Ryan: That’s a challenge about discussing Kane, I think … I find myself having to apologize for genuinely loving it as a movie; perhaps being unseated will make it more fun and create backlash against the (very slight) backlash.

Katie: It’s definitely more fun. As UK film critic, Jonathan Romney, said about replacing Le Mépris with Pierrot le Fou on his list: “It’s simply more fun” (that’s not meaningless, especially in a list lacking in comedies). Kane‘s got it all!

Felipe: But it doesn’t have Jimmy Stewart’s head traveling toward you with funky colors flashing around it!

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Part One of our PITT Sight & Sound Roundtable was moderated and edited by Katie Bird. Details about the actual poll can be found here: Sight & Sound editor Nick James’ introduction, poll results, individual critics’ lists. Tomorrow, Part Two of our Sight & Sound Roundtable will conclude with a discussion about the individual critics’ lists and the personal politics of list-making. As with every other critic who responded to this poll, we will also provide our own S&S-inspired top ten lists.

For this discussion and more join us for the University of Pittsburgh’s annual graduate student conference. This year’s theme explores the topic: Cinephilia/Cinephobia on November 9-11, 2012.