Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The List in Film Criticism

Ours is a list obsessed culture. From popular publications like Entertainment Weekly to more reputable organs like the New York Times, lists and rankings abound. Too often these lists tend to replace any form of valuable discussion about art or culture and instead satisfy readers with a facile ranking that can be easily digested and does not require any active engagement on the reader's part. The obsession with rankings also reflects an increasingly competitive culture (mirrored in the proliferation of award ceremonies) in which a winner must be declared (although not all lists include rankings). In the world of film criticism, lists are especially prominent. Every publication from the popular tabloids to alternative newsweeklies like the Village Voice and the Chicago Reader offer their end of the year ten best lists, as well as numerous rankings throughout the year (see Time Out New York's 20 Best New York Movies for a recent example). The most useful of these lists, like Jonathan Rosenbaum's, offer not only a detailed discussion of the films selected but outline the difficulties inherent in the selection process itself.

In the film world, two lists are especially prominent: Sight and Sound's decennial list of the ten best films of all time, compiled from the rankings of various distinguished critics and last published in 2002, and the American Film Institutes's list of the top 100 American films of all time. The latter list is especially harmful to critical thinking. Designed for mass consumption, the list refuses to challenge the viewer's expectations by including only films that are already widely known to the general public and failing to include any genuinely challenging films, except for those already subsumed under the mainstream press' narrow canonization. In addition, the list deliberately courts confusion by suggesting that the included pictures are the 100 best films ever made, and not merely the 100 best American films, a difference easy enough to discern for the intelligent reader, but potentially (and dangerously) misleading to the uninformed public who are further dissuaded from encountering the cinema of any other countries.* The Sight and Sound poll, conducted every ten years since 1952, has the advantage of drawing on a wider and more intelligent critical base and ends up acknowledging a much more diverse set of films than the AFI list (for one thing, it doesn't limit its range by nationality). The magazine's web site allows for the searching of individual voters' ballots as well as including a list of all the films voted for, so the poll can serve as a tool for the interested reader to gain exposure to a wider cinematic compass. Still, the survey has many of the same disadvantages of the AFI list. Although the rankings have changed somewhat over the years, the Sight and Sound poll is still essentially conservative in its inclusions. As in the AFI rankings, Citizen Kane holds the top spot, a position it has enjoyed in all but the first poll. Certainly one of the great films, Kane's stranglehold on the top spot nonetheless is too often seen as a given, an incontrovertible fact that cannot be challenged. Likewise, the rest of the top ten is filled out with old standbys such as Vertigo, The Godfather, and Tokyo Story, great films all, but hardly deserving of top ten status. This points up one of the chief disadvantages of such lists, a predilection for repeating established conclusions instead of a provocative re-assessment of the canon. To be sure, certain film lists are more esoteric and deliberately resist the traditional choices (see Slant Magazine's 100 Essential Films, also a response to the AFI list), but even these lists tend to replace discussion with the simple accumulations of names and numbers.

So, what it is about these lists that fascinates? Is there more to it than the facility with which they convey information to the reader without the impediment of intelligent discussion? I think so. They allow for an organization of our culture's (or an individual's) feelings on a particular topic. With the sheer number of films released every year and the number of reviews written, the list is a way to contain this information in an easily accessible format. It allows us to grasp what is important from the chaos of cinematic production and to assign cultural value to those works we feel transcend the mere enjoyment of a momentary entertainment. The best lists are intelligently selected, provocative, and accompanied by an intelligent discussion of why the selected films were chosen. By allowing us to single out what is truly valuable and isolate this value in a single place, the list (as long as it supplements good critical discourse and doesn't replace it) has shown itself to be an important tool in the critical apparatus. To be sure, it is frequently misused and its ubiquity, especially in unintelligent applications like the AFI's list, can be culturally harmful, but it should not be dismissed out-of-hand. Clearly a bit of discretion is required.

*Those interested in a further analysis of the deleterious effect of the AFI's list are directed to Jonathan Rosenbaum's excellent article, which also includes an alternate 100 films, located here.

1 comment:

Allison said...

each list should be accompanied with a justification by the list compiler, even if only a paragraph long, in my humble opinion. and not like new york magazine's list of why nyc is the greatest...but valid critical justification.

you should supplement this post with a list of the top 100 worst lists on film. i think that would make me chuckle.