Lights, Camera, Conversation… “First among the many, many equals”

Posted on August 10, 2012


If you’ve been following the fuss about the ‘Sight & Sound’ poll, there’s a new greatest movie of all time. However do they do it every decade?

How do you choose the world’s best restaurant? For starters, you’d ask what kind of cuisine. (Indian? Italian? Chinese? A bit of everything that comes under that suspicious umbrella term ‘multi-cuisine’?) Then you may consider price range. (Five-star? Roadside?) And there would be additional discussions on whether reservations are needed or if the ingredients are locally sourced, whether the service is good or if a rude-waiter scenario awaits us, and even if parking is a problem. But above all, the qualifier “world’s best” implies an essential familiarity with everything else out there on the planet, just as simply as you wouldn’t be able to pick the best student in class if you didn’t know what every child was up to, or, like the Olympics, if you didn’t have a shortlist of candidates vying to assert their supremacy. Even then, no one can say for sure if there isn’t a faster runner or a more graceful swan-diver in some unheralded corner of the earth, someone who never thought to compete professionally and thus remains unnoticed, unknown.

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Unless you’ve seen every film ever made, how can you pick the greatest film of all time? Every time I see a Sight & Sound poll, this is the question that pops to mind. The web site of the British Film Institute, which publishes the magazine, says: “In 1952 Sight & Sound polled the world’s leading film critics to compile a list of the best films of all time. The magazine has repeated this poll every ten years, to show which films stand the test of time in the face of shifting critical opinion… Now, in 2002, the magazine has published its largest poll to date, receiving contributions from 145 film critics, writers and academics, and 108 film directors.” How many of these voters, I wonder, have seen everything there is to be seen (and more importantly, remember what they’ve seen, keeping in mind that last year’s masterpiece is sometimes this year’s overrated embarrassment), and are therefore certain that what they’re doing is indeed picking the best films of all time.

I don’t have a problem with the exercise or the process. If you want the critics’ estimation, you have to poll the critics. My question is about variables, the mental arithmetic, the result. As a critic, I am often asked what my favourite film is (if people don’t know you and they hear you’re a critic, this is almost always their opening question), and I always slime away from the conversation saying that there are too many to mention. And that’s the truth. Besides, what favourite film are they asking about? Favourite drama? Favourite musical? Favourite western? Sci-fi? Or favourite guilty pleasure, a film of no redeeming cinematic merit but which I cannot help returning to every so often? What about mood? Don’t people factor that in while talking about favourites? You may love Beethoven, but his dissonances and dynamic contrasts don’t exactly make for music to wake up to – that’s evening music, while in the morning, still seeking your bearings, you may prefer something less dramatic. When I want to laugh, I’m hardly going to slip a Dreyer into the DVD player.

I prefer, as Maria von Trapp did, a list of favourites that I could pick and choose from, given the circumstances (both external and internal) – on a cold day, however unlikely given my residence, I’d go with warm woolen mittens over whiskery kittens. I am not disciplined enough to make a “top ten” list of anything, let alone movies, and I liken this inability to the hand-wringing of a parent asked to pick a favourite child from his brood. So many movies, so much love. The additional burden comes from the slipperiness with which art evades canonisation. Young or old, male or female, short-attention-spanned or not, sports follower or not, we do not grudge Roger Federer his place in the pantheon because he has volleyed and lobbed his way to all those titles, beating all those others in the process, in matches whose scores left no doubt about the margin of his victory. But how do we arrive on an agreement on The Passion of Joan of Arc?

I suppose we could say that, as with sports, there are measures that art must submit to in order to be canonized – though I suspect if two people will agree on these measures. That said, there’s not much to argue with in the top-ten list just released, which includes , The Searchers, Tokyo Story, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, at number one, Vertigo, which ended Citizen Kane’s half-century monopoly on the top spot. Kane is now No. 2 – something that makes me neither happy nor sad, for as so many people have pointed out, such lists are ultimately meaningless. Citizen Kane is a great movie, period, and I like François Truffaut’s summation of what makes it so great. “As opposed to a timid beginner who might try to make a good film in order to win acceptance in the industry, [Orson] Welles, with his considerable reputation already established, felt constrained to make a movie which would sum up everything that had come before in cinema, and would prefigure everything to come. His extravagant gamble paid off handsomely.”

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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