Now that the dust has been starting to settle on the news about the 2022 Sight & Sound film poll–the once-a-decade event ranking the top 100 greatest films of all time, with particular focus on the top 10–I thought I’d share some thoughts. Because the newest list is–how to put it–a doozy.
Just in case you’ve heard of Sight & Sound (spelled with either “&” or “and”) but haven’t looked into it much, it’s a prestigious monthly film magazine that’s been published by the British Film Institute since the 1930s. In 1952 they decided to poll critics and directors about what ten films they considered the all-time greats–Battleship Potemkin (1925) nabbed the top spot. It was decided that the poll would be held every ten years to gauge the tastes of the critical consensus and to see how appreciation of great cinema might evolve. The once-a-decade nature of the poll and its knowledgeable voter base made it, in the words of Roger Ebert, “…The most respected of the countless polls of great movies–the only one most serious movie people take seriously.” (I’d keep that quote in mind for the rest of this article.)
Sight & Sound has a pretty simple and fair way of deciding how to rank the films. Each film that gets a vote gets a point, the points are tallied at the end and the films ranked by the number of points. The top 10s always cause plenty of discussion, even if–heh, especially if–you insist you “don’t like lists” and “lists don’t matter” (kind of true to a point, but nevertheless, I remain a starry-eyed fan of lists. They’re fun). If you asked me, the 2012 top ten list was darn near perfect. Look at the silents on there. How fitting. How beautiful:
- Vertigo (1958)
- Citizen Kane (1941)
- Tokyo Story (1953)
- The Rules of the Game (1939)
- Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
- The Searchers (1956)
- Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
- The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
- 8 1/2 (1963)
A very decent selection of classics, with a nice span of the key eras. And now, ten years later, comes the new list. Are you ready for it? (Err, if you haven’t read about it yet?)
- Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
- Vertigo (1958)
- Citizen Kane (1941)
- Tokyo Story (1953)
- In the Mood for Love (2000)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
- Beau Travail (1999)
- Mulholland Drive (2001)
- Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
- Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Something…happened here, no? I’d never heard of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, or maybe I did and the title wafted into my brain and then wafted straight back out again. It has placed on the S&S list before, but in the top 40. Yet somehow it jumped over two dozen places to be given the highest honor in movie ranking history! Uncanny. And several silents dropped out of the top 10 like sad little tears, replaced by several more recent films. Look at them. Just sitting there, smugly, where Sunrise and Metropolis could be…!
Some digging revealed that, yes, something did indeed happen here, due to a perceived need to “shake things up.” Apparently conducting one poll every ten years has become just utterly passe–my gosh, there’s been 7 whole polls already. And, inexplicably, the polls keep featuring a lot of the same great classic films. “Who has time for this stagnant, fossilized nonsense?!” hypothetical people wailed. And thus, the previous group of 800+ critics (already larger than normal for this poll) was expanded to a whopping 1600+. Indeed, it was only practical: for how else could S&S possibly get the varied results they desired?
Maybe in 2032 S&S can ask three times as many critics–or heck, why not twenty times as many? If we start running out of critics, we can ask bloggers, too! (I’d volunteer–buckle up and get ready to see A Trip To the Moon show up on at least one list!) Maybe they can start airdropping film ballots to every man, woman and child they can find–why shouldn’t little Brayden down the street get a chance to vote for Kung Fu Panda?
There’s other odd things about the top 100 list. Some recent–suspiciously recent–films include Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and Get Out (2017), which got more votes than, oh, Lawrence of Arabia, The Wizard of Oz, and other such middling works. The General just barely made the top 100 (!). In my opinion the number of ’70s films is excessive (do film history classes start with the ’70s nowadays?) and curiously short shrift is given to the ’30s. And there are only nine silents that got enough votes to crack the top 100. Only nine.
Both presentism and 2022 politics seem to have influenced some critics’ choices, especially the decision to choose this kind or that kind of director lest they be Accused or Shunned or Shamed or what have you. These are familiar discussion topics that could fill a year’s worth of posts by themselves, but let’s go with the presentism angle in regards to silent films. Arguably–and I’d go to the mat for this–critics’ appreciation for silents should only be increasing. There are more silents available for instant viewing now than during the silent era itself, endless resources are available online for study, there’s plenty of excellent books, and incredible silent film festivals. The excuses for not watching silents betray more of a lack of curiosity than anything else. And that’s a strange lack indeed for anyone who professes a love of film.
Obviously silents paved the way for modern film, but they were also cinema at its purest, most artistic level. Silents always had musical accompaniment, of course–an essential part of the experience–but the moving image was the key. It demanded your full attention, immersing you fully in the story. Audiences participated in the experience of films more deeply than at any time since, their imaginations filling in the sound of characters’ voices or the bustle of busy streets or sigh of wind in the trees. Silent era cinematography was an art in and of itself. As Kevin Brownlow put it in his seminal work The Parade’s Gone By, “At their best, the photography glistened and gleamed, lights and gauzes fused with magical effect until the art of lighting reached its zenith.”
Of the great accomplishments of silent films, Mary Pickford once said: “It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the talkie instead of the other way around.” In my opinion, it would be more logical if silent films continued to gain appreciation the more time marches on, as it grows more and more clear what a unique and beautiful art form they were. The latest Sight & Sound poll seems to represent an unfortunate step backwards, the first time that judging the objectively great qualities of skillful films is merely one of its priorities. Will the 2032 poll be an improvement? I hope so, but I guess only the march of time will tell.
If you’re interested in my take on Jeanne Dielman in particular, read on!
Thoughts On: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
I’ve got to admit, reading about Jeanne Dielman made it very tempting to give an opinion about it without even watching it. It’s a prime example of “slow cinema,” where scenes play out in real time with few edits, hence it’s pretty easy for writers to describe most of the relevant details. The reviews would be mighty short if you didn’t. And after all, do people really need to watch all 5 1/2 hours of Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963)? But if I was to write about this film’s sudden placement as the #1 Film of All Time, then watch it I should, and must. And thus the temptation passed, and on a recent stormy afternoon I was able to take in this lengthy and very slow-moving film (at the height of jolly Christmastime, might I add).
The film takes place over three days, revolving entirely around the middle-class Jeanne Dielman’s life of quiet, planned-and-perfected routine. She’s a widow, and when her teenaged son (a Sallow Youth if there ever was one) is at school she spends her day doing chores, errand-running, and prepping for meals, captured in long series of unedited shots. Oh, and in the afternoons she works as a prostitute, receiving a different client each day and then carefully cleaning and bathing afterwards (there’s only one scene of her with a client, keeping the film from being too voyeuristic). The first day mainly introduces us to Jeanne’s structured life, while the second introduces a disruption to the routine that throws off the rest of her day. The third day includes more of these unwelcome disruptions, and at the end Jeanne makes a sudden, shocking choice.
Jeanne Dielman‘s sudden, shocking appearance as the greatest film on Sight & Sound‘s 2022 list raised many eyebrows, to put it mildly, and articles were quick to point out it’s the first time a woman-directed film headed the list. Many of these same articles lauded it as a masterpiece of feminist film, explaining how it showcased Jeanne Dielman’s “boring” life of “meaningless drudgery.”
Familiar tunes, but somehow, they weren’t coming to mind while I took in the film myself. Strangely enough, the very reasons that some folks were using to defend the film didn’t quite jibe with what I actually saw onscreen. Perhaps it’s my perspective, or perhaps some conclusions were reached too hastily during the 3 1/2 hour endurance test of this film.
Jeanne’s actions, her calmness and sure, graceful movements, point to someone who gets satisfaction out of order and routine. She’s orderly to the point of obsession, smoothing every tiny wrinkle out of a tablecloth and scrubbing the bathtub after every bath. Reviews often put these routines in a “dull, drab existence” sort of light, explaining that they show Jeanne is “trapped” in a life of endless chores. Yet many scenes seem to show her orderliness is mainly for her own satisfaction. When she unloads her groceries onto the kitchen table she places each item in a neat row, even though they’re going to wind up in the cupboard shortly. When the doorbell rings, she takes off her reading glasses and puts it back in its case, which she sets in a precise spot–rather than simply setting the glasses on the table like most of us would. The mystery to me, admittedly, is why she would work as a prostitute when she could hardly expect every client to act according to a scrupulous routine. She seems more cut out to work as a clerk or accountant or something along those lines. (I don’t know the precise history of Belgium in the 1970s but presumably women had more job opportunities than they did in, oh, the 1910s or whichever “olden days” you prefer.)
Actually, I do know the answer to the mystery–Jeanne must be a prostitute to show her oppression. Yet in general, she doesn’t strike me as particularly bored or resigned to her life. It’s a quiet life, yes, but if you were to sit and watch me type at this laptop right now you’d probably think it pretty dull and quiet, too. She seems to enjoy making the veal cutlets, for instance, dipping them in the flour, egg and meal in a choreographed sort of way, and interacts pleasantly with shopkeepers and neighbors. The scene that’s frequently referenced as an example of the “drudgery” of household tasks–Jeanne peeling the potatoes–isn’t an example of that at all when watched in the proper context. Jeanne, having become somewhat discombobulated after serving one of her clients (we don’t see what occurred but she likely climaxed unintentionally), is thrown off her routine. She forgets the potatoes until they’ve boiled too long, sets things down in the wrong spot, and forgets to comb her mussed-up hair before her son comes home from school. While peeling new potatoes she’s clearly still preoccupied with what happened in the bedroom, not simply “bored” with a familiar task.
The next day her routine is still disrupted, this time due to more things out of her control. She finds herself waking up earlier than usual and has an extra hour of time she doesn’t know how to fill. Her favorite table in a café is already occupied. A gate is locked when it’s never been locked before. And while in bed with a client she finds her body responding again–apparently she’s tried to keep that part of her life as dispassionate as possible. Alas for Jeanne, certain things can’t be controlled so easily.
Curious to know what Akerman herself said about her film, I did find this Criterion Collection interview from 2009:
The idea for Jeanne Dielman came to me one night, and I quickly jotted down a few words. Then, starting the next day, I wrote the whole thing in two weeks…every single movement. It all came very easily, of course, because I’d seen it all around me. Of course, not prostitution…The prostitution’s sort of a metaphor anyways. But I knew all the rest firsthand. It was in my blood. I made this film to give all these actions that are typically devalued a life on film…
I grew up surrounded by women because my father had three sisters, and my mother had three aunts. And we were always at this aunt’s house or that aunt’s house. So I saw all that. It was an Eastern European way of life, I think it had to do with ritual too. Everything had been turned into a ritual, in a way to replace Jewish ritual. In Jewish ritual, practically every activity of the day is ritualized. I was surrounded by those rituals until I was eight, because my grandather lived with us. But once he died, my mother and father put an end to all that. But the actions–it’s as if [Jeanne’s] actions took the place of those rituals, abandoned rituals and ones that I believe bring a sort of peace. That’s why knowing every moment of every day, what she must do the next moment brings a sort of peace and keeps anxiety at bay.
The strength of the film, its deliberate if mind-numbing use of slow cinema and extreme realism, can also be a weakness in some ways. I started to ask myself: realistically, why would anyone live with constant flickering from a neon sign when they could just buy a thicker curtain? And if the point is that Jeanne is secretly unhappy with a life of just “serving” men, such as her son, couldn’t she just have him put his own coat away, or shine his own shoes? He seems smart enough!
Ultimately, while it probably won’t become a “go-to” classic for me, I’m not sorry I watched Jeanne Dielman. The character study aspect interested me the most, and I could see why it was considered a landmark of minimalism. But did it seem like a worthier, more influential film than 2001 or Citizen Kane? No, and I’m not too sure what Akerman herself would make of the ranking either. And so, as the long minutes of Jeanne folding clothes and brewing coffee ticked away during that cold, windy afternoon, I took breaks to make beef bourguignon (Julia Child’s recipe, minus the pearl onions). It’s a meal I’ve only made a few times, being such a rich treat and all. I chuckled to find myself chopping and mincing more gracefully than I normally would. Once Jeanne Dielman ended, the beef bourguignon was ready–the smell was maddeningly delicious–and I sat down to the satisfaction of a good meal made from scratch by my own two hands, warm in my apartment, feeling all was quite alright with the world.