Saturday, 1 September 2012

Late thoughts on the ten-step podium.

(I arrive somewhat late to the discussion because I was having a wonderful time travelling around the east of the USA. Consider this a tardy late answer to Sight and Sound's poll. Or a tardy answer to Girish)

2012, when film culture reached a turning point and failed to turn. There is no doubt that there was, for many people, a hint of triumphalism in the fact that Citizen Kane had been toppled off its seat, yet any cry of victory was overwhelmingly, and correctly, overshadowed by the almost complete lack of any other change in the rest of the canon. Dziga Vertov's entry into the top 10 is the one event of note in a list that is otherwise dispiritingly similar to the previous one. And though it is bracing to see such a free, adventurous film make it into the top 10, it is somewhat damning that the only avant-garde that can «make it in» is an avant-garde that is eighty years old.
Now, why is what happens in the Sight and Sound poll noteworthy? If its status as the canon certainly matters, what made it interesting this time round was the notable changes in film culture in the past ten years. Had DVDs, internet, film blogging, greater consciousness on a wide scale of non-western/mainstream etc really made a difference? It would seem instead that so far the transformations in film culture have been, paradoxically, too effective in opening up the field to transform it quite yet. The lists, as they can be perused on the internet, are a treasure-trove, joyously opening up paths for multiple discoveries and re-evaluations, leading from one bafflement to the next, through an endless chain of cross-links and inter-connections that draw such a rich canvas of cinema that it would seem churlish to complain. Yet this is something else already: a look at the individual choices, whose multiplicity draws a far more compelling and complex picture of cinema than what the whole exercise nevertheless is: the controversial, but ultimately inescapable problem of the canon.
The opposition of the two seems to lead straight into a dead end: on one hand, the consensus of the established ten, their place more or less guaranteed by the security of numbers. On the other, the proliferation of films nominated one, two, maybe ten times, each of them a discovery and a marker of individual taste, but because of the singularity and the anti-canonical impulse underlying their choice incapable of unseating the established masterworks (for none of the films in the top ten is even remotely undeserving of the status). That this might be a perverse effect of our film culture as it stands is not false per se (what is acclaimed is visible), but somewhat beside the point: the individual list takes a stand, but the stand depends on its individuality, and becomes thus incapable of offering an alternative canon.
All of which is fine, as far as it goes. It even leads to much merriment: take Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's list and the method used to make it. Yet it also leads to the thorny problem of the established canon: if each list is its individual entity, then from where does the new canon emerge? If the aim of the new participants (bloggers, younger critics...) is to redraw the map of cinema, to expand it, to shift the way we perceive film history, then it is necessary to offer this new map. In classical Gramscian terms: discrediting a prevailing view is not enough, if one does not have a contending view to oppose to it. Practically: what is the image of cinema that we are fighting for?
This, of course, brings us back to the aim of the whole exercise: for those participants who wish to offer a new view of cinema, what meaning does one's individual list have? Is one trying to unseat the old consensus, or merely offering a new square in a mosaic where, paradoxically, each little bit is beautiful but the total matters very little? But then, if one does not care about the general picture; if what matters is cinema in its totality, not the image of cinema that emerges from one's choice; if the idea of restricting oneself to ten films is anathema; then why take part at all? Either one does seek to create a new consensus, to promote what one hopes is a richer view of cinema, with all the sacrifices it entails: using totemic films (cf. Nicole Brenez's comments, which shows an awareness of the problems this kind of list creates, but an acceptance of their necessity) that represent others; selecting, as Zach Campbell suggested a while back, sustainability rather than originality as a criterion (less sexy, sadly)... Or one goes for originality, hoping that the individual list will somehow matter, that people will make the effort because they share the same outlook, but accepting that the established canon will stand by sheer force of inertia. Either the list is made with an eye to a new canon, or the established canon stands. Have we, then, reached a critical juncture: the canon might as well stand, because it has stopped mattering?

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