What The Sight & Sound Poll Says About Us

It isn't only a list; it's a statement. Jordan takes a look at what it's saying.

What The Sight & Sound Poll Says About Us

The reasonable reaction to the Sight & Sound Top 50 list, if any reaction is necessary at all, is to poke through it, add some titles to your Netflix queue, and then move on.

Clearly, I can't do that.

It's past 2 AM and I have a dozen things to do, yet I'm just staring at this list of 50 movies as though if I were to look at it hard enough some key mysteries of the Universe would present themselves to me.

There are three films on the list I've never seen, though one of 'em I don't even think should count. Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinema (tied for #48) is pretty tough to come by and I always thought it was basically a miniseries for French television. I've also never seen Carl Dreyer's Gertrud (tied at #42) or Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy (#41). Those last two should be coming to me in the mail soon.

Of the remaining 47, yes, most are great and all have much merit . . .but are they the BEST? Is there NO ROOM in there for something a little more populist? Am I such a mouthbreathing slob if I think Raiders of the Lost Ark should be on there somewhere? No Annie Hall? No Casablanca even? Only in the context of this list would I be considered a mainstream stooge. To the rest of the world I'm an elitist snob, but to this crowd I'm practically dragging my knuckles.

Maybe I'm being defensive, but perhaps the Sight & Sound critics need a kick in the ass a little bit. I love European art films, but a few more comedies or science fiction or anything populist might deaden any accusations that these ballots are, dare I say it, trying too hard.

The big news, of course, comes with the switch between Citizen Kane and Vertigo. Is either of them really the best movie of ALL TIME? And what does it say about our culture that now, in 2012, we've reversed them? Like I said, a normal person reads this list and jots down some movies to check out, but maybe there really is a deeper truth at play.

What do Citizen Kane and Vertigo have in common? What are these two films really about? They are about obsession, and how obsession can drive a great man to destruction.

Charles Foster Kane is forever in pursuit of the next big goal. The biggest paper with the best writers and the highest circulation. Elected office. A beautiful wife. The biggest opera house. The finest art. This pursuit eventually drives his friends away and wrecks his marriage. Still, he marches on, chasing the happiness he can never have. (Oh, if only he'd check the basement – Rosebud is right there!)

Scottie Ferguson, a would-be hero were it not for his own phobias, can't shake the memory of Madeleine Elster. After her death, for which he blames himself, he comes across Judy Barton, who bears a striking resemblance to Madeleine. But the hair color isn't right, nor the clothes. So he dresses her up and tells her how to talk and recreates the image of perfection in his mind. He even drives her to the scene of Madeleine's death and, okay, that's when the movie returns from the heights of depraved psychology to its more expected pulpy roots.

But both of these men, basically, do the same thing. They relentlessly chase something in a futile pursuit of their passions. But it is HOW they do it that is different. It's recognizing this difference, I think, in which we'll see a key change as we now roll up our sleeves and dive into the 21st Century.

Charles Foster Kane is an achiever. He builds industry. He sees an opening and he works at it. He's active. He is virile and aggressive and when he sees the woman he wants he, to paraphrase Henry Miller, fucks her so she stays fucked.

Scottie Ferguson jacks off. He gets his fetish item just the way he likes it – the green lighting and hair curled just right. Sure, he kisses her, but Vertigo is all about watching. There's, what, a thirty minute stretch of us watching Scottie watch Madeleine, following her like a stalker, him safe in his car, behind a screen, getting all hot and bothered and leering at this woman.

So what has happened in 2012? We've picked the wanker over the fucker. We've swapped our obsessive doer, our builder of wealth and nations, and traded him in for someone whose obsession, whose purest pleasure, is to sit from a safe distance and stare.

What do film critics do all day? Where are film critics most comfortable? In the dark, taking notes, noticing connections between things, thinking up tweaks that can take something we like and make it a little bit better.

Dear God, don't you see what's happened here? The voters have voted for themselves.

Jordan Hoffman's photo About the Author: Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and StarTrek.com.
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