The Confessions of a First-time Voter in the Sight and Sound Poll | The State of Cinema
One fine morning in late July, I woke up to an email that I had certainly not expected:
After managing to compose myself enough to type something down, I replied:
Lo and behold – it seems like someone had added me to the list of the few hundred critics that were newly invited to join the select ranks of luminaries that were called upon to establish the greatest films of all time, in the most prestigious poll of its kind. My feelings were explosive, my head was spinning – How could it be? This is a mistake, right? Me? Voting in the Sight and Sound poll? Why? Is this surely not some sort of elaborate phishing attempt, and if I click the link they’ll steal all my banking data and passwords or something? (I opened the link in an incognito tab. It was the real deal.) And then: What an honor! What amazing validation! I couldn’t even dream of this happening! I can’t believe it!
(Sure, this is where I could start to wax poetic about the problems with lists, rankings, the cinematic canon and its inherently problematic nature – as so many countless others have done before me. Or maybe even about the fact that the very list itself is a cipher for another list, namely of those considered worthy of shaping the canon and of ascertaining which films are to be deemed valuable enough to enter the halls of history, if even for a little speck of dust in time that is ten years. Or with the cinema industry’s sheer obsession with rankings and lists… all of which is all completely true. But maybe some other time.)
My joy at being invited to participate in the Sight and Sound poll was, however, short-lived – the enormity soon of the task dawned upon me, instantly flooding my mind with countless different titles like in a sort of cinematic sugar rush: ones that had radically changed the way I saw films, or cinema as a whole, films that had opened up countless universes within myself and within the artform, films that defined history/histories, films that left me speechless for days on end, films that found me at just the right time, films that had, indeed, changed my life – always for the better.
All of this came together with the sensation of pride and validation. Of course, I did temporarily entertain the self-defeating thought that I might have been a diversity pick – as a young woman from Eastern Europe –, but to hell with that, as there was a much more important task at hand: how in the world will I ever fit the entire history of cinema and its countless masterpieces in just ten titles, and will I be capable of giving it any sort of justice?
I mean, I’m not going to lie – given the current state of the world, as it is now, this sounds like a pretty good problem to have, right? Except for the fact that it turned into an excruciating process, haunted by doubts, explosive incidences of impostor syndrome, and other such demons. Thank god that my partner, Pedro Segura, was also amongst those selected to participate, along with Ivan Zgaib, a dear friend of mine that I met at Berlinale Talents – thus, they became my comrades in commiseration all along those couple of summer weeks that we had at our disposal to file our lists.
Back to the story. Less than an hour after I’d read the email, I already had my first short list of titles, already 27-films strong. (Little did I know that things would only go downhill from there.)
And so, the questions immediately started to arise:
- Do I go for the big canonical directors? Yes? No? Maybe? Under what circumstances?
- Should I just stick to the 20th century, or should I try to include all three centuries of cinema, in one way or another?
- Where do I draw the line between an “objective reading” (whatever that may mean in this context, anyways) and personal, subjective favorites? Do I only go for “perfect” films or is there some space here for imperfect films, too? (What the heck is even an imperfect film? Concerning what?!)
- Do I go for a tactical style of voting by choosing titles that might shake up the final top 10/100/250/etc, or do I go for films that might very well only appear on just a couple of other lists, for the sake of giving them any amount of visibility? (And how does that tie in with the identities and origins of the filmmakers that I’m going to vote for?)
- Should I choose a film from my own country for representation’s sake? (Or maybe not, what’s the point?)
- Oh gosh, what am I even going to do about short films? Documentaries? Experimental cinema? All the styles and genres unfairly cannibalized by narrative fiction cinema?! (Don’t even get me started about gender and national origin!)
- WHAT DOES GREAT EVEN MEAN?!? SHOULD I JUST COPY AND PASTE ED WOOD’S PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE TEN TIMES OVER AND CALL IT A DAY?!?!? (In retrospect, that could have been a great choice.)
I imported my hastily-written list into an Excel spreadsheet. Unfortunately, this only made things worse: I had unwittingly created a Hydra. Each film I tried to cut from the list was instantly replaced by three more. And each message that I exchanged with Pedro and Ivan about our respective processes made five new titles spring to mind, along with five other ways to structure my list. The list ballooned to well over thirty titles, and even when I did start to cut it down, new titles just kept on jumping to my mind – and even when I’d managed to settle on certain filmmakers, I always doubted that I’d chosen the right film of theirs.
All this came together with the realization that the entire thing risked veering into empty, vain posturing about arcane objects (which runs the risk of being the exact opposite of the concept of consensus – and, in the end, isn’t that the very purpose of polls?). David Thompson hit the nail on the head when he asked, rhetorically: “Can’t the voters admit that their theoretical duty to the history of cinema has been compromised all along by the wish to seem earnest, judicious, and impressive?” Anyhow, by the time I’d managed to slim my list down to 15 entries, I felt hopelessly stuck. Each film that I tried to remove from the list felt like trying to pull out one of my own teeth, or cutting a finger off.
Meanwhile, in my quest to feed my impostor’s syndrome (with the secondary aim of finding some solace), I started to observe the lists that others had filled in, over the years. (Any attempt at finding podcasts – none shorter than an hour – or video/essays – same – that was even vaguely listenable without me wanting to punch my screen out in frustration at their results-centric analysis proved mostly futile.) Pedro sent me Pierre Leon’s marvelous list – which, claiming that it is “impossible to answer an impossible question”, exclusively uses films directed by Carl Th. Dreyer (!) to create rhizomatic connections to the greats that followed (Ford, Bresson, Fassbinder, Rohmer, Bergman, Lubitsch, Ophüls, etc.). An amazing feat – but I was instantly aware that I was not sufficiently erudite to embark on a very similar effort. (And that it would amount to cheating, by copying.)
Then, I took a look around the BFI’s features and discovered an article showing scans of some of the lists that had been filed in 1962, which established the poll’s traditional once-a-decade tradition, and some things did, indeed, soothe me. Jonas Mekas changed his mind after mailing in his ballot (switching Henry King’s Tol’able David, 1921, with Orson Welles’ – you guessed it – Citizen Kane, 1941). Rivette missed the deadline. Andrew Sarris mailed an insane-looking card (featured as the main image of this article) scribbled in different-colored felt tip pens, looking much more like a kindergartner’s first attempts at writing than a list penned by the very man who would soon revolutionize cinema theory. By far, the most relatable was the list filed by Richard Roud, founder of the New York Film Festival – a list with countless crossed-out titles, some written in obvious despair and frustration, with the final roster typed in on the right. (Neither of the latter spared any dime for formalities, in contrast to Éric Rohmer’s very courteous and clean missive.)
Now that I had managed to somehow establish (or ascertain) the fact that the ones who had voted in the Sight and Sound poll in decades past had indeed been human, saving me a couple of beads of sweat here and there, I stumbled onto a final, crucial piece, and that is Peter Bogdanovich’s 2012 piece for Indiewire, where he wrote the following:
“After struggling with a ten best list for quite a while, I have decided that for me it is an impossible task. I could maybe — at gunpoint — narrow down a list of directors to ten absolute ultra-greats, but then to name each of their best works becomes daunting. Take Jean Renoir, for my money the best director of all time in the West: (…) I’d have to put at least three Renoir pictures on the ten best list, and then where are we? [A.N.: Feel you, bestie.] (…) All these films and so many more should be seen by every civilized person on earth, and the whole rating idea is anti-artistic, anti-film culture, just absurdly reductive: There are so many wonderful pictures to see, that to reduce them down to a Top Ten is a disservice to all the great work that has been done with that haunting 20th century medium of humanity, born just at the end of the 19th century: a now nearly mythical visual history of more than an entire 100 years of life in the world.”
(Additionally: he said out loud what I always believed, namely, that Vertigo isn’t even Hitchcock’s best. I mean, c’mon people, Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema came out a whole fifty years ago – have we really learned nothing?)
But even so: despite my admiration for his words, I didn’t have any of the strength or resolve that Bogdanovich had. And besides – something in me did trust that some people do go beyond the ranked poll and search for individual lists, discovering the treasures within. And so I had to finish my damned list, once and for all.
In the end, I settled on using my own way of interpreting Pierre Leon’s method of using films as ciphers for others – while deciding on a few cardinal notions: first, checking off all three centuries of cinema. Second, I’d try to steer away as much as possible from American cinema, with all the risks that such a decision entails. (I knew from the very start that some eras, some movements, some moments wouldn’t make it – but maybe the entire thing was to come to terms with this.) And last, but certainly not least, I’d try to stay faithful to my favorites while creating contact points with the established canon: not to influence the final top 10 (or who knows?), but to create a fair balance between the greatest of classics and the lesser-known, lesser-seen, yet equally enormous in significance.
For all of you who took the pain time to read up here, you might not be surprised to learn that I won’t end this text by divulging my final picks – what would the fun in that be? So, until you get to scratch that itch (along with the greatest one of them all: discovering the final top 10, especially the top film), here’s a fragment of the commentary I attached to my list to end the story, which contains a couple of hints:
As incredible of an honor it is to be invited to the Sight and Sound poll, I must say, chopping all of cinema down to ten titles was certainly a form of torture… So, without any long-winded arguments or pretense of objectivity, here are a few titles that have made my time on this strange Earth so much more meaningful. The first home movie, of people who are now long gone, alive for but a minute as embers – to some of the most beautiful love songs ever written to (and through) the silver screen. Humans, non-humans, bodies, flesh in time embalmed, cinema as eternal life and constant death – bones (made of celluloid and pixels) for an unlikely couple to collapse over, in love.