Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Josef von Sternberg isn’t even among the top 250 films of the Sight & Sound swimsuit edition and nobody noticed because Orson Welles dropped a spot. The list of auteurs who have been relegated to deep-cut status stretches from the pioneers (Feuillade, Bauer, Stiller, and Sjostrom are waiting outside while they enshrine one of those pretty pink Melies candy boxes) to the captains of midcentury Hollywood (not that Fuller, Mann, Aldrich, or Preminger give a shit) and beyond (Desplechin, Oliveira, Maddin, and Martel are trying really hard to smile at the interviewer who says to try again in ten years), but nothing is more faith-testing than that Sternberg-shaped hole in the wall.
Sternberg traveled by soundstage, from The Docks of New York to Morocco, a Russian palace to a Shanghai Purgatory, multi-cultural Macao to a primal jungle. He's as fascinated by that wry acceptance in Marlene Dietrich's smile as he is by texture, and he could make a plain wall say anything with the right drapery, veils, nets, rope, silk, lace, fur, feathers, pictures, posters, doors, windows, frosting, dirt, shutters, slats, smoke, and light. Cinema is a jungle for Sternberg, and everywhere you look is a certain mystique luring you deeper; even a city romance feels like an exotic adventure. Anatahan, in which Sternberg finally ascends to a literal jungle, is as fascinating for its stripped-down narrative (highly organized group is removed from external organization, adds girl, adds gun) as for its meta elements (Sternberg himself as one of the Japanese characters narrating in English events he isn't always privy to). It's an essential movie about movies, and a spectacular late film. If only Victor Fleming had slapped his name on a Dietrich or two. Oz alone got as many votes as Sternberg. Thanks, TBS.
Whatever its intentions, the Sight & Sound poll has two de facto functions: to provide a representative survey of excellent film art and to track the fluctuating critical reputations of films and filmmakers over time. The second is distanced, a sort of Jane Goodall study of those silly taste-makers and their funny little fetishes, and until Sight & Sound annexes those film school rejects raised on the unimpeachable classics Back to the Future and The Goonies, the poll will remain a valuable benchmark. But the first is in your face, a smiling gnat of a missionary offering up the 250-fold path to cinematic enlightenment. And it suggests holding off on Shanghai Express until you’ve mastered Star Wars.
Sure, plausible deniability is built in: This ole thing? It’s just a consensus list that obviously hews to a specific middle, nobody said anything about enlightenment, and if you call now, we’ll throw in a free database of alternates. But this isn’t a Missouri Senate race. The Sight & Sound poll is one of the most distinguished film canons in the academy. And no wonder! Citizen Kane, L’Atalante, Persona, L’Avventura, Mulholland Dr., the names alone bring me to delirium, a makeshift zoopraxiscope streaming an unfinished castle and a sunken man and a tarantula through my imagination. I’ve seen all but five—Late Spring, Shoah, Satantango, Pather Panchali, Histoire(s) du cinema—of the top 50 and I’d be hard-pressed to remove any. The ones I like least I haven’t seen since the beginning of my cinephilia, lo those 2000 films ago. I wouldn’t mind demoting The Searchers, Stalker, and Kurosawa, but I’m not so confident in baby Brandon that I’m chaining myself to the gates of Xanadu. Besides, if I stand for anything, it’s the right of man to hold simultaneously two contradictory opinions. Sight & Sound is king! Sight & Sound must be destroyed!
You could talk about the exclusions for days. Back when we just had the top 50 to play with, I was all concerned about poor Ingmar Bergman’s declining stock—man, those post-mortem revisionists really stuck, huh?—but at least he made the cut. Von Trier nearly tripled the number of votes of Von Sternberg, with the added bonus that he’s in the top 250 twice (Breaking the Waves and Melancholia). Sternberg’s winning combination of vote-splitting and that-was-a-really-long-time-ago-wasn’t-it? forced him out of the castle altogether. Ditto Raoul Walsh, who lacks either the single canonical title (I nominated Pursued) or the titanic stature to force any of his films into the courtyard. And Jean Cocteau must be thrilled to learn that he fits comfortably inside Bunuel’s shadow now. The canon barely has time for Errol Morris, but Flaherty, Wiseman, Maysles and Pennebaker are forever on the outside looking in. Meanwhile Epstein, Kirsanoff, Genet, Anger, Brakhage, Frampton, and Tscherkassky have wandered off into the woods. I’m thrilled to see Kiarostami and Denis make the cut, but I’m less excited about the ossifying thrones of Yang and Puiu over Tsai and Porumboiu, not to mention the Coens and Olivier Demonlovin’ Assayas.
Chuck Jones is outside the top 250 somewhere in the surrounding village, but Tex Avery and Friz Freleng are outside the kingdom entirely. Maybe that’s exactly how the canon works. Maybe “What’s Opera, Doc?” and “Duck Amuck” are—or suffice as—the pinnacle of classic Warner Brothers animation, with Tex and Friz hoisting them up. I imagine the canon as a Bloomian senate standing in for the infinite Borgesian recesses of cinema. The 10 are higher than the next 90, which are higher than the next 150, which are higher than all the other nominees. But at the same time, between any two nominees in the room with no walls lies another infinity represented by its own subcanon. Zoom into the space between Chuck Jones and Frank Tashlin, for instance, and you’ll find Friz and Tex and Bob Clampett throwing one hell of a party. Or maybe I should quit referring to 1) the Sight & Sound critics poll as a canon, 2) the canon as representative rather than meritocratic, 3) both, 4) auteurs instead of films, or 5) Tom Hardy. (I will not stop talking about Tom Hardy.) This is, after all, not a syllabus or a guide or anything other than a collection of favorite films from a bunch of people who have seen a bunch but not everything. Treat it as a canon at your own peril.
The best part of the Sight & Sound critics poll is that, right now, we’re talking about every single movie, not just those starring Ernest Borgnine or those that came out in 2011 or those about superheroes but everything from Le Prince to The Master. That's how I found out about "Outer Space," one of my new favorite films. The worst part is that everything is a slobbery masterpiece to someone. If it’s possible to take Christopher Nolan as seriously as he takes himself, it’s happening, in populist circles, in textbooks, and piping in through certain critical loudspeakers. Elephants are majestic and termites are deep and junk is vital and shit is modern and classic is classic and that chicken you wanted dead is somebody’s baby. We’re democrats. We’re hoarders. AO Scott was wrong. This is a progressive kindergarten.
The obvious counterbalance is to fight those critical battles. Find the thousand broken links in the Nolan roller coaster. Vertigo didn’t rise on its own. You didn’t build that. It took volumes and generations and, of course, Best Picture™ The Artist. The Sight & Sound poll is a doorway. We’re talking a Ghiberti with ornate double doors gilded and broken up into panels depicting memorable scenes, the beauties protected by a bulky bronze frame whose design ribbons its way through the runners-up suggesting one continuous reel of immortal cinema. But a doorway nonetheless. And somewhere on the other side is Josef von Sternberg. If you see a guy draping rugs or hanging pictures cockeyed or slanting slats so the light hits a plain wall just right, let him know I'm looking for him.
Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 8:58 AM