A couple weeks back the LA Times ran an article about how ‘millenials’ don’t find it as strange as normal humans do that they rebooted Spider-Man so soon after making a perfectly good Spider-Man. (I haven’t seen the new one myself. I’ve heard it’s just fine.) On the other hand, the BFI’s 2012 “Sight & Sound” critics’ Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time poll is holding the line against this sort of amnesia. They prefer if people suffer from that condition the guy in Memento suffered from, approximately. (Maybe they should rename it: ‘of all times except recent ones’?)
I made a little chart, pushing my Excel chops to the limit. It shows number of films that made the Top 50, by year. (Yes, there’s nothing after 2001, you’re reading it right.)
I made a few other calculations, again using my bleeding edge Excel hacking skills.
The average (and the median and the mode) date for a film making the Top 50 critics cut is: 1960. (L’avventura, La dolce vita, Breathless, Psycho.) Strictly, it’s bimodal: 1966 was another good year, as the chart shows.
If we restrict ourselves to the Top 10, the results are even more antique:
Let’s compare those results with past “Sound & Sight” poll results. This is not kosher, because they split out the director and critics’ polls in 2002. Also, although this year they were working from 846 Top 10 lists, in past years they had fewer data points. But what the hell, let’s do fake science!
So, eyeballing: in 2012, these critics have fallen back, temporally, to about the point their ancestors were at in 1982. In a few centuries film critics will be wearing t-shirts that read: ‘I only like films that were made before film was invented.’ Or possibly, recoiling from that absurdity, critics will settle for asymtotic approach to the moment of film’s birth, after which it was all downhill.
What do you think?
Is it sufficient to say that film critics – like all conservatives – have to pick a Golden Age that is sufficiently far back in time that they can imaginatively confiscate it for themselves, in effect constituting themselves as elite appreciators of what others do not; but recent enough that it has some damn plausibility. (As in investment, being seriously too early is the same as being wrong.) The spikes we see on the graph are akin to the average conservative American’s sense that the 50’s and early-to-mid 60’s were pretty great; then it all went to hell and now things are desolate and bad. But there is also the outlying, more severe conservative view that we have to go back further to find anything good. Before 1929.
I’m also reminded of something that old adman Gossage wrote, about ‘the shape of an idea’: “Imagine that a person sits in the center of a circle that represents his comprehension. He can comprehend anything within the perimeter, but the farther it is from the center the fainter his ability to criticize it will be. However, anything outside the perimeter is beyond his comprehension; he won’t criticize an idea placed out there because he simply won’t know what you’re talking about. So the trick is to place an idea close enough in so he gets it but far enough out that he’s not able to flyspeck it, only accept it.” Would it be too unkind to suggest that critics probably pick their Top 10’s by analogous operation? (Obviously I’m just saying that critics are incorrigible hipsters and coolhunters of the past. Duh.)
On the other hand, maybe film was just better before Star Wars; George Lucas (and Spielberg) ruined everything forever.
I watched 8 1/2 on the plane, flying home to Singapore. It’s great! Or perhaps I am comparing it to Battleship, which I also watched. I’m thinking of grandfathering in 8 1/2 as science fiction, in my “Philosophy and Film” class, due to the fact that the director (Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido Anselmi character) is failing to make a big-budget sf film. What other classic films could be classified as sf on similarly strained grounds? I already include 2046 on similar grounds. (Something about number titles?) Regarding Battleship: someone really needs to make a big-budget Risk movie, give it the full-Verhoeven straight-face parody treatment, like Starship Troopers. The massive, epic battles for control of Australia and South America. The constant sweeps back and forth through Kamchatka-Alaska. Most of all, the massed armies on Madagascar. Now: what should the story be? Obviously boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-back-girl by holding Asia for an entire turn. (I realize I’m close to stealing Eddie Izzard’s material here.)
You know what I thought was a surprisingly good film I watched on the plane: The Lorax. My daughters both agree. Violet watched it three times.
UPDATE: comments are perking along great, please continue. One point that has been made that really amounts to a correction to the post is that it’s quite likely that the character of the final list is unlike the character of the individual lists that generated it. The individual lists probably contained many more recent films, but there was no consensus. Since the post has a complaining tone, since the complaint may be unjust, I hereby make update amends.