The Sight and Sound Poll, 2022


Every ten years since 1952, the British film magazine Sight and Sound has published a list of ten “greatest films of all time.” The polls are answered traditionally by movie critics (not me), and since 1992 a group of film directors has also been asked to join in. For a long time, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane topped the list — the directors’ list, too — and the rest of the entries were the usual (albeit usually great) suspects: directed by males, often white, often Baby Boomer-designated masterpieces. This year, though, there were some big changes, sending many commentators to their fainting couches. The poll is dead! The young and “woke” have risen up in their throngs and killed it!

What sparked all the fuss is that for the first time, a woman — a lesbian, to boot — took the top spot. Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which is three hours and twenty-one minutes long, is in French, and focuses on the daily chores and activities of a Belgian woman (Delphine Seyrig), sounds almost like a parody of an egghead film-snob darling. (I haven’t yet seen it, but I want to, if only to spite the growling dudes who take its ascension so poorly.) Some rational objectors did say things like “I like Akerman, but this isn’t her best work,” and some of them may even have been sincere. (The extent to which I took gripes about the list seriously depended on the speed with which the griper reached for “woke” as a cudgel to hit the young’uns with. Also, some of the demurrals had the same month-old-Fruit-Stripe flavor as the 2016-era “I’ll vote for a woman for president, just not Hillary.”) The weird thing is, the film gives you what movies are supposed to give. It gives you a story, it gives you (eventually) sex, and it gives you (very eventually) violence. It just does it on a different timetable than usual.

I’m not saying you should see the film; I don’t want death threats. This isn’t about Jeanne Dielman, it’s about the poll and what it tells us about where we are now. For some, it’s an omen of the cultural takeover of the sinister “wokesters” who want to tell you what you should and shouldn’t like and who, for the most part, exist only in the febrile imaginations of Fox News talking heads and their ilk. These whippersnappers, the logic goes, are guilty of bad faith in elevating a tedious work by a gay woman because it’s politically correct to do so. For others, it signals a shift in priorities and sensibility, and not necessarily in a bad way. It may also mean nothing more troubling than that, until 2010, when Criterion put it out on DVD, a good many people outside Europe had never had a chance to see it at all. (It wasn’t screened in American theaters until 1983.) Now that it’s also streaming (HBO Max has it, as well as Criterion’s on-demand app), it’s easier than ever to access — though maybe not to sit through.

As far as I could see, none of the grumpy anti-wokesters (asleepsters?) at least cleared their throats, shook off the two-minute hate, and allowed that some stuff on the new list furnished us all anew with the will to live. Nope, nothing but ashes and sackcloths over in Asleepster Village. Me, I’m tickled as hell that David Lynch is in the top ten (Mulholland Drive, #8). Kubrick’s still on there; Hitchcock, Welles, Ozu too. I also don’t believe lists should exist to gatekeep. Since when is there a boss of culture, demanding that no film can ever be greater than Citizen Kane, no album better than Sgt. Pepper, ad nauseum? This list in particular gives us some stuff to chew on, some gaps to fill. A long-gone co-worker and friend used to say “Oh, you have a treat in store” if you said you hadn’t yet read or seen something. The list this time offers some potential treats aside from the usual stale Necco wafers of Film 101 vintage. (The directors’ list puts Akerman in fourth place, tied with Tokyo Story.)

Also as far as I can see, Citizen Kane hasn’t been eradicated by the state or vanished from everyone’s shelf. It’s still there. So are all the earlier lists where it’s #1 or #2. (For the record, it didn’t make the first Sight and Sound list in 1952. The king then was Bicycle Thieves.) Jeanne Dielman may only top the list this one time, and be supplanted in 2032 by, I don’t know, Caddyshack or something. And then the usual complainers will complain, and some will say “Hmm. That certainly is a list,” and look into whatever new top-tenners sound interesting. I’ll probably stream Jeanne Dielman somewhere down the line, but I wish it were shorter. If they wanted to pick an arrogantly static French art film directed by a woman, couldn’t they have gone with Marguerite Duras’ The Truck? It’s peak French art-film — a conversation about a nonexistent movie — but it’s only 80 minutes long. The length, mentioned by every review good or bad, is what makes Jeanne Dielman seem like a Mount Everest to be scaled and mastered, not simply to watch and listen to. Maybe people should just pretend they’re binging a three-episode Netflix series.

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