Once a decade survey decides on greatest films of all time

RICHARD SWAINSON
Last updated 11:33 14/08/2012

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Richard Swainson

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Pity poor Chris Marker. The avant garde French director died on July 29, just two days before the announcement that his 1962 short La Jetee had tied for 50th place in Sight and Sound's 2012 survey of the greatest films of all time. For buffs, movie aficionados or those even slightly inclined to take the seventh art seriously the Sight and Sound survey is a highly anticipated event.

Undertaken once a decade since 1952, it canvasses writers and industry personnel from around the world, asking each to select the 10 films that for them stand above all others. In 2012 results from 846 "critics, programmers, academics and distributors" were collated to produce the list.

Mainstream press reportage of the survey has to date led from the front. The supplanting of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane by Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo as the official "greatest film of all time" has grabbed headlines and not without cause. Kane reigned for half a century.

Personally, I am comfortable with this changing of the guard. While the toppling of Kane might have surprised casual observers, the rise in Vertigo's reputation has been a decades' long process. The Hitchcock masterpiece might lack the political dimension and ongoing relevance of a film which foretells all the muck-racking excesses of the Murdoch press but it cuts a lot deeper psychologically. Plotwise, of course, Vertigo doesn't make much sense and falls apart in seconds if you apply logic to its central twist, but you could say as much about Shakespeare's plays. This is art, not life. Besides, the heaving cleavage of Kim Novak, soaring Bernard Herrmann score and hypnotic camerawork at least match Welles' showier technique. For the Herrmann estate the debate is win-win. The cantankerous maestro made music for both contenders.

I am more dismayed at the overall decline in Orson Welles' standing. Thirty years ago The Magnificent Ambersons, his butchered follow-up to Kane, came in at seventh place and in 2002 Welles' brilliant 1958 film noir Touch of Evil tied for 15th. Now, neither can make it into the top 50. The tide has turned for the fat man, if not gone out entirely.

For other prestigious names the list gives with one hand yet takes away with the other.

Ingmar Bergman's atypical 1966 psychological thriller Persona enjoys a critical revival. A mere six years after its release the world's critics hailed Persona as the fifth best feature ever. In 2002 it didn't make the cut-off mark, beaten by other, warmer Bergman efforts: Wild Strawberries, Fanny and Alexander and The Seventh Seal. In 2012 these films are all gone and Persona ties for 17th place.

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The director most championed lives to taunt us to this day. Jean-Luc Godard, surviving New Wave enfant terrible and darling of intelligentsia, can claim four of the 50 placings and not just for his ground-breaking 1960s' work. If Godard's 266-minute Historie(s) du Cinema were available in New Zealand it would no doubt fly off the DVD rental shelves. Sadly, our antiquated censorship system denies the local Godardian hardcore their thrills. I am breathless with disappointment.

As a film-making nation France comes in second only to the United States, enjoying 13 selections to America's 15. This statistic would infuriate any Briton proud of Britain's rich celluloid heritage. The country that gave the world David Lean and Michael Powell cannot muster a single film in the top 50. Only Maoist apologists and dull, navel gazing proponents of Brechtian alienation would rate Godard's A Bout de Souffle above The Third Man or Lawrence of Arabia.

There are other interesting anomalies. Sound trumps silence and male art bests that of the fair sex, with only six selections from the silent era and only one film directed by a woman. The 1960s dominates as a time frame with 15 selections while recent decades rate poorly. There are only two films from the new century and only one movie from the 1980s.

The strongest trend is one that is easily overlooked.

The decline in the reputation of the silent comics has reinforced a basic critical prejudice. Only five films out of the 50 are comedies and one of these - Charlie Chaplin's City Lights - is as much a melodrama. Any list which fails to appreciate satire is inherently limited. No film dealt with post-war political realities like Kubrick's Dr Strangelove nor anticipated the madness of the war itself like the Marx brothers' Duck Soup.

The arbiters of cinematic taste need to lighten up.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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