Poll position: canon events

The Greatest Films poll hints at a critical shift towards the post-historical, multiversal and subjective.

30 November 2023

By Kevin B. Lee

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • From Sight and Sound, September 2023

Canons may be anathema for many in film criticism and academia, but in June they became a TikTok trend, thanks to a Marvel movie. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse presents a dazzling array of Spider-Men, Spider-Women and other Spider-Beings in a web of parallel universes, all united by a common Spider-Biography codified by defining experiences (being bitten by a radioactive spider; losing a parental figure) that the movie refers to as ‘canon events’. Upon the film’s release, TikTokers started posting #canonevent videos sharing their own defining rite-of-passage moments, while on Marvel message forums fans debated which incidents were truly essential to a Spider-Man narrative. These two modes of audience participation – one for expressing subjective relevance, the other for asserting an objective model – could apply to the conflicting ways in which the Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll functions as a canonical project.

The #canonevent trend emphasises canon as history: instances that form a narrative that in turn defines an identity. Without them, Spider-Man as a character, a story and a world ceases to function. How much of what defines cinema depends on a shared understanding of its history? If one wanted to use the poll’s top tens to devise a film history syllabus, the ones between 1992 and 2012 offer the most stable era of consensus (Citizen Kane, Vertigo, La Règle du jeu, Tokyo Story and 2001: A Space Odyssey appear in all three polls), balanced with a sufficiently diverse – if still constrained – historical, geographic and aesthetic survey of film. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this was a period when film studies programmes were blooming worldwide, with film’s prominence within global culture arguably at its peak and a universally applicable film studies curriculum holding the greatest currency.

But institutionalised stability often leads to stagnation, as indicated by the previous polls’ lingering upon mid-century cinema. The 2022 top ten is the first to include films from the 21st century, or more outrageously, any film later than 1968. But this dramatic shift, with three films clustered around the turn of the century – Beau travail (1998), In the Mood for Love (2000) and Mulholland Dr. (2001) – only underscores the inadequacy of the poll to function as a historical narrative. The 2022 poll could be considered the first post-historical top ten in which the results can no longer presume to offer a coherent account of cinema as chronology.

Once it may have been possible to entertain such a fantasy in one’s top ten (I confess that this motivated my 2012 list, in which I allowed no more than one film per decade or country of origin). Now, not only has film history become too immense, but film culture has grown increasingly multiplicitous in its interests. Thus the 2022 edition may mark a canon event within the poll’s own lifespan, in which it loses its aptitude for advancing a certain type of film literacy, one neatly sorted by eras and linear developments, that itself is no longer dominant and may no longer be relevant. A future column will consider what approach to teaching film the current top ten proposes, but for now one might entertain the 2022 list as containing a drive towards the posthistorical, multiversal and subjective.

It’s a drive that informs the core conflict of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which arises when the main Spider-Protagonists, Black-Latino Miles Morales and his female counterpart Gwen Stacy, resist the ‘canon events’ that shape the arc of all Spider-Beings but, they intuit, no longer serve them. Like the TikTokers, they are more inclined to posit their own #canonevents. This in itself may be a natural outcome of existing in a multiversal realm of abundance with endless paths for self-determination, a quality that marks the concept’s appeal as a personal philosophy as well as a business model.

The latest instance of the present age of diversity capitalism, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse exemplifies the entertainment industry’s promotion of a plethora of self-actualisation options: identities, experiences and realities as limitless products to consume. But it’s just as likely that one ends up consumed: by the last act of the film, its overabundance sparks cognitive overload; the cornucopia of audiovisual details and narrative subtexts to entertain in one’s mind becomes exhausting, even oppressive. Multiverse cinema requires a new kind of multiversal viewing capacity, something akin to spectatorial multitasking, collapsing past and present, here and elsewhere, into a perpetual kaleidoscopically shape-shifting present.

While the multiverse may signal an end to film history, it may also stand as this era’s #canonevent concept. Everything Every where All At Once (2022) may have arrived too late to figure in last year’s poll, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which popularised the multiverse concept in 2018, tied with Black Panther for the most votes – four – of any Marvel film in the poll. Taking a lead from its success, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is well on its way to expanding into a multiverse, offering a bigger palate of opportunities to recycle and reinvent the familiar. It remains to be seen what good this hegemony through diversity will really do, and whether this totalising effort will be answered by a wave of resistance. One hopes that as a result of such a struggle the significance of cinema re-emerges through each of us finding which films are so worthwhile that they define our lives.

The Greatest Films of All Time

In 1952, the Sight and Sound team had the novel idea of asking critics to name the greatest films of all time. The tradition became decennial, increasing in size and prestige as the decades passed. The Sight and Sound poll is now a major bellwether of critical opinion on cinema and this year’s edition (its eighth) is the largest ever, with 1,639 participating critics, programmers, curators, archivists and academics each submitting their top ten ballot. What has risen up the ranks? What has fallen? Has 2012’s winner Vertigo held on to its title? Find out below.

The Greatest Films of All Time

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