Poll position: a speculative syllabus

A true test of an all-time film may be that its value transcends its place in film history.

30 November 2023

By Kevin B. Lee

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Sight and Sound
  • From Sight and Sound, October 2023

In my last column I suggested that 2022 marked the first “post-historical” edition of the Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll, at a moment when the sheer accumulation of films and historical developments exposes “the inadequacy of the poll to function as a historical narrative”. I soon started reconsidering this claim, since the same dilemma can be found in film history classes. How does one properly account for 128 years of cinema?

I teach courses on the future of cinema. The curriculum focuses on contemporary moving images that reflect prevailing forces shaping cinema: digitalisation and the attention industry, economic and environmental crises, and unprecedented expressions of individual and group identities in the era of emancipatory politics. Thinking about what film history the 2022 top ten could tell, I also wonder how the list could account for a cinematic present.

Just in time for the autumn term, here’s a speculative ten-week course syllabus based on the 2022 top ten. I was tempted to fall into old habits and organise it chronologically. But then I wondered what it would mean to kick off a film history course with Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), and have a radical feminist durational film be the starting point for a term-long exploration of cinema.

Week 1: Jeanne Dielman. Situate the film within today’s moving-image practices while centring on the question of duration. What does it mean to spend three hours with this film, as opposed to three hours elsewhere (Marvel blockbuster, Netflix, gaming, YouTube or TikTok)? What subject matter and whose lives do we expect to encounter on screen, and on what basis?

Week 2: Vertigo (1958). Use the film to introduce classic Hollywood cinematic language: continuity editing, shot/reverse shot, composition. Recognise audiovisual patterns as marks of an authorial vision and signature. Present Hitchcock as a mid-century brand auteur, and compare to how auteurs are branded today. With help from film theorist Laura Mulvey, consider how Hitchcock’s auteurism serves as an apologetics for the male gaze.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Week 3: Citizen Kane (1941). Focus on the significance of narratology and multiple perspectives: is the film a protomultiverse? Account for the Hollywood studio system, its rules and codes, and Orson Welles’s appropriation of it for his own maverick purposes. Recognise the craft of cinematography, screenwriting, editing and music. Account for the tension between singular vs collective vision. Where and to whom is artistry attributed?

Week 4: Tokyo Story (1953). Pose the question of how to read a film across cultures, and what is understood as ‘non-Western cinema’. Ozu Yasujirō has been celebrated for originating a truly Japanese film language, but the film is a remake of a Hollywood film. The film reflects Japan’s post-war adoption of Western capitalism, with labour as a disruptive force on the family unit. Ozu’s use of time and space becomes a force of contemplation and resistance.

Week 5: In the Mood for Love (2001). Global cinema in the era of late capitalism. Compare Ozu’s depiction of mid-century family life in Asia with Wong’s nostalgic romance. How does the latter reflect 21st-century developments of hyper-individualisation in Asia and elsewhere? Consider the role of affect: when and how does it become a primary rather than a secondary element of a film?

Week 6: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Science-fiction before blockbusters, special effects before CGI. How does the film establish cinematic realism within a speculative scenario? How has digital technology led to new conceptions of the real? Present HAL 9000 as an iconic depiction of artificial intelligence, and how it compares to contemporary notions of AI.

Week 7: Beau travail (1998). Estrangement as a cinematic strategy for reconsidering foreignness and nationalist cinema (what is a ‘French’ film?), masculinity and queerness, the war movie and the musical. Cinema’s relation to problematic or fading institutions and ideologies, and the prospects of decolonisation and un-doing for re-envisioning cinema’s future.

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Week 8. Mulholland Dr. (2001). Posit the film as an intersection between Hollywood and art cinema. Consider its origins as a TV series pilot and what televisual elements remain. Explore the film’s vision of cinema as dream-state and the significance of dream-like incoherence. Discuss Hollywood as an institution built on fantasy.

Week 9: Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Consider the film as a documentary that challenges the definition of the genre. Present the legacy of Soviet montage theory as the cinematic construction of a social utopia. How does the celebratory, agitated, panoptic gaze of the film compare with today’s ultra-panoptic landscape of realities mediated through social media?

Week 10. Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Focus on the film as meta-cinema. How does its account of the film industry’s transition at the dawn of talking pictures reflect the state of the industry in the 1950s? How might we project the film’s outlook on to the present, as Hollywood faces disruption in the age of AI? Also consider the title scene’s excessive use of water: an outdated and unsustainable practice, or triumphalist in the face of climate catastrophe?

Naturally, there are bound to be topical blindspots, and these films could be applied in different ways. But looking at this speculative syllabus, a true test of an all-time film may be that its value transcends its place in film history, and that it can reassert itself among present challenges and circumstances. In doing so, it offers a way to see the world and cinema anew.

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

The new issue of Sight and Sound

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