Sunday, November 2, 2014

Ramblings on the changing layers of film lists

Lists are the fad these days. List-making in social media has caught up, whether about favourite films, books, songs, or pretty much anything else. Then there are lists compiled by authorities, by organisations best fitted to judge those listed according to an appropriate criterion. There are lists on cricketers, lists on actors, lists even on countries, ranked with due regard to commonalities and differences between those being ranked.

Then there are film lists. People have their preferences. They tend to project these preferences into what they list. Films are no exception. There are lists which prefer one kind over all others, lists which exclude, and lists which include the unnecessary. I have come to view them with suspicion sometimes, because even when a critic is at the forefront assessing that being ranked, it doesn't take much to figure out where that same critic's sympathies lie.

There is a reason, after all, why Doctor Zhivago (the book) has received a kind of salutation many consider to be unworthy of its merits. Having read it myself several times, I can understand the usual championing of the novel as a symbol of individualism, as a sympathetic depiction of one man against a collective, i.e. Soviet Russia. I can also understand how the author Boris Pasternak's political sympathies and personal life were reflected in several plot-lines in the story, especially in Yuri Zhivago's affair with Lara.

Let's get back to films. Yes, films. There is politics involved in selection, frilling, and sidelining. There was a time when it was fashionable to salute the saluted for the same reason why Paris Hilton became famous, i.e. for being famous. People aren't stupid. Many of them, however, got suckered in, aligning themselves with the critic's (mis)judgment and considering it final authority. I myself was part of this suckered-in band. Sadly. It took some time to realise this. A long time.

I didn't watch many films as a kid. I tended to prefer cartoons for reasons of childishness, but that's another story. I was about 12 or 13 when interests changed, and I started watching films. Even then, I preferred the "children" or "family" genre, not realising that for all the category-driven classifications, every film amounted to the same thing in the end. Following these, of course, were the less child-friendly stories. No, not forbidden films, but the less-than-advisable-for-children films. Want an example? The Devil's Advocate. Want another? American Psycho.

All this is beside the point, however.

My first real brush with "serious" cinema was Lawrence of Arabia. I have mentioned this to pretty much everyone who's had occasion to talk shop about films with me. Lawrence of Arabia was a no-go as far as "children" went, but - and I'm being quite honest here - I was taken in. Almost literally. The whirling sands of the Nefud, the climaxes and anti-climaxes that characters in the story faced, the Shakespearean dialogues, and the sober ending all caught me.

That was when my list-mania began. For me, and this was despite everyone else telling me off, Lawrence of Arabia was the greatest of them all. I mean it. I hadn't watched other films of that nature, and I didn't care to do so anyway. David Lean, whose only other film I had seen was The Bridge on the River Kwai (which I wouldn't have seen if not for the Sri Lankan side to that film), became next to God in my mind. Sure, there were other crew members in Lawrence too, but to me, David Lean became the "best".

It took some time to realise the error I was committing.

I will always consider Lean and Lawrence to have been one and the same. There are some people who claim that there is a gap between artist and creation, especially when it comes to films. This isn't true, at least not to an extent. I think it was Barthes who repudiated the Bazinian concept of "auteurism" by claiming a "Death of the Author". He got it wrong there, however. David Lean just couldn't be separated from Lawrence of Arabia. Barthe's claim that a reading of a "text" (postmodern jargon for a work of art) would get limited by incorporating its author into it was spot on (more on that in another essay). But that this should mean a complete divorce between author and "text" was a little misplaced. To me at least.

So Lawrence was "first" to me. Then came the other films. Then came To Kill a Mockingbird, Chariots of Fire, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and From Here to Eternity (I believe I watched them in that order). A whole spate of Hollywood both old and new, both prewar and postwar. I adulated the American cinema to the point of excluding every other film industry, including my country's.

Something happened here. I began to notice that Hollywood tended to emphasise its "stars", often to the point where director and scripwriter were marginalised (this wasn't true, I later learnt). That's when I started doting on the actor, and soon I began looking for the star in the story. It's only natural to say that when my interest in Hollywood wavered, and when I "went" into other film industries and other film cultures, I began to realise that the film was neither its actor nor its director, but rather a collaborationist pact between everyone involved in it.

My "fascination" with lists also wavered at this point. For me, it began to look ridiculous to compare, say, The Gold Rush with Seven Samurai. No matter how foolproof the criterion was, ranking like with unlike never worked. I had resided in a world where lists, whether adulterated with personal and political inclinations or not, were or had to be made supreme.

That was why I found it odious, for instance, to see Lawrence of Arabia over Schindler's List or 2001: A Space Odyssey below Singin' in the Rain (in the American Film Institute list). That is also why, when I later came to understand the futility of list making, I tended to view them with suspicion. This isn't the time to delve into individual lists or films, but the point is this: whether influenced by political preferences or otherwise, film-appraisal became too self-defeating for me.

It took some time to come to terms with the fact that my reading of films was being rubbished and adulterated with any preconceived notion I had of it. These preconceived notions, moreover, had been carefully built and scripted into my mind courtesy of those lists. Citizen Kane, after all, was always number one. Always. Some claim that this was owing to the "best because it's the best" tautology endemic to such lists, but I refused to believe it. I still do, by the way.

At the same time, however, I don't see why this should impede on my liking for a film. I "like" Citizen Kane, for its many layers of meaning and for the fact of its being among the most atonal and unlikely films I've seen in my life. Citizen Kane was decades ahead of its time, as Orson Welles realised to his detriment later on. Probably he underestimated. I don't know. Maybe that's why the film has attained the "best of them all" status I think it rightly deserves. Seldom in history, after all, do you find a film make so many political waves as that one did.

This is just part of the story, though.

Two years ago, Citizen Kane was "bested". For the first time in its history, Sight and Sound's decennial list of the 10 greatest all time films was topped by another film. For the first time in its history, Citizen Kane was "lanced". Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, as far removed from Citizen Kane as Siripala saha Ranmenika is from Nidhanaya, became first. Vertigo, derided at its time and underrated for decades, finally received its standing ovation.

Critics were quite to note it, not surprising considering it's their job and passion. Some of them considered it an inevitability, a sign of the passing of time. Some others, extrapolating this perhaps a little enthusiastically, claimed that this proved that in film, like in pretty much every other art-form, lists reflected general consensus, and hence "best of the best" is subject to scrutiny not just by critics (despite the list having been compiled by them) but by audiences as well.

And then there were the few who stated that Vertigo's victory, if you could call it that, was a sign that people had guaranteed Citizen Kane first place all these years and decades because of its being the first in everybody's mind. Their way of explaining this phenomenon would be that films, like other art-forms, have their prejudices in the mindsets of those who watch them. Citizen Kane, accordingly, had been granted first place courtesy of a (collective) mindset that automatically thought it to be first, or at least a "first among equals".

I don't have trouble with the first two sets of critics. They are right. The third set, the way I saw it however, seemed a little misconceived. Citizen Kane lost, true. That this was due to a collective mentality that had grown tired of seeing it at first place, however, is a bankrupt reading of the list. It's after all a conceded point that there had been an increasingly narrowing "gap" between these two films as per the votes they received from those ranking them over the years. Other factors moved in too, particularly the fact of Vertigo's underrated status going away.

Does this make Citizen Kane a lesser film? To me, the real question would be whether Citizen Kane can be compared with a film like Vertigo in the first place, but let's move along this presumption. Even then, the reasoning of this argument seems flawed. I know a person, a very old man and a wise man at that, who loves films. He has "read" them in ways no other person I've met has been able to. He made a very succinct point one day when I told him about this line of argument. He was pro-Kane alright, but the fact of his being a fan of that film did not impede on his thinking. Here's what he said, and I quote in full:

"Most people don't understand the timelessness of certain films. Eisenstein's films are timeless, the neorealists are timeless, most of prewar Hollywood is timeless. But then there are other films. They are seasonal. They come and go and are subject to the changing of the times. These films can only be located in one particular spatial/temporal context. Citizen Kane is not a film like that. Those techniques it innovated have stayed with our filmmakers even today. I admire Hitchcock, probably more than any other director in his genre (barring Clouzot perhaps), but Vertigo is a seasonal film, much like the films of the Nouvelle Vague directors who adulated Hitchcock and considered Vertigo a king."

This was quite obviously a point of view, and being so, it can be subjected to one's own assessment of these films. The point was clear to me that day, however: people have their trends to follow. Vertigo's victory was a victory, but only for those who had wanted it at the top. It wasn't a timelessness factor that got it to that position. It had nothing to do with the fact of its being immune to the "changing of the times". There are films that will continue to be influential no matter what the time or place. I'm not saying Vertigo isn't such a film. Far from it. But (and I'm still assuming that we can compare the two) measuring it against Citizen Kane would prove to anyone which "influential" film survived longer.

I don't have a grudge against list changes. I look forward to them as much as I look forward to seeing a new film, a new experience, and comparing it with all what I've seen before. That's the art-lover's job, after all, as is the connoisseur's. But to claim a timelessness for one film and deny it to another purely on the whims of a critics' preference is, I think, as bankrupt as claiming that Vertigo is a greater film than Citizen Kane, or to be closer to home. that Siripala saha Ranmenika is a greater film than Nidhanaya.

It's not that film-lists are self-defeating, thus. It's just that they aren't final authority.