This December the British magazine Sight and Sound announced the results of the survey that every ten years determines the hundred best films of all time. During the previous months social networks were filled with expectations about the top spots. Many presented their personal selections, which implies a kind of balancing act that oscillates between the analytical and the passionate. However, academics, critics, filmmakers and simple social media users failed to predict the dizzying climb of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975) to the top of the list. In 2012, this film ranked 35th, the highest ever obtained by a woman in the selection of the magazine attached to the British Film Institute since its first edition in 1952.
In that early survey, participants chose Vittorio de Sica’s Italian film Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, 1948) as the most important film in history, and for the next five decades that position was reserved for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, 1942. However, the 2012 list generated much controversy when Welles’ film, a paradigm of modern cinema, was dethroned by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, 1958, after receiving forty votes more in the survey. Many specialists argued that the new winner lacked relevance for the history of cinema beyond its refined technicality and visual elegance. Both films, however, have much in common. As Laura Mulvey has written, both “are Hollywood films that benefited enormously from the technological supremacy of their time, but both are fixation films, out of sync with the studio system.” They represent the industry while dismantling its contrived capital. Where they do take divergent paths is in the ambition of their projects. Citizen Kane aspires to be transcendental cinema, while Vertigo aims to conquer mass taste. Nevertheless, the triumph of the latter resides in its mobility, demonstrating an intrinsic capacity to evoke both genre cinema and the most exquisite intellectual cinema.
Despite the extraordinary values professed by these two films, their regression in the new poll reflects a malaise in nuce in the bowels of these celebrated selections. For many, it had become almost intolerable to exalt an overly white, masculine and heteropatriarchal perspective on the basis of formal successes. However, the manifestation of this annoyance around the new best films of all time has provoked a counter-offensive that, while it has taken many public forums, manifests itself most intensely in social networks. Sometimes this pugnaciousness emerges as a productive debate, but on many occasions it takes the path of lynching and tacit disapproval. The results of the survey have generated controversy in every decade, as always happens when cultural production is hierarchically organized to be subjected to public scorn, but never has this reaction turned into a battlefield of these proportions. To top it off, Sight and Sound’s selection coincides with an unprecedented increase in hate speech towards LBGTQ communities, anti-Semitic and racist comments on platforms such as Twitter, according to the results of the Center for Countering Digital Hate published by The New York Times.
Among the top 100, it is possible to recognize 11 films directed by women (a figure that is probably conservative), and also several black directors have been included. But beyond the usual contrarians, these inclusions are also hotly debated in academic forums, among critics and filmmakers (some of the participants are even arguing about the result), and finally there are also debates among moviegoers and common members of the audience. In this crossroads of opinions we can include obsessive attendees to obscure movie theaters (whether cinematheques or not); those who explore the confines of the most radical cinema in countless specialized websites (pirate or not) and want that private thirst to be reflected in a public survey; there are university professors who canonize films according to their thematic lines; nationalists, activists, fanatics, supporters of Harold Bloom and his analytical progeny, and a long etcetera of users with varied symptomatologies. The effects of this wave of content are translated into byzantine discussions about which films should be included and which should not, arguments adorned with quotes or simple appeals to personal tastes, which are accompanied by the usual personal list of favorite films.
This disagreement is not exclusive to films, but emerges in the face of any select list (be it of books, songs or any other form of cultural consumption). The intervention of different degrees of the exercise of a particular kind of knowledge (in this case, the gift for film appreciation), joins another group of issues, both aesthetic and political, that shape the social taste of an era. But outside the effects of the Sight and Sound survey, it is worth thinking about the levers that made its radical diversification possible. In this series of articles I am interested, above all, in delving into the mechanisms of voting and its effects on the survey as a way to understand the fragility of what Pierre Bourdieu called “distinction.”
While the entire list has been under debate, the main controversy centers on its new leader: Is Jeanne Dielman the best film of all time, many analysts ask in different media. However, the question is meaningless, as it was also irrelevant in the cases of Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Bicycle Thieves. The only certainty we have rests on the fact that these four films got the most votes at their respective times. Now the poll is headed by a film that originated in the heart of Western feminism in the 1970s, as before it was headed by two representatives of cinematic modernism, architects of the acceptance of American industrial cinema as an artistic object. The change of place is also a change of paradigm, since it proves the victory of cultural criticism over the formalist perspective in the cinematographic field. However, it is worth reviewing briefly what exactly Jeanne Dielman is and why her triumph is as plausible as that of the previous winners.
Broadly speaking, Chantal Akerman’s film focuses on three days in the life of Jeanne Dielman, a middle-aged widow who cares for her teenage son with the little money she makes from prostitution. Unlike Citizen Kane, there is no use of wide angles or numerous extras, nor is there an innovative construction of time through montage, or distortions of perspective obtained with camera effects as in Vertigo. In just over three hours and fifteen minutes, the film explores the circularity of this disoriented woman’s domestic routine, showing her through a fixed camera as she cooks, bathes, eats with her son at the table, peels some potatoes, cleans the apartment, sleeps with regular paying customers who then leave in silence. The repetition of these banal activities occurs in such a relaxed way that the distances between fiction and reality begin to blur. The performance ends up becoming life, so that all those dull moments begin to take on a different meaning. In fact, Akerman herself once remarked that she had made the film to give all these typically undervalued actions a life on film. Through a close reading, one might discover in the film many of the qualities celebrated in the prototypical great works of cinema. Is not the depth of field here also connected to the depth of the subject? Is the audience not confronted here as well by generating a conflict in expectations about plot and character?
In that sense, the emancipation of certain oppressive structures of cinema, such as script and editing, converges organically with the rigor imposed on time, shots and lighting that sustains a story of female oppression. Its minimalist premise does not lead to the simplification of interpretations, but to their complexity, as Laura Mulvey has suggested. In fact, objects filmed time and again such as the shower, the dining table, the potato peeler, etc., end up abandoning their utilitarian character to acquire considerable symbolic density. The whole harmonious world of the apartment is disfigured under the influence of an exteriority that will end up manifesting itself violently. In the transition from the first day to the third, the film abandons its intimate character to give way to an iconography typical of film noir, all within the narrow mobility offered by the cinematographic style chosen by the director.
Much of the discussion surrounding Jeanne Dielman and the survey of the 100 best films attempts to reflect a purely aesthetic character. For its detractors, the results of the survey are the product of a political operation or, at best, a settling of scores. However, it would be nice to think of this shift in the taste and perception of a community, be it critical or specialized in film appreciation, as an emancipation. Isn’t aesthetics that region of politics where all consensuses break down? The new Sight and Sound survey does not depart from an aesthetic perspective to accommodate the conjunctural demands of feminism or any other global trend, but restores the possibility of debate about cinema, its legacies and its effect on reality.