The “Sight and Sound” Wokeness Furor Signifies Little

The “Sight and Sound” Wokeness Furor Signifies Little

The Sight and Sound Wokeness Furor Signifies Little

The backlash to a film’s elevation into the list’s number-one spot highlights the fierce immobility of critical consensus in the film industry. 

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One can fairly say the world of cinema got seismically rocked last week with the news that Chantel Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) took the number-one spot on Sight and Sound magazine’s once-every-10-years Greatest Films of All Time poll. Akerman’s three-hour domestic-malaise opus placed above the work of longtime listees Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Yasujirō Ozu, and Stanley Kubrick.

To properly gauge this tectonic shift, consider the furor over the 2012 list. On that one, the former number-two entry, Vertigo, took the top spot that Citizen Kane had held for 50 years; Orson Welles’s masterpiece dropped to number two. “Vertigo over Citizen Kane?” huffed Entertainment Weekly, “Why the new Sight and Sound critics’ poll is full of itself.” Up until then, only two films had owned the number-one spot on this most prestigious of listicles, Bicycle Thieves and Citizen Kane. When cineastes considered even that tempest in a thimble-size teapot an October Revolution, you can fairly imagine their shock at Jeanne Dielman’s coming out on top this year.

In 2012, Akerman made the S&S list for the first time, placing at number 36—one of only two women directors in that top 100. Her film presents three days in the life of one Jeanne Dielman, a Belgian widow who builds her empty days around daily and precise tasks, mainly to please men. In her small apartment, she cooks and cleans, cares for her teenage son, babysits an infant boy, and then performs sex work in the afternoon before her son comes home from school. Empty, unrewarding, soulless ritual fills Dielman’s days. When her bored son takes out a book as they eat dinner, she says, “No reading at the table.” They then sit together eating in near silence.

Throughout the film, Akerman’s camera never moves. At 24, Akerman had the confidence of a Robert Bresson or a William Wyler. Once she puts that camera down, it’s not going anywhere. Characters wander in an out of frame, but she never follows. She focuses us on Dielman’s environment, her precise, rigid ordering of every piece of furniture, dish, or tchotchke. A prolonged study in immobility, it serves as a perfectly apt metaphor for the Sight and Sound list itself.

Once the Akerman announcement came out, the 2022 list’s most prominent critic, filmmaker Paul Schrader, took to his often combustible Facebook page. “For 70 years, the Sight and Sound poll has been a reliable if somewhat incremental measure of critical consensus and priorities,” Schrader wrote. “Films moved up the list, others moved down; but it took time. The sudden appearance of ‘Jeanne Dielman’ in the number one slot undermines the S&S poll’s credibility. It feels off, as if someone had put their thumb on the scale. Which I suspect they did…. By expanding the voting community and the point system this year’s S&S poll reflects not a historical continuum but a politically correct rejiggering.”

Schrader is hardly alone in greeting the new rankings or first-time list appearances by so many women and people of color with disdain. Filmmaker John Magary tweeted, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire is Shawshank Redemption for progressive millennials.” Critic Jeff Sneider concurred: “Parasite. Moonlight. Portrait of a Lady on Fire?” he tweeted. “Call me when the Sight and Sound list includes SCREAM, HEAT, and THE MATRIX. A silly list from serious people.” World of Reel’s Jordan Ruimy mourned “The Year the Sight and Sound Poll Died.” “It’s the death of film criticism and the upheaval of political readings of films,” wrote Ruimy.

Schrader’s assumption of canon reliability—that consensus and established hierarchies of taste should only be subject to glacial revision—reveals a telling blind spot. I’d suggest another filmic analogy here, to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, an S&S list perennial about a hidebound British general outmaneuvered by a young lieutenant who can see the world changing… but that movie got bumped from the list this year. As Sight and Sound’s editors point out in their introduction, they increased the voting pool to more than 1,660 (from 846). They added that the poll’s shifts “may also be explained in part by the explosion of access to a wider selection of films, thanks to the proliferation of movies available to view on numerous streamers, boutique Blu-ray and DVD collections, the increase of TV channels dedicated to movies and curated film seasons.”

And yet, for all these measures of expansion and inclusion, the number of women filmmakers only jumped from two in 2012 to 11 in 2022. Jeanne Dielman’s rise from obscurity to its current standing offers a prime example of how modern distribution has better informed critics, filmmakers, and audiences. Akerman debuted Jeanne Dielman at Cannes in 1975. Greeted with acclaim, it made money in Europe, but had no US distribution until 1983. It slowly garnered high-profile fans like Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, and Schrader himself. By 2000, the Village Voice ranked it Number 19 on its 100 Best Films of the 20th Century list. Prior to her death in 2015, Akerman oversaw a restored print of Jeanne Dielman, released by Criterion in 2017. This marked the film’s only readily available disc release in the United States. The Criterion Channel and other platforms currently stream it, giving Jeanne Dielman its first truly wide release and instant accessibility—something Vertigo, 2001, and Citizen Kane have had for decades.

As in any election, it takes some time for the dust to settle to understand the exit polling, but dismissing Akerman as the beneficiary of an overindulged woke vote looks doubtful. The assumption that once-marginalized balloters only vote on identity politics gets undercut when you see some ballots. Director Julie Dash voted for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), noting: “I’m choosing this title for the structure of the storytelling, the cinematography and cinematic displays. This choice is not about the man T.E. Lawrence, who committed numerous wartime atrocities. For some, visual rhetoric does not outweigh politics, but one can certainly appreciate the art of filmmaking from this title.” The ballot for Gina Prince-Bythewood includes a host of canon classics, including Goodfellas, Ordinary People, Broadcast News, The Graduate, and The Godfather. Neither Dash nor Prince-Bythewood listed Jeanne Dielman in her top 10.

The Sight and Sound list has always elicited debate over what’s on it, where an entry properly ranks, and what’s left off. Quentin Tarantino disappeared from this year’s list, while Barry Jenkins and Jordan Peele made it for the first time (for Moonlight and Get Out, respectively). Who knows if any of the three will be there in 2032? Myself, I’d like to understand how Billy Wilder rates three films and Ernst Lubitsch not one. You’ll never convince me that the student surpassed the master. Portrait of a Lady on Fire lands at Number 30, but is it really a greater film than 8 ½ (number 31), Bicycle Thieves (number 41), or Barry Lyndon (number 45)?

Since the 2012 list, the debate over inclusion vs. canon has touched seemingly every area of film discourse. The #OscarsSoWhite Twitter hashtag, the 2020 New York Times evisceration of Criterion for its paucity of films by Black filmmakers (only nine in more than 1,000—which the company now rectifies with current releases), fans demanding that Idris Elba play James Bond, trolls review-bombing the all-female-led Ghostbusters—and now it reaches the rarified air of the Sight and Sound poll.

However, this time it’s about a film whose merits are undeniable. If Jeanne Dielman had simply made the top 10, no serious critical consensus could deny it a place. Schrader himself acknowledges its greatness. “Akerman’s film is a favorite of mine, a great film, a landmark film but it’s [sic] unexpected Number 1 rating does it no favors. ‘Jeanne Dielman’ will from this time forward be remembered not only as an important film in cinema history but also as a landmark of distorted woke reappraisal.”

Everyone knows that there is no Greatest Film Ever Made, but it’s that number-one designation that galls the list’s critics. The S&S directors’ poll ranked Jeanne Dielman as number two, and nobody seems upset about that. Perhaps it’s not simply Jeanne Dielman’s ranking that exasperates but that its aesthetic utterly rebukes that of the cherished film it bounced, Vertigo. Hitchcock once asked, “What is drama but life with all the dull bits cut out?” Here Akerman cuts out everything but the dull bits, asking us to acknowledge arguably the dullest life in Belgian history. Akerman methodically shows us Dielman peeling potatoes, shining shoes, making coffee, the clinical transactions of her prostitution, and the long silences at dinner with her son. Akerman then repeats all of this the next day, to create a repetitive visual pattern for Dielman’s life, so that when she snaps, her decision not to put a lid on a serving dish feels like she lit a fuse to a bomb. Hitchcock’s film is about a sad man trying to remake a dull woman into his ideal. Akerman’s is all about the dull woman and the drudgery of pleasing sad men.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen,” Lenin supposedly said. By design, Sight and Sound’s list is a staid offering, a decennial event meant to aggregate opinion over time. It’s not meant to adjust quickly, or to absorb popular tastes, and for 70 years it hasn’t—but that does not mean for 70 years it’s performed as a system without fault. Jeanne Dielman has been out there 47 of those 70 years—you can’t get more incremental than that—and the list continually undervalued it and many other films. This week, decades happened, and the list finally caught up with Chantel Akerman.

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