Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films 2012

Every 10 years, Sight & Sound, the British film magazine, asks a number of film critics and film directors to vote for their all time greatest films. A few days ago, they announced the Critics’ Choice and the Directors’ Choice. As with previous years, apart from a slight shuffling of positioning, there were no real surprises. For the critics, the first two were Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Welles’ Citizen Kane, while for the film directors the top two were Ozu’s Tokyo Story – a personal favourite of mine – and Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Still from Ozu's Tokyo Story

There are some truly great films in these two lists and it makes me want to go and watch them all again. Tokyo Story, in particular, is a stunning film and nothing short of a masterpiece, one that has influenced me a lot.

What strikes me as interesting about both lists is that in the top ten, there seem to be no films from less than 35 years ago. In fact, the vast majority of them are well over 40 years old. One could draw a number of inferences from this: for example, that there was a golden age of cinema; or that more contemporary films lack qualities of depth and vision; or that those running the film industries are less motivated by a love for the art of cinema; or that those selecting the films are revealing their age by referencing films from the formative stage in their lives when they were discovering cinema. There may be some truth to all of these possibilities. However, I believe that these choices reveal a different phenomena at work.

A still from Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc

There is an old saying that goes something like this: ‘Young men (and I assume young women, too) reject their fathers and embrace their grandfathers’. I recognise this in my own experience, too. I seek to rebel against the culture in which I live and thereby stamp my own authority and my own vision on my life and in so doing, I challenge those I instinctively – rightly or wrongly – deem responsible for this world that I challenge: my ‘father’ and the near contemporaries just before my time; those who compose ‘the establishment’. There is no doubt that in order to move forward, I need inspiration, and guidance. I believe that in order to shape the future, I need to know and be inspired by the past and the idea of continuity. In as sense, to discover some, perhaps indefinable, underlying movement of some development or evolution in which I play my little part. So it is natural for me to skip the ‘establishment’ generation of my contemporary world to look to my ‘grandfather’ and beyond for that inspiration and guidance.

For me, the consequence is that the most influential filmmakers are from the 40s, 50s and 60s. Bresson, Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Ozu, Hitchcock, Ford, Fellini, Antonioni, de Sica and so on. I have very few contemporary filmmakers whose work inspires me to any thing like the same degree – the exceptions include directors like Ceylan and Kiarostami, for example – but there is a swathe of filmmakers who make up the current establishment whose work does not inspire me, except in the sense they make me feel driven, sometimes from a sense of anger or despair, to make alternatives that challenge current practices.

This is not a unique phenomenon to film. Copernicus, that quiet priest in Poland whose work fundamentally changed our perception of the universe and the motion of planets, happened to be interested in antiquity and antique mathematics. As a consequence, he discovered some interesting formulas in some of Pythagorus’ work – some 1500 years before him – that he found interesting and inspiring. He started to work with them. All his contemporaries were going in a completely different direction and he challenged these established views. It took him 10 years to publish because he was so embarrassed about how his line of enquiry was so different to what his contemporaries were doing. His inspiration came from deep in the past, a past most of his contemporaries had lost interest in.

Another example would be Andy Warhol, probably one of the greatest pop artists of the 60s. He was actually quite a private man, particularly later in life. After he died, the contents of his home in New York were made public and the striking thing was that he didn’t own a single piece of contemporary art. His collection was entirely antique and classical works. His inspiration must clearly have come from the past and he was, of course, reacting against those immediately before him in the modernist movement. Similarly, it could be said of Picasso’s cubist period, that this was inspired by his love of ancient African two dimensional art.

One of my concerns is that many young aspiring filmmakers are shockingly ignorant of the masters of the past, only having an awareness of what has been made over the past 10 or 20 years, and I wonder what their future will be and what legacy they will be able to leave for those who follow us. If that ignorance is then mixed with a tinge of arrogance that frowns on the so called inferior technology of the past, the future of film looks bleak. However, I am pleased to say that I have also met a few young filmmakers whose interest in the past is profoundly genuine and this fills me with considerable reassurance. These are usually individuals who are not afraid to stand out from their peers, and the contemporary fashions shaped by peer pressure, to embrace the inspiration of past masters whose works to many might seem old fashioned and classical.¬†There is no shame in rejecting your ‘father’ and embracing your ‘grandfather’.

A still from Fellini's 8 1/2

Reverence for the old masters is, in my opinion, a necessary ingredient for anyone wanting to innovate in the present to help shape the future.