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What We Talk About When We Talk About Cinema

While I would in no way consider myself to be a filmmaker in the respect of attempting to get into it as a profession, over the past few years I have made several short films that were really only done to satiate my own creative impulses and to experiment with an art form which I had up until that point only participated in as an avid spectator. They were all just abstract shorts of the variety that I suppose most people would dismiss as artsy film-school nonsense, but like I said, I didn’t make them to launch a career or even in the hopes that they would ever be exhibited or distributed. Technological advances have finally made it possible for people to make their own homemade movies quickly and easily should they so choose, so for me it was really just a matter of wanting to take advantage of that even if only for myself.

The last of these short films I made was entitled Letter to Chantal and was designed as a highly personal expression of my admiration for the late Belgian director Chantal Akerman using her film 1976 film News from Home as a loose framework. Akerman’s films mean so much to me that I have never even attempted to write about them because placing them in the context of the rest of my writing about cinema — which, if you’re not familiar with this blog, is focused mainly around cult, exploitation, and horror — honestly felt wrong to me. Not that I don’t have anything to say about her films — quite the contrary — but to me, they simply seem like something other than what most people think of when they think of movies. That’s actually a common criticism leveled at her work: a film like News from Home, composed almost entirely of long, mostly static shots of places in New York City with no plot or characters and the only dialogue coming from Akerman’s narration reading various letters her mother sent to her, can somewhat understandably be thought of as more of an art project than a movie, although of course such an assertion would require you to settle on a rigid definition of what cinema is, and as I’ve written about before, I personally don’t believe cinema is just one thing.

Akerman has been studied and discussed among a certain demographic of cinephiles for decades, and in recent years her level of exposure has increased a bit thanks not only to being featured by the likes of the Criterion Collection and They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?, but also because, well, everyone has gotten more exposure now that we’re firmly in the age of information where nothing remains obscure if you’re actively looking for a particular type of film or whatever it may be. Nonetheless, it did indeed surprise me to see that the decennial Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time was topped by her 1975 magnum opus Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. And as soon as I saw that, I had extremely mixed feelings. Not that I put much stock into what any list concludes are the greatest films ever made (I’ve stated my distaste for such ranked lists many times), but I knew what that meant for the film’s reputation. And I was just very glad in that moment to no longer be on social media.

It’s not just that I could already sense the tidal wave of “they only chose this because of a woke representation agenda” accusations. That argument is constant and is unlikely to die down anytime soon no matter the specific context or situation. But more so in terms of what it says about cinema itself given that the Sight & Sound poll has been held up as the “definitive” critics’ poll (whatever that may mean), I think the real statement that seems to have been made by choosing Jeanne Dielman as the greatest film ever made probably won’t be interpreted as one of inclusion or diversification by most, but rather, as a critical rejection of populism. This is the “artsiest” list Sight & Sound has ever produced, with by FAR the least accessible choice for #1 they’ve ever made. To think there was a time when Citizen Kane was considered by many (casual moviegoers, not cinephiles) to be the ultimate “boring art film” largely because of Sight & Sound repeatedly naming it #1 now seems pretty laughable, especially now that it’s actually become one of the most accessible films on the list.

While I’m sure much will be said in some circles about how “woke” the list is, I think the bigger statement being made this time around may be that the critics who participated completely and thoroughly rejected any notion that a list of greatest films should make an effort to appeal even somewhat to casual moviegoers. Maybe it’s a just reaction to the current state of mainstream cinema, but there’s no way this list is going to be warmly received by anyone other than the sort of cinephiles who collect Criterion Collection releases and are more likely to see a movie at a retrospective museum screening than at a multiplex, as naming Jeanne Dielman the greatest film of all time might as well be a giant middle finger to anyone who insists a film should even be accessible to non-cinephiles, let alone enjoyable.

However, the results of this list represent the logical culmination of where film studies have been heading in relation to the so-called “average moviegoer,” which can be approached either way, really. From one perspective — and I’m sure there are already plenty of angry gut reactions to the list like this already out there — this list is proof positive that critics are hopelessly out of touch with the average moviegoer. But from the other perspective, couldn’t it just as easily be suggested that it’s actually evidence of how cinema itself has become more of a niche interest in recent years, and this list is simply embracing that fact? For crying out loud, there are people who use the term “cult film” to refer to quite literally anything that isn’t a mega-budget franchise blockbuster. Sometimes I do think we need to take a step back and realize that most of the population still views movies strictly as popular entertainment, not as an art form comparable to what one would visit a museum to see. Since that perception has only increased in recent years with the fandomification of the popular movie landscape, it was inevitable that cinema-as-art would eventually be relegated to a niche area of interest more akin to classical music or painting than to the culture of fandom that dominates Hollywood production now, and one could interpret this list as a mere confirmation of that. In fact, Jeanne Dielman arguably relies on techniques more commonly associated with music (repetition, rhythm, motifs) and painting (compositions meant to be absorbed for long periods of time rather than edited in such a way as to provide constant forward momentum) than with traditional filmmaking. It’s interesting that progressive values and messages in art are accepted by a even a lot of mainstream audiences now (though obviously not all), but progressive form and technique are still roundly rejected. Even most people who lobby for progressive ideas in their art are still classicalists and traditionalists when it comes to how they want those ideas to be expressed.

Maybe it’s time that not only do cinephiles accept that we are a pretty small niche in the grand scheme of things, but frankly, maybe it’s also time that the so-called “average moviegoer” accepts that when sources like Sight & Sound are discussing film, they’re discussing a subject that they are not interested in to begin with, and it’s only because of the erroneous notion that cinema is just one thing and all movies can be neatly compared with each other that people view it as an opportunity to cry foul. Thinking of a theoretical list of greatest paintings instead, that’s not even a list that would garner much attention, because painting isn’t regarded as a form of popular entertainment in the way that movies are. Nobody would insinuate that such a list should make an effort to appeal to “casual” fans of painting, would they? That’s an attitude that is more specific to movies and to a lesser extent music, although even that is more accepted as an umbrella term for a bunch of insular interests within it rather than one monolithic subject at this point. Cinema has reached the point where it really shouldn’t be thought of as one all-inclusive area of interest, yet it still is in most circles.

I don’t fully agree with Martin Scorsese’s assertion that Marvel movies (for example) are closer to theme park rides than they are to cinema, but I would be perfectly willing to accept an amendment to that comment which stated those movies generally appeal more to the sort of people who would rather visit an amusement park than a museum. There’s nothing wrong with either preference, it’s just that it’s become quite apparent that there’s really only a relatively small number of people who are interested in cinema as a pure art form rather than primarily as a popular entertainment, and it’s okay to admit that the Sight & Sound poll is really only intended to be relevant to that niche. It’s only the continued perception of cinema as one all-inclusive thing rather than as an umbrella term for a set of different and sometimes even opposing interests within it that leads to the sort of bafflement and outrage that a lot of people are expressing about how “obscure” most of the choices on a list like the Sight & Sound one are. But it’s not the job of a museum curator to build a collection based on what will appeal to the average person who has no interest in art, and it shouldn’t be the job of cinephiles to make sure their discussion is accessible to the average person who is openly opposed to even watching a film in another language. And while I do think it would elitist for a cinephile to act like the average moviegoer is in any way inferior because of their preferences, I also think it would be ridiculous for the average moviegoer to suggest that cinephiles should make an active effort to ensure that all their discussions are accessible to them and only refer to movies they’ve heard of.

So my mixed feelings about Jeanne Dielman topping the list don’t come from thinking it’s too theoretical or challenging to be called the greatest film ever made, but rather from my acknowledgment that that’s how the vast majority of newcomers to the film will view it, which I worry may end up hurting its reputation somewhat in the long run. It’s a film that has very special meaning for me, so while part of me is thrilled to see Chantal Akerman getting this level of acclaim, I’m also just glad I’m not on social media to see the reactions of people who will be watching it for the first time because of its placement on this list. Any film being proclaimed “The Greatest Movie Ever Made” automatically puts a target on its back, and just to put it in perspective, there were a lot of people who were baffled for decades as to how anyone could possibly enjoy Citizen Kane, so I can’t even imagine what they’re going to think of Jeanne Dielman. This is a film that is decidedly a Capital-A Art film, the sort of thing I suspect most “normal” (i.e. non-cinephile) people will have a viscerally negative reaction to it should they decide to check it out.

I’m definitely not saying that makes it any less of a masterpiece (which I do think it is), but it’s clearly the least accessible film by a wide margin that’s ever topped the Sight & Sound poll, and the spotlight this puts on it will likely lead to it developing another reputation altogether with probably a majority of people who discuss movies online. I’m already anticipating a “how long can you last trying to get through Jeanne Dielman?” TikTok challenge and countless reductive parodies of people filming themselves cleaning dishes in silence with sarcastic “the greatest film ever made according to Sight & Sound” descriptions. Not that any of that should deter us from celebrating it, but I also just have to accept now that there’s a distinct possibility that bringing up Jeanne Dielman may result in a lot of eye-rolling and guffawing from now on, as it’s probably going to become the go-to punchline for “pretentious arthouse film” jokes from now on.

The bottom line is that, regardless of its merits, it is objectively not a film that the vast, vast majority of people will even be able to get through, let alone enjoy. My own feelings about the film don’t blind me from the fact that, outside of the ultra-cinephilic bubble that I admittedly occupy and viewed in the larger context of all general audiences, its appeal is extremely niche, and to virtually everyone just now hearing of it thanks to the attention placed on it by this poll, it being called the best film ever made is going to register as baffling at best, if even not aggressively contemptuous of the “average” moviegoer. It’s a double-edged sword in that I actually think it does deserve this level of attention *within the context of cinephilia and film academia* (key context), but since this list is reaching far beyond those horizons, sending it out to the rest of the world is just asking for it to become the target of mean-spirited and reductive memes.

Of course, for as challenging as the film is purported to be (and I’m not denying that it is), it will present less of a challenge to those who have already seen the works of Ozu (Akerman’s primary influence on this film) or any of the subsequent adherents to slow cinema, but for most people, it is indeed a huge ask to get on its wavelength. It’s not necessarily that it’s challenging in and of itself, but it most certainly is in the context of what the general population has come to expect from a movie. It completely upends conventions and expectations, which is likely a big part of why it’s so acclaimed, but it’s also why most “average” movie watchers will absolutely despise it. They’ll react the same way as they would if a list of greatest painters were topped by, say, Jackson Pollock — not that I’d compare his aesthetic whatsoever to Akerman’s, but since it exists so far outside of their concept of what art is, they tend to viscerally respond by dismissing the notion that it is art at all.

And the thing is, I am sympathetic to that perspective. I’m not someone who thumbs my nose at people who don’t like what one might refer to as “highbrow” art, and I actually think the sense of superiority and condescension coming from a lot of people who do like that sort of thing has done it a great disservice. Modern art is still divisive because of this even though it’s been around for over a century now. But at the same time, I don’t think that should dissuade those of us who are interested in films like Jeanne Dielman from discussing them and, yes, celebrating them just because we’re afraid of alienating “normal” people. Again, for what other art form is accessibility considered to be a necessary virtue of any given work? The vast majority of people nowadays have absolutely no interest in jazz, but have you ever heard anyone legitimately criticize Ornette Coleman for not being accessible to the average person who only really only listens to music at the gym or on the commute to work? Why should Chantal Akerman’s inaccessibility to the average person be considered a deterrent to cinephiles’ embrace of her? The average person is not interested in this type of cinema, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just that when the types of cinephiles who closely follow Sight & Sound are talking about movies, they’re not talking about the same thing that the average person is talking about when they talk about movies. It’s a different subject altogether. Not necessarily a “better” one, mind you, but a different one, yes. Again, I don’t believe Disney movies are more like theme park rides than cinema because that would require me to think that cinema is only one thing, but I do believe that Disney movies and Chantal Akerman are as different from each other as theme park rides are to modern art galleries, so take that for what you will.

Cinema is not just one thing, nor should we treat it like it is by insisting that all films can be compared to and ranked alongside one another. It’s not just that there are different genres, styles, and eras of film, it’s that different films are made for different reasons to serve different purposes to different audiences. Chantal Akerman’s purpose in making Jeanne Dielman was so different from what, say, James Cameron does with his films that although they both fall under the impossibly broad umbrella term of “cinema,” to even call it the same art form is a bit misleading, I think. They serve totally different functions and are meant to be experienced in totally different settings and ways, to the point that it seems rather silly to think they’re inherently comparable simply because they both utilize a moving image. I mean, are video games cinema? Is TikTok? Maybe there are some decent arguments to be made supporting those ideas, but ultimately I’m just not convinced that the use of the moving image in and of itself makes it belong the same art form any more than the use of recorded sound makes podcasts and classical symphonies intrinsically related, which is to say it feels like a reductive technicality at that point.

I don’t think anyone professes to have devised a comprehensive list of the greatest music in history that includes all genres, styles, and eras, because while I understand the “I listen to a little bit of everything” approach, listening to a little bit of everything means you don’t listen to a lot of any one thing and thus can never achieve a significant amount of expertise in any particular subset. While that principle may not apply quite so fully to cinema just because of the relative age of the art form, we’re still well past the point, I would argue, where we still need to be pretending that cinema is just one single interest rather than a series of different interests connected only by the use of moving images (and sometimes not even that since plenty of films have used still photography).

Someone commented on a blog I follow to express their absolute indignation that a film could possibly be voted the greatest of all time when they, a self-professed cinephile who went to film school and has been watching movies obsessively for decades, had never even heard of it. It’s probably because Jeanne Dielman, as acclaimed as it is, is still a film that is only intended for an extremely niche audience and doesn’t even fulfill most of the basic functions of what a “normal” movie is expected to do in the popular consciousness, so it’s understandable and maybe even expected that it had flown under even a lot of movie buffs’ radars until the new Sight & Sound poll was unveiled. But of course, now that it’s been put on that pedestal, it’s only natural that a lot of people are reacting with complete bewilderment, because it’s like if Rolling Stone’s greatest albums list had been topped by a John Cage album or something like that. It’s not that it isn’t “deserving” of the spot, whatever that means; it’s just that the context in which it places it is an uncomfortable fit. The film’s full title, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, places the character in the context of her home, which is of course one of the central themes of the film. Context and space are essential themes not only in the film itself but also, in a more meta sense, in its place in film history. Placing it in the context of the ongoing “greatest movie of all time” debate on social media is perhaps doing it a bit of a disservice, because that’s not really the space in which it is intended to be experienced or discussed. It simply doesn’t operate on that level and isn’t meant to appeal to that far-reaching an audience.

But it’s not even as though the people who voted in the poll declaratively chose it as THE greatest of all films. I think it would help alleviate some of the kneejerk reactions to rephrase it from “critics voted Jeanne Dielman the best film of all time” to “more of the critics chosen for this specific poll recommended Jeanne Dielman than any other film they had the opportunity to cite,” because after all, aren’t the ballots really just opportunities given to a select group of people to recommend 10 films to other people who pay attention to this poll? The votes aren’t even tabulated using a ranked ballot, so it’s totally possible that very few voters actually consider it the single greatest film ever made. It got to #1 because more of them had it in their list of 10 than any other film, which really only means that, when asked the question “Which 10 films do you think serious cinephiles should study?” (which is more accurately the purpose of the poll), more people *this time* decided Jeanne Dielman should be included in that list than any other film. Not that it’s better than any other film, just that in 2022, this is the film that the most of them agreed should be included in that conversation, and that seems a lot more understandable when you see how many people still regard it as obscure in comparison with the other films in the top 10.

But you know, maybe this is a conversation we need to be having, because by design or not, Jeanne Dielman being presented to the masses as the best film ever made is causing people who might otherwise never have even thought about it to debate what cinema is and what it should be. And maybe that’s the first step towards what I view as a necessary schism between different types of cinema and cinephiles. What do we talk about when we talk about cinema? For you it may be one thing and for me another, and we needn’t interrupt each other’s conversations if that turns out to be the case.

Beyond that, even though 99% of the people whose curiosity about this film has been piqued by its placement on the Sight & Sound list will almost certainly not enjoy it if they do decide to check it out, the silver lining is that 1% of them will discover something that contains great meaning for them and might just serve to reshape their perception of what cinema can be and lead their tastes and sensibilities in an entirely new direction. Like I said in the beginning of this post, Chantal Akerman means a lot to me on a much more personal level than I typically discuss films on. And isn’t that really the best service that movie lists can provide? It’s certainly not their propensity for generating outrage and arguments; it’s introducing people to movies they might not otherwise have heard of and that might end up have special meaning for them, and to that end, maybe Jeanne Dielman topping the list is actually a lot more useful in this particular moment than it would have been to merely reiterate the greatness of the films most people already knew about.

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