What Does Being the ‘Greatest’ Actually Mean?

I got into a sort of debate about this. Well, you can’t really call it a debate, when the other side is not actually interested in listening to your opinions, but come in with strong preconceived notions instead. So, this is more of an argument. Which is frustrating, because I do feel this is a topic that warrants some investigation.

So, what does it actually mean, when we call something ‘greatest’. I put this into the category of movies, so I’m going to be talking about them… and the Sight & Sound Poll of 2022 once again. For those, who don’t know what this is, Sight & Sound is a magazine that makes this list every decade. They invite a bunch of critics and other people working in and around movies to give them their list of 10 greatest movies and they gather the list from those.

Background: Someone I know was taking it personally that his favorite movies were not on the list of greatest movies of all time. He took this as a proof that the people behind the list were not competent and did not know what good is and are not representative of the population at large. Well, he just isn’t getting it.

Are the people behind the list competent? Well, is anyone competent to tell you their subjective opinions? I would assume so. And this is purely subjective list. BFI, the organization behind the poll, specifically told people to interpret greatest in any way they wanted, whether that is something technically great, something that achieves something great aesthetically, something with themes that are personally important, or just somethng that molded their views on movies. So, basically the question could also be just “name 10 movies you want to see in such a list”. Everyone is competent to do that.

Do they know what is good? Does anyone? But okay, suppose they do like something along the lines of like modern action movies. Which one should they choose? There are so many options, that thoes votes would be shared by so many movies that it would take something extraordinary to make it on to the list. Which Marvel movie is so much better than the others, that it warrants anyone to vote for it? I mean, sure Black Panther or Captain Marvel might actually be meaningful to someone, but if those were on the list, that would just be scoffed at by this crowd anyhow. So, I mentioned some of the action movies that did make it onto the list, but somehow none of them counted. Seven Samurai is apparently too long to watch, Westerns aren’t real action (even Wild Bunch) and Mad Max Fury Road isn’t apparently representative. After some prodding, I did get a few movies that he did think should have been on the list: Mad Max 2 (which I doubt he would have even remembered, if Fury Road had not been mentioned by me), Die Hard and Terminator 2. Of course, I’m not going to let anyone off that easy, so after not getting more examples than that, I asked him to explain each of these choices, but really couldn’t except that they are seminal action movies. Okay, sure. Should that really be the only reason to vote for an actual adult? (In the name of fairness, he did get back to me to add Predator to his list, and even later on he blurted out The Dark Knight. Actually, after more prodding he did capitulate that Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark are good additions to the Sight & Sound List, but obviously he immediately protested their low placement at tied 225 and tied 211 respectively.)

Is this group representative of the population at large? Of course not. They are not supposed to be. Why would you think that? We have IMDb for that. This is a publication for professionals and serious hobbyists. And when I say serious hobbyists, I mean people with actual interest in the history of movies and their cultural impact. The list, while gaining wide reporting from various media organizations, is not supposed to be the list of the most popular films in history.

Personally, I think the Sight & Sound list is just great. Do I agree with every movie on it? No, but it doesn’t matter. That’s not the power of the list. This is the list that gave Citizen Kane it’s repuration as the best movie of all time as it won the poll five times in a row. This is a list people pay attention to. So, now that Jeanne Dielman won it, people started to pay attention to that relatively obscure movie.

I saw it for the first time after the list and you know what? It’s great. It’s fucking great. But it’s nothing like what you would expect. I can tell you what happens, but that’s meaningless. It’s not about that. I can’t really share the devastating experience of the movie, because you have to see it to understand it. Would I have voted for it? I don’t know, but what I can say is that like Bicycle Thieves, Citizen Kane and Vertigo before it, it should be remembered as one of the great movies of all time. It definitely deserves to be spoken of in the same terms as those three previous winners of the poll. Would I recommend it? For certain people, yes, but it is not going to be for everyone. It’s three and a half hours long and all the shots are quite static, with only our main character doing mostly quite mundane tasks.

And yet, according to this person, my experience or those of all those people, who voted for it, with the movie are not valid, because he (and his imagined hordes of similarly minded people) would not like the movie. This, even though it was not nearly as widely known (and still isn’t) as the previous winners, so there isn’t really a reason to vote for it for clout and if you were just trying to find obscure movies to vote, the number of votes this has would be quite a coincidence.

But what is the value of this one list overall? Of course, it isn’t the truth, because there is no truth to this. This is why there are so many different lists compiled in different ways.

Early on, when various countries started making accurate surveys of the land, they used triangulation. That’s when you know two specific points and figure out the exact position of the third in triangle. By doing this over and over again, based on the previously measured points, you can get quite an accurate overall survey, which was the goal. Now, when we are talking about things that are subjective, like the quality and importance of movies, you can’t make very accurate measurements, but you can triangulate. You can use various methods to look at the problem from new points of view, which together can form a whole, which can be larger than it’s parts.

Sure, every opinion on movies is valid, but at the same time there is a reason why critics and filmmakers receiver more attention in this regard. They just have more to say about the subject, because they don’t just watch those movies. They think about them for their work. We should be listening to them more, but at the same time, it is everyone’s personal prerogative to like whatever list there is. To me, the IMDb list is pretty unnecessary, because I have seen most of those movies and would have seen most of those movies, even if that list didn’t exist, as that list is more of a popularity contest than anything else, so finding those films is generally easy.

I find the Sight & Sound list much more interesting. I’ve seen plenty of those movies as well, but in many cases i would not have seen them if it wasn’t for the list. Without putting any time into figuring this out, I would assume my scores are higher on average for the films on IMDb’s top 250 than Sight & Sound’s but I don’t think that is important.

In the end, greatest is in the eye of the beholder. It’s always going to be somewhat subjective, but at the same time, if enough people find a certain movie to be the greatest, they might be wrong, but that still makes the movie something that I would definitely like to see, if I haven’t already. I like to know what drives people. I like to understand how they see the world. I like to find meaning in what they find meaningful. From this point of view Jeanne Dielman definitely works for me. It’s an early feminist piece and many of the problems presented in the movie still persist. But it isn’t preachy. It’s actually very neutral in it’s approach. The camera is there to witness, not participate.

Jeanne Dielman is not a new movie. It came out in 1975. So, what changed? It only reached the list in the previous installment of 2012 at #36, which in itself probably meant that it found a completely new audience. But that isn’t enough. What has changed is society. Yes, we have indeed “gone woke”. We no listen to minority voices in a whole new way. The new #1 doesn’t mean that this list is somehow faulty (well, of course it is, but relatively). What it means is that the early lists were worse. They were representative of a few voices, who upheld a canon, whereas BFI did the right choice as they took on more voters. The love for this movie had been around, but those people, who loved it, just didn’t get to take part.

And BFI, that was a wonderful move. Paraphrasing Garth Brooks’s recent comments: “Diversity is not the problem. It’s the answer to all our problems.” We are all so much better off, if we just acknowledge that.

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