Moving Pictures
Dec 09, 2022, 06:28AM

Century of the Superlative

A reasonable person might ask what purpose any of this—list-making, ranking, awards, canonization—actually serves.

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Sports can be art. How else does one describe Michael Jordan’s freight train fast breaks, Muhammad Ali’s virtuosic footwork, or Mark Gonzales’ inventive street skating—each breathtaking works of live performance—if not art? These are some of the most skilled practicians of their respective pastimes, but superlatives like “most skilled” undermine each athlete’s artistry—the elusive quality somewhere between poetry and magic that transcends the competitive nature of sport. Their gifts are unquantifiable, which is what makes them artists.

For precisely the same reason, art isn’t sports. I get the sense that some professional critics wish this wasn’t the case; if a system of points could determine the quality of a movie, book or album the way it determines the outcome of a game or competition, writing about art would consequently require a lot less thought, making the critic’s job much easier. But the question of quality, whether a work is good or bad, whether it wins or loses, strikes me as one of the least effective ways of probing a given work. (It reminds me of a scene on The Office where Andy reflects on what it takes to be a critic: “I'm not insightful enough to be a movie critic. Maybe I could be a food critic. ‘These muffins taste bad.’ Or an art critic. ‘That painting is bad.’”) The critic whose only purpose is evaluating quality is just a glorified ghost hunter, trying to fool their audience into believing in something that isn’t really there.

Note how I can’t even write about it without resorting to the language of superlatives, like “least effective.” In her now legendary hit piece on Pauline Kael, with irony I assume is intentional, Renata Adler calls the superlative “one of the first, most unmistakable marks of the hack.” She’s right: subjective questions of what is best (or most unmistakable) distract from what a work is ultimately communicating about its author, about its audience, about the time and environment in which it was made. All the stuff you don’t need to think about when you’ve got the easy binaries of good/bad, best/worst, most/least, etc.

Think of it this way: when you look at a sunset, what does it make you think? How does it make you feel? Do these thoughts or feelings have anything to do with how good or bad the sunset is? Do you look at the sunset and say, “This is better than yesterday’s sunset but not as good as the sunset two Sundays ago”? Probably not, because each sunset—whether slashed in sanguinary streaks of bright orange and magenta, or saturated in muted lilac, or even the anemic, cloud-pocked tarp of black marble and baby blue that is still beautiful, in an ugly sort of way—deserves to be appreciated on its own terms. The same standard should apply to art.

This preface is my roundabout way of getting to year-end list season, which kicked off early this year with Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films poll. This decade’s poll culls from 1639 lists, almost double the number of 2012’s expanded voter pool, solicited from critics all over the internet. And like the internet, the Greatest Films poll is a once useful pedagogical tool that now mostly exists to enrage people with too much time on their hands. In what can only be described as an upset, the coveted number one spot went to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. To Paul Schrader, the film jumping from 36 to number 1 in 10 years is evidence enough of malfeasance, “as if someone had put their thumb on the scale.” Armond White, with characteristic conservative camp, calls it “an inarguably political choice,” likening the increase in participants to packing the Supreme Court (a seemingly common fantasy at National Review). As a reminder, these guys are talking about a list of movies.

A reasonable person might ask what purpose any of this—list-making, ranking, awards, canonization—actually serves. In the intro to the site’s third (!) best of the 1990s list, Pitchfork editor-in-chief Puja Patel argues these periodic lists are necessary “because our understanding of [music] changes the more we learn; because there is still a thrill in discovering something we didn’t know about (or quite get) before; because taste evolves and grows, enriched by the passing of time.”

Who is this ambiguous we? Is it everyone in the entire world? The staff at Pitchfork? Its readers? “There is something so pervasive and remorseless in that ‘we’,” Adler writes, going for Kael’s jugular, though she could just as easily be responding to Patel over forty years later, “that the ‘we’ becomes a bandwagon, a kangaroo court, a gang, an elite, a congregation, which readers had better join.”

The habit of imposing individual experiences and opinions on a collective “we” is inherently narcissistic. A similar misguided solipsism surrounds the institution of critics’ lists. What was designed as a democratic process, a weathervane for the changing winds of collective taste, ends up serving as little more than an echo chamber for a very specific set of professional class “tastemakers.” As Elena Gorfinkel puts it in her 2019 essay “Against Lists”: “Lists pretend to make a claim about the present and the past, but are anti-historical, obsessed with their own moment, with the narrow horizon and tyranny of contemporaneity. They consolidate and reaffirm the hidebound tastes of the already heard.”

Pretty soon former President Barack Obama will release his year-end list, a tradition that makes as little sense now as it did during his two terms in the White House. It will likely include films he didn’t actually watch and music he didn’t actually listen to—though it’s fun to imagine him sitting alone with Michelle and asking, “Did you hear the new Soccer Mommy yet?” His list will look, more or less, like an aggregate of the critical hive mind, a new arrangement of the same 15-20 titles bouncing off the walls of the echo chamber ad infinitum. Should I join him with my own annual inventory of favorites? Forgive the superlative, but that’s the dumbest waste of time I can possibly imagine.


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