One of these items is a fragment of a list, which I’ve reproduced at the end of this post, of what she calls “Best films (not in order).” The volume’s editor, David Rieff, Sontag’s son, includes the first fifty items, followed by a note: “The list continues up to number 228, where SS abandons it.” I—and, I suspect, all of Sontag’s readers—would be grateful for the publication of the entire list. (I wonder whether the heavily Europhilic trend of the first fifty continues throughout.) She wrote the list in 1977, a decade after publishing her crucial essays in film criticism, and I’d be interested to know how her enthusiasms changed over the course of that decade. I was interested to see that the two Japanese directors mentioned here are Kurosawa and Ozu; I value Mizoguchi’s films ahead of theirs—slightly ahead of Ozu’s, way ahead of Kurosawa’s. (About twenty years ago, I sat next to Sontag, in the front row at Japan Society, for a screening of a film by Mizoguchi—I think it was “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum.”)
Also, it’s intriguing to see Syberberg’s film here; it seems to have premièred in the U.K. in November, 1977, and I went to see it in January, 1980, at Hunter College, in one of its earliest New York screenings, largely on Sontag’s endorsement of it. She’s right—it’s a major film, one that approaches its subject with a cinematic inventiveness that’s apt to the audacity of the filmmaker’s historical speculation. I came out of that screening enraptured with both aspects of his creation; yet, seeing the movie again five years ago, at the time of its DVD release (which I wrote about in the magazine), I was struck by a facet of the movie that now seems strangely significant: its impersonality. It’s as if Syberberg were somehow standing outside the history he investigates and criticizing the course of the modern world (a criticism that rings hollow) from an indefinite but privileged position. And this fact seems connected with the very question underlying my discussion of Sontag’s movie writings overall: their fealty to a formalism that doesn’t merely seem dated, but, more significantly, seems untrue to many of the movies she considered, and that jaundiced her view of movies that didn’t embody that view.
In 1996, in a piece in the Times called “The Decay of Cinema,” she wrote that the jig was up. For movies to be great, they now “have to be actual violations of the norms and practices that now govern movie making everywhere in the capitalist and would-be capitalist world—which is to say, everywhere.” But, she wrote,
you hardly find anymore, at least among the young, the distinctive cinephilic love of movies that is not simply love of but a certain taste in films (grounded in a vast appetite for seeing and reseeing as much as possible of cinema’s glorious past).
She was wrong: cinephilia was there, but, for certain practical reasons, it was relatively quiet. It’s not quiet anymore, and great, distinctive movies were issuing from around the world, regardless of the economic system at hand or the norms of studios (which weighed even more heavily on the cinema of the classic age, even internationally, than they do now), and continue to do so. The narrative of nostalgia for a lost golden age is really one of the writer’s own nostalgia for youth; the question of why she chose to tell that story rather than to take an interest in the stories that younger artists were telling about the world is one that will await the publication of her notebooks from those later years.
1. Bresson, Pickpocket 2. Kubrick, 2001 3. Vidor, The Big Parade 4. Visconti, Ossessione 5. Kurosawa, High and Low 6. [Hans-Jürgen] Syberberg, Hitler 7. Godard, 2 ou 3 Choses … 8. Rossellini, Louis XIV 9. Renoir, La Règle du Jeu 10. Ozu, Tokyo Story 11. Dreyer, Gertrud 12. Eisenstein, Potemkin 13. Von Sternberg, The Blue Angel 14. Lang, Dr. Mabuse 15. Antonioni, L’Eclisse 16. Bresson, Un Condamné à Mort … 17. Gance, Napoléon 18. Vertov, The Man with the [Movie] Camera 19. [Louis] Feuillade, Judex 20. Anger, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome 21. Godard, Vivre Sa Vie 22. Bellocchio, Pugni in Tasca 23. [Marcel] Carné, Les Enfants du Paradis 24. Kurosawa, The Seven Samurai 25. [Jacques] Tati, Playtime 26. Truffaut, L’Enfant Sauvage 27. [Jacques] Rivette, L’Amour Fou 28. Eisenstein, Strike 29. Von Stroheim, Greed 30. Straub, …Anna Magdalena Bach 31. Taviani bro[ther]s, Padre Padrone 32. Resnais, Muriel 33. [Jacques] Becker, Le Trou 34. Cocteau, La Belle et la Bête 35. Bergman, Persona 36. [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder, … Petra von Kant 37. Griffith, Intolerance 38. Godard, Contempt 39. [Chris] Marker, La Jetée 40. Conner, Crossroads 41. Fassbinder, Chinese Roulette 42. Renoir, La Grande Illusion 43. [Max] Ophüls, The Earrings of Madame de … 44. [Iosif] Kheifits, The Lady with the Little Dog 45. Godard, Les Carabiniers 46. Bresson, Lancelot du Lac 47. Ford, The Searchers 48. Bertolucci, Prima della Rivoluzione 49. Pasolini, Teorema 50. [Leontine] Sagan, Mädchen in Uniform