A little unfair?

Not at all, says Gilbert Adair, who argues that for true cinephiles many films judged 'masterpieces' turn out to be minormovies that barely figure in the pantheon of motion picture history
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The Independent Culture

When Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliot was released just a few weeks ago, the Daily Mail's reviewer called it "one of the great films of all time".

When Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliot was released just a few weeks ago, the Daily Mail's reviewer called it "one of the great films of all time".

Now, it's perfectly possible to enjoy Billy Elliot as a sweet, sentimental wallow. It's also possible to regard it as a ludicrous luvvie fantasy about a cute little Northern lad who aspires to be not a doctor, not a scientist, not a writer, but a ballet dancer (it has to be showbiz); and who, if not quite gay himself (as Bette Davis murmurs to Paul Henreid at the end of Now, Voyager, "Let's not ask for the moon when we have the stars"), is sufficiently sensitive to his best friend's closeted homosexuality to give him a goodbye kiss on setting off for the wonderful world of London's Theatreland. Like it or not, though, can it really be "one of the great films of all time"? Which is to say, on a par with Intolerance, City Lights, L'Atalante, M, La Rÿgle du jeu, The Magnificent Ambersons, La Belle et la Bête, Vertigo, Ugetsu Monogatari, L'Avventura, Pierrot le fou, etc?

A matter of opinion, to be sure, and criticism is ultimately all about opinions. Billy Elliot's very existence, however, prompts a more general question, that of what I shall call the two histories of the cinema.

The first will need no introduction to true cinephiles. In this version of film history, there exists a pool of shared axioms and assumptions on which scholars and historians confidently draw, even though the canon, not surprisingly since it's a mere century old, remains somewhat less rigorous than that of rival art forms. Vagaries and biases of taste are respected. No one has ever been blackballed from the circle of initiates for confessing to a personal lack of affinity with, say, Dreyer, Mizoguchi or Resnais, even if dissenters are nevertheless expected to acknowledge their own bête noires' prominence in the wider scheme of things. Basically, a consensus has been established as to the identity and importance of the medium's hundred or so supreme geniuses, a consensus which a majority of cinephiles would readily endorse. The cinema, in short, has now acquired a Pantheon, one whose occupants are no longer demoted and promoted, as they used to be, with the dizzying speed and regularity of wax luminaries in Madame Tussaud's.

Which reminds me, here's another axiom of official film history. By comparison with the half-dozen indisputably great national cinemas (ie the French, American, Japanese, Italian, German and Scandinavian), our domestic product has always been, except for a brief flurry of pioneering activity at the turn of the last century, relatively minor. That, of course, is not a fact but, in the film-historical context to which I refer, it's as close to one as dammit.

And, finally, I should add that the above-mentioned context is by no means the sole preserve of film schools, specialised journals and jargon-riddled monographs. Yes, I myself happen to be a professional critic, but my film-buff friends, who are not, share almost all of these assumptions with me. It would be an insult to their own erudition if, in conversation, I sought to explain to them who Murnau was; why Dovzhenko's cinema was revolutionary; exactly for what reason Hawks was prompted to make Rio Bravo after seeing High Noon; how Godard transformed what might be termed the cinema's interface; why Fassbinder's films have endured while the contemporaneous work of Schlöndorff is neglected; and how it is that Lewis's Gun Crazy, ostensibly a Poverty Row potboiler, contrives to be one of Hollywood's numerous maverick masterworks. Nor would I have to spell out to them the fact that I'm alluding to FW Murnau, Alexander Dovzhenko, Jean-Luc Godard or even Joseph H Lewis. They are as conversant with these names as I myself am. In life, knowing someone better means getting on to first-name terms; in art appreciation, paradoxically, it means getting on to exclusively second-name terms.

Then there's the alternative version of film history, by far the more widespread, one in which a century of film-making tends to be regarded, rather, as the medium's prehistory. Silents, for example, many of which continue to be among the most exquisite films one can see, are in this populist version deemed to be unwatchably amateurish affairs, probably made scratched and spotty, just as the Venus de Milo, for the same kind of mentality, was sculpted armless. The great period of sound films, from the Thirties to the Seventies, is just a blur out of which a few titles, always the same unadventurous handful, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind and so forth, are allowed to emerge. As for non-English language works, which after all constitute the vast bulk of the medium's output, forget it. (The cinema was once trumpeted as a universal language; now the universal language is the American cinema.)

For those who subscribe to such a reading, a hundred-year-old continuum of cinematic theory and practice, one enhanced by an ever-expanding pool of conventions and inventions, icons and ideals, is reduced to a cluster of (mostly American and British) features, each one viewed in isolation, each one heralded as deliriously as though the cinema had at last attained its majority. An early example was Marty, which, directed in 1955 by the now totally forgotten Delbert Mann, was a recipient in its day not merely of a bouquet of Oscars but, on both sides of the Atlantic, of uniformly rave reviews. Who remembers it now? Yet the fact that it soon became (as films can become) obsolete, seldom revived, unwritten about and never studied, didn't deter certain critics, those seemingly afflicted with the same short-term memory loss as the protagonist of Memento, from acclaiming such subsequent "masterpieces" as The Pawnbroker, Midnight Cowboy, Ordinary People, Chariots of Fire, Gandhi and The Ploughman's Lunch, all of which followed Marty down the toilet of oblivion within a decade or so of their original release.

Another factor distinguishing this alternative version of film history from the official brand is the prominence assumed (or, if you like, usurped) by the British cinema. "The British are coming!" crowed the scriptwriter of Chariots of Fire, Colin Welland, when brandishing his Oscar; and given the almost orgasmic enthusiasm of the British cultural establishment for the most visible (which is to say, most exportable) locally produced films, it's tempting to read that word "coming" in its sexual sense. In recent years such enthusiasm has attained epidemic proportions. Think of the critical reception accorded to Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Madness of King George, The English Patient, The Full Monty, Shakespeare in Love, and, naturally, most recently, Billy Elliot.

I repeat, is the latter really a film destined to ring down the ages? To have books written about it? To figure conspicuously in 10-best lists? To be studied, scene by scene, even frame by frame, by film students in Zagreb, Buenos Aires and Taiwan? Or is it, instead, destined to fade gradually from the collective cultural memory, kept alive, just about, by such ancillary supports as television, video and DVD, until it slips off the radar screen altogether?

Everyone possessed of specialised knowledge in any specific area, not necessarily artistic, will be alert to the unbridgeable gap which separates such knowledge, usually accumulated over a lifetime, from the media's superficial coverage of the same subject. (An astrophysicist I know never reads scientific articles in newspapers because, as he puts it, even when they get it right they somehow get it wrong.) In Britain, though, I think it safe to claim that no wider abyss exists on the cultural scene than that between the official and the alternative histories of film. Not one of the other arts is so completely, so abjectly, in thrall to populist (meaning, in the cinema's case, predominantly Hollywood) values and traditions.

And even though I'm conscious that all such comparisons lay themselves open to the charge of glibness, I think: can one imagine an opera house staging only contemporary English-speaking works, the finest of which, so-called, are judged by critics to be the equal of Don Giovanni and Parsifal? Could one consider oneself well-read if all one had ever read were the latest British and American novels? How seriously would one take an art critic who confined his journalistic attentions to Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Tracey Emin and who had never even set eyes on a Giotto fresco or a Rembrandt self-portrait? Yet it requires only a minute or two of reflection to realise that that's precisely how the cinema, a medium of incalculable richness and variety, is treated in Britain today.