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Why I didn't put a film by a woman in my Sight and Sound top 10
An attempt at a rectification
I contributed to the BFI Sight and Sound Top 250 film list along with something like 3000 other critics and film professionals. My list can be seen here, along with my comments which include this nugget: “The absences of filmmakers I love and admire (Coens, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Welles), entire genders (women), entire nationalities (Italian), entire genres (westerns, gangster films) is deeply embarrassing and painful. Tomorrow I'm sure I could easily pick an entirely different ten with the exact same level of certainty. But alas this will have to do.”
I posted the list on Facebook, goofily happy at having contributed to a list I had used in the past as a pole star to my own definition of quality cinema. A friend of mine, Frances, commented on my post: “In the future, there might even be a woman”. As is always the case with such comments, it’s the wink emoji that hurts the most.
I didn’t respond immediately, but the idea gnawed at me. It seemed a cheap shot to have taken at someone in the boyish youth in terms of contributing to Sight and Sound lists by someone who - let’s face it - is never going to be asked to contribute to a Sight and Sound list. No, Frances, not ever. I’ve seen to it.
This morning, sitting on the loo, I wrote a long and reasoned reply to the comment. The sort of calm reasoned approach which would be generous, comprehensive and - I hoped - instructive. And then I did something which was amazing. I deleted my comment.
What a relief! And now I felt I had dodged a bullet. I was about to get on the wrong side of an argument. You see the reason I was upset was partly to do with being publicly reprimanded by a woman. I didn’t know this was why I was upset. One of the bonuses of being clever is you can hide your stupidity even from yourself. And I am very, very clever.
But it sneaked out. I was talking to another friend, Katy, about Frances’ comment and said: “I don’t like being scolded.” Scolded? Frances was being a scold. It’s one of those words, like “nag”, that isn’t explicitly reserved to a gender but nevertheless obviously is.
What was wrong with me that I couldn’t take a bit of criticism without my heckles rising? Am I a misogynist? To which the answer is obviously yes. I’m going to qualify that. I was born in 1972. I grew up in the far North West of England, went to a Catholic school, and was brought up in a working class family which - luckily for me - was aspirational and progressive. But progressive in the 70s is not the progressive of today. People said “racialist”. You see?
It was a steep learning curve going to university in Liverpool. I met lots of people who weren’t like me. I went from cringeworthy condescending politeness to studied indifference and back again. I learned about homosexuality, bisexuality, met a Jew! And I also learned that for some people, many people at the university, I was the outsider. After all, this was when being working class at a university was to be outnumbered; to have the wrong frame of reference, the wrong accent, the wrong way of taking the piss. To make things worse, I joined the Socialist Workers Party which meant I was surrounded almost entirely by the Upper Middle Class, even when I wasn’t in lessons.
But I was open to it. I found it exciting. I wanted to meet people. I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to learn to be right, properly right. And that meant self-examination, criticism, listening, being with different people and sifting through the competing and contrasting experiences and reactions to the world. I met a lot of phenomenal people and I met some shits. I learned to ditch some romantic notions. It was a landmark when I felt I could dislike a lesbian because she was dislikeable.
I could now see that I had been racist, despite liking Gandhi. I had been sexist, though I did think women were lovely and needed to be protected at all costs, preferably in towers just a bit taller than they could realistically grow their hair. And I had been homophobic, despite saying hip stuff like “I don’t care what homosexuals do I just don’t want it shoved down my throat”. I thought I was progressive, but I hadn’t been. In my defence, I had been well-meaning, and not gone out of my way to physically or verbally assault anyone. I hadn’t been a skinhead racist, or a virulent sexist. But nevertheless, now I was embarrassed by my former complacency.
One advantage came from this. I learned how to change my mind. I learned how to let go of prejudice. I learned how to detect it in myself, even when I thought it was not there. Like when I defensively told my Chinese friend Severin that calling the take away round the corner the “Chinky” wasn’t remotely offensive because my family had always called it that without the least trace of animus. But listening to him and understanding his perspective, I realised: “Shit! Of course, it’s racist, you stupid bastard.”
To this day, I’m still racist and sexist - again not in the proactive sense - but just in the fact that I still have these residual prejudices. Philip Larkin - there’s another one - moaned that it takes so long to climb out of our “wrong beginnings” and he wasn’t wrong, although he didn’t exactly get his knees dirty clambering out of his own prejudices. The 70s and 80s were steeped in wrongness, as Operation Yew Tree has so ably demonstrated. And even today, the language I was imprinted with at an early age is still there. “Gaylord”, “Spaz”, “Joey Deacon”, “scold” these words simmer with traces of stuff I need to confront and think about. Ignorance has a long half life. Recently I wondered to myself, why do I seem to judge black footballers who foul other footballers more harshly than white footballers? I mean, do I? A recent study showed that Italian referees did. So I imagine I probably do too.
The good news is that I am trying. And a lot of people around me are too. We’re all on a long journey (if we’re lucky), and I want to be open and generous. I also want to change my ideas, rather than aggressively fall on the defensive. Plus, I am able to empathize with people who haven’t moved yet, but might do so. If you know how it feels to go from wrong to right, closed to open, hostile to accepting, you know that after that initial squirm of discomfort - like getting out of bed on a cold day - it actually feels good to be in a world not marred by prejudice and stupidity. The current “debate” on the transgender movement could really do with all the people who think there is a debate - there isn’t - getting out of bed, metaphorically, and going outside, actually.
When I was replying to Frances’ comment, I was thinking: “Of course I wanted to put a woman’s movie in my list, but due to the fact that because of structural inequalities that I am not personally responsible for they have had less opportunity and resources to make movies and so there aren’t as many to choose from and I don’t want to get into the whole thing of choosing one just to forestall the criticism that I haven’t put one in the list, and it would have to be one because I’m not losing Master and Commander.” That’s a fairly accurate rendering of the way I think on a moment-by-moment basis. I know. If you think it’s exhausting to read me, imagine how exhausting it is to be me. “Who would I put?” widening my arms like a film priest before the tabernacle of cinema, calling on our Lord Scorsese and his Holy Eyebrows.
Then I realized Clueless.
Clueless by Amy Heckling is one of my favourite films ever. What the fuck! How had I not put Clueless in. I mean, I’d need to lose Shoah. Or Blade Runner. I had considered Jane Campion’s The Piano, but really it’s not that good. Ironically, mainly because of Harvey Keitel’s accent. Then I remembered An Angel at my Table which I’d only recently seen and that’s effing great. Or Bright Star. And of course Elaine May made Mikey and Nicky, out John Cassavetteing John Cassavetes. And if I wanted to shake it up, there’s a good argument for her Ishtar getting a lot more love. Ida Lupino deserves a mention just for perseverance. And if making a film during a period when no women were making films what about Haifaa al-Mansour who made the brilliant coming of age movie Wadjda in a country where - at that point - women weren’t even allowed to drive cars or move around the country without the permission of a male relative. I know Agnes Varda and Chantal Ackermann and Celine Schiamma, Sophia Coppola, Mabel Normand, Julia Ducournau, Kathryn Bigelow, Kelly Reichardt and Claire Denis, Lynne Ramsey, Lina Wertmuller, Emma Dante and Alba Rohrwacher have all made great films … and Chloe Zhao … so why did none of them get in my top ten?
The truth is I did think about them but ultimately they didn’t make my top ten. I love Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa (as I mentioned in my comment) as well and they didn’t get in. Ten films is ridiculously narrow and limiting. It’s a nonsense. I don’t know why we can’t each have two hundred and fifty films. That would be my solution. I blame Sight and Sound. I blame Mike Williams, the editor of Sight and Sound personally. Truly. What were you thinking? Probably logistics. And how much time people could be reasonably expected to compile a list…
But I can’t say that the reason they’re not in the top ten is utterly free of sexism. It probably is because I have some sexist prejudices slanting my picks away from women. What I look for in films, how I define my own enthusiasms … it’s all a reflection of me which includes those prejudices as well.
This isn’t necessarily an apology as such. Though I ought to be sorry for thinking of Frances as a scold. So sorry, Frances. I shouldn’t have thought of you as a scold. “Shit-stirrer” is a gender-neutral and probably more accurate descriptor.
And I am sorry to everyone that I didn’t put Clueless in my top ten.
Though I know for that there really can’t be any forgiveness.