U.S. Intellectual History Blog

SIGHT & SOUND’s Documentary Lists

Every ten years since 1952, Sight & Sound, the British Film Institute’s monthly magazine, polls directors and critics, asking them to identify the ten greatest films of all time, without ranking them. Sight & Sound then counts the number of mentions of each film and produces two lists of the greatest films of all time, one based on directors’ lists, the other based on critics. The once-a-decade Sight & Sound lists have become a major cultural event. When the last one appeared in 2012, the headline was that, for the first time since 1952, Citizen Kane had been knocked out of the top place in the polls, replaced by Vertigo in the critics poll and Tokyo Story in the director’s poll. The polls become the subject of enormous critical and even popular attention, with traditional film critics, bloggers, podcasters, and commenters all weighing in their meaning. This blog even wrote about the poll: I posted a piece musing about what the poll – and the reaction to it – suggested about the changing formation and function of film canons; Andy Seal, in one of his first guest appearances on USIH before becoming one of regular bloggers, wrote a brilliant response to my piece.

Last week, Sight & Sound published its first ever critics and directors polls on the greatest documentary films of all time. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera topped both lists, with Sans Soleil, Shoah, Night and Fog, The Thin Blue Line, and Nanook of the North also appearing, in different places, in both the critics’ and the directors’ top tens (the top fifty films chosen by the critics and the top thirty-five chosen by the directors can be found in the links above). Though the arrival of the documentary polls was widely reported, so far at least it seems to have attracted less attention than the 2012 polls did. This might be related to documentaries being a more specialized product (though the rising presence of documentaries in our film culture has a lot to do with the creation of this poll) as well as to the absence of story of canonical change. Perhaps the next documentary poll will elicit a flood of commentary about why Man with a Movie Camera is such a persistent (or fleeting) choice on top of the poll. But what immediately interested me about the documentary lists was the role that history played in them.

Like narrative film, documentary film (and the culture of criticism around it) can be a fascinating object of historical study. But documentary film is also a medium in which filmmakers do history. Of course, narrative films can also deal with history. But because it is nonfictional, documentary film is both closer to what we as historians produce in our traditional, written medium and is potentially a more interesting challenge to our standard historical practice.

The Sight & Sound critics list of the top fifty documentaries contains thirteen films that seem to me to be focused on history (Shoah, Night and Fog, The Sorrow and the Pity, Nostalgia for the Light, The Act of Killing, The Battle of Chile, The Emperors Naked Army Marches On, Histoire(s) du Cinema, The Fog of War, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Culloden, Seasons, and Waltz with Bashir), six other films that deal with the past, though perhaps not in a fashion that one would label historical (The Thin Blue Line, Grizzly Man, Capturing the Friedmans, Crumb, Close-Up, and Man on Wire), and half a dozen more that grapple with the past at least in passing (The Up Series, F for Fake, Harlan County U.S.A., Roger & Me, Handworth Songs, The Hour of the Furnaces). That’s almost half the poll. Though many of these listed films touch on the American past, the only one that grapples as directly with U.S. history as, say, Shoah deals with the Holocaust or Waltz with Bashir considers the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, is The Fog of War, Errol Morris’s extended conversation with Robert McNamara. And few if any of the films deal with intellectual history. Film history is represented by Los Angeles Plays Itself and Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema (descriptions of the latter film(s) suggest that Godard takes an intellectual-history approach to his topic, but I haven’t seen Histoire(s)).

Consider this an open thread on these issues: What do you make of the Sight & Sound documentary polls and the more muted reaction to it than that received by the 2012 polls? What are your favorite U.S. history and intellectual history documentaries? Are you upset that Ken Burns is absent from both polls (I’m not, for what it’s worth)? Or any other question that the polls raise for you.

9 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I haven’t had a chance to look at the list closely. What fascinates me is that, although it is debatable how much any of these films are “about” history, specifically: many of the directors have readily identifiable styles of making films that might be thought of as philosophies of) history.

    This is particularly true of documentarians like Chris Marker, Werner Herzog, or Errol Morris–Marker and Herzog’s voiceovers are elegant texts on memory, time, the temp of historical change, the politics of truth and lies; Morris is really a philosopher, a one-time student of Kuhn and Kripke (his Rumsfeld movie is really a very philosophical work).

    From these figures to Ken Burns (whose movies I loathe)–what strikes me as interesting is how easy it is to call to mind each artist’s distinctive way of seeing history.

    I know much more, in fact, about Ken Burns’s point of view about what history is, and why it matters, and how it works, than I do about the perspectives of most living historians on the same questions. That’s strange, isn’t it?

  2. This is a wonderful, wonderful post. I can’t really contribute much–my documentary knowledge is, to put it mildly, limited. But I do think this is a great way to consider how documentaries affect historians and their work. I know Burns isn’t on the list, but I remember watching some of the David Blight lectures on youtube, and he mentioned Burns several times as someone that, while he wasn’t arguing against, he was certainly pointing out as having some gaps in his famous “Civil War” miniseries.

    This post also intrigues me in light of viewing the S-USIH conference schedule and noticing a session on media history as intellectual history (as someone who writes a lot about periodicals, I’ll definitely be intrigued by that discussion). Documentaries are a particular form of media which, as Ben noted above, is a natural fit for historians.

  3. “. . .few if any of the films deal with intellectual history. Film history is represented by Los Angeles Plays Itself and Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema (descriptions of the latter film(s) suggest that Godard takes an intellectual-history approach to his topic, but I haven’t seen Histoire(s)).”


    I’m wondering if you could elaborate on what constitutes a film that “deal[s] with intellectual history”?

    Do you mean documentaries that trace the life and times of a typical intellectual covered in academia (say, Charlotte Perkins Gilman or William James), or do you mean films that cover intellectual concepts, such as pragmatism or feminism , through a documentary –style format that invokes the idea it’s trying to address (such as a “pragmatic” exploration of a non-fictional topic via a pragmatic approach to mise-en-scene)?

    One of the few books I’ve come across is Ray Carney’s The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies,” but it sounds like you’re asking about films that are covering actual historical figures and events.


    • Well, when I wrote that I didn’t have anything in particular in mind. But if you ask me to come up with a list of documentaries that deal, in one way or another. with intellectual history, the four things that come to mind first are: Adam Curtis’s The Century of the Self, the Dutch-produced tv series A Glorious Accident, the BBC series Connections, and David Barison and Daniel Ross’s The Ister. These are all very different from each other. The first three are tv series (the S&S list includes some made-for-tv films and two series).

      The only one of them I wholeheartedly like is The Ister, which uses Heidegger’s lecture on Hölderlin’s “The Ister” and a trip up the Danube (which is the subject of Hölderlin’s poem) as jumping off points for an exploration of Continental philosophy. I’m not sure it belongs in a list of the top 50 docs, but it’s very good.

      The other three are all, in one way or another, flawed, but interesting. And all have a very different relationship to intellectual history. The Century of the Self explores the social and cultural influence of Freudian psychoanalysis — and Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays’s use of psychological techniques. Curtis’s stuff is very compelling but also often pretty wrong (I’ve only watched a little of The Century of the Self, I know The Power of Nightmares better). And I think he’s done other documentaries that explore ideas in history.

      Connections is really focused on history of science. It’s breezy, a lot of fun, but perhaps superficial.

      A Glorious Accident is a hot mess. Its quality varies a lot from episode to episode. But at its best (e.g. Freeman Dyson discussing doing operational research for the RAF’s Bomber Command during WWII) it’s very good.

      • Astra Taylor’s two documentaries, Zizek! and Examined Life could also be regarded as doing intellectual history, and there’s a pretty good doc about Jacques Derrida.

      • Thanks for the list. I’ve used Curtis’s program when I was teaching at a community college. I found it helps stimulate conversation after students view it.

        I was just curious how fluid the boundaries are between documentaries that cover “intellectual history” and those that construct non-intellectual artifacts. I didn’t know if, in the world of film studies, there is an established line of demarcation regarding this topic (as opposed to the definitions found in U.S. cultural and intellectual history).

        It seems like most documentaries are based around events/people/concepts that directors/writers find stimulating (enough to undertake the project in the first place).

  4. Thanks so much, Ben, for pointing out these lists! The questions you raise are very important, especially with regard to the seemingly greater amount of cinematic space that documentaries seem to be taking up now: I think you are absolutely right about this new poll being a kind of milestone.

    The question of how these docs relate to history is also really fruitful, though I see quite a lot of them focusing on what might be considered an even more basic concept: causality. So many of these docs, I feel, are about establishing the conditions under which causality–or, in personal terms, responsibility or guilt–can be stably assigned (or if it can be). Errol Morris’s docs are certainly the most direct approach to this question, but you also have so many films here which are similarly drawn to a sort of prosecutorial disposition, bent on finding the responsible parties (or bent on problematizing the question of responsibility). Was it Timothy Treadwell’s fault he was killed by bears, or was it an impulse he could not control (Grizzly Man)? Was GM responsible for Flint’s collapse, or was it merely responding to overwhelming economic imperatives (Roger & Me)? Is the filmmaker responsible for optical illusions, or is it your own brain (The Man with a Movie Camera)? and so on. On the other hand, there seems to be a very different impulse toward ethnographic documentation, which is interested less in establishing causality than in recording actuality (e.g., Nanook). It seems to me that Ken Burns might be thought of as more of the latter kind of documentarian.

    I have, unfortunately, not seen a lot of the titles on these lists, so perhaps this interpretation is due more to the selectivity of the docs I have seen rather than anything intrinsic to the form or history of documentary filmmaking, but I figure I’d throw it out there anyhow. Looks like I’ve got a lot of films to see!

    • In perhaps surprising ways, I thought another really interesting exploration of causality & culture, modernity, etc. was the 2007 documentary “Helvetica.” Yes, a documentary about a typeface! I always thought it would be interesting to show in a twentieth-century survey course.

  5. Great post and ensuing discussion. I don’t have much to add but to point to two documentaries that are explicitly about US intellectual history because they are about US intellectuals. I don’t think these films are in any way stylistically on par with anything by Errol Morris or the others on this list, but I found them fascinating due to the subjects:

    Joseph Dorman, “Arguing the World” (1998), about the New York Intellectuals, specifically Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer, and Irving Kristol.

    Jonathan Lee, “Paul Goodman Changed My Life” (2011)–the title speaks for the topic.

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