Raggin’ on Rosebud
I happen to think the How Green [Was My Valley] is one of the very greatest American films. Probably no Best Picture winner in the history of the Oscars has been a more fitting recipient of that award. Why lump it in with Shakespeare in Love?! (I think you know what’s coming.)…
I’m going to be heretical and say that How Green [Was My Valley] deserved to win over Kane [for 1941's Best Picture Oscar]….
For years Kane has been sitting atop many lists of the greatest films of all times, including polls of professional film critics. The notion that Kane really is the greatest film of all time has become so engrained that people seem seldom to question it. Back when that idea arose, critics were unaware of the films of Yasujiro Ozu, probably the world’s greatest film director to date. Play Time was for years ignored and only recently has begun to be recognized for the masterpiece it is. With the rise of film restoration in the 1970s and the spread of film festivals and retrospectives, we now know vastly more about world cinema than we did before. Yet Kane has settled into its top slot for many people, including entertainment journalists. I can think of many films I would rank above Kane. (Source.)
That’s not me saying that; it’s film critic Kristin Thompson writing on the blog she shares with her husband, David Bordwell, Observations on film art and FILM ART. For those who are familiar with her and Bordwell’s writings, the opinion expressed above is not unfamiliar. They’ve been dissing Kane while promoting the likes of Ozu and Play Time for as long as I’ve been reading their books. However, is it really true that “the notion that Kane really is the greatest film of all time has become so engrained that people seem seldom to question it?” Of all the people that I know, and all the people that I’ve known, I can think of no one who sincerely thinks or thought that Citizen Kane was “the greatest film of all time.” (It’s currently #39 on the IMDB list.) And I went to film school. If hardly anyone likes Citizen Kane that much, why do we have this notion that nearly everyone thinks it’s the best? The answer, of course, is obvious: it’s topped the once a decade Sight & Sound poll since 1962. But if we look closer at those polls, we might come away with a different notion.
The stats for the last poll, published in 2002, are available online. In fact, the magazine did two polls, one for critics; one for film directors. Of the 145 critics lists posted, 46 of them include Citizen Kane. In other words, just 31% of those polled mentioned Kane. Of the 108 film director lists posted, 42 mention Kane. That’s 39%. Last time I checked, neither 31% nor 39% constituted a majority. A majority of critics, 69%, and a majority of film directors, 61%, disagree that Kane is the best, but unable to agree on a single best film.
So later this year when Sight & Sound most likely will be publishing the results of its 2012 poll and Citizen Kane most likely once again tops the list, we should realize that Thompson, despite presenting herself as some kind of maverick in dissing Kane, will actually be part of the large majority that will disagree with Kane‘s rank. Perhaps we should come up with a phrase describing this phenomenon whereby a minority’s selection is promoted as if it’s the pick of the majority. Why not call it the “Tyranny of the Minority?”
For what it’s worth, I happen to be in the minority.
Sight & Sound‘s 2012 poll results have been published. Vertigo tops the list with an even lower percentage of the total than Kane did in 2002 (31%; 46/145 for Kane in 2002 vs 22.5%; 91/846) for Vertigo in 2012. )Once again, hardly a consensus (most common comment will be: “Vertigo is not the greatest film. Not even close.”), and the trend is towards not greater, but less consensus. If the trend continues, in the near future the difference in votes separating the top and bottom films will be next to nil. But this is lost on most. All they see is a headline saying that film critics have voted for Vertigo as the greatest film of all time. One blogger reacted by writing, “the majority of critics are backing a new horse.” Sorry. 22.5% may be a plurality, but it is far from a majority when more than 75% disagree.
The essay by Ian Christie, on the poll results, begins with “And the loser is – Citizen Kane. After 50 years at the top of the Sight & Sound poll, Orson Welles’s debut film has been convincingly ousted by Alfred Hitchcock’s 45th feature Vertigo – and by a whopping 34 votes, compared with the mere five that separated them a decade ago.”
This ignores something that a lot of people seem to be ignoring: due to a change in definition of who should be polled, the number of participants increased substantially from 2002 to 2012: 145 to 846. This itself makes comparing the new poll with previous polls problematic. In any case, comparing the margin of victory in terms of absolute number of votes would make sense only if the total number of votes was the same. This was not the case. What is true is that Kane beat Vertigo in 2002 by 5 votes, which was 5/145 or 3%. Vertigo‘s 34 vote margin equals 34/846 or 4%, which, of course, is only a slightly wider margin than #3%.
Of course, it’s obvious that some poll participants did not take the task very seriously. For example, does Ken Hollings really think Plan 9 from Outer Space belongs on a list with Metropolis and 2001, two of his other picks? More likely he was being willfully perverse, as were many others. Who knows what the results would have been if such perversity had been left out of the list gathering?
Some have criticized the poll from the opposite POV. When they see films such as Man With a Movie Camera, Passion of Joan of Arc, and Sunrise place in the top 10, they suspect fraud at the polls. That is, they don’t believe the voters voted with their hearts. Rather, they voted the way they felt they should vote. Who could truly love a movie such as these three dusty, out dated silent movies? The proof they cite is the dearth of references to any of these films during their daily journey.
I’m tempted to dismiss this thinking as idiotic. For one, it ignores the fact that only 11% voted for Sunrise, and only 8% for the other two. It sounds like little more than the view of someone who cannot understand that different people like different things. Like my son, who is upset when his parents do not share his enthusiasms, which include Green Lantern and Tron.
But let’s take this view seriously. Should people who like these movies be talking about them all the time? Even some of the time? My ten favorite films include six of the titles in the top 10. I count both Man With a Movie Camera and Joan of Arc among my favorites. But if I were to talk about them all the time, I would wake up one day to find myself alone with myself. Talking about your favorite anything too much is a sure way to label yourself a bore. The same holds for blog or essay writers. No one wants to hear someone talk about the same things over and over.
However, it’s wrong to think that people don’t talk about these films. There have been whole books written about most of the films people seem to have the most doubts about. For example, here are two about Man With a Movie Camera, Constructivism in Film – A Cinematic Analysis: The Man with the Movie Camera by Vlada Petrić and The Man With the Movie Camera: The Film Companion by Graham Roberts. There’s too much out there for anyone to know everything, but it’s ultimately if the curiosity is there, you will find it. If it isn’t, you won’t.
But there’s an even greater reason why we don’t talk much about our favorites. In fact, there are many people who never even bother to come up with a list of their favorites. Why? Because we’re more concerned with the latest and greatest. What are the new releases? Our society, our economy, is based on the new. Most sales are made on new stuff, not yesterday’s models. Remakes almost always receive more notice than reissues.
I need to reiterate what I started with: the Sight & Sound poll is not based on a consensus. The low percentage of votes received by the top rated films is a guarantee that the majority of responses will be along the lines of, “They must be crazy! Those are not even close to my list of greatest films.” Given this fact, that the list is the result of minority opinion, the responses which question the validity of the list are 100% predictable. I wonder if the list is not a bit subversive, given its emphasis on older movies in a society which is based on the idea of progress, that is, the newest product is always better than the older product. This applies to movies just as much as anything else. It’s also true that most movie lovers do not think of these films when they think of movies. They are too concerned with the newer films than to bother watching old, creaky, often black and white movies from the inferior past. This is why this list is so interesting. It completely undermines the belief that we are always doing things better today than yesterday. It may even be depressing for some, especially those who work in the industry. Do they wake in the middle of the night wondering if their work has any value whatsoever beyond their paychecks?
1. Despite Welles (aka The Kenosha Kid, at least in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow) famously saying “I prefer the old masters; by which I mean: John Ford, John Ford and John Ford,” which Thompson cites in her post, Welles’ list of top 10 favorite films that he submitted for the first Sight & Sound poll in 1952 only includes Ford’s Stagecoach, which Welles said he watched dozens of times in preparation for Kane:
#1 City Lights (directed by Charles Chaplin)
#2 Greed (directed by Erich von Stroheim)
#3 Intolerance (directed by D. W. Griffith)
#4 Nanook of the North (directed by Robert Flaherty)
#5 Shoe Shine (directed by Vittorio De Sica)
#6 Battleship Potemkin (directed by Sergei Eisenstein)
#7 La Femme du Boulanger (directed by Marcel Pagnol)
#8 Grand Illusion (directed by Jean Renoir)
#9 Stagecoach (directed by John Ford)
#10 Our Daily Bread (directed by King Vidor)
2. Speaking of David Bordwell, here’s are some quotes about his critical approach from Daniel Frampton’s Filmosophy:
But for Bordwell, the ultimate self-conscious narration (sometimes serving up hardly any story) is “parametric” narration: style-centered, permutational, poetic. …These kinds of films are open rich texts, with mutliple layers of signifiers which almost resist interpretation – and for Bordwell the concept of parametric narration allows us to acknowledge the rich nature of these films. That is, by understanding the genre of parametric narration Bordwell believes we can better appreciate these kinds of film – but in analyzing typical art-cinema or parametric narratives Bordwell only seems to want to rationalize them. Radical cinema is reduced to principles, systems, all towards trying to bring articstic cinema into the rational fold of classic cinema. Again Bordwell classifies according to a diversion from the norm. Parametric also means “not just metric,” not classically simple, just more than simple! How low-impact can you get, how…boring …. (my emphasis; Filmosophy pages 104-5)
Cognitivists would say that a filmgoer’s principal pleasure is derived from problem-solving, from the nerdy “interest” they have in working out the film. The filmgoer’s main emotional engagement with narrative film is that of “interest;” we are simply in a state of “action readiness” towards the stimuli of film. Yet reading Bordwell making sense of La Guerre est finie is quite strange, in that he seems set on reducing Resnais’ film to literality; working it out in order to gain relief from its willful strangeness (and perhaps win a prize for solving the film). (p. 108)
[Bordwell's] resistance to interpretation in Narration in the Fiction Film is not just a holding back in order to theorize more clearly, but indicates a lack to the system he sets out. Working out a genre of parametric narratives does little for our experience and interpretation of film. We may “understand” these kinds of films better — understand their structures and modes — but this is a limited and limiting kind of “understanding.” Bordwell’s clarifying ambitions dull these films. They become puzzles to be set straight, mazes to be spoiled by leading you through them: problems to be solved. (p. 109)
This begs the question: are films redundant once we have “understood” them? Why would we want to go back? Are films really puzzles to be solved? As [Robert] Stam [in Film Theory] observes: “Why do we go to films? Is it to make inferences and test hypotheses?” … It seems obvious that we do not always go to the cinema simply to “work out” what is going on in the film. (p. 109)