'Vertigo' over 'Citizen Kane'? Why the new Sight and Sound critics' poll is full of itself
Whenever movies get ranked and organized into lists (the five greatest screwball comedies! the 10 best films of 2007! the 100 greatest movies of all time!), those lists, almost by design, are meant to be fought with, argued over, and competed with. In the Internet era, you don’t even have to argue in a vacuum — you just concoct, and publish, your own list. The whole noisy debate that gets triggered by movie lists is a big part of why they’re fun, and maybe why they matter the little bit that they do. It’s also why they tend to evaporate from memory. Once all the smoke and rubble of the film-buff infighting has cleared, who can even remember who said what? More than ever, movie lists reinforce a defining aspect of our age — the sheer clutter of opinion.
Yet the Sight & Sound critics’ poll, which comes out once a decade in the London-based cinema-culture magazine published by the British Film Institute (and has since the poll’s inception, in 1952), may be a different story. A roster of the 50 greatest movies of all time, ranked in meticulous order, it represents the collective opinion of film critics from around the world, and it’s assembled and presented with a deep, abiding solemnity of purpose. The Sight & Sound poll isn’t just a momentary temperature taking. It’s an attempt — one of the only ones left — to rank and codify and present “the canon,” the films that our most respected thinkers about film believe will, and should, live on. If any critical list can still mean something, it’s the Sight & Sound poll. And this year’s list, the first in 60 years in which Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was not voted the greatest film of all time (that honor, instead, went to Hitchcock’s Vertigo), certainly does mean something. What I think it means is that a lot of critics, probably too many, have begun to abandon the role of enlightened populist and to think, instead, like fanboy versions of academics. For I have no problem at all making the following two pronouncements about Vertigo: It’s a movie that I adore, and have since I first saw it in 1984; and choosing it as the greatest movie of all time is more than a little bit absurd.
Let’s consider its ascension, for a moment, from the point of view of those who voted for it. When I first became a film freak, in the mid-’70s, the Hollywood studio system already seemed like it had ended a thousand years ago — but Citizen Kane, the most celebrated movie of the sound era, was only about 35 years old. Pauline Kael, in her controversial two-part New Yorker essay on the film, observed that “Citizen Kane is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened.” And that freshness, that zing that every moment of Kane gives you, is the key to its magic. Brooding yet exhilarating, darkly epic yet light-fingered, it’s an eternal toy box of a movie. That’s why it’s the film that kicked open the door for every radical-individualist director since. What the 25-year-old Orson Welles did in Citizen Kane is to bottle, for all time, the essence of filmmaking invention and joy. That’s why it will always be, to me, the greatest movie ever made.
Yet Kane is now more than 70 years old, and I do understand, from the vantage of those who are younger, how it might look today like a movie from another world: the tale of an iron-willed newspaper baron of a century ago, a journalistic era so removed from our own as to seem like it has nothing left to do with us. (In the ’70s and ’80s and even ’90s, of course, newspapers still ruled.) Charles Foster Kane, the fallen-idealist publisher based not so loosely on William Randolph Hearst, and played by Welles as a spectacularly debonair, self-glorifying, and self-sabotaging hero/tyrant/victim/lout, spends the movie locked in an escalating war with his own ego — and that battle, too, may now seem to hail from a distant era, a more towering and centralized and patriarchal one (though if you read between the lines of the news today, you’ll see that nothing has really changed; if anything, what’s changed is that today’s Hearsts aren’t celebrities — they’re the twisted power brokers you have to squint to see). In my book, for a movie to be the greatest of all time, it can’t be a monument. It has to be a movie that you feel close to. And I acknowledge that for a lot of people, it’s probably harder than it once was to feel close to Citizen Kane. Another point, and not a minor one: I’ve never felt that Kane works all that well on the small screen. That’s no insult to the film (if anything, it testifies to the visual-emotional grandeur of its DNA), but it does mean that Kane, for anyone who has watched it on DVD recently, may seem a movie…reduced.
Whereas Vertigo is a movie that’s only loomed larger as time has gone on. I don’t think it’s Hitchcock’s greatest film (to me, that’s Psycho, followed by Notorious and Rear Window), but Vertigo is arguably Hitchcock’s most radical film, which is probably why it wasn’t a great success when it came out in 1958. What it looked ahead to is the trancelike erotic perversity and passion of the entire post-’60s era. James Stewart’s Scottie, a retired San Francisco detective who is hired to follow Kim Novak’s morosely enticing mystery woman, only to fall in love with her, only to see her die, only to see her “re-appear” as a different woman, who seems like she must be the same woman…Scottie is haunted, even crushed, by the madness of his desires in a way that no Hollywood hero of the time was allowed to be. In the film’s most powerful sequence, he gives Novak a makeover, changing her hair, her makeup, her clothes, until she emerges as the image of the woman he loved. His compulsion to touch that love through the precise details of how she looks (the gray suit, the blonde swirl), and through forcing her to look that way, makes Vertigo a study in fetishism and the inner luridness of romantic tragedy. It’s not just a movie, it’s a swooning dream-poem of the male mind.
Yet it is also top-heavy with a sense of its own themes. The mystery of identity, the mask of feminine allure (one of my favorite Norman Mailer quotes: “A woman who chooses to be blonde is truly blonde”), the stretchiness of time, the obsessiveness of real love, the way that Scottie’s vertigo — his fear of falling — is really a primal anxiety about giving in to sexual abandon: With all of this going on in Vertigo, the film hardly needs anyone to mount a major thesis about it. The movie is already its own thesis. Yet in the years since Robin Wood wrote his superb (I would argue definitive) study of Vertigo, published in his 1965 book Hitchcock’s Films, the movie has been put on the couch, squeezed through the wringer of more solemn analytical deep-think than it can bear. What upper-brow film writers cherish about Vertigo is that the film’s plot doesn’t just progress, it more or less unravels — and so it seems to be the one classic Hollywood movie that is desconstructing itself as it goes along. And that’s why the critical desconstruction it has been subjected to has come to seem, over time, such an integral part of what the movie is. Yes, Vertigo is a haunting film, but it’s also a highly idiosyncratic and languidly overdetermined one. I don’t buy the notion that the film’s final shot (a desperate James Stewart standing on the balcony of the Mission San Juan Bautista bell-tower chapel, his hands lowering in a slow swoon of despair) is the Greatest Image Of Romantic Loss In Movie History, or anything like that. To me, it’s an overly abrupt and borderline unsatisfying ending; it’s too consciously “poetic” — which Hitchcock, at his greatest, never was. But just as Stewart’s Scottie made over Kim Novak, critics have made over Vertigo into a lofty sublime canto that they gaze at and fall in love with because they can see, in the heady mirror of its interlocking love-sick enigmas, a glimpse of themselves.
As much as I disagree with the elevation of Vertigo over Citizen Kane, I certainly think that if Kane was going to be dethroned in the Sight & Sound poll, then Vertigo counts as a provocative alternative that one can at least make a case for. Yet to understand what a cult-like influence the movie has exerted over critics, there’s another film in the Sight & Sound poll that is actually more revealing. At the #28 spot, there sits Mulholland Drive, David Lynch’s Hollywood Babylon thriller fantasia. It’s a film that I like, but have never been nearly as big a fan of as a lot of critics. Yet my real issue with this choice — the reason I think it is so wrongheaded, and so revealing in its wrongness — comes down to a question that is very simple and concrete: Where, oh where, is Blue Velvet? How could that movie not have made the list, and Mulholland Drive, essentially sitting in for it, have made it instead? Blue Velvet, one of the signature films of the last 30 years, is David Lynch’s greatest work, and the one that has struck the most resonant chord in our culture. And among the many reasons that Mulholland Drive is a vastly lesser work is that it draws, so slavishly, upon Blue Velvet, recycling, to a far less forceful effect, too many of that film’s moods, gambits, images, and motifs. (That’s Isabella Rossellini, left, in Blue Velvet, and Melissa George, right, in Mulholland Drive.)
Yet Lynch, who was profoundly influenced by Vertigo (and also by Kenneth Anger), upped the ante on the most stylized, formalist side of what Hitchcock brought off in Vertigo when he transformed the plot of Mulholland Drive into a labyrinth that you enter without quite coming out of. The twisting and undermining of narrative is, to me, a cinematic ploy of diminishing returns. Yet it’s one that a critical establishment addicted to the one-hand-clapping thrill of deconstruction now reveres. There’s even a trendy leftist bias to it: In the blockbuster franchise era, straightforward storytelling is seen in some quarters as a tool of the corporation — a way to keep the public narcotized. Whereas a movie that dares to pull the rug out from under its own storyline is a fearless act of art that is “showing you a new way of seeing.” (In truth, it’s probably showing you a new way of looking at your watch in the dark.) It’s according to this way of thinking that Lynch’s three-hour-long Eraserhead-meets-public-access avant dud Inland Empire is a masterpiece — and Mulholland Drive, with its pretzel-logic hermetic dream games, is a superior movie to the visionary yet lushly comprehensible Blue Velvet. But then, maybe that’s why the new Sight & Sound poll gives me a touch of vertigo. When I look at the choices on this list, I feel as if it’s critics who are losing their grip on the popular imagination. And, as a result, are falling.
So do you agree with me — that Vertigo is a great movie that has no business being called the greatest movie ever made? Or do you think that it’s earned that place? Are you a Kane believer? Or is there another movie you would choose as number one? (If you say The Shawshank Redemption, I will either commit seppuku or delete your comment.)
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman