Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne


A few lingering thoughts on ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘Vertigo,’ and the Sight & Sound list results.

Posted by Max Lalanne on August 5, 2012


I had a few days to think about the longterm ramifications (if there are any) of the results of the once-in-a-decade Sight & Sound poll, announced last Wednesday. The whole Vertigo-beating-Citizen Kane thing, anyway. I mainly thought about these two champions, because if you start looking at the rest of the list you say, “Why am I even bothering writing about some snobby poll results three days later if they didn’t even include The Godfather, certainly belonging up there with the biggies, in the top ten?” But I digress. Actually, I don’t. Does this list even count beyond a closed circle of film critics, scholars, and historians? We all agree – Citizen Kane and Vertigo and all the others are fantastic, brilliant, wonderful films, and arranging, numbering, and arguing over them is like one of the best exercises in futility. But our collective adoration for the art of cinema makes it impossible not to pore over a simple list of films. I love it.

To tell you the truth and to momentarily delve into the ongoing debate, Citizen Kane will always remain in my mind the “greatest” film of all time, with simply technical and storytelling excellence which remains unparalleled more than 70 years later. It’s not my favorite film (that spot is currently occupied by Dr. Strangelove) but it is the “greatest” cinematic achievement as of yet. You may have noticed I put “greatest” within quotes, because what really does “greatest” mean? Since you ask…

As a qualification of what ‘greatest’ means, our invitation letter stated, “We leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.” (Nick James, BFI’s Sight & Sound magazine)

There you go. Even that is open to interpretation. I’m not here to criticize Vertigo, but I should mention that it remains, I admit, not exactly crystal clear in my movie-watching memory. Even a little hazy at times, and the pacing a little slower than I would’ve liked. I should rewatch it, certainly. But at the time it didn’t strike me as being a slamdunk of a film, or necessarily greater than Hitchcock’s inarguable true masterpiece, Rear Window – why didn’t that film place anywhere in the top ten? Why wasn’t that glorious film competing against Citizen Kane and correctly representing Hitchcock instead of its slightly lesser counterpart?

In a certain roundabout way, Citizen Kane and its most fervent admirers should breathe a sigh of relief now that there’s no longer the “Greatest Film of All Time!” byline automatically attached whenever you think of the film. Think about it this way – when was the last time you watched Citizen Kane because, hey, it’s a terrific movie to watch over the weekend and I truly love this film? Unless you’re a really dedicated cinephile (and I salute you), it’s safe to say most of the movie-going majority saw it in a film history/studies/analysis class in college or the like, or rented the DVD one day because, hey, it’s the greatest film of all time and I have watch it at least once. And then talk about about it, which for example would end up like this discussion…

“Hey, what did you watch?”
Citizen Kane.”
“Oh wow, do you really think it’s the greatest film of all time?”
“Not really. I don’t understand all the fuss about it.”
“I should watch it myself and see.”
“Yeah, probably.”

And that’s that (of course, it can go the opposite way too). For maybe 70 percent of people, it ends up being a quick “I don’t/do think that Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time” sentence thrown out there instead of a frank or at least normal appreciation of what this marvelous piece of cinema has to offer us – because that’s what jumps to mind, this extremely high perception of a film that might just diminish those of others. What I’m also trying to say here, and it’s somewhat related,  is that it has become “cool” to automatically bash Citizen Kane because it has been called the “Greatest Film of All Time!” by, yes, a bunch of snobby film experts. That’s pretty sad right there.. Of course, there are people who simply don’t like Citizen Kane, and express so legitimately with a good, solid argument. That’s fine by me.

Am I going out on a limb here if I say that I think the “Greatest Film of All Time!” honor is in fact as much of an honor as an slow, debillitating curse when it only comes to, mind you, the popular mass opinion who don’t know any better? And now, the pressure falls on Vertigo, which, at least for the next ten years until the poll comes around again, will certainly have more articles criticizing it than it did before Thursday. All new inductees to the film will have to see if it stacks up to their interpretation of being the “greatest” of all time, and if it doesn’t…well, it’s not like they’ll like it less, of course, but if they are at least budding cinephiles the Sight & Sound list results will have some minor sway over their opinion. They’ll be thinking about it both before watching Vertigo and after, at least. But hopefully, they won’t be thinking about it with Citizen Kane.

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