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I’ve received a lot of emails on my post about Why 3D Does Not Work. Many agree, but some others seem to have problems with it.

For those left scratching their heads, here are five simple points:

  1. The 3D object exists on a 2D plane. There is no weight to this 3D object. It’s paper-thin.
  2. 3D effects draw attention to themselves and take us out of the film experience, distracting us from the narrative.
  3. 3D can cause a loss of sharpness to the image. Particularly in fast-paced sequences images can become blurred, losing clarity and resolution.
  4. Our eyes adjust quickly to 3D. We most likely will notice 3D effects at the start of a film but not at the end. If we’re not actually noticing it, it might as well be 2D, because:
  5. The ‘2D’ image already has an incredible depth that is totally convincing. It’s part of the reason why both photography and film have remained so powerful to this very day.

In 3D individual, isolated spectacles are most effective, for example a bubble leaving the screen and heading towards you, a fish swimming out from the ocean or a secret passageway extending deep into the screen.

3D is most effective as a novelty, not as a sustained visual system throughout a feature film. And there has not yet been a film to prove otherwise.

Photograph (US, J. R. Eyerman, 1952) of an audience at Bwana Devil. Originally published in Life Magazine, hosted by and co. of Google.

I was recently asked by the BBC to comment on whether Avatar would herald in a new revolutionary kind of cinema, and whether its CGI and 3D effects meant that it would be far more immersive and spectacular than anything we’d ever seen before. It’s a shame they asked me before the film had actually been released. On the radio I warned: ‘Don’t believe the hype’ and that turned out to be pretty much the case, except I wasn’t prepared for how bored I would be.

Here’s the real problem with 3D. The 3D plane that detaches itself from the screen and heads towards you is itself 2-dimensional, creating an effect that is explicitly artificial. Yet as the 3D effects continue our eyes adjust and we no longer notice it, as was the case in Coraline, Up and Avatar. 3D has to draw attention to itself to be noticed but by doing so distracts you from the film itself.

3D cinema breaks the primal illusion of cinema, that a flat image can appear to have depth. 3D suits its status as a novelty for good reason. It’s 2D cinema that’s the truly immersive experience.

Originally published at A Year in the Dark

Citizen Kane holds the weight of cinema on its shoulders. Often cited as ‘The Greatest Film of All-Time’, the film maintains an unusual place in film history. This post attempts to outline one particular way in which the film gained its unique reputation.

The accolade in fact refers to the Sight & Sound poll taken every ten years. Kane took the top spot in 1962 and has not budged in over 40 years. In 1952 it was De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves that came out on top and at that point Kane did not even feature.

Although critics were enthusiastic about the film on its release in 1941, Kane was not a particular success with audiences. It had become partly-notorious for an attempt to suppress its release by William Randolph Hearst, the tycoon who took offence at the parallels between Kane’s life and his own. The film did however gain several major Oscar nominations alongside other key titles of the year such as How Green Was My Valley, The Little Foxes and The Maltese Falcon, claiming one win for Best Screenplay.

So something clearly changed between 1941 and 1962 for Kane to be selected as the pinnacle of all cinema. This shift can perhaps be pinpointed to post-war France where all the American films that had been prevented entry during the war suddenly flooded its screens. So its audiences were experiencing Hollywood cinema of the early 1940s in a condensed period of time, an experience that clearly had an effect on many of its young viewers. When the French magazines Cahiers du cinéma celebrated popular Hollywood cinema throughout the 1950s it was perceived as a strange affectation by other contemporary European film magazines such as Britain’s Sight & Sound.

However, when these very critics, such as Truffaut and Godard went on to spearhead the nouvelle vague in 1960, their films became praised as milestones in contemporary cinema. This therefore posed problems for Sight & Sound critics who were enamoured by the films of the nouvelle vague yet against the popular Hollywood cinema that the New Wave filmmakers celebrated.

‘The French Line’, a 1960 Sight & Sound article, took a look at the ten-best lists published by Cahiers du cinéma. They were pleased to find revered titles as Ivan the Terrible (1944), Les Quatres-Cents Coup (1959) and Wild Strawberries (1957), but were very surprised (and dismayed) to find titles such as Rio Bravo (1959), Run of the Arrow (1957), Wind Across the Everglades (1958) and Vertigo (1958). The author wrote, ‘One’s first reaction might be to conclude that these men must be very foolish’ [1] but based on the evidence of their films found it was hard for the writer to accept Resnais, Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard as fools.

Classical Hollywood cinema was therefore being reassessed in the 1960s and indeed many of our contemporary perceptions of cinema were cemented at that time. It was also a period during which the reputations of Hollywood figures were being reconstructed. For example Humphrey Bogart became a romantic cult hero for young movie fans – as reflected in Jean-Paul Belmondo’s adoration of Bogart in A Bout de Souffle – and retrospectives of Buster Keaton’s films elevated him out of the shadows as a master of cinema. Similarly Orson Welles became seen as a crucial cinematic icon.

One of the defining characteristics of Orson Welles’s cinema is a struggle for control. Indeed a great number of Welles’ films were taken out of his hands and re-edited (or chopped up), including The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady From Shanghai (1947), Othello (1952), Mr. Arkadin (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958). Then there were all those projects that never made it, either unfinished or doomed from the start, such as It’s All True (circa 1943), Don Quixote (circa 1955) and The Other Side of the Wind (circa 1972). [2]

In Welles’ persistence to make films in the face of resistance from studios and financiers he became an inspirational hero for filmmakers and cinephiles, his cinema ingrained with a message of never giving up for cinema’s cause.

Critics and cinephiles believed Welles to have been greatly misunderstood and mistreated by a Hollywood who could not see the brilliance in his work that was so clear to them. Welles’ tragic fall from grace and his role as an underdog against the system only heightened adoration for him. He became seen as a neglected ‘genius’ whose opportunity to flourish had been crushed by a system so clearly against originality.  And it was Citizen Kane that defined this tragedy, becoming the iconic film that represented much more than the film itself.

The Sight & Sound poll reflects this shift and in 1962 we find the point at which Citizen Kane cemented an extraordinary reputation.

 

Notes

[1] Richard Roud, ‘The French Line’, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1960 p.167.

[2] For more information on this see the illuminating documentary The Lost Films of Orson Welles (Germany/France/Sweden, dir: Vassili Silovic, 1995) which includes many clips from both unfinished films and curiosities.


James Stewart has his own perspective in Rear Window

Short-Term Memories

If the internet was your only source of film information, you would be led to believe that the only films that exist are those in production, upcoming or currently on release. Visit the pages of sites such as Cinematical.com, Rope of Silicon and Empire Online and here are the kinds of questions being posed: ‘Is a Good Videogame Adaptation Possible?’ or ‘Does Speed Racer Miss the Mark With Kids?

Fine, these are popular sites concerned with popular cinema. Yet these sites not only have huge readerships, their articles are also circulated around the internet via an ever-complex network of links. These can take the form of news aggregators, fan blogs, message boards, and other large-scale film sites. The problem is that these articles swamp the internet and circulate limited perspectives on film history.

My concern is with how these sites deal with, question and write about film history. The short answer is that many of them do not write explicitly about film history. That in itself is quite telling of an apathy towards looking at older cinema and where today’s films have come from. Then there are history articles, but in many cases they seem limited in how far back they are prepared to go.

I want to point out one article I came across entitled ‘The Greatest Five Seconds in Movie History’ which is just one of hundreds that could be discussed here. The title itself is similar to many others online that use attention-grabbing terms such as ‘The Greatest’, ‘In History’, and ‘All-Time’. It turns out that these five seconds are to be found in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) when Darth Vadar reveals to Luke Skywalker, ‘I am your father’.

On the effects of the original Star Wars (1977) on audiences, the author writes: ‘Republicans and Democrats sat side by side, mouths agape, in like wonderment during the cantina scene. A Jew and a Muslim were both enthralled by the awesome sight and voice of Darth Vader. Young people and old gripped their chairs on the roller-coaster ride culminating in the exhilarating destruction of the Death Star…STAR WARS had, in effect, engendered a cinematic community that wasn’t bound by borders or ideologies or even culture.’

On the basis of this article it would seem as though world peace had briefly been solved in 1977. The author suggests that: ‘That sentence changed movies and by extension, America, forever.’

If The Empire Strikes Back were such an international hit, why would it only change America and not other parts of the world? This points to the dominating American perspective on cinema to be found on the internet, but this can also clearly be found in printed film histories.

The ‘All-Time’ of the title is quickly discovered to be mere hyperbole. Instead we find a lack of perspective where the idea of All-Time hits the 1970s and stops abruptly.

Empire Online is the online extension of the British magazine that I used to read when I was younger. I distinctly remember articles on The Godfather (1972), Scorsese and Star Wars. Its retrospective articles would often largely point to the 1970s and that seemed to be the limit of its memory. Needless to say may of its writers grew up during that period, which seemed to fuel the hyper coverage of the Star Wars films on re-release.

But then again Empire is a magazine for the public and articles on older cinema do not sell. It also is manipulated by the industry: when five stars are awarded to the big Summer films, you can’t help but suspect that this is merely an extension of studio marketing.

There are certain topics that sell well online: comic book films, superheros, video game adaptations, and movie lists (Top 10 Villains, Top 10 Explosions, etc.). These articles get hundreds, if not thousands, of hits a day and a continuous stream of comments. Maybe there is no room for articles on older cinema?

But surely there are many viewers out there who want to know more about all kinds of cinema but just cannot find the resources to do so.

Alternatives

So what are the alternatives? For starters I would head for Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s blog and stay subscribed. Renowned film scholars of works such as Classical Hollywood Cinema and Film History, theirs is perhaps the most insightful film writing online.

Film history is so rich, vast and exciting that it can be frustrating when online writing only deals with a fraction of that period. I often wonder why there isn’t a greater urgency to find out more about what came before. Surely this would give viewers and writers a more mature understanding of the films they see today.

Chaplin in The Circus (1928)

Let’s say someone came to you and said, ‘So, what’s the big deal with all these old movies you keep watching?’ They try to convince you they’re ‘boring’, ‘irrelevant’ and far more hard work than a quick visit to the multiplex. Some may even try to convince you that you don’t actually like them, you only think you do.

There are many ways to combat these statements (perhaps I’ll go into detail another time). For now I will suggest a few movies you should pile into their arms and send them away with (kick optional). First off:

The Circus (U.S., Charlie Chaplin, 1928)

During the 1910s Chaplin’s films gained instant popularity and propelled the British-born music hall comedian to world stardom. He became one of the most famous, popular and highly-paid men in the world, as did his famous shadow: the little tramp.

Chaplin was a virtuoso. His visceral performance style fitted the medium of film perfectly. Watching these performances, he is always busy, his face, body and hands constantly occupying themselves with an ever-shifting stream of comic business. His movement could be big – as in a chase – or they could be small – his fingertips delicately removing a cigarette from its case. Often his movements are so subtle, or so quick, that it’s easy to miss them.

One key to Chaplin’s success is the comic contradiction of the tramp. On the one hand he is a refined gentlemen with his hat, cane and delicate gestures, and on the other he is down-and-out. Somehow, from his second film (the brilliant Kid Auto Races at Venice (Keystone, 1914)) Chaplin created a universal everyman for the modern age, a character that was open to interpretation.

His performances are highly stylised, unlike even the other performers in his own films, but also in other films more widely. Unlike others his performance tapped directly into one of the primal forces of cinema: pure spectacle. So there is a pleasure simply to be had from watching the complex movement of this little man, on top of the interpretation of his performance.

One film that Chaplin did not discuss in his autobiography (My Autobiography, 1974) was The Circus (1928). The film has been long overshadowed by his other famous works such as The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1924) but stands as perhaps his most purely comic feature film.

In the film the little tramp becomes involved with a circus. When auditioned, the troupe discover that he does not have the ability to be intentionally funny. Only naturally, and when not trying, is he able to get a laugh. This is tied up with a poignant subplot of unrequited love. Having fallen for the ringmaster’s daughter, the tramp’s feelings go unnoticed. 

The film is punctuated by a series of spectacular set-pieces. The opening finds him being chased by a policeman into a hall of mirrors. Later he finds himself locked into a cage with a real-life lion and finally he ends up on a tightrope being attacked by monkeys. Not only are they incredibly funny, but they are at times jaw-dropping, as when the live lion awakes to find a terrified Chaplin.

A great introduction to Chaplin, to silent cinema, and to classic film more generally, this is an underrated film that is genuinely accessible to any kind of viewer. It is also a great place to start if you’re new to watching old movies.

 

Frank Sinatra and Shelly Winters in Meet Danny Wilson (1951)

I have just returned from one of the first screenings in the Sinatra season, the little-screened 1951 film Meet Danny Wilson (USA, Universal, directed by Joseph Penvey).

In an atmospheric monochrome New York made up of bars, nightclubs, dressing rooms and back alleys, Sinatra’s hustle and swagger gives life to the city around him. He plays cocky, young nightclub singer Danny Wilson. He thinks he’s tough and likes to pick fights, except he always gets beaten. He’s backed by his kindly pianist partner and best friend Mike (Alex Nichol). Having been down-and-out since the end of the war, they are soon offered a job by a local mob boss (Raymond Burr) as long as they give him fifty percent of everything they earn.

Of course since he’s played by Sinatra, Danny has a killer voice. And fortunately he gets many chances to prove it. Singing classic songs such as, ‘That Old Black Magic’, ‘When You’re Smiling’ and ‘All Of Me’ (a particular favourite), Sinatra’s voice is at it’s absolute peak. Whenever Sinatra sings, the story, the characters and the film itself no longer seem to be important. Instead these elements are suspended as we become involved in the pure act of watching Sinatra’s face and listening to his voice: the whole experience becomes solely about him.

The images in this film of Sinatra performing on stage are archetypal of how we have come to know him in this period. Sinatra stands in the spotlight, a grill microphone in front of him, his body taking on postures that have become familiar: a slight arching of his back and cocking of his neck as the delivery of his voice requires. At this stage Sinatra was still very skinny, with his skeletal facial features clearly on show.

One sublime moment finds a depressed and drunk Sinatra in an empty bar room, head down on the bar. A girl, not knowing he’s there, puts a coin in the jukebox, only for it to begin to play Danny’s own recording: ‘When You’re Smiling’.

The plot follows the lead of Sinatra’s own career: a pop sensation followed by a Hollywood career, and is partly interesting for that clear parallel. (Indeed this was the format taken on by many a rock movie. Elvis would take an identical path in Jailhouse Rock.) One scene finds the popular Danny on-stage, the victim of a crowd of screaming and hysterical girls. Recalling the reception of Elvis later that decade, this scene debunks the persistent myth that the teenager (especially the screaming female fanatic kind) was ‘invented’ the day Elvis walked out on stage.

The twist in this movie is that the girl Sinatra is in love with (played by Shelly Winters) does not actually love him back, as would be the case in any other film. She is actually in love with his modest best friend, the supporting player.

It is set in the urban world that was exploited by noir movies, but here the city spaces are not filled with an excess of shadow. But like in noir city movies Burr’s calmly chilling mob character lends the film a lingering threat of violence. The film itself sparkled in a black-and-white print that was full of clarity and depth. 

The film is also peppered with references to Hollywood contemporaries: Jeff Chandler, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and a brief one-shot, one-line cameo from Tony Curtis (who only the week before I had seen live at that very screen).

One of the first things you learn from watching and studying many films of the past is that the history of film is not set in stone. In many ways people believe that all the greatest films have been discovered and that the book is closed, but I am constantly surprised by those films considered as inbetweeners. There is so much of interest in this film that it could just as well be as revered along with other ‘classic’ films of its day.

The compositions, the performances, the tone and the sharp, punchy story really do rival any other similar films of the period. What this means is: forget everything you know and make up your own mind. There is so much to interest, entertain and enlighten you in hundreds of movies they just never tell you about.

Scottie and Madeleine embrace for the last time in Vertigo (1958)

Below I reprint the review of Vertigo published in the influential British journal Sight and Sound upon its original release in 1958, but first a brief introduction.

Hitchcock in the 1950s

I am very interested in how the reception of films change over time, and how their initial reception relates to their standing today. One of the single most interesting cases is Vertigo (1958), a film that has become embedded in the consciousness of serious filmgoers.

By the time the film was released in 1958 (1959 in Britain) Hitchcock was the most high-profile Hollywood director of them all. No doubt this was galvanised by his appearance on television as host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-61) in which Hitchcock was cleverly cementing a clearly-defined screen persona – the slow drawl, the black suit, the sense of humour, the portly figure, and the famous profile. It was Hitchcock himself who had transformed his profile into a neat logo, which then went on to open every episode of his TV show. Hitchcock had become an unlikely but powerful brand.

The 1950s saw key changes in how films were written about. Influenced by the politique des auteurs promoted by the French critics of Cahiers du Cinéma, British film critics of Sight and Sound focused more on the role of the director and the director’s responsibility for the film as a whole, then they ever had before. The combination of this shift in film criticism and the strong Hitchcock brand meant that Hitchcock’s role as an auteur was indisputable. In the review below Houston talks of a ‘typical Hitchcock joke’, for instance. Indeed Hitchcock is seen as perhaps the ultimate auteur: the precise visual style of his films suggest to the viewer that he knew what he wanted and achieved it. The controlled movement and pacing of his visuals suggest control behind the camera.

So when Vertigo was released it was clearly seen as another ‘Hitchcock film’. At first glance his films of the 1950s were clearly Hollywood products, as was the case with the glossy star vehicle The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) with James Stewart and Doris Day, or To Catch a Thief (1955) with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. He made a couple of grittier movies in the 1950s, notably I Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956), which had the feel of film noir and neo-realism, but Vertigo was clearly aligned with his bigger releases: vivid colour, Vistavision, and a star name in James Stewart. But again Hitchcock seems to smuggle dark themes into these studio movies, with Vertigo being a particularly bleak emotional journey concerned with loss and obsession.

Today the film is revered by critics and film lovers, and during the last Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll in 2002 the film almost beat Citizen Kane to the number one spot – it was only 6 votes away. The fact that Vertigo, along with Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) were quickly removed from circulation only to be seen again in the 1980s may have contributed to their appeal when re-evaluated (pirate black and white copies circulated for those desperate to see them during that dark age).

Below is the full review that was published in the Spring 1959 issue of Sight and Sound, written by Penelope Houston, which offers an interesting perspective on how the film was received on initial release. She believes that the film suffers from a plot of ‘egg-shell thinness’ and that one of its key problems is that of pacing: ‘this time he is repeating himself in slow motion’. She does not seem to have sensed the repressed passion that drives as an undercurrent throughout the film. This may be due to the fact that Vertigo is ultimately defined by its repeated viewing. The first viewing is only an introduction, but it is in the re-watching that the film starts to take hold and become an obsession.

Please let me know your thoughts on the review and leave a comment.

Scottie Dashes Up the Tower in Vertigo (1958)

Penelope Houston, ‘Vertigo’, Sight and Sound, Spring 1959, p.319.

VERTIGO (Paramount) finds Hitchcock toying weightily with a thriller by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, authors of Les Diaboliques. As with their earlier novel, the mystery is a question not of who done it but of whether it was really done at all–in this case, how can a girl who has fallen spectacularly to her death from a church tower reappear a few months later in the streets of San Francisco, and is she in fact the same girl? This question of identity, central to the novel, is disposed of by Hitchcock in a brisk and curiously timed flashback, leaving only the secondary problem of how the hero, a detective who first trails the girl, then becomes obsessed by his memories of her, will react to discovering the truth. But in a story of this kind, a sleigh-of-hand affair built on deception and misdirection, mystification counts for everything; to introduce questions of motivation, to suggest that the people involved in this murder game are real, is to risk cracking a plot structure of egg-shell thinness. Only speed, finally, could sustain the illusion that the plot hangs together–and Hitchcock has never made a thriller more stately and deliberate in technique.

If the plot fails to work, there are still some good suspense diversion. These include a macabre, misogynistic sequence in which the obsessed detective (James Stewart) enlists dressmakers and hairdressers to make over the lightly disguised Kim Novak number two in the image of the lost Kim Novak number one; a typical Hitchcock joke, in which the detective tracks the girl down an alley, through a dark and dingy passage-way, and finds that this sinister approach is the back door to an expensive flower shop; and a single shot of stunning virtuosity, with a corpse spread-eagled across a church roof at one side of the screen, and the detective slinking out of the church door at the screen’s opposite edge. A roof-top chase, decisively opening the picture, a struggle in the church belfry, some backchat in the manner of Rear Window with a cool, astringent second-string heroine (Barbara Bel Geddes) are all reminiscent of things Hitchcock has done before, and generally done with more verve. One is agreeably used to Hitchcock repeating his effects, but this time he is repeating himself in slow motion.–PENELOPE HOUSTON

Scottie looks down from the tower in Vertigo (1958)

Rick is Introduced in Casablanca (1942)

Last weekend The Times offered us their version of the 100 Films of All-Time. While it may have outraged certain readers it also brought up the question of how useful these lists are, and whether they’re helpful or destructive for the reputation of certain films.

As their chief critic James Christopher’s introduction emphasised, the Times critics did not want to ‘rearrange the furniture as other lists do’.[1] Instead they have come up with, as Christopher describes it, a ‘far fresher and younger’ list. In other words they are not afraid to throw out established classics in exchange for very recent films. Christopher proudly boasts about their omission of Citizen Kane. Rather than being a refreshing and bold move, this comes across more as a shallow trick to bluntly signify how this list differs from all others.

Christopher’s reason for this omission is that Touch of Evil has ‘greater resonance than Kane’. But what is he actually saying here? One of the frustrating things about film journalism (the public’s primary source of film writing) are statements that are never clarified. What kind of resonance is he talking about here? The sad part is that many young viewers have real difficulty watching Kane in light of its reputation, and many look for any excuse to either not watch it or deal with what they’ve seen (see it’s imdb page), and this list gives them another excuse to fight it. (For information on how Kane received its reputation see my own post here.)

Here is the Top 10:

10. The Godfather
9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
8. Sunset Blvd.
7. Kes
6. Vertigo
5. The Shining
4. Chinatown
3. ET: The Extra Terrestrial
2. There Will Be Blood
1. Casablanca

The list’s other obvious trick is to include very recent movies, including Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and There Will Be Blood in the number 2 spot. There Will Be Blood was only released in this country earlier this year and its inclusion is purely intended to fire debate. But since the film was received with unanimously favourable reviews, it’s also a pretty safe bet amongst filmgoers. [2]

So what are these lists for? Christopher states that the point is to ‘stimulate argument’, and so these omissions and submissions are clearly there to provoke reactions from outraged readers. A quick look at the list’s online message board finds a whole list of favourite movies and established classics being waved about in light of their omission: The Third Man, Shane, Lawrence of Arabia (I am not surprised to find no mention of Chaplin in the list). Many have also pointed out that Lee Van Cleef did not play Liberty Valance.

On the one hand these lists could be helpful to viewers as a shorthand as to what to watch next, and indeed many a great discovery could be made by working through 100-lists. But lists are also interesting for what they say about the popularity of certain films, and how film history is considered at that particular moment. The earliest film on this list is Metropolis (1927) which stands alone in representing the entire silent cinema (wouldn’t it be great to see some 1910s movies make one of these lists?). The only films from the 1930s are Duck Soup (1933), The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone With the Wind (1939). Films like Metropolis and Duck Soup have come to represent large periods of film history and discerning film viewers know that these periods are rich with many equal titles. In many ways I would choose another film directed by Fritz Lang over Metropolis, perhaps Spione (1928), if only because with its exciting spy narrative would be far more accessible to casual viewers than the complex and brooding Metropolis.

So in many ways these lists fail to promote classic cinema. While it omits Citizen Kane so as to appear forward-thinking, it repeats Metropolis (arguably the most famous silent film) and fails to probe into the earlier decades of cinema. These singular titles are journalistic shorthand for certain decades, and serve to reaffirm a version of film history that goes uncontested.

But then at the top spot sits Casablanca, a film that perhaps represents the ‘classic’ cinema more than any other. Many readers will probably be unimpressed by this conclusion, and it almost seems to counteract Christopher’s insistence of the list’s fresh outlook. At first glance its selection would actually seem to be a far bolder statement than the omission of Citizen Kane: that established, classically-styled Hollywood cinema ultimately trumps films that appear far more radical. But then a glimpse at Christopher’s copy that accompanies this entry ultimately seems to undermine this statement:

Casablanca is the greatest romantic thriller yet painted on screen. No one could accuse Curtiz of minting high art, but does that honestly matter?
Casablanca is shameless entertainment. [3]

Precious space for insightful film criticism is often wasted on hyperbole. In this case it is a statement of fact that the film is ‘the greatest romantic thriller’ of all time, though ultimately how helpful is that statement? It serves to ephasise the film as standing alone (a point which I’ll come to in a moment) and ultimately is unhelpful to an understanding of Casablanca. Of course it is also a wild opinion that I would argue, on the evidence of the list itself, does not actually take many other films into consideration. I perhaps shouldn’t even point out that films are not actually painted at all (yes, even with light).

But here Christopher seems to be defensive, apologetic and detrimental to the film itself. By emphasising Casablanca as being ‘shameless entertainment’ rather than ‘high art’, Christopher intends to proudly champion the film as a product of popular culture. But this conversely suggests that Casablanca sits outside of the realm of ‘art’. Without going into a broad debate this hints at an outmoded idea of what kinds of cinema can be construed as ‘art’, emphasised by Christopher’s pointing specifically to director Michael Curtiz: ‘No one could accuse Curtiz of minting high art’.

This phrase suggests two points: that Christopher is holding Curtiz responsible for Casablanca, and in using the word ‘Curtiz’ is actually referring to the visual style of the film. This is very common practice in contemporary film criticism and journalism. It has become an absolute reflex to refer to a director as solely responsible for the film as a whole (i.e. Curtiz’s Casablanca, Hitchcock’s Vertigo). The director’s role has also solely been reduced to that of visual style. Here Christopher is using Curtiz’s name to refer to the film’s visual style: ‘No one could accuse Curtiz of minting high art [through the film’s visual style]’.

The visual style of Casablanca is a classical one. Watching other Hollywood films of the period and you will see a similar style – establishing shots, two-shots, medium close-ups, shot/reverse-shot. The editing works stealthily and follows a clear logic (a man leaves one room, cut to the next room). Wild shots and jarring editing are rare, and this all works to make the machinations of the movie invisible to the viewer, to never remind them that they are watching a movie. Some see this as an anonymous style, and some confuse it as being uninteresting work on the director’s part. Taking this into account, Christopher is undermining the film here by suggesting that you cannot accuse Curtiz’s input (in other words the film’s visual style) of taking cues from anything as sophisticated as ‘high art’. In fact the classical Hollywood style is an incredibly sophisticated visual system, of which Casablanca is a fine example. Its visual style is particularly economic, taut and sensitive in the telling of the film’s complex story.

Lists tend to make their films appear scattered, disjointed and disconnected from each other. They are seemingly to be watched alone, in isolation, and to be judged solely on the experience of watching them today. ‘Are they still “good”? Can I relate to this in the 21st Century? How does this old film offer similar experiences to new ones?’ The one problem with this method is that we may not be equipped with the context to understand a film from the past. One of the great pleasures of watching classic cinema stems from viewing films in relation to each other. This allows the interrelated films themselves to provide part of the context required for a closer understanding of them. Perhaps a more equal list would be 100 films selected from each of 100 years, forcing a selection from eras that are usually neglected.

What do you think about Top 100 Films, and this list in particular? Do you find them useful and if so how do you use them?

Notes

[1.] James Christopher, ‘Take your seats’ in ‘The Times The Top 100 Films of All Time’, Saturday 26th April 2008, p.3.

[2.] I do find it strange when films receive either unanimously dreadful reviews as well as unanimously favourable ones; in both cases it can’t help but affect the reader’s/viewer’s perception of the film.

[3.] James Christopher, ‘Casablanca’, in ‘The Times The Top 100 Films of All Time’, Saturday 26th April 2008, p.33.

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