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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.

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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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