As they have done every ten years now for the last six decades, Britain’s Sight & Sound magazine has released its usually dependable and considered definitive Best of All Time film list. A massive undertaking, involving the polling of filmmakers, critics, scholars, and other influential figures, the breakdown of cinema’s 100-plus years of existence always causes celebration, and consternation. It’s a debate point, a “told ya” tenet of where we think we are culturally as well as a primer for those who need some schooling in their appreciation of the artform. This year, the social network topic of conversation was the displacement of Orson Welles’ seminal and highly influential masterpiece Citizen Kane from the number one slot. In its place - the equally transcendent work of celluloid art, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
For some, the selection was a scandal. Kane, which had held the top spot for more than 50 years, is often considered the blueprint for modern moviemaking. From its meaningless mystery core (who or what ‘Rosebud’ is becomes less important than the vignettes of the man who mumbled said famous last word) to the stunning using of various aesthetic flourishes and tricks, Welles turned the populist entertainment format into something akin to a canvas, taking everything he had in his creative paintbox and placing it square within his carefully created framing. The same can easily be said for Vertigo. Hitchcock, at the height of his popularity and powers, poured his personal obsessions and fetishes into a film which, again, offers a pointless whodunit design shrouded in sublime craftsmanship.
Both are brilliant. Both deserve consideration and rewarding as the very best of the best. But within said argument lies the inherent flaw in Sight & Sounds system. Sure, anytime you vote, you’re betting on consensus over pure critical thinking. Similarly, the method which tallies said scores will often prove even more enlightening. While clearly calculated from contributor’s own Top 10 selections, the end result is really nothing more than a popularity contest. For example, if everyone involved had, somehow, placed a questionable title somewhere in their answer, it would then become part of an established lexicon. No questioning. Lots of quibbles. Indeed, if among the dozens of participants Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead showed up several significant times, you could actually be seeing it sandwiched between Fellini and Kubrick.
Of course, the fail safe here is who participated and previous perspective. Nothing remotely close to Raimi’s revisionist horror epic would even wander near the bottom of the the Top 100, let alone close in on the top spot. There’s just too much history to consider, and more importantly, too little consideration for what is currently happening in film culture. The West dominates the overall compilation, capturing five of the ten slots. The director’s list is even more US-ccentric, adding a sixth selection. No film made in the ‘80s, ‘90s, or the new millennium made the cut, while the overall tally cuts out the ‘70s as well (the directors went with three from the Me Decade). Like the curmudgeonly old Establishment that won’t give into the young guns of the future, Sight & Sounds list is part proclamation, part pissed off old coot.
It happens to all film critics. We are sold a substantial bill of goods when we dare enter this profession, a myriad of meaningful titles tossed our way before we can even consider ourselves versed enough to comment competently. Like the age old “failed filmmaker” condemnation, failure to fully immerse yourself in the movies from ages bygone is seen as a shockingly amateurish problem.
Ask some hot shot blogger if they’ve seen La Dolce Vita or Breathless and the response tells you a lot about their own questionable www obsessions (usually something like The Monster Squad). Among the presold packaging that comes with criticism is the ‘standards,’ the Beatles and the Stones, if you will, of celluloid. Welles’ work of rebellious chutzpah is always there. But so are equally important efforts from names like Eisenstein, Chaplin, Keaton, Huston, De Sica, and Godard, just to name a few.
At some point, all this hot air has to be filtered and flavored. Lists like that provided by Sight & Sound accomplish this. They use what they consider to be an inclusive methodology to create an exclusive conclusion. Selections are then slotted mathematically and—viola!—we have our winners.. .and a weird feeling of failure. The true very best rarely reaches the top, unless of course you’ve had five decades of predetermination to help you decide and almost always your favorite never gets the glory. Indeed, it would be interesting to see what would happen if the magazine took EVERY ballot they ever received, hundreds and hundreds of choices, and compiled them into one massive master list. One imagines minor shifts, if not outright retention of many entries.
That’s because, once established, it’s hard to break out of the master class mold. For example, when we critics get together, there is always someone asking about our favorite all time film. The answers are usually interesting, but the reactions are even more telling. For a long time, my own response (Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) was met with a smirk and a cocked eyebrow, not because it was an illegitimate choice, but because, for many, it’s a difficult and indirect experience. Imagine the reaction if you said something like Mulholland Dr. , or Star Wars, or Dude, Where’s My Car? Unless you walk lockstep with those who you consider peers, you’re declared unprofessional, and if not, at least easily dismissed. As part of your job you’re expected to accept the wisdom of those before, not dance to your own aesthetic drummer.
That’s why the toppling of Kane has caused such a stir. For decades, it’s been the foundation, the future, the broccoli on the plate: you have to eat it and like it because… well, because the critical community said so. Vertigo‘s triumph tells us more about where we are as a community than it does what is truly the greatest film of all time. We want change, just not that much change. Said determinations will always fuel the fires of defiant discourse, everyone agreeing or disagreeing in a showing of support/subversion. It will be interesting to see what happens come 2022. Will Kane regain its title? Will Vertigo make it two in a row? A decade is a long time to wait. Luckily, there will be a lot to talk about before then.