Sight & Sound-Off: #1 - ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Tokyo Story’

[17 October 2012]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

So…we’ve come to the end. We’ve reach the top, the cream of the crop, the upper most of the topper most. Over the last few weeks, we’ve discussed the links - both pragmatic and poetic - of the 15 films featured on the overall and director’s Best of List as compiled by the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound Magazine. We run the gamut from ten to one, debated the causal as well as the creative connections between these often divergent titles. We’ve even tried to figure out how certain works warrant their placement, while others suddenly stumble and fall. Nowhere is this more intriguing than within the two films that ended up in first place.

The displacement of Citizen Kane by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo remains an eye-opening rejection of old school Hollywood, a veiled attempt by the “new guard” to guide the critical conversation away from movies made in the earlier part of the artform to things more ‘modern’ and by assumption, meaningful. Granted, Kane came out in 1941 and Vertigo landed a mere 17 years later, but that’s several legitimate lifetimes for those making such aesthetic determinations. That Orson Welles’ masterpiece could last as long as it did at the top of the charts signals something that the James Stewart/Kim Novak vehicle has a few decades to equal.

More interesting is the director’s list, which has yet to have any clear consistency. Kane topped their list as well, at least in 1992 and 2002. But in 2012, with new rules in place, it faltered, only to be replaced by Ozu’s family drama. The oddest part of process is that, up until this year, Tokyo Story never even made it into the filmmaker’s Top Ten. It’s a leap that defies logic and easy explanation, and yet when pundits pass off their simplified assertions as analysis and fact, Story sits with Vertigo as determined art.

Now, no one would argue that the simple story of old, agrarian parents who travel to the big city to see their selfish and self-centered kids doesn’t deserve respect. It’s a beautifully understated and emotionally impactful movie. It shows why Yasujirō Ozu was/is so beloved among his peers as well as the power and importance of foreign film. But to argue that it’s “better” that 2001, or 8&1/2, or any other title on the director’s side is specious. Like we’ve mentioned before, all such consensual considerations are shrouded in a logistical lunacy that does no party involved justice.

And let’s not forget the persuasiveness of home video. Ozu, more than any other director, benefited from the Criterion-ization of his work. Those outside film schools rarely recognized the Japanese auteur, though his reputation within academic and authoritative circles was more or less established. Thanks to impressive Laserdisc/DVD/Blu-ray releases, his standing broadened. Today, it’s rare when he’s not listed alongside, or even above, contemporaries like Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. It’s as is the director’s portion of the poll forgot that Ozu existed, with a trip to their local brick and mortar (or Amazon) reawakened their reverence. It doesn’t explain Story‘s skyrocketing accession as much as the sudden realization that, for twenty years, he was MIA.

Something similar happened over on the general side. Story didn’t make an appearance until 1992 (where it placed third). In 2002, it had dropped to fifth. In 2012, it’s regained its third place standing, sitting right beneath Kane and Vertigo (though it’s a good 50 and 90 mentions away from both titles, respectively). Clearly, the community now supports Ozu, while slightly falling out of favor with Welles. But the rise of Hitchcock is also intriguing, since he is technically a genre filmmaker (‘suspense’ being a polite code word for ‘horror’ or ‘dread’) and his filmography is filled with enough question marks to make Vertigo even more of a fluke. Remember, the director was so disheartened when the film failed to reach a general audience that he pulled it from further distribution for decades.

Maybe it’s the personal nature of each film. Both Tokyo Story and Vertigo mirror a filmmaker reflecting on his own personal passions and fascinations while arguing for their place - or lack thereof - in the real world. For the aged couple trying to reconnect with their kids, post-war Japan offers little solace. It’s a fast paced production line attempt at modernization that has no need for people ensconced in a rural, ritualized reality and tired traditions. It’s customs vs. the oncoming rise of rampant capitalism. 

Similarly, Vertigo violates its creator’s more perverted dreams. In detective “Scottie” Ferguson, Hitchcock finds someone who is equally obsessed with fragile, porcelain blonds. Our hero becomes obsessed with the mysterious woman at the center of a complex case. Eventually, he transforms a seemingly innocent girl into the spitting image of the now dead lady, hoping that his heartsick longing (and professional madness) will be cured. In scenes so wicked that fetish sites could free associate on them for days, Hitchcock reveals his own internal interests. Similarly, with Story, Ozu champions a country long gone and a simpler, more special time.

Of course, it remains difficult if not impossible to determine each film’s “importance” to the artform. Granted, the Sight & Sound list is not really meant as a series of benchmarks, but shouldn’t those voting recognize said standards. After all, one would never argue that The Eagles were more important to rock-n-roll that Little Richard or Elvis, and yet this is what seems to be happening. The founding father of the modern movie experience - i.e., Kane - is being marginalized for films that might not have existed had Welles never made such a stunning debut. Similarly, other titles on both lists (2001, Bicycle Thieves, Rules of the Game) and far more influential than either number ones. Aside from something from Brian DePalma, when was the last time you saw someone mimicking Vertigo? Or Tokyo Story, for that matter?

Again, don’t take this the wrong way. Both films deserve as many accolades as possible. In a realm of regular mediocrity, they represent two of the greatest celluloid canvases ever created. But to try and determine their worth, either critically or counting ‘mentions’ marginalizes them both. It also detracts from previous chart toppers, as well as those who never get enough consensus to rise above. If anything, we’ve learned that the S&S compendium is no more valid or invalid that any other similarly styled attempt (AFI, Time magazine, etc.). More effectively, it creates conversations, like the ones we’ve been having for the last few features. We may never truly agree on what is the greatest film of all time. Discussing it, however, has been as revelatory as it’s been ridiculous. Sadly, we have to wait another decade before it can begin all over again.

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