by Niles Schwartz
One week after expressing a disdain for Internet “lists,” I’m contradicting myself by heading into the freaking list of movie lists, the holy of holies, the be all end all of cinematic canonization. Last week, the British Film Institute and Sight and Sound magazine published the results of filmdom’s most respected vote, The 50 Great Films of All Time, taken the second year of every decade since 1952 and drawn from an international group of over 800 critics (with an alternative “directors” list of picks, composed of hundreds of international directors). Maybe the outcome wouldn’t be so noteworthy if the reigning champion, Citizen Kane (title holder since 1962), hadn’t been, at long last, bested by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The king/Kane is dead; long live the new king.
This happened just after Orson Welles’ dizzying masterpiece about newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane turned 70 years old, allotting it one more year of honors (and a commemorative Blu Ray release) as commentators applied the word “greatest” in its description. And even though Vertigo, a psychological thriller starring Jimmy Stewart as a retired cop unable to alter fate, has nabbed the crown, I think that Citizen Kane will still probably remain the center of the film canon. Its sprawling influence, jutting in all stylistic, narrative, and cultural directions after its release, is much too vast, and even seems to absorb Hitchcock (in spite of how many films the Englishman had directed before the young prodigy Welles had the slightest notion of ever directing a movie). Comparing the critics’ list alongside the directors’ list, there’s a lack of consensus, much unlike Kane, which topped both lists for so long. Vertigo is tied at #7 with The Godfather on the directors’ top ten, which has demoted Kane in favor of Yasujiro Ozu’s postwar family drama Tokyo Story.
On the critics’ list, Vertigo had been accelerating over the decades, presenting itself as a neurotic negative image of Citizen Kane. Whereas Kane was a 25-year-old first-time filmmaking wunderkind’s experiment with a gigantic train set, Vertigo was the work of a 59-year-old master fast approaching the final stage of his crowning years as an artist showman, having already too many successes – which we still watch as required viewing today – to count. Initially released to mixed reviews in 1959, Vertigo fell out of circulation until being resurrected by home video in the early 1980s. In 1982, Sight and Sound had it at #7; in 1992, it was #4; in 2002, #2. In 2012, its time had come.
Or is it that we live in an increasingly neurotic time of mismatched identities and truths, so in line with Jimmy Stewart’s tragic John “Scottie” Ferguson, a figure far more confused and nakedly vulnerable than the dignified aristocrat, Kane. Cinema, the camera-eye and editing scissors along with the additional tools of color and sound, sculpts disparate elements into a subjective creation that is finally projected as objectivity to an audience, and so becomes the closest thing human beings have to time travel. On celluloid, tape, or digital bits of information, it holds memory as preserved data – or at least the craft dreamily, unconsciously, aspires to that. To voice a theme of the newest entry in the top ten, Dziga Vertov’s non-narrative experimental film Man with the Movie Camera, the explorers of this strange terrain of cinema were intellectual engineers, using this new machinery to “construct thought.” Movie camera, window, and human eye are blended into the lens and shutter, reaching out for ghosts in light. But time gets away from us, just as Kim Novak – in any guise – falls away from poor Jimmy Stewart.
Both Citizen Kane and Vertigo are about men that regress and try to mold the world in the fashion of a child at play (or like a filmmaker on his set – Welles’ “train-set”). But Kane, American archetype that he is, remains an unreachable mystery with his heirs in the more gilded tragedy of unrestrained power found in Nixon, Michael Corleone, Chinatown’s Noah Cross, There Will be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, and The Social Network’s conception of Mark Zuckerberg. Scottie Ferguson – played by aw-shucks Stewart – is an Everyman, powerless in the maze laid out for him, ineluctably doomed to repeat the past. It’s another movie viewer anxiety (brought up by Terry Gilliam’s time-travel thriller 12 Monkeys, wherein the principle characters attend a Vertigo screening): as many times as you see a movie, like encountering a memory, you cannot change it. One is destined to play on an endless loop. The film never changes, and Kim Novak will fall to her death, Michael Corleone will kill Fredo, Kane will lose the election, and HAL will hurl the astronaut Poole into the black of space.
This particular struggle with memory relates not only to the most consistent theme of the selections, but also to what gives them such lasting power: the sense of the art’s capability to establish the sense of memory and time, brushing against our eyes and ears like the immediate impressions of a passing instant, while also moving slowly through space like the weight of a thousand centuries, or buried dreams fossilized in psychic rock. The mind is paradoxically crushed as it is elevated, and private individual experiences double for the eternity of a species. The best films remind us how language remains inadequate in describing our collective and private human experience. I think such scenarios are beautifully drawn up here.
Joining Kane and Vertigo’s protagonists who tragically fail to control history and their fate, there are the clashing generations of Tokyo Story; the ruling class pre-war satire of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game; lovers whose torrid romance becomes absolutely transcendent in F.W. Murnau’s marriage of European Expressionism and Hollywood studio production, Sunrise; Stanley Kubrick’s canvas of the human species’ evolution and transcendence, 2001: A Space Odyssey; John Ford’s The Searchers, where the frontier Western and its heroes (i.e. John Wayne) seem to be interrogating themselves as stalkers on a terrain of changeless barbarity; Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, where Soviet citizens are endlessly juxtaposed against the expanse of the nameless city, human flesh assimilated with industrial machinery and production; Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, in which recorded history (the library document of Joan’s trial) is “filmed,” the drama drawn from the faces presented in unprecedented close-ups without cosmetics; and Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, where Marcello Mastroianni’s dream weaver of cinematic worlds is absorbed by the vortex of his creations and obsessions, his mental cosmos exploding as he, appropriately, preps a science fiction epic.
Adding the other films featured on the directors’ list – Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and The Godfather, Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves – it’s interesting to draw comparisons, like how they share the trait of having struggling protagonists powerless against the formidable obstacle of their existential conditions. But consider how radical these films were upon release, and still are, in many cases, today. “Plot” is not the driving force of any of them; even the comparably conventional Godfather doesn’t really have its first real “plot” point (the Sollozzo meeting) until 35 minutes have passed. Character, texture, and atmosphere are accented, and the approaches to narrative (2001, Sunrise, The Mirror) are highly unorthodox, with Vertov’s picture, which he called “a manifesto expressed in images,” even being an assault on narrative movie production.
This may be important in assessing movies right now, because fewer people are seeing them, and television, which seems to be an incessant “escape” into the foibles and quandaries of particular characters, grows in popularity, serialized as an alternative reality with a new hour-long installment added each week. With cinema, we wake up from the dream when the lights go up and reflect, haunted by Melle Falconetti’s goose-bumpy visage as Dreyer’s Joan, an image cracking through the screen like a ghost staring at us while we sleep. As her face is clouded by the inflamed stake’s smoke, and the body disappears in the fire, Dreyer cuts to the pity-stricken spectators in 1431 – and we realize how we are doubling for them right now. Dreyer, like Ozu, seems to break every rule of spatial relationships that preceded and followed him (Steven Soderbergh carries on the tradition in his recent Haywire), but his Passion traverses without impediment between wide spaces of nations and hundreds of years in a way that makes other historical films look trivial.
Something to consider when analyzing the list is how it is necessarily reflective of our Cybernetic Age, where the cinema of the “auteur” has been increasingly thrown out of whack by the cinema of the graphic designer, and as identity desperately reaches to affirm itself through Facebook posts and online avatars, a stable identity or properly framed dialogue is muddled by noise: the complexity and confusion of identity matches the foggy identities of Vertigo, and artistic production also becomes anonymous and disposable. Art and Machine are coming closer together, and the perennial theme of technology as both tool and as adversary increasingly agitates. Martin Scorsese’s recent love letter to the origins of cinema, Hugo, was fantastical children’s science fiction projected into a real environment of Paris circa 1930, and clearly had Vertov on its mind as the inner-workings of a station clock dissolved to an overhead shot of the entire city. “The world is one big machine,” says Hugo Cabret, who wants to find his own function in the machine of existence.
In Hugo’s case, like with Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, the movies represent technological ingenuity coupled with human longing, development, and aspirations. While Vertov’s Marxist tract prophesied workers of the world uniting for a future utopia (which didn’t exactly work out, to say the least), Scorsese, in our present era of digital memory where historical contexts are eradicated under the weight of the incessant “Now” with moments and emotions existing in Twitter-fed Reality TV vacuums, is determined to adapt and develop with the accelerating technology while also holding onto a rich cinematic heritage, which has become religious for the mindful filmmaker. At his film’s conclusion, Vertov’s camera animates itself for the audience, being a friend to humankind in its exposure of “life caught unawares” and showing us the “truth.” The movies do not hush us to sleep and numbness, but expose us to life and with vision we must awake. But the list shows us Vertov’s opposite, the threat. When we consider HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose red eye in close-up becomes the devilish doppelganger to Vertov’s camera-eye, we’re aware of the technology consuming us, the signal-to-noise ratio conveying how all meaningful contact and communication are obscured by fuzz: “Life Functions Terminated” as Kubrick’s eye on the machines and screens communicate devolution and regression.
Recent touchstones hold plentiful allusions to Kubrick’s future vision, weary of things to come. There is ominous prophesy in the very title of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, where the climactic images of oilman (the master harnesser of technology) Daniel Plainview smashing a bowling pin on a rival’s head, evoke 2001’s warring ape-men, their “tool” of survival, a bone, becoming the weapon of war – and four million years later in a single cut, a nuclear satellite. Or Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network, where the protagonist is not meant to be an accurate biographical depiction of a historical figure, but a harbinger of a new age, a neuromancing cyborg (much like Fincher’s follow-up protagonist in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Kubrick’s HAL-9000 in “a hoodie and fuck-you flip flops” who conquers meat-space physical men (the Winklevoss twins) just as HAL destroys the human astronauts. Even the new Dark Knight sequel (which boasts, in a 3-D digital era when the boundary between illusion and reality are increasingly blurred, of being “shot and completed on film”) could be said to reference both Kubrick and Vertov. The coupling of the increasingly influential 2001 and rarely seen Man with the Movie Camera on the list points to not only the broad existential relationship between Man and Machine, but the cinematic one in a time of streaming, rampant CGI, 3-D, and short-term memory. And this again leads to the desperate journeys to retrieve the past, central to our heroes in Citizen Kane and Vertigo, the elders seeing their world being forgotten by a younger generation in Tokyo Story and The Godfather, the filmmaker Dreyer recovering history as bodies and texts go up in flames in The Passion of Joan of Arc, or another filmmaker, Tarkovsky, searching through memories (as Terrence Malick did recently in The Tree of Life) in The Mirror. Probably most troubling in our Tea Party times of Mitt Romney’s “No Apologies” and closeted reactionary Birthers, there is the haunting anti-hero trying to cleanse the present and reclaim a past that only existed in storybooks and myth, like Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers, and his cinematic descendant, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver, whose violent vigilante neuroses are too fresh and horrifying when we look at the headlines from just the past week.
The obsession with the past might be felt to go too far when we take notice to how the most recent film on the critics’ list is 1968’s 2001. This is where the allegation of “stodginess” comes. And even though I think it’s good to give films time to percolate and see how they adjust to time, I have to applaud the directors’ list for being, if however so slightly, a little more contemporary with 1979’s Apocalypse Now, 1976’s Taxi Driver, 1974’s The Mirror, and 1972’s The Godfather. Maybe ten slots is too few for a century of movies, when the pictures that established the grammar and influence demand to be acknowledged first. As Noah Cross says to Jake Gittes in 1974’s Chinatown (absent from the top 50, though definitely worthy of top 10 recognition), “Of course I’m respectable, I’m old!” And respectability is paramount, even on a list that recognizes that Casablanca and Gone with the Wind, though great (I suppose), still aren’t all “that great” when in this company.
That the 1970s are the most predominantly represented decade for the directors’ poll is revealing. While the critics, with three silent films and nothing after 1968, are probably scaling influence and the development of film grammar, the working artisans themselves could be commemorating the individual, and the advancing emphasis directors were given, especially since Orson Welles and Citizen Kane (the oldest film on their list). Seven of the pictures were made after French “auteur” theory was expressed by Francois Truffaut in 1954, and all are the works of highly idiosyncratic mavericks able to succeed in a system discouraging individual distinction (be it money driven film studios, or Tarkovsky’s Soviet Union). The Godfather represents a hired individual without much clout (Francis Ford Coppola) defying authority (Robert Evans) and strict mandates to create something in Gulf+Western’s corporate confines that is tremendously personal, stylistically distinct, and fabulously executed. It affirms the individual artist above the nameless machine of mass production.
The case of Apocalypse Now is more interesting. Sharply dividing many people upon its 1979 release, Coppola’s spectacular Vietnam odyssey is an example of separate generations having different experiences with a single motion picture. Perceived as a bloated and bombastic derivation of Joseph Conrad, with a fat ribbon of Marlon Brando at his most self-indulgent (parodied on Saturday Night Live by John Belushi), it’s easy to read disparaging things about Apocalypse Now throughout 1980s literature and criticism, in addition to praise. To many critics, it was “3/4 a masterpiece,” its final act with Brando’s mumbling Kurtz and murky conclusions representing the beginning of Coppola’s decline. But 1991’s Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the documentary about Apocalypse Now’s torrential three-year production, worked to cast a different light on the picture, infecting its consumption throughout the new decade. Brando’s Kurtz wasn’t a fat joke, but a haunting force of nature, and the murky ending is perfect for a contemplation of “the horror,” regarding Vietnam, human existence, or where the world (and Hollywood) was going as the 1970s ended and the Spielberg/Lucas/Reagan era loomed. Apocalypse Now was made as the lights dimmed on Hollywood’s brightest decade (as far as directors were concerned), and even if this Golden Age never really existed as we romanticize it today, with glowing representatives like Coppola, Scorsese, Penn, Altman, Ashby, Malick, Bogdanovich, and Friedkin, there is an alluring triumph in the legend of Apocalypse Now, a tragic but stirring Pyrrhic victory where a single man put his money, family, reputation, and sanity on the line to finish something and, holy shit, pulled it off. By 2000, Apocalypse Now was no longer a flawed and bloated classic, but, according to the BFI, the best film of the last 25 years. As director Michael Mann said about it in 2002, “Coppola made the ephemeral dynamics of the mass psyche’s celebratory nihilism, its self-destructive urges and transience, concrete and operatic.”
Does anything after 1980 deserve to be hoisted on the list? Or are we going to fall back on some stupid kind of cultural/aesthetic decline? (“They just don’t make’em like they used to” and that stuff). Two favorites of mine from the 2000s, also about memory and images, cracked the top 50 (In the Mood for Love and Mulholland Drive, at 24 and 28), but there should be more recognized titles. I admire Taxi Driver, but for Scorsese I prefer Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990); Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy probably would have made the list if it could have been submitted as a single entry (this led to the relatively low rankings of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II on the critics’ poll, while in 2002 the pair was ranked fourth). Do the Right Thing? Breaking the Waves? Fargo? Blade Runner? Paris, Texas? Hannah and Her Sisters? Blue Velvet? Brazil? Lost in Translation? Wings of Desire? E.T.? The Insider? Yi Yi? Eyes Wide Shut? Zodiac? Old Boy? Synecdoche, NY? No Country for Old Men? The New World? Certified Copy? Four Months Three Weeks Two Days? Children of Men?
As modern times become too contemporary it seems riskier offering up newer titles. The list does not lie with its most recent selections: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Wong-Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love exude a kind of transcendence that triggers a kind of religious awe soaring above any sense of time – both truly are dreams, far and away superior to most anything else. But stumbling onward, the critic becomes delirious when considering that their respective “sequels,” INLAND EMPIRE and 2046, are arguably even more successful. Maybe there’s a radical strangeness that this canonization demands, difficult to affirm because it’s often so polarizing. Time needs to work out the dialectic. When I saw The Tree of Life the first time, and Terrence Malick created the universe to a requiem written for Kieslowski, I knew I was watching one of the greatest things I would ever see. Others felt like they were seeing one of the worst. Like Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo, the critic struggles to write and validate history and truth, going mad in the process. Canonization reveals how very much out of his hands the whole thing is.
So the “list” says probably more about the critic or writer than the films being discussed. And with that, for posterity’s sake, I’ll offer up my own personal top ten, subject to change at any time, depending on my mood.
1. Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975) Cinema as time travel. After watching for possibly the fiftieth time recently, I had to shake my head and admit that this is the best film ever made, its richness for detail and emotion remaining impeccable. Set in 18th century Europe and following a duplicitous opportunist (Ryan O’Neal) from humble Irish beginnings to aristocratic elegance to poverty, its sense of the cosmos feels heavier than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick makes us feel history, while other period films merely seem to compliment it with a curtsy and a lavish toll fee. The nearly wordless sequence when Barry seduces Lady Lyndon with a look and follows her onto a balcony, set to Schubert’s Piano Trio in E Flat, expresses precisely what I cherish about movies. Still, many Kubrick enthusiasts are reluctant to embrace it.
2. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) Like Barry Lyndon, an epic hall of mirrors where historical incident and personages find doubles and opposites. A perfect marriage of art and commerce, Old and New World, spectacle and intimacy.
3. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928) Dreyer used the new panchromatic film stock to get closer to his subjects, with a syntax of close-ups demolishing space, greatly irritating many critics and viewers. I admit that I like to sometimes play pop music while watching it; last week I experimented and was overjoyed with Arcade Fire’s “Rebllion (Lies)” during the torture chamber scene, and Smashing Pumpkins’ “Oceania” covering the finale of Joan’s martyrdom and a peasant uprising. Dreyer believed it should be watched silently though, stating, “In the depths of silence there is always one’s self.” This film is dedicated to the memory of a person who died 500 years before it was made, and Melle Falconetti’s fanatical eyes is the individual’s futile insistence of being remembered as history erases beings on the chopping block.
4. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) A love story and mystery set in Los Angeles, a city that manufactures dreams and images. A failed television pilot rejected because of the demands it would make on household viewers, Mulholland Drive is a tragedy of the creative individual (in this case an actress played by Naomi Watts) losing her voice (“Silencio”) in the studio system. Lynch’s postmodern environs are not there for referential hilarity or satire, but relate to a mythic experience of living, of curtains and performances obscuring a final reality of peace. Like a vivid dream, it worked on me far into my waking hours outside the theater. My body understood it before my reason.
5. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980) Not great because it’s a gritty film biography, a great machismo depiction of jealousy and uncontainable masculinity, or it has the greatest boxing sequences ever filmed, but rather because it’s such a startling spiritual adventure in form. Scorsese once yearned to be a priest, and Raging Bull is a visual sacrament during which we are exposed to the vilest sinner (Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta) and the very ritual of seeing becomes an act of atonement. The film and its speeds, stocks, and grain, the expressive sounds and cuts, are Jake LaMotta. The disparate elements of cinema are a physical body containing a suffering human soul.
6. Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000) Yang is much like the precocious child Yang-Yang, holding his camera on reality and capturing moments to hold time still. A family story set within a year, Yi Yi gets the melancholy and humor of “everyday” life, bookended with rituals (a wedding, a funeral) and longing for something that’s fading out of grasp. The first great picture of the new millennium.
7. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) Like Truffaut’s Day for Night‘s dreams reveal, Welles was a Prometheus passing a fire and insight to future filmmakers. Tragic drama, comedy, musical, documentary newsreel, special effects, and animation collide in Citizen Kane‘s myth of an unknowable person who represents a similarly proud though unknowable nation. As I get older, Kane only gets more poignant.
8. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998) Unfinished and, like Malick’s other achievements, probably unfinishable, The Thin Red Line is less a World War II ensemble like the James Jones novel that inspired it than a Whitmanian poem about the “war in the heart of Nature.” On my first encounter with it in January of 1999, I found a cinema voice that spoke a language I was waiting to hear, its images and lives flowing like water and music. Today I turn to it as I do Walt Whitman, like a religious text more than a dramatic feature.
9. Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985) I could just as well put the more youthful Jidai Geki, Seven Samurai, or the postwar humanist drama Ikiru, but I’m choosing the elderly, 75-year-old Kurosawa with his King Lear epic of vibrant colors, mask-like faces, and lateral cuts. Like Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), the aging master was weary with age and failures, virtually abandoned by the Japanese studio system and a new generation of his nation’s filmmakers. The execution of this last big show demands silence, the same way Kurosawa takes out the diagetic soundtrack during a horrific battle centered around a besieged castle, Hidetora’s whole world – and sanity – crumbling around him.
10. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975) The single most exuberant film screening in my life was seeing Nashville for the first time in August 1997 at the now dearly departed Oak St. Cinema, the liberating human comedy of a post-Watergate America in transition following me into the pre-autumn night. I’ve since not grown a bit tired of Altman’s stock players or their songs – even though country/western music isn’t my thing. “You might say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me,” everyone sings together after a celebrity assassination, the film concluding with the American flag looming overhead. The image isn’t subtle, but Altman’s masterpiece resonates. The country, preparing for its bicentennial at the time of Nashville‘s release, is filled with hypocrisy, romance, hilarity, beauty, and idealism, unresolved but still singing.