my take on the greatest film of all time

Because I follow Encyclopedia Britannica’s Twitter feed, I was alerted to a blog-post on their site discussing a recent development in film criticism: the British Film Institute (BFI) had changed its determination of the best film ever made. Every 10 years the institute invites its members to rank the greatest films, and the results are collated to come up with a winner. In 1962 that winner was Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), as it was in 1972, 1982, 1992, and 2002. But this year, apparently, another film has edged out Welles’s masterpiece: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).

I’ve long been accustomed to the fact that Citizen Kane is hailed as the greatest film of all time, and my assumption has been that critics and others have tended to repeat this more or less out of habit, as a judgment that’s been established by convention. So I was surprised that the members of the BFI, anyway, have seen fit to anoint a different film. But while it’s possible that some critics and scholars have changed their thinking, I think it’s more likely the result of a phenomenon observed by the physicist Max Planck among scientists: that the holders of a particular theory tend not to change their minds; new theories replace old when the holders of the old theory die off, and a new generation, able to make a free choice, opts for the new theory. Without knowing any of the underlying facts, I suspect that this new anointing is the result of such a die-off.

But what struck me more was that I myself regard Vertigo as even less worthy of being called the greatest film of all time than Citizen Kane is. I regard them both as competently made and above average in certain respects. Citizen Kane I would also say is a striking film and a work of genius; I would not say that Vertigo is either of these. I have seen them both recently—that is, in the last couple of years—Citizen Kane for at least the third time, and Vertigo for the first time. But I placed them both in the category of “movies I don’t want to see again.”

What’s wrong with me? Why do I not see the virtues in these films that the scholars and critics of the BFI do?

Of course, I likely don’t know as much about film as those scholars and critics, although I have made a fairly serious study of film in my life, and have been a filmmaker and a screenwriter. But is the determination of greatness purely a matter of knowledge? (And if so, what kind of knowledge?) Or does the question of pure enjoyment matter? And if so, what is the relationship of enjoyment to knowledge? Should only that part of enjoyment count that somehow results from knowledge? Is such a distinction possible or practical?

Gregory MacNamee, who wrote the blog-post, observes that there is a “matter of taste” problem, but I think he dodges the question a bit when he says that some people’s taste is better. What makes it better?

This is the ancient question of criticism. As far as I know, it has no answer. But I’d like to disentangle my own thoughts on it.

I believe that enjoyment is the important criterion. No one would watch movies if they didn’t enjoy it, and no one would make them. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, enjoyment is a datum: it’s something that happens to us, not something we can will to happen. Yes, we can say we enjoy things in order to get along, but the actual experience, I believe, is no more under our control than the weather is. We enjoy what we enjoy. And we all enjoy different things.

But if that were all there is to it, then criticism couldn’t exist. Everything would boil down to: “I like this; you like that; and there we sit.” If that’s the case, what can taste possibly be?

One thought I have is that, in general, we don’t expect a 60-year-old to enjoy the same things as a 6-year-old. They might have the same enthusiasm and level of enjoyment for things, but the things themselves will be different. The key difference between these viewers can be summed up as experience. The 60-year-old has a much greater depth of experience than the 6-year-old, and that experience has caused his tastes to shift.

Does this make his tastes necessarily “better”? Maybe not. But I’m tempted to say that the operative factor here is maturity. We can call an artistic taste better to the extent that it is more mature. And what is maturity? I want to say that maturity is the ability to apply wisdom to one’s life. And what is wisdom? Here I want to say that it’s the kind of knowledge that allows one to avoid doing things that one will regret.

All right, but what does this have to do with movies? Well, I believe, possibly unlike many of the members of the BFI, that film is a storytelling medium. That means the most important questions pertaining to the quality of any film are: 1) how good is the story? and 2) how well is it told? The quality of a film with respect to question 1 is determined mainly by the writer; the quality of a film with respect to question 2 is determined mainly by the production team, led by the director. The quality of a story, I suggest, is measured by how interesting and relevant it is to a mature person. A mature person, who has already learned much about life, learns more from a good story.

So where does this leave Citizen Kane and Vertigo? Above I said that I regard Citizen Kane as a work of genius, by which I mean the product of an artist who has a particular vision and who does not compromise that vision in producing his work. To me, this does not necessarily make a work great, good, or enjoyable; but it does give it integrity. Citizen Kane has integrity in this sense, but it remains, at bottom, a shaggy-dog story: to paraphrase Wikipedia’s definition, “a long-winded tale resulting in a pointless or absurd punchline.” Kane’s life turns out to have been a tale told by an idiot—not much for a mature person to sink his teeth into. Great cinematography, though.

As for Vertigo, to be honest I don’t even really remember the story. It was a convoluted mystery with a gimmick ending of the type known in screenwriting jargon as a weenie. I didn’t find anything in the movie either believable or involving, and I dozed off by the end. I can’t call a movie great that I respond to in that way.

Does this mean I’m holding myself up as someone who is more mature than others? In some cases, yes. But this is where rhetoric comes in. The critic is someone who can support his views and persuade others of their validity, as I have tried to do in a small way here.

But can’t two people of equal maturity have different tastes and responses to a work? Yes they can—but that’s a topic for another day.

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