Citizen Kane or Vertigo, which is more fun?
By Armond White
Now that Sight & Sound’s decadal critics poll has given the #1 spot to Vertigo, toppling Citizen Kane (to #2), it confirms that film culture as we used to know it has toppled as well.
Citizen Kane held sway as the “Greatest Film Of All Time” for so long that a lot of people began to believe it. Orson Welles’ 1941 feature film debut had often crowned polls by the American Film Institute and others including the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound critics poll (the world’s oldest, first established in 1952) which just announced the aberrant results.
Kane was never my favorite, yet it was beautiful, dynamic choice. It had been a convenient winner due to historical pedigree. Generations of film-lovers (typified by Francois Truffaut’s homage to Citizen Kane in Day for Night) agreed that Kane was “the movie that made more filmmakers want to make movies.”
But Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 romantic tragedy has inspired few filmmakers to make movies. (Try finding its visual lushness and aural extravagance among Indies!) And it’s doubtful if Vertigo roused many film critics (camp-followers of said impoverished Indies and Hollywood blockbusters) to write more insightfully about cinema than did their dismissive 1958 predecessors. Most critics remain absolutely hostile to the sumptuous influence Vertigo had on Brian DePalma’s Obsession, Body Double, Black Dahlia, Femme Fatale.
So Vertigo doesn’t herald a revolution in cinematic appreciation but represents warped consensus. Its choice merely replaces Kane; it shows a new era’s unoriginal taste and interest in obsessive pathology and soullessness that’s been building in certain film cliques at least since the film‘s 1996 reissue. The herd mentality rules. (A Battleship Potemkin victory would convince me that a critical renaissance was afoot.)
If the past four political years has taught us anything, it’s that polls don’t assure excellence; they merely reflect spin. Vertigo congratulates today’s pollsters’ hindsight. Sight & Sound’s editor Nick James analyzed: “The new cinephilia seems to be not so much about films that strive to be great art, such as Citizen Kane, and that use cinema‘s entire arsenal of effects to make a grand statement, but more about works that have personal meaning to the critic. Vertigo is the ultimate [millennial] critics’ film because it is a dreamlike film about people who are not sure who they are but who are busy reconstructing themselves and each other to fit a kind of cinema ideal of the ideal soul mate. In that sense it‘s a makeover film full of spellbinding moments of awful poignancy that show how foolish, tender and cruel we can be when we‘re in love.”
James inadvertently nails cinephilia’s deterioration–from idealizing cinema that spoke to and edified the general public to solipsistic criticism that coddles a nihilistic, class-based coterie. (Critics unsure of who they are? Vertigo greater than the culturally prescient Psycho? Or the numinous The Birds?)
Perhaps Vertigo’s victory frees us from traditional authoritarianism (we should learn to develop our own taste, ignoring fashion) but it ushers in another tyranny. It is the triumph of “smartness” whereas the very nature of Kane’s prodigious exercise of cinema’s potential was actually a celebration–like the 1952 Singin’ in the Rain (which also fell off Sight & Sound’s top ten list). Recognizing the art of cinema as popular pleasure is frowned upon in fashionable criticism. A movie that impacts the culture like Kane always did provides a foundation for wider experience; a film that doesn’t, doesn’t.
For years, it’s been quietly accepted that Welles’ follow-up film The Magnificent Ambersons was richer, more complex than Kane (and Ambersons’ profundity makes Vertigo seem piddling). Yet Ambersons, which moves viewers utterly, never captured the top spot during film culture’s genuinely populist phase, unified toward social stability. Vertigo appeals to a fragmented culture that boasts of self-absorption (rather than Ambersons’ self-examination). Vertigo is a 21st century favorite–and perfectly titled for that.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair