American Movies are Not Dead: They are Dying
AT THE START of August 2012, the world was hanging on election results. Well, not the entire world. The electorate in this case was under 850, though that was nearly four times the number of people who had voted in this election the last time, in 2002.
The London film magazine Sight & Sound was holding its international poll of critics and writers to determine the top ten films ever made, and the best one of all. Citizen Kane had held that position for fifty years. Its five victories were not questioned. Most people who had seen it agreed that Orson Welles’s debut feature from 1941 was a mighty work, unprecedented then and still startling. But those who run the poll, who vote and take the results seriously, were worried. Was it useful for any movie to have such prolonged tenure and supremacy in what was always considered a new medium, a medium for young people? Welles was twenty-five when he made his masterpiece. Where were the twenty-five-year-olds now?
And had success made a vote for Citizen Kane automatic and stale? Did anyone now watch it with the rapt attention that it once commanded? The editor of Sight & Sound admitted that he would not be dismayed to see a new champion. A change might revitalize film studies: you see, there has been a nagging suspicion lately that movies are dead. Others felt that Citizen Kane would endure at the top. After all, what had come along in the last ten or twenty years that was a worthy rival? But the enlargement of the electorate was seen as an attempt to include younger film critics—bloggers even.
Well, it worked. The seventy-one-year-old Citizen Kane was pushed into second place, 191 votes to 157, by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a mere fifty-four-year-old. Some tipsters were not surprised. If any film had a serious chance of toppling Citizen Kane, they said, it was Vertigo (which had placed second in the 2002 poll). The only other possible contender had been hobbled by an editorial ruling. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II had been treated as one film previously (The Godfather Part III being carefully overlooked). As such, the double film had been fourth in 2002, and it might have passed Welles and Hitchcock this year; but the unrefusable word went out that The Godfather was two films, requiring two of a voter’s ten calls. And so Coppola slipped out of the running, though The Godfather was twenty-first with forty-three votes and The Godfather Part II was thirty-first with thirty-eight.
You don’t care? It’s all a silly game, quickly forgotten? Fair enough, but the movies thrive on silly games—how else should we describe going into the dark for two hours to identify with an illusion of reality? Still, the winners had things in common worth studying. They were both a lot gloomier than Fred Astaire or Preston Sturges. Citizen Kane is the attempt by a dying man to find meaning in what seemed a famous and powerful life. It concludes that any answer stays so private as to be hypothetical. You can say “rosebud” until you’re out of breath, but no one hears it, and if they did hear it they would turn it into a sound-bite. Welles’s film is a rueful commentary on humanist hopes and every classical estimate of how we should measure a man. It is a tragedy. And Vertigo is still darker. It is an allegory about the entire process of trying to shape reality to your own dream and vision. It is now widely interpreted as a metaphor for the film-making process, for casting and directing performances in ways that extend obsessive fantasy and crush real life. For Hitchcock, it was his most wounded reflection on the dangers of movie-making itself, and was a flop that he later withdrew. That is something else that the top two have in common: they were failures when they opened.
Does it persuade anyone that movies are fresh again, contemporary and pushing the envelope, if the best film is not quite of pensionable age? It is actually possible to argue that Vertigo is more old-fashioned than Citizen Kane: it has back projections; its stealthy advance tries to mask wild implausibilities; its stress on voyeurism and self-pity rewarded and then punished is morbid; its cruelty is medieval; and its conclusion is a torment of neurotic guilt. But Citizen Kane has a nimble, tricky construction; its talk is fast and witty; and its study of American public personality is veiled in irony and fatalism. It never begs us to identify with anyone in its story. Hitchcock and Welles were both artists, but Welles was incomparably more worldly, intelligent, and modern.
That is simply opinion, and a game, even if 846 esteemed critics played it. More to the point, in the 2012 vote for the ten best films of all time Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, made in 1968, was the most recent film. In the top fifty, there were only two films from “our” century: Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001). The poll was organized with the best of intentions: to revivify film study, to declare that we’re not dead, are we?, and to promote Sight & Sound. But it was no more convincing than confetti at a funeral. If they are not quite dead, the cinema and the movies sink deeper than ever into their preoccupation with dying. Citizen Kane and Vertigo are both death-wish stories.
FILM CRITICS OF certain age have been present, in spirit, at many of the same funerals for our medium. We know, as its lovers do everywhere, that movie, film, and cinema started dying a long time ago. Year after year, the funeral has been observed. But in show business every wake is a party—some of the great Hollywood romances began at such occasions. We all look good in black. So don’t be gloomy: Hamlet and his family die in every performance of his play, but he is a dead man walking and talking four hundred years after his creation. In “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, the cat was electrocuted, reduced to rubble, flattened, spifflicated, frozen, and shattered. Fade out/fade in, and there’s the frisky fellow back, looking for more, as if death were just fresh fish.
I am inclined to see the funny and positive sides in all this dying, but before we go any further, let us remember the fallen. Where do you begin? The cinema threatened daylight and the out-of-doors as primary pleasures. Nature itself took a body blow, and reality would never be the same again. We were so stricken by dignity and respectability that we let full-length feature films quash shorts—one- and two-reelers, maybe the natural length for film entertainment. We erased silence; we betrayed black-and-white; and when we had color we decided that Technicolor was too gaudy and too expensive. We grew too high-minded for B pictures, Westerns, and musicals. We wiped out the audience. No, not for real, but crowds of close to 100 million a week (in 1946, say) have been cut by three-quarters, though the population has doubled in the meantime.