|Kim Novak ponders taking the plunge in Vertigo.|
Word reaches us that after half a century, Citizen Kane has finally been dislodged from its throne at the top of the Sight and Sound "greatest films of all time" list - to be replaced by Hitchcock's Vertigo (with Kim Novak, above), a film whose critical reputation has been building for years.
Vertigo cleared the bar by a substantial number of votes - and Kane is still ensconced comfortably at #2. So the "decision," as it were, is neither arguable - nor the end of the world. Still, I think most cinéastes are right now asking themselves - would I have voted the same way as the critics who contributed to that poll? And I have to answer - no, I wouldn't have. Not in a million years. There's just no way Vertigo is a greater film than Citizen Kane.
Which isn't to say that Vertigo will ever cease to intrigue, even fascinate. There are moments of startling brilliance (such as the suddenly-tunneling perspective of its "vertigo" shots), and a generally haunting, dusty-pastel mood that's unique in Hitchcock. It's certainly a cornerstone of this director's achievement, and any analysis of his career must treat it as central.
But I think its ascension, if you will, to the pinnacle of critical acclaim tells us more about trends in criticism than it does about Vertigo itself. For to crown what amounts to Hitchcock's sexual confession as the greatest film ever made, you have to ignore its panoply of obvious flaws; some sort of unspoken criterion has to paper over its many gaps, and outweigh the hitches in this prime piece of Hitchcock.
For even in his prime, Hitchcock could be inexplicably clumsy, and there's plenty that technically goes clunk in Vertigo. The film is an awkwardly paced mélange, for instance, of evocative location shots (of romantic tourist magnets in San Francisco) with oddly stagey sequences played out on obvious sets. What's more, the screenplay - an amalgam of separate scripts by two writers, from a novel by two writers - alternately lurches and then treads water in dialogue that's often none too inspired. (We won't even mention the laughable "dream sequence," by the way. In Hitchcock, these are always terrible.)
And Kim Novak wasn't so talented (the rest of her career attests to that) - nor was she as lucky* as Hedren; she has to do far more in Vertigo than just hit her marks and scream. Indeed, the role of Madeline/Judy is arguably the most complex and fertile in this director's entire oeuvre.
(*Note: HBO will soon be airing a cable film depicting Hitchcock's sexual harassment of Tippi Hedren on the set of The Birds.)
And what makes this gap almost painfully obvious is that Novak's fumbling is set against what may, improbably, be Jimmy Stewart's finest performance. We don't believe in Novak's Madeline for a minute, yet we're asked to identify with Stewart's utter intoxication with her, even as we appreciate that his nuanced torment is about as subtle as Hollywood acting ever got. Talk about vertigo!
So what can outweigh the issues loading down Hitchcock's "masterpiece"? What can paper over the gaps in its acting, script, and production? Well, it's rather obvious that the ascension of critical theory itself is probably behind the film's accolades.
For Vertigo may have little to do with actual life as most human beings live it, but it has everything to do with Hitchcock's obsessive voyeurism, and its parallels in the voyeurism of most film critics - and the manner in which postmodern film theory feeds this complex. Indeed, seen as a theoretical confession rather than a "movie," the flaws of Vertigo all but vanish; the clunky transitions between stage and screen conventions become objects of post-modern intrigue, for instance - moments of "breakdown" in which something ineffable is "liberated." The self-pity becomes "tragedy," or at least as close to tragedy as Hollywood can get. And Novak's bad acting can be excused on one level by the crudeness of her primary character "Judy" - although to be frank, Novak's lack of ability is probably the point of the whole exercise. The "personality" of both her "characters" become secondary; the whole idea is that she serves (and struggles) as essentially a sculpted (and plucked, dyed and costumed) object of Hitchcock's obsessive fantasy.
So in a way, Vertigo crowns not the achievement of the art of film in general, but rather the apotheosis of the auteur theory of film at its most sexist, and most self-referential (on both sides of the screen). But then Vertigo isn't really about love or death, or even sex - it's about the movies, or at least Hitchcock's movies - and so it shouldn't be so surprising that movie critics should decide it's really the best movie ever made; after all, it's about them.
|The fallen idol - Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane.|
What's funny, of course, is that much the same could be said of Citizen Kane - after all, aren't the needy flaws of its outsized central character approximately the same as those of its outsized director and star (above)? Isn't it obsessed with itself, and doesn't it, too, treat the problem of voyeurism in emotional (and political) life?
The difference, of course, is that while Vertigo devolves into a morbid vortex of withdrawal, and is essentially built of limited means, Citizen Kane is an exuberant, extroverted explosion, a veritable cornucopia of tricks, techniques, and cinematic ideas that never lets up, is brought off to near-perfection, and remains exhilarating till its finish. If Griffith and Eisenstein invented film syntax, then Welles pushed it into a form of poetry that dances between a kind of hyper-theatrical space and the very limits of cinematic expressionism. After reading the news from Sight and Sound, I watched both movies again last night - and Kane all but obliterated Vertigo; but then whenever I've seen it in a double feature (and I saw it that way several times many moons ago, back when there were double features), it always blew away its companion film, whatever the film was. There simply is no other movie like it; sometimes, in fact, I think there's Citizen Kane - and then there's everything else.
And looking over the Sight and Sound list, I'm struck again and again by its eccentricity. I've never been one to rate the miniatures of Ozu (whose Tokyo Story - admittedly lovely - is currently at #3) over the sagas of Bergman or Kurosawa, for instance. But then I'm glad Renoir's Grand Illusion has at last been replaced here, as in most of these polls, by his superior Rules of the Game. Other ratings likewise made me cheer or cringe. Bergman and Kurosawa now trail Fellini, and only barely edge out Tarkovsky? And seriously - Godard's Contempt at #21? Clearly too many self-serious male film school grads participated in this poll!
Still, wasn't it ever thus? Everything is temporary, after all. Someday the critics will be less dizzy over Vertigo, and it too will fall from the heights. And I don't think anyone needs to have read a review to respond to the wonders of Citizen Kane. In fact I might just sit down and watch it all over again tonight.