When everybody looks left and you go right – or what Bruce Willis calls the Kansas City Shuffle in Lucky Number Slevin – is usually something worth aiming for (as long as the reasons are the right ones). If you can find beauty or glorious subtext in something which has been panned then defend it by all means. Similarly, I’ll gladly listen to a coherent argument that succinctly expresses why a supposedly great film isn’t worth your time after all. The question I have is whether the so-called classics are being revered for being great films, or merely because they were able to do great things in advancing the medium. Is appreciation of greatness the same thing as greatness itself?
To be clear, we’re not talking about a failure to understand why the film is significant or why it has an allure to many, but rather an inability to connect with it personally on an emotional, artistic or intellectual level. Put simply: what’s the correct response when you can appreciate a film, but nothing more? It’s been something I’ve mulled over for a while, and the issue reared its ugly head once more last week during my first-time viewing of heralded and hailed documentary F for Fake. The 1973 picture from mastermind Orson Welles is commonly regarded to be a genre-impacting picture, but instead of finding it spellbinding, my interest waned more and more. I found it to be jarring, fragmented and frustrating which – though fully aware that this is partly the point – was both unexpected and disappointing.
Could and can I appreciate its significance, marvel at certain technical (editing) and thematic (blurring of fact and fiction) aspects, and recognise what it achieved for cinema – in particular documentary – as a whole, specifically at that point in time? Absolutely. But it left me wholly frustrated… and not what I expect from the so-called classics, unless the subject requires that. [For instance, recent examples of Tyrannosaur and We Need To Talk About Kevin are intentionally upsetting and difficult to view, which is fine] This film was unnecessarily unreachable and that therefore constitutes a failure, at least in one respect.
And it’s not just a reaction on the back of this one experience that has led to such a worrisome outlook. It’s not even the only Orson Welles film that does this to me. Again I can marvel at the opening sequence to Touch of Evil as much as the next guy, but much of what follows is uninteresting and simply meanders along – and that’s from a film noir fan (no wonder this is considered the final film of the original noir period). And yet I think Citizen Kane is great, partly because I can both appreciate the cinematic advancements that it took/created, and also enjoy (key word) and engage in the film too.
Film is neither a science that is to be solely examined nor a book to be merely read. It is a mixture of the objective and subjective, of fantasy and reality, of pleasure and pain. And most importantly – at least in my view – it relies on a combination of both appreciation and enjoyment in order to create true satisfaction. Does that equate to masterpieces, or classics, or seminal works?
I should clarify that there is an obvious split between critically-acclaimed films throughout history (e.g. the Sight & Sound poll conducted every decade) and those treasured throughout time as decided by the masses, and looked upon favourably by the general public (e.g. the IMDb Top 250). The most recent top ten from Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll is made up of Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, The Rules of the Game, Sunrise, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Searchers, Man With a Movie Camera, The Passion of Joan of Arc and 8½, ranging from 1927 to 1968 and with an average release date of1946. The typical consumer will do well to know over half of them, and will likely have seen fewer still (personally, I’ve seen three).
The IMDB Top 250 doesn’t have any of these in its Top 10 astonishingly enough (of the ten, Citizen Kane is highest appearing at #48) and instead has six films released within the last 20 years, with two more from the 70s, one from the 60s and another from the 50s, resulting in an average of 1986, exactly forty years later than Sight & Sound. The films in question are far more in tune with pop culture, including two of The Godfather trilogy, The Dark Knight, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Pulp Fiction and Fight Club. Of the ten, for comparison sake, I’ve seen six.
So what can we take from this contrast? Believe it or not, the Sight & Sound poll has been recently updated – widened to include more contributors and better reflect their diverse interests – so this list is in fact a pretty progressive end-product compared to the past. But the fact still remains: it’s well and truly stuck there. There’s no doubt – to return to our theme of appreciation – that we can revel in and have gratitude for the work of early filmmakers who advanced film with revolutionary techniques. But there also has to be a time where we move on, or at least recognise that this process is still growing and evolving, from the brilliant work of Wilder, Lumet and Hitchcock through Kubrick, Spielberg and Coppola and arriving at Scorsese, Tarantino and Nolan.
Alfonso Cuaron has arguably just made the greatest 3D film in existence, but do we have to wait 50 years to recognise that? I’m all for patiently allowing films to settle so that we can truly assess their worth – particularly long-term – but Citizen Kane narrowly missed out on the top ten in 1952 (just eleven years after release) and was topping the poll in 1962. It seems that in this case the critics knew early on of its merits, and they weren’t afraid to say so. The problem was that it stayed there for 40 years, as did most of the other agreed-upon-classics.
Even though the period of silent cinema is often ignored – as in both lists – the Sight & Sound poll also has nothing from the last 40 years touching its top ten. There are an elite few which are canonised for eternity, and this inflexibility appears to render the question surrounding the greatest films of all time null and void. The ongoing IMDB poll, however, is skewed in the opposite direction; it pays too much attention on what is current and not enough on long-term impact. A negotiation is required that takes into account both appreciation and enjoyment of the film(s) in question.
Appreciation without enjoyment only leads so far for most people. Inaccessibility for its own sake – in and of itself – is pretentious, unworthy and unhelpful. Whereas those that made certain advancements should be remembered fondly, they should not be revered without justification, or without criticism. Going back to my original point, then: does this make it any clearer as to whether the classics can be appreciated but not liked? Well, I think it does.
It highlights the notion that critics have a great fondness for a certain period, but there are numerous reasons for this, one of which being that they grew up in this time. It’s a lot more difficult to truly comprehend the jumps from ‘A’ to ‘B’ if you’re doing it retrospectively, rather than living it as it’s happening. I’m fully prepared to admit that Rashomon might be a milestone in the history of cinema in terms of certain narrative devices, but don’t expect me to like the film. In fact, in the age of ‘first but wrong’, can this principal be applied to films too? Thanks for the discovery re: unreliable narrators and everything, but for me it’s films like The Usual Suspects that use it to great effect.
It’s time we acknowledged that some sleeping dogs should be left to lie a little bit, and it’s not such a bad thing to debate even the so-called greats and classics, regardless of stature. There are a great many films which aren’t successful upon release and are then retroactively cherished (It’s a Wonderful Life, Casablanca, The Shawshank Redemption) and the opposite can be true, although perhaps not quite to the same extent. It’s time we started to challenge that notion by having a fluid system when it comes to film judgements; always evaluate, always question, always try to understand. But as much as I’ll try to, please don’t blame me if I don’t.