[ WARNING: Personal rant that may or may not have to do with thread. DO NOT READ if you are not interested in rambling, opinionated shit ]
It started out as a response to another comment, but I simply ended up with some sort of tumor of a comment. ;) :
The question of whether Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made leads right to the ‘What is Art’ question I feel, they certainly go hand in hand. The ‘Kane Question’ has itself become somewhat universal, as if to solidify all discussions on ‘masterpieces’ and ‘greatness’ and is certainly probably the first film to do so. Personally, there are many films on my favorites and even off my favorites list I think are better than several of the film in my top ten. However, there are also ones that I feel are truly better and more entertaining than the ones lower down. I find M. Hulot’s Holiday like this. It’s just outside my top ten, Kane is past twenty-five. Do I find one ‘greater’ than the other or vice versa. As strange as this sounds: No. I may rate Hulot higher or equal with Kane, I may watch or prefer one over the other but I don’t know if I could say one was ‘greater’. The concept of what is ‘great’ filmmaking has been eating away at my mind for so long. I rate films on a scale out of ten but rarely lower than 7 or higher than 9 or 9.5 and I’ve thought I’m too lenient. Along with this I’ve noticed people use that word, ‘great’, more frequently and, to me, flippant attitude along with others such as ‘overrated’, ‘pretentious’, and ‘masterpiece’. All the countless comments I’ve read and heard from others almost dulls these words for me. They are losing their meaning and poignancy. Where on occasion they seem justifiably given, they’ve gone from high-class escorts to the hooker on the street corner. They do the same job and mean the same, but look better in one context than the other.
So, all the constant buzz on ‘greatness’ and ‘masterpieces’ seems to imply the question of art, what is and is not. I think we can all agree that none of us could agree on a single, all-inclusive definition of what ‘art’ is, but yet we know what art isn’t? That’s about as useful as saying, ‘Well I don’t know how to get to Detroit, but I can tell ya all the ways not to get there!’. And if you’re not going to Detroit in the first place, it’s all the more useless to mention it. If anything, art is creating or creation. So by that, all film is art and that is the way I ‘try’ to approach any film I watch [though this is one of several things I’m sure I contradict myself on]. From the commercial cow-pies of Hollywood to the depression inducing ‘auteur’ works of masters, film is art. And rather than say something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art, we take it in a tone that we say something is either art or not. Yet they all require direction, they all require writing, they all require acting and photography and set design yet in the denying of something as bad as Pearl Harbor as ‘art’, we deny the work gone into it [talent is arguable].
Now, it seems I’m playing devil’s advocate. That by saying this I am in some indirect way encouraging the Bay’s of the world at the expense of the ‘true’ artists of cinema [place your favorite auteur here]. I understand if someone saw it that way, but I think of it like ensuring that the innocent man goes free even at the expense of letting go the criminals. [And luckily I know films do not have police records] Film criticism, on both the professional and amateur levels, makes me think it has descended to this: it is easier to say that a film is ‘overrated’ than to say that it is good. And we all want to say that we think it’s bad rather than admit that it could be good for others, at least without being condescending. Unless a director or a film is a favorite, we approach it wearily. Depending on what we hear, we may assume it will be bad and only look for the bad. If it’s a director or premise we do not like, we look for the bad even more. No one loves anything more than a good ol’ fashioned film-bashing
I guess all I’m trying to say, however hypocritically and poorly, is that I think that to some extent we’ve forgotten how to ‘enjoy’ films. Why do we care so much about looking for masterpieces and ‘great’ cinema? I think about it now, why have I wanted to see Godard or Bergman or Renoir? I don’t quite know, I think maybe because of the names and notoriety. I’ve been shallow in my viewing. I watch films for the names attached or sense of popularity rather than of it’s own value and I wonder if I really, deep down actually care about these deep, meaningful types of films. In a way, however twisted it may sound, I think I was more sincere when I wanted to watch Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls because I was an Indy fan than Through a Glass Darkly ’cause it was a Bergman film.
This isn’t an attempt at elitism, pomposity, or a ‘woe is me’ type of statement. Like I said, I’m sure few will agree with me but I don’t really care. It’s something I’ve wanted to say for quite awhile and now I have. Probably just the cinema equivalent to a ‘crisis of faith’. lol
critics dont need to focus on film history, techniques, or conventions to stay relevant. they just need to write good criticism. the film “reviewers” just need to write good advertisements.
i have no idea why critics must negate the significance of pathos in a work, and i never knew “bicycle theives” hasnt fared well in the critical community.
so it seems your argument is that “kane” is usually number one because it takes an arcane body of knowledge to appreciate it? because only the “highbrow critics” favor it? (as if those same “highbrow critics” dont favor “bicycle theives”, or “rules”)
any critic that ignores pathos, or any aesthetic element of a film, isnt much of a critic. besides, i find “kane” to be a very moving, tender film. and who cant feel sympathy for him at the end? arent many of us lonely soles, wishing we could hold on to our innocence, or any other element in the whirlwind of life that makes us comfortable and keep our bearings?
Kane is not recognized normally for it’s story. If it were it wouldn’t be that much more moving than any other great film, and certainly would not be recognized as greater than any other. There are hundreds if not thousands of characters in film more well-rounded than Charles Foster Kane. Citizen Kane is recognized for it’s innovation. The cinematic techniques it brought together, and how it changed cinema afterward. If we went on story alone Citizen Kane would not be continuously heralded as the greatest film ever made, but, rather, just another great film.
It is Kane’s technical innovation that keeps it fresh atop the list, and, to me, that’s a rather poor reasoning. Kane is undoubtedly the most influential film ever made, but does influence equal greatness? One need only look at Birth of a Nation, and the work of Riefenstahl to hear the answer: a resounding no. It’s a great film, but I don’t see it as any greater than many other Hollywood films of the time.
i dont begrudge you for not rating “kane” as highly as others. but i have to say the story and characterizations are as brilliant as its formal style.
also, if “kane” is fresh atop the list, its because of its cinematic qualities. and nothing can be wiser reasoning than that when assessing the worth of a film (except analyzing what those cinematic aesthetics are in service of).
>One need only look at Birth of a Nation, and the work of Riefenstahl…
Absolutely terrible examples against which to measure Kane – you couldn’t have picked worse ones.
I’d think that a much better example would be 2001: A Space Odyssey: innovations in the script, image, sound, montage, and scoring; and an evergreen quality in its influence on what follows (even beyond the bounds of cinema and across other media). It’s a very small and exclusive class of films we’re talking about here. And in the American context, very specifically, the film is significant/great/perennial for all kinds of reasons.
Citizen Kane is no less a great cultural touchstone than, say, The Great Gatsby, and for many of the same reasons, the way it so sharply anatomizes one vital component of our history and culture. And if you look at that part of a film’s valuation, its cultural significance (even over and above what may be seminal technical innovations), you find that not very many films attain to that sort of significance. When anyone judges Kane by a kind of facile grasp of deep focus or the “breakfast montage” or whatever, and finds it overrated, it’s like e.g. looking at Nashville and wondering what all the “hype” over the actors’ cross-talk was all about…
Bobby – To me Charles Foster Kane is no more tragic, or fully defined as Norma Desmond. It’s personal, and I don’t expect that opinion to be the majority, but that’s how I see it. I don’t see any character in Citizen Kane as deeper than any other in the many great Hollywood films of the 40’s & 50’s (or many other eras for that matter).
Witkacy – Why are they terrible examples? Three directors who influenced almost all filmmakers after them, why is that a terrible example? You missed my point anyway. I was only saying influential films are not necessarily great ones. Cultural significance is not a measure of greatness. The story should be the main component in measuring a films greatness, and I personally don’t find anything in Kane to signal it better than most other great films. And anyway who’s to say Birth of a Nation is a culturally significant film of it’s era? Do the mistakes of the past taint our definition of significant? Certainly Birth of a Nation was the most talked about film of its time, and one of the few silent films that is immediately recognizable by any, and all serious film aficionados. If Citizen Kane is a culturally significant film then Birth is, too. Indeed our own library of Congress deemed it, “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films.”
“When anyone judges Kane by a kind of facile grasp of deep focus or the ‘breakfast montage’ or whatever, and finds it overrated, it’s like e.g. looking at Nashville and wondering what all the ‘hype’ over the actors’ cross-talk was all about…”
You find one single instance in which I mentioned one of those specific examples and shrugged them off as “overrated,” and I will cede my position to you. You can disagree with me, but don’t put words in my mouth.
It’s strange how Kane has become the unofficial watermark to judge other films. Why is that? Is it a combination of it’s uniqueness for the time and Welles’ later career? Plus, if Kane weren’t seen as ‘the greatest film ever made’ would another just as easily gain this notoriety?
>>Why are they terrible examples?<<
Well, in the case of Reifenstahl, whenever I’ve watched TRIUMPH OF THE WILL I see that everything seems to have been ripped from Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN and METROPOLIS.
On the other hand I can’t think of a single filmmaker she influenced.
On a personal level, Kane doesn’t do that much for me. It’s a great film, no doubt, but it just doesn’t work for me personally.
That said, I think that there is a legitimate reason as to why it’s often cited as the greatest movie of all time. In the midst of all the discussion about how innovative Kane is, I think we misunderstand HOW it was innovative. Many of the techniques that Wells used can be found in films like “The Cabinet of Dr. Calagri”, “M”, “The Grapes of Wrath”, and “Intolerance”. Wells didn’t invent so much as he synthesized. “Citizen Kane” to me is a summation of everything that had come before it in all of cinema, both on a technical and story level. Wells used every trick in the bag for just the right story, and made a masterpiece. And I think the only way for people to really realize this is to watch quite a load of films that predate Kane. If you only look at it as an antiquated film that doesn’t live up to the “Greatest Movie of All Time” billing, then I think you’re missing the point.
Somehow we need to get back to seeing “Citizen Kane” as a real live movie instead of a museum piece.
“…whenever I’ve watched TRIUMPH OF THE WILL I see that everything seems to have been ripped from Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN and METROPOLIS.”
Is it not just as easy for me to say most techniques found in Kane can be found in films dating back a decade or more before, as Nathan said above me? So, Riefenstahl ripped off Lang, but Welles didn’t rip off Renoir’s use of deep focus, or the many other techniques already in use that he’s credited as creating? What makes the difference?
“Somehow we need to get back to seeing “Citizen Kane” as a real live movie instead of a museum piece.”
that should be said for every single silent piece of film,ever since the arrival of Cinema as New Art..
I believe that it was so far ahead of its time, that it would feel right at home with the films of today give it the legendary status it maintains to this day. So when analyzing whether it is the “greatest movie ever made” we must must ask whether great refers to the scale of the movie i.e. the the fact that it was so advanced, the impact that it had on cinema, or the just the viewing experience as a whole. I believe that it is the “Greatest” movie ever made because of the impact that it had on cinema and the grandiose scale that the film has.
i’m all for seeing “kane” as a real live movie instead of a museum piece, or “the stuff that legends are made of.” every time i watch it, i get carried away by the sheer joy and brilliance and satisfaction of good movie-making. i dont get carried away by an intellectual idea, or a formal experiment, or the thought that i’m watching the greatest film ever made.
i get carried away by the song and dance routine at the newspaper office. i get carried away with the opening newsreel montage. thats the secret of the film’s success to me. it consistently defies what you would hope to label it with and consistently woos you with its utter charm, time and time again. the category of “greatest movie of all time” is too restrictive for “kane”. the only prize the film is interested in is your heart and emotions. rarely has such love been poured into the making of a film, then also poured out to the audience in absorbing it.
We can wholeheartedly agree on that, Bobby.
Bobby: I think that’s what’s amazing about Kane. It extremely accessible and in some instances arguably relateable. It’s a perfect balance of entertainment and artistry. You can sit back and simply enjoy it as well as observe the techniques or ‘themes’ that it shows.
Re.: Harry Long’s point — “Well, in the case of Reifenstahl, whenever I’ve watched TRIUMPH OF THE WILL I see that everything seems to have been ripped from Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN and METROPOLIS.
On the other hand I can’t think of a single filmmaker she influenced.”
Riefenstahl may not have influenced any major filmmakers (except for that last scene in STAR WARS, when Luke, Hans Solo, and the Wookie march down the aisle to get their awards — just as 3 Nazis do in the outdoor war memorial scene in TRIUMPH); however, TRIUMPH has had a STRONG influence on U.S. campaign commercials. The most obvious example, for those old enough to remember, was the “Morning in America” spots for Ronald Reagan in 1984. Indeed, those spots were strung together into a 30-minute campaign film that was used as Reagan’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention that year.
>And anyway who’s to say Birth of a Nation is a culturally significant film of its era?
CAZ – I think that a big difference here is that the source novel The Clansman (written by Woodrow Wilson’s college buddy Thomas Dixon) is a crazy potboiler, a prototype of the alternate history fiction even now beloved by the right-wing lunatic fringe (in our time, something like Red Dawn or The Turner Diaries); and we’d consider that stuff no better than ephemera, an historical curiosity rather than a rigorous exercise in historically-themed art. (But the selection of BOTA for preservation in the National Film Registry is totally defensible even on grounds having nothing to do with the influence of its cinematic technique.)
>I personally don’t find anything in Kane to signal it better than most other great films
I think of it this way: Kane was released about sixty-eight years ago. How many films have been produced in the U.S. in the years since; and how many – if any – of those have plumbed the history and psychology of the Hearst-style plutocrat as this film did? And it’s not just what’s depicted at length, but also how certain elements are elided (which fits the kind of supercilious Master of the Universe attitude of CF Kane)…Only reflect that, whereas Welles gave us CF Kane in the ‘Forties, in a more contemporary context we’ve got cartoonish versions of the type, like Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko…
BTW I didn’t mean to put words in your mouth, before – I was trying to make a more general point, and I’m sorry if I gave that impression.
“I think that a big difference here is that the source novel The Clansman (written by Woodrow Wilson’s college buddy Thomas Dixon) is a crazy potboiler, a prototype of the alternate history fiction even now beloved by the right-wing lunatic fringe (in our time, something like Red Dawn or The Turner Diaries)…”
Absolutely. But the film wasn’t made within this decade, and based on The Turner Diaries. It was made in a time when a vast majority believed it to be an accurate depiction of that historical event, and time period. It’s attitudes towards blacks was the majority opinion, at least in the south. It had a great cultural significance in its time. The story Kane tells is more relevant now than Birth, but both at the time of their release were important in what they say about the society they were made in.
“I think of it this way: Kane was released about sixty-eight years ago. How many films have been produced in the U.S. in the years since; and how many – if any – of those have plumbed the history and psychology of the Hearst-style plutocrat as this film did?”
Again, it’s significance, and lasting power doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great film. It’s means it’s an important, and influential film, and it means that the scope of the story is more lasting than the story itself, but not that the film is great. I can cite film after film that seems wholly irrelevant in it’s message, or theme today, but is still a great film. A film of its time, or a film of all time… makes no difference to me. A great film is a great film is a great film.
No problem sir. I realize that was more than likely what you were doing, but I wanted to make it clear that I do not think the significance, and innovative nature of Citizen Kane should be overlooked.
Cinema: What is it that makes a film great? Do you see it as a sort of personal judgment?
Basically yes. Film is an art, and therefore wholly subjective. In the entirety of film history there is not one greatest film, but merely opinions of the greatest film. I have mine, you have yours, we probably disagree, but it’s art.
It’s funny that I never hear literary scholars point to a single novel as the greatest ever written… or art historians tell us there is a single great painting, or sculpture, or such. It’s almost as if film scholars, and historians, and critics believe they have to prove the legitimacy of film as an art by pointing out these films (Citizen Kane, Battleship Potemkin, The Rules of the Game, etc…) and saying, “See? See? We have great works, too.”
if theres debates as to the centrality of the film canon, its because the history of cinema is so short. good luck debating whats the greatest painting of all time, or the greatest book, or poem, or music. theres such an avalanche of materials out there across so many generations that the thought is laughable, almost illogical.
but i guess that means in the next century we wont have to debate what is the one greatest film of all-time. hopefully we’ll resign ourselves to the position that the question is as impossible to answer as that for the other arts mentioned. assuming cinema as we know it still exists as an art form…
There was an episode of The Sopranos where Carmela organized a movie club with her girl friends to watch officially AFI-type approved great films. The one the women watched was Citizen Kane, and they discussed it afterwards. Very amusing ep.
“theres such an avalanche of materials out there across so many generations that the thought is laughable, almost illogical.”
Don’t kid yourself, there’s plenty of greatness in the film world. It’s a new art form yes, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a great film, probably even a masterpiece, released every year, and that there are literally thousands of real, justifiable contenders for the greatest film ever made. It’s just as laughable to think that film has a singular greatest film as it is to say music has a single greatest composition, or literature has a greatest novel/poem et al.
Cinema: ‘It’s funny that I never hear literary scholars point to a single novel as the greatest ever written… or art historians tell us there is a single great painting, or sculpture, or such. It’s almost as if film scholars, and historians, and critics believe they have to prove the legitimacy of film as an art by pointing out these films (Citizen Kane, Battleship Potemkin, The Rules of the Game, etc…) and saying, “See? See? We have great works, too.”’
I know, that’s what’s funny about film. There is no need to list a greatest film, in my opinion anyway.
@ CINEMA: as it turns out, literary scholars have their top 100 lists too. Recently, the Modern Library organized a Board to select the best novels in the English language. I’ve pasted 20 of them below in order. One oddity: I’ve also pasted the Top 20 Readers’ Selections below that, which include 4 novels by Ayn Rand and 3 by L. Ron Hubbard. I’m surprised that ULYSSES made it to both lists!
My point is there isn’t the feeling of necessity in literature. Almost every film magazine, or journal, or individual scholar, historian, and/or critic has a personal top ten on their website. Why? Does it validate your opinion? Does it make you serious? I don’t see any point in it.
Ulysses may be the greatest novel ever written, but you’d be a lot harder pressed to find the consensus in the literary community that you find in the film community.
CINEMA: I agree with you. In the early days of film education, it was thought to be important to justify offering college-level courses and degree programs in Cinema. Often these programs started in literature departments, where many academics didn’t consider film a valid field of study. By listing the masterpieces of cinema and hailing their directors as “auteurs,” film scholars were able to validate their existences in the university. Much of this happened in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, two of the prime decades for international Top Ten lists, such as the SIGHT & SOUND poll, and the spread of the auteur theory by Andrew Sarris. Robin Wood’s original book on Hitchcock compared teh director to Shakespeare.
Getting back to the original point about KANE: I believe that academe was partially responsible for the “hype” about that particular film. Like great literature, it dealt with serious themes and issues, was creatively innovative in style, and was perceived to be the work of a single “genius,” Orson Welles. I happen to think that all the hype is deserved, but I’m trying to address the question of how KANE got to be treated as THE GREATEST. It’s possible that KANE is BOTH the greatest film ever made AND one of the most hyped for its greatness among a certain class of cineastes, like professional critics, academics, and folks on this Web site
This doesn’t explain everything about lists and the canonical status of CITIZEN KANE, but you’re right: literature doesn’t always have to be justifying its existence in the academy or in newspapers and magazines. Imagine what it’s like (or WAS like) for people trying to create TELEVISION STUDIES programs at universities!
literature doesn’t always have to be justifying its existence
Literature studies have had about 3000 years or so to work all that out.
Thank you Dr. Tomasulo. I think you and I agree on a great many things. Are you the real Dr. Frank P. Tomasulo? I read this thing you wrote on L’Avventura, here. Maybe the best, most cogent argument on a film I’ve struggled with mightily. So, I must thank you for that.
“Literature studies have had about 3000 years or so to work all that out.”
It doesn’t matter. If film is a viable art it shouldn’t have to continuously prove it’s worth. Whether it’s a decade old, or a millennia. Art is art… subjective, and personal. There shouldn’t be an emphasis on “greatest,” anything.
i think Citizen Kane has been tainted…in a good way.