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The Greatest Motion Picture Is…

September 11, 2012

“Orson (Welles) was a rugged individualist who had a lot to lose by giving in to what he thought was wrong. If Orson wants certain things, by God, he’s going to get them.” –Cinematographer Stanley Cortez

This summer of our discontent, European film critics made international news by replacing Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo as Best Movie Ever.

Let’s be clear about this. Welles’ 1941 black-and-white film is an enormously vital historical drama about the rise and fall of a publishing tycoon, triumphantly capped by an immortal closing shot. Vertigo — 1958, Technicolor — is a queasy claustrophobic  psycho-sexual melodrama (with a disappointing last act) made by a great director.

In art criticism, even of motion pictures, there are certain standards, and one of them is size matters. Citizen Kane trumps Vertigo because the earlier movie takes audiences adventuring into broader and deeper and richer human experiences. An ecstatic young genius named Welles grandly tours the 20th century’s urban horizon. By making shrewd observations, he entertains us royally with a man of the world’s truths about all kinds and classes of striking people.

Vertigo shrinks out of the real world into the half-light obsessions of a necrophiliac. For most of its running time, this condition, at once sickening and dull, seems almost to matter. Through the compression of Hitchcock’s great art, audiences get temporarily infected for, unfortunately, not quite the entire length of the movie. But a faltering conclusion is the limitation of a trumped-up plot.

Vertigo, in short, has nothing to say. And, I guess, all that matters to a socialist European movie critic today — all that he has which is truly his alone — is his disease. Hence, the elevation of Hitchcock’s thin fable. From this shoddy announcement, we learn more about the accelerating Death of Old Europe than we do about great movies.

We free capitalists of the USA should not, however, feel any too damn smug. Seventy-year-old Citizen Kane reveals a Grand Thesis about our commercialism which is so all-inclusive it finally ate its author. In achieving this indelible cinematic statement, Welles foretold his own career.

A Fate as inevitable as Greek tragedy stalks public successes forged in the red-hot vacuum of American popular culture. Whether it is newspaper tycoons, movie moguls, superstars, or exalted politicians, the Law of Pop is…

“What Makes You, Breaks You.”

Okay, since I roundly reject the new European choice, even as I honor the healthy critical instinct to overturn stale canons of excellence — maybe they are right, and Citizen Kane top-honored long enough — I intend, in my next posting, to reveal what is the only clear and obvious choice for numero uno.

The greatest motion picture of all time is…

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