Friday, 1 March 2013

The best film ever made

Citizen Kane, it's almost certainly not the best film ever made, yet it consistently appears at the top in best film polls, most notably the Sight and Sound critic and film professional poll. Don't get me wrong it's a pretty good film, just nowhere near best, probably not even in the top 20%, let's face it, it's not even Orson Welles's best film. So why does it garner such a conspicuous level of constant admiration? Well, I'm going to suggest that, it's largely a case of the emperors new cloths, in that the weight of opinion in favour of the film has too strong an authority, too great a provenance, for a lot of people to run the risk of appearing naive by stating the obvious, that is: it's a bit pointless. Pretty harsh appraisal of the film I know but it succinctly sums up the films weakness. In case you didn't already know, Citizen Kane is a thinly disguised character assassination of William Randolf Hurst, the one time media magnate and progenitor of the phenomenon known as yellow journalism. As such. when it was made, it quite an audacious project, Hurst had far more influence and had a longer reach than any contemporary media mogul. That's essentially the problem with the film though, it's relevance as a commentary is too specific to the era it was made and has little relevance in a general context, in other words, it'd dated and -- a bit pointless. This doesn't mean that I don't appreciate Welles as a talent, I pretty sure he was an extraordinary dramatist, maybe his talents were exercised too far in the direction of self promotion but hey that's better than starving in obscurity.

So what is the best ever film? There isn't a best ever of course, and such is true in every field of human endeavour. If there was such a thing, it would probably be obscure and eclectic, something you'd never see, like a drama concerning the story of a blind zither virtuoso who earned his living playing at drive in weddings in Las Vegas. So is it all down to a matter of personal taste, you know, some people like Transformers, others like The Color Purple? Well that's not really true either, like it or not, we're influenced by our peers on a more fundamental level than most of us probably realize. Most of us probably have had the odd occasion when we've enjoyed a film, book or TV show but felt a certain reticence in expressing our appreciation in certain contexts. Say you went to see Cats and had a great time, you wouldn't neccessarily relay that experience to the Millwall supporters that inhabit your local would you. Or maybe you particularly enjoyed Rambo - First Blood 2, the boys at the poetry reading circle may not be that impressed with your enthusiasm for such. Well such social pressure can and does influence your actual appreciation as well as your willingness to express it and it's easily provable, although a lot people, especially those with an exaggerated view of their independence of thought, will continue to deny it. It's one of a group of phenomenon that influence your appreciation and critical faculty in many ways, some subtle other not so, that I call barriers.

I've mentioned barriers before but lets re-iterate my definition: barriers are essentially attitudes that you bring to any experience, in this context, those experiences concern the appreciation of artistic expression but you could equally apply the concept to other experiences. For example, you probably wouldn't  ride a roller coaster named, Sudden Death Cascade, if you suffered a chronic fear of heights. Such phobias can present a strong barrier to artistic appreciation. I do recall one instance when a cinema goer had to be convinced to stay seated and not walk out during a showing of The Living Daylights. The sight of TImothy Dalton's stunt man hanging out the back of an aeroplane and flapping around hanging by a seemingly tenuous thread was too much for him. In this context though, barriers tend to be related more to socially acquired attitudes. Barriers can be manifested by all sorts of attitudes, they can be related to religion or similar ideologies, personal preferences, social or cultural stigma, politics anything really that can encourage you into preconception. To illustrate lets examine, Triumph of the Will a notorious film directed by Leni Riefenstahl, for those who don't know it, it's a German film documenting the 1934 Nazi party congress in Nuremberg. The first part of the film is the most interesting from a cinematic and historical perspective, the later part although quite innovative in technique, is just too mind numbingly tedious for any one who isn't dedicated national socialist to watch in one sitting. On the occasions I've watched this film, the cinematography has impressed me but I'm always prompted into sadness by the knowledge that many of the happy faces, the children waving their hankies and their ecstatic mothers will suffer a terrible fate along with the many unseen faces in the coming catastrophe. You see, I'm bringing a context to the film, my acquired knowledge of subsequent events. Now imagine how much more acute that reaction would be if I were someone who'd lived through that era, lost relatives, loved ones, neighbours or friends in the conflict. Somehow I can't see such a person, appreciating the subtle juxtaposition brought about through  editing or the framing of certain shots.

Perceptual filters, now these are really interesting, they're related to barriers in that they're most often realised through socially acquired means, the very same ones that barriers are so often manifested through. In fact there is some overlap between barriers and perceptual filters and the two concepts are separate but not explicitly delineated. The key difference between the two is that a perceptual filter will alter how you interpret and perceive an experience so that you will perceive thing in a distorted manner. That is, have an exaggerated perception of certain aspects of a work or perceive aspects that don't actually exist within the actual work at all. This can be manifested as simple misinterpretation, the obvious example is that someone who watches The Dambusters may perceive that the name of the dog represents certain attitudes expressed in the film. The surprising thing is that perceptual filters are not limited to misinterpretation, in fact they're most often manifested as complete fabrications, that is people see and hear things, or rather recall such when prompted, that don't happen. A good example of this was demonstrated with, Planet of Perils the first episode in the 1934 Flash Gordon Serial. When asked to comment on the portrayal of Dale Arden, the female lead character, it's common for commentators to stress her passive role within the drama and her dependence on the male lead character, Flash Gordon to continually extradite her from peril prompted by her continual cries of "Oh Flash". This perception is consistent with contemporary attitudes towards gender types in popular action orientated drama from that era. However it is somewhat at odds with the on screen reality and indeed the social reality of that era. In fact the Dale Arden character is never placed in serious peril in this episode, quite the contrary, the Flash Gordon character is the one facing danger and it is Arden who offers him moral support. The two instance where Arden does cry out are prompted by concern for her male compatriot and not by stereotypical hysteria, this discrepancy is best summarized by the perceptual filter concept. One thing that distinguishes perceptual filters is that we're not universally vulnerable to them on nearly like the same scale as we are barriers, virtually everyone has barriers but you have to be slightly wrong in the head to be persistently subject to perceptual filters, that's not to say that were not all a little weak minded on occasion or that there aren't a lot of people soft in the head most of the time either.

There you go, those are some of the reasons why the label, the best film ever made, is something you shouldn't take too seriously, On the other the hand, Conan The Barbarian, directed by John Millius, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, is, the best film ever made.


  1. Alias Nick Beal is ONE of the best films ever made, The Wind In The Willows is the best book OF ITS KIND ever written, I'm the best guy called Kid Robson ever born - and that was one of the most interesting posts I've ever read.

    1. Thanks Kid, you know I've never read The Wind in the Willows, might give a go on your recommendation.