Thursday, 2 August 2012

No head for heights

Every ten years, since 1952, the British Film Institute magazine Sight & Sound has published a list of the greatest films of all time, based on a poll of critics and film-makers. Since the second poll in 1962, the number one film has been Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. This year, Rosebud & co have finally given way to a thrusting new kid on the block, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. The steady progress of the latter (7th in 1982, 4th in 1992 and 2nd in 2002) must indicate something, though I'm in two minds as to what it is.

It might appear odd that a Brit publication should have such clout, but the UK (or more precisely London) has a reputation as being even-handed in its treatment of Hollywood and international (i.e. non-English) cinema, so it earns kudos in a way that Roger Ebert or Cahiers du Cinema could not. A failure to show any sort of home bias probably helps as well. Apart from Brief Encounter in 1952, there hasn't been a "proper" British film in the critics' top ten, though 2001: A Space Odyssey (6th this year) counts as a British production and Hitchcock learnt his trade in the UK.

Since 1992, the votes of film directors have constituted a separate poll. This has tended to become more modern in its choices, partly as recent directors are celebrated (so The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and Taxi Driver all feature). Conversely, the critics' poll has become ever more antique, so we now have three silent films in the top ten and none more recent than Kubrick's 1968 space epic. I suspect this separation has helped propel Vertigo to the top, as the directors clearly still value a Welles or an Ozu ahead of a Hitch.

I'm not a great fan of Hitchcock as I find his work melodramatic (the McGuffin is, by definition, manipulative), misanthropic and lacking in humour. I think these qualities go together. I'm also jaded by the excess of psychoanalytic tropes, which indicate either cynical exploitation or genuine obsession on Hitchcock's part, probably a bit of both. Vertigo is famously about impotence and the male gaze. The camerawork fetishises the feminine and James Stewart's character (Scottie Ferguson) spends most of the film operating as a voyeur prior to a symbolic sex act. He first fails to ascend to the top of a bell tower due to his debilitating vertigo (i.e. impotence), so contributing (so he thinks) to a woman's death, and then succeeds in angrily dragging Kim Novak all the way to the top before they kiss. Hitchcock's genius, or cruelty, is to spoil the happy ending by having Novak's character then accidentally fall to her death.

Citizen Kane is ostensibly about a by turns charming and bullying megalomaniac, loosely based on William Randolph Hearst (the Rupert Murdoch of his day), who ends up friendless and alone in Xanadu, his palatial country retreat, stacked to the rafters with unopened crates of expensive art. It's formal brilliance is its use of multiple, sometimes conflicting, testimonies to build up a multi-faceted picture of the man. It is essentially a social film, which recognises the ultimate unknowability of anyone (the Rosebud motif) and the vanity of personal ambitions. This last theme links it to Vertigo, which ends with the tolling of a bell that brings to mind John Donne's lines: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

This is ironic as Scottie Ferguson is unquestionably an island unto himself, and all the more troubled for it. His Pygmalion-like determination to mould Novak's character, and his obtuseness in the face of his ex-fiancee (played by Ma Ewing, no less), are reminiscent of the uber-individualist John Galt in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, which was published the year before Vertigo was released. Scottie's obsession with Novak's character Madeleine (redolent of the Madonna and Proustian idealisation) is the flip side of his disconnection from society (he has "retired" from the police to pursue the classic loner role, the private eye).

So I have two theories to explain the ascension of Vertigo. The first is the increasing prevalence of psychoanalytical interpretations, both in wider culture and more specifically in cinema criticism, with the highly visual Freudian and Jungian strands to the fore, albeit in debased forms. The second is the neoliberal revanche from the late 50s onwards, which eventually erupted into the political sphere in the 70s and achieved power in the 80s. The success of the film in this year's poll may simply reflect momentum built up before 2008, but it may also indicate that the rule of the angry white dude has some way yet to run. Of course, these two theories are not mutually exclusive. An angry white dude with a castration complex isn't an encouraging thought, mind.

I leave the last word to Citizen Kane's Mister Bernstein, the Leopold Bloom-like mensch. He too had an eye for the ladies, but his obsession (his Rosebud) was grounded in a humane and social context.

One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.

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