Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Myth of the Greatest American Movie

A friend of mine recently tweeted me this article at Entertainment Weekly, in which Chris Nashawaty (a fine critic) rhapsodizes his love of Citizen Kane. He proclaims the film to be his favorite, as well as the Greatest American Film of All Time, something which, as he points out, the American Film Institute also stated in it's 100  Greatest American Movies of All Time. This is an opinion piece, of course, and was written mainly to create a dialogue about what each individual would call the GAF (Greatest American Film).

There's nothing wrong with proclaiming a film the GAF; as I always say, everyone is entitled to their opinions, and there should ALWAYS be a dissenting opinion. Life gets boring when we agree on everything, you know? But my main issue with this topic is that, as Nashawaty notes, the consensus is usually the same collection of films that glorifies epics and, well, studio fare over lesser-known independent works. Granted, there are some films that truly deserve to be on this list regardless; no list would be complete without Raging Bull or The Wizard of Oz. But what about Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape? Or John Cassavetes' Faces? Even in the Spielberg canon, I'd argue that Jaws was a better - and more influential - film than Schindler's List. And I know there's a healthy population out there that would argue for George Lucas' Star Wars.

Also of note: how few of these films are lead by women. Now, I know that that's just a reflection of how Hollywood refuses to give an actress a big, juicy role but once in a blue moon, but surely there's an argument to be made for All About Eve, Sunset Blvd., or hell, even The Terminator and Aliens.

So here's my question to you: what do you think is the GAF? Or is it possible to have just one, or even any at all? Discuss.

*FWIW, I enjoy Citizen Kane, but I do think it's a bit overhyped. I certainly wouldn't call it the Best Movie Ever.*


Ryan McNeil said...

I've had argument after argument about CK (always championing it to dissenters). I'm realizing more and more that the film is aging poorly, and it's my belief that its because when lists like AFI are done, they try to take a look at a film in an all-encompassing way...where as we (the new generation of film watchers) judge it only on what's on the screen.

When you look harder at CK, you'll discover that there is a lot of subtelty and trickery at play...techniques that are common now, but were revolutionary for its era. The fact that so many have stolen and copied from CK is what makes it such a monster.

The other thing to recall (as the article points out) is that Welles made CK when he was 25 freakin' years old! In Hollywood these days, they barely let you near the lighting rig before you turn 25. For Welles to have hit such a monster homerun at such a young age adds to the film's lore, and is a big part of what stokes it in the mind of critics.

So for me - yes, to hear it called the greatest film time and again is still merited.


It's not unassailable. There are a handful of films creeping up the ranks that had just just as much technique in play, and have also become massively influential - namely SEVEN SAMURAI, VERTIGO, and THE GODFATHER. Were anyone to make a case for one of those as the all-time champ, I could see their point...and it's entirely possible that in short order, a group like AFI or Sound & Sight could crown one of them as the new champ.

Nifty food for thought in this article - to your question of whether STAR WARS needs to be in the discussion, Lucas stole far too much from westerns and Kurosawa to give STAR WARS any real edge. It's massively influential culturally, but not within the art form.

Squasher88 said...

I think it's impossible to determine a single film as the greatest. I do think however, that you can say which ones have been the most influential. Ask the average kid today and they probably haven't seen Citizen Kane (or even heard of it!). Hence, I would look at which films are still universally known or referenced in today's culture (even if they haven't seen it)

Under that criteria, I would say the great America films are:

Jaws, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Psycho, E.T., Bonnie and Clyde, King Kong, Rocky.

These films have truly stood the test of time.

Jason H. said...

Ryan - I love hearing from CK fans! I don't deny that what Welles was doing was groundbreaking, and indeed I do see it as a watershed moment in American cinema. By entertainment, I wouldn't call it the greatest, but I would call it monumentally influential.

Squasher88 - I do think that yes, influence is much easier to measure than "quality," since the latter is so much more subjective.

Tom Clift said...

I'm sure the moment this post was published, Ryan's Kane-sense started tingling :P

To you Ryan, I have two points. Firstly, I think STAR WARS qualifies, because it WAS massively influential to the sci-fi genre, PLUS I think influencing pop-culture to the degree that it has it probably an even greater feat than influencing film as an art form

Secondly, I'm shocked to hear you say that CITIZEN KANE is aging poorly. I'm a recent convert to the film myself (thanks at least in part to YOUR constant championing). Personally though, I think the movie remains incredibly relevant (somewhat scarily so) today. Do you mean aged more from a technical standpoint rather than a thematic one (because I'd disagree with that too, although that's a different conversation)

As for your article Jason, I think it's difficult to say because you have to factor in so many different factors - how technically impressive they are, how influential they've been, how critically beloved they are, how relevant they remain thematically - and even then it's all opinion at the end of the day. That said, any list that includes CITIZEN KANE, STAR WARS and JAWS is certainly off to a good start!

Jason H. said...

Tom - It's always a delight to hear from you! I agree: there's so much that goes into these decisions, and I think, truly, it's all personal opinion. There are a few factors to each movie that we can all agree on - the technical mastery Welles showed in Citizen Kane, for example, or the monumental influence of Jaws on Hollywood - but ultimately personal taste plays a huge role, making it impossible to be purely objective. But that's what makes lists like these so much fun - we all have different ideas of what should be the best.