The Greatest Film Ever Made
The Greatest Film Ever Made
by Nathan Raine
The art of film started with the Roundhay Garden Scene. A charming little picture documenting a midday’s saunter between four noble gentlepersons in the fall of 1888. What makes this film so immensely important is that the two second film is the earliest surviving motion picture known to humankind – and the world has never been the same since. After Roundhay came the Lumière Brothers, Georges Méliès, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and the next thing you know, Luke has a father, Dorothy has to follow a yellow brick road, and, frankly, my dear, Clark Gable doesn’t give a damn. But with the onslaught of a world of film, comes a need to segregate the good from the horrible, praise those who deserve praise, kick those to the curb who need kicking, and maybe even name “The Greatest Ever”.
The Greatest Film Ever Made, a daunting and often avoided topic -maybe an elusive topic because there seems to be a consensus response by those who are cinematically versed. The crown is most often appointed to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, most notably on the American Film Institute’s 100 years 100 movies list and on the British magazine Sight & Sound’s survey of the top ten best films ever as chosen by film critics and directors. Out of eight survey of critics and filmmakers Sight & Sound has conducted every ten years since 1952 Citizen Kane came in first seven times, and it has topped the AFI list twice once in 1998 and again when they revised it in 2007. It seems as if it Citizen Kane has definitively fermented itself in the top spot beyond the point of investigation on how it was so absolutely brought there. But, with that said, there are other minor contenders that are occasionally considered when talking the best of the best. Tokyo Story, Rules of the Game, 8 ½, Vertigo, Seven Samurai, andThe Godfather I & II have all made strong but ultimately overshadowed arguments as to claiming the greatest ever. If you’re going by awards/Oscars, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is unequaled. If you are one of the mindless droogs who vote on imdb, I guess The Shawshank Redemption is, impossibly, the best thing on celluloid. If you were not granted a brain at birth and therefore rate films by box office revenue, you’d probably mindlessly and dispassionately sputter about Avatar. And if you’re any kid between the age of 7 and 16, then clearly, clearly, the only answer is The Dark Knight. Or Twilight. But if your vote goes to Twilight, the only movie discussion that really exists is Team Edward or Team Jacob.
But before I make my argument as to what I truly believe to be the greatest film ever made, let me open with a slight disclaimer. A bit of a safety glass in which to fire behind. “Greatest” should not be mistaken with “favorite.” Greatest is not a matter of opinion, while favorite is entirely opinion. If your favorite movie ever is Men in Black and you defend it against all reproach and probably greater amounts of rationality, then I applaud you. I would probably sneeringly tell you that your opinion is wrong, but that’s because I’m an a-hole.
The term “greatest” , while certainly somewhat subjective due to the idea that we are considering artistic expression and not a quantitative object, has the suggestion of entailing some (however modest) objective criteria which contribute to arriving at a conclusion about the legitimacy/achievement of a work of art. And we are interpreting achievement in terms of the creator’s artistic intentions, not popularity or box office revenue. While film is less objective than music, it is probably more objective than painting. Filmmaking is highly technical in terms of writing, production, and execution, and there are many places where technical and artistic errors remove from the effectiveness of the finished product to express the director’s intentions.
Using this supposition, we may create a hierarchy in which to place films, and can plausibly judge one film as being superior to another. Thus, this affords us to label a film as “great”, or a “masterpiece”, in the context of the filmmaker’s artistic expression and intentions. And this is why Citizen Kane, under Orson Welles’ auteur vision, is frequently cast as the greatest ever (among other reasons). Technicalities aside, it is a masterpiece, a faultless work. But maybe more than anything else, it’s an ambitious work. An ambitious work that functions so well that its often hard to see past the grand empire Welles’ built in his character, Kane.
But this is where it gets a little hazy. Is there a way to assert that one masterpiece is greater than another, or more fitful to be called the greatest ever? If there are indeed more than one perfectly made films, can there ever be a superior between two or more “perfect” films? Even something as simple as mashing genres together in debate can be problematic. Can we accurately compare a science fiction like 2001: A Space Odyssey to a Western like The Searchers? It seems almost suppressed to answer “yes” to any of these questions, that film, much like painting and music, is far too vast to rightly compare those with such immense differences. An argument comparing the merit of Monet to Dali would make the debating parties look utterly foolish. But instead of using this vastness as a shield against lumping films together, I believe that that “lumping” is almost an essential action. It may call for an act of slightly glossing over, but we are judging these films in the merit of the same terms: the effectiveness of the film to convey the director’s intentions. Although there are countless variations in the way a film may achieve this, they are all essentially after the same thing. This idea is how we can propose to name the greatest ever.
And while it is nearly obscene to critique a flawless masterpiece, I feel I need to justify my rationale for knocking the king off his throne. While I admire Citizen Kane greatly, I think that it is undeserving of the title. Welles’ ambition is his own undoing, and the only negative thing I can say about the film. The film’s transparency comes in when Welles’ career path begins to reflect Kane’s. It often seems that, in a film that Welles wrote, directed, produced, and starredin, he is merely and often playing a pseudo version of himself. Welles’ life too closely mimicked Kane’s — a powerful, virtuosic rise through the media, followed by a tragic fall at or near his demise (albeit Welles’ downfall was much more melancholy than Kane’s, but few could argue that going from a powerful empire of work like Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons to a cartoon version of Transformers is anything but a career degrading plunge into tragedy). And this observation is only made possible in retrospect – which is at once unfair reason to judge any work by. It may be unfair, or even fallacious to analyze the film with outside knowledge of Welles’ himself. But these biases are what criticism of any form is ultimately structured upon. And this connection from Kane or Welles’ not only makes the film slightly transparent, but deviates some of the effectiveness away from the intended expression. By the end, Kane is not a man, but a symbol of greed and hunger’s own ability to starve instead of nourish. An undoing that is eerily reflect in Kane’s creator.