Friday, August 3, 2012

Greatest film ever made? Not quite. But Mr Vidal must surely come close to top of a list of wits

The great and good of the film world have spoken and now we know: after a survey of 800 odd of those great and good, their bible Sight & Sound has pronounced Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo is ‘the greatest film of all time’ - at least until the next time they vote and Vertigo is unceremoniously knocked off its lofty perch. That is what has happened to Orson Welles’s film Citizen Kane, voted by the same bunch of great and good as ‘the greatest film of all time’ for many years, until this year when they decided it was no longer ‘the greatest’.

A number of things occur to me, not least whether it is at all possible - in keeping with that rarefied bunch of cineastes I should, perhaps, introduce a note of pretension and write ‘whether it is at all ontologically possible’ - to be ‘the greatest of all time’ one  minute and not the next. Surely being ‘the greatest of all time’ presupposes an absolute state which can, by definition, not be altered? Well, of course, it does, but I am myself being a little fey here: what the film world’s great and good mean is that this year the majority of us prefer Vertigo to any other film but - who knows? - next year it might well be Adventures Of A Window Cleaner starring the inimitable Barry Evans (inimitable largely because no one actually wants to imitate him. On second thoughts, is rather uncharitable to laugh at the chap, because his life ended rather sadly: he was found dead of alcohol poisoning at his home with a bottle of whisky and a pack of aspirins nearby, and for a while there were suspicions that he might well have been murdered, though bumping someone off using a bottle of whisky and a pack of aspirins does rather strike me as unnecessarily taking the long way round).

I saw Citizen Kane many years ago and liked it, but I could never quite see how it could be ‘the greatest film of all time’. I suspect that the film techniques developed and used by Welles, which were undoubtedly novel at the time, lent Citizen Kane an air of leading the pack, though how that reputation survived until last year - 71 years after it was made and by which time cinemagoers were accustomed to techniques lightyears ahead of Welles’s - rather puzzles me. For many years, however, I suffered from a variety of mild inferiority complexes and, in this instance, was inclined to accept that Sight & Sound and its coterie of cineastes knew what they were talking about whereas I didn’t and if they declared Citizen Kane to be a film of genius beyond compare but I didn’t quite see it, the failing was mine, not theirs. I am now more than a little inclined - inferiority complexes or not - to adopt a more contrarian view and stick my neck out: it’s an entertaining enough film but - work of genius? Better than a great many other films I’ve seen which impressed me more? I really don’t think so.

As for Vertigo, the whole ‘greatest film of all time’ schtick gets even sillier. I had never seen it before so, courtesy of one of the many websites which allow you, most certainly illegally, to watch films online for free, I watched it last night. And to say I was underwhelmed doesn’t even begin to describe what I felt. ‘Greatest film of all time’? Up to a point, Lord Copper. My judgment would be: an entertaining enough hotch-potch of cod psychology and melodrama which I would only recommend for viewing if you really have nothing better to do. But then what do I know? I don’t even use the word hommage, let alone pronounce it as the French do (’ommage). For my money Hitchcock’s film Lifeboat is far better but far less known.

. . .

What is it with all these ‘greatest of all time’ lists anyway? Why do we bother? Why can’t we settle for simply naming a whole load of films, boxers, composers, cars, novels or whatever it is you are interested in and telling the punter: if you like watching well-made films, enjoy watching a great boxer fight, like listening to music, take an interest in cars, like reading fiction or whatever your bag is, you could do worse than checking out . . .

But there is something about humankind that wants its No 1s. I find it all rather tacky and, in the case of the Sunday Times’s annual Rich List, downright embarrassing. The only thing such lists are good for is to allow those who haven’t got an opinion to have an opinion. So, no doubt, after hearing or reading about the result of this year’s Sight & Sound’s survey a good number of folk are already going around confidently telling their friends, as though they knew what they are talking about: ‘Hitchcock’s Vertigo - it’s marvellous, absolutely stunning and most certainly the greatest film ever made!’

Well, it’s not. And as I am apparently in full contrarian mode: Once Upon A Time In The West with Henry Fonda is not half as good as it is said to be, with Sergio Leone rather parodying himself by the time he made it; and On Golden Pond - although this is admittedly a more subjective judgment - is a load of sentimental, saccharine cack.

. . .

‘Contrarian’ is rather a useful word and one which, even though you might never have come across it before, you have a fair chance of knowing what it means without looking it up. I came across it again over these past few days in obituaries and appreciations of Gore Vidal who has died at the age of 126 during (I read rather incredulously) an over-vigorous act of sodomy. Actually, that is rather a cheap gibe, but as it is well in keeping with the general tone of this blog (‘Never Knowingly Undersold’) I’ll keep it in.

Many years ago, I read a novel by Vidal and didn’t think much to it, though I am now prepared to concede that my judgment might - I stress might - not necessarily have been up to much at the time. It was the only one I read, so I long had the impression that what with his public persona of a Grand Old Man Of Letters, he was something of a nine-bob note. On the other hand Vidal’s witticisms entertained me a great deal, not only because they were genuinely funny, but because they each had more than a kernel of truth in them. So when he said, for example: ‘It’s not enough to win, others must lose’, he goes a lot further in describing his fellow man than most of us would be comfortable with. In a similar vein there is ‘When a friend succeeds, a little part of me dies’ and, if we are honest, we tell ourselves: it isn’t nice of me, but, well, he does rather hit the nail on the head. Here are two more for good measure: ‘When anyone says to me “can you keep a secret?” I say “why should I, if you can't?” ’ and ‘A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.’ There’s no arguing with those.

There are other of his pronouncements, those about his fellow Americans, for example, which I am in no position to judge. So when he said ‘Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half’, I am obliged to keep my mouth shut.

I trust that over the years and since reading and then dismissing that novel by Vidal, I have matured just a little, so I must admit that of the many things I admire in people, one is industry and application, and Vidal had both. He wasn’t a gadfly, he worked hard, turning out novels, essays and screenplays. And I also admire his courage in being perfectly candid about his homosexuality in an age when gays were pilloried and punished and given a very rough deal indeed for no very good reason I can think of (‘I’m all for bringing back the birch, but only between consenting adults.’) Not any less admirable is his dislike of William F Buckley and Norman Mailer. While writing this and seeking out the exact wording of Vidal quotes on various websites, I came across this gem: after some TV talk show, things became so heated between Mailer and Vidal at an after-hours party that Mailer got up and punched Vidal to the ground, to which Vidal responded, ‘I see words fail Norman Mailer again’.

So might I beg your, and Mr Vidal’s, pardon and drastically revise my original and very callow judgment of the man and (my cheap gibe above notwithstanding) admit that I now find him to be a very admirable fellow and may his soul now rest in peace. I have included a picture of the man and, to honour him, I have
not chosen one of him in his dotage (who of us looks, or will look, good when we are old, lined and 80?) but one when he was in his prime. Should you want to read more about him and his wit, many papers have carried reams of memoirs, but if you are too lazy to do the googling yourself, you could try here, here and here.


  1. 'hommage' en Fran├žais, mon cher...;-)

  2. Thank you, and now amended. I would have thought that not even knowing how to spell the bloody word is testament indeed to what a regular down-to-earth chap I am with not a single air or grace or even a discernible personality.