This week in his “Now and Then” column, Matt Brennan — inspired by the re-release of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) and the upcoming Blu-ray edition of Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) — tries to explain how a movie becomes a “classic.” Trailers below:
To paraphrase the famous saying, some movies are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Citizen Kane and Pulp Fiction fall into the latter category. That they’re stylish, innovative, and spectacularly well made is undeniable. But in the end, claims of their greatness say more about what critics and cinephiles think movies should be than about their intrinsic value. To put it more bluntly, they’re overrated.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Citizen Kane is “bad”; in fact, there are numerous ways in which it’s brilliant. (I am suggesting that Pulp Fiction is at least a little “bad,” but more on that in a moment.) Gregg Toland’s deep-focus cinematography, as just one example, is a beautiful analogue of memory itself, flitting out of the shadows for a moment, vivid and clear, then receding into the blurry margins of the mind. Yet it can be hard to watch the film without feeling the critics breathing down your neck.
Among them are the voters of the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll, which has christened Kane “the best film of all time” in every rendition since 1952. When I come up for air after the miseries of Xanadu, I’m often left wondering if I like the movie just because I’m supposed to like it. To call Kane "the best" year after year, as if by rote, ignores its imperfections and the merits of other films — even if limited to the Sight & Sound list, I'd argue that Vertigo is more thrilling, Tokyo Story more deeply felt, Singin' in the Rain more entertaining, Battleship Potemkin more influential.
In so many ways, though, Kane represents our ideal of film as art: the obsessive vision of a singular auteur, the technical inventiveness, the enduring themes, the epic scope. What is not often discussed is the flip side of this. As Pauline Kael argued aggressively, Kane owes just as much to screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939) used deep focus with more vigor, animating the upstairs-downstairs chaos of a hunting party. The themes lack enough nuance (“Rosebud…”) to be easy targets of parody, and the film's sheer size is unwieldy.
Other entries in the film-school canon, personal feelings about them aside, fit this mold as well — see The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and The Godfather. The critical treatment of Tarantino’s sophomore effort is no different: hotshot genius rewrites film history with master class in visual audacity and narrative complexity, all while taking on archetypal American ideas. Taboos about style and content are broken. The establishment takes notice. A star is born. (The real fiction is that “the classics” emerge from nowhere and shake us awake. The continued appeal of this meta-story suggests that, for all of Pulp Fiction’s ballsiness, the critics were already poised to eat it up.)
I won’t deny that there are moments in Pulp Fiction that continue to thrill me, on what must be my sixth or seventh viewing. (The drug-addled nostalgia-trip freak-out of Jack Rabbit Slim's, and the strange illicitness of Thurman and Travolta dancing there, is evidence of just how striking Tarantino’s visuals can be.) But to elevate it to the level of “masterpiece,” as any number of critics have done, neglects that ways in which the world of Pulp Fiction, however cleverly constructed, is essentially a hollow one. The film’s circular structure has always seemed emblematic of this emptiness: around we go, trapped in a closed loop of pretty pictures that inevitably brings us back to where we’ve been.
A “great” or “classic” movie needn’t be self-serious or tepidly highbrow (pretty much anything by Hitchcock in the Fifties or Sixties will do to illustrate the point), but it does need soul. The pastiche of Pulp Fiction, a mashup of pre-existing material with a dash of S&M and a heavy helping of irony, is more snarky than soulful. At times it feels mannered, an exercise in hip B-movie obscurity street cred that misses out on all the ways in which movies connect to us on an emotional level. You can adore Samuel L. Jackson talking about French cheeseburgers, and I do, but I’m not sure you can get any more out of it than a wry laugh — this isn’t exactly empathetic filmmaking. Sound and fury can be fun, but sometimes they signify nothing.
Citizen Kane: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition is currently out on DVD and Blu-ray. The Blu-ray edition of Pulp Fiction will be released Oct. 4.
[Citizen Kane photo via Examiner.com, trailer via cgarofani/YouTube; Pulp Fiction photo via seriousland.com, trailer via ThisBeatIsMine/YouTube]