When Citizen Kane’s Rotten Tomatoes rating recently slipped from 100% to 99%, the internet took full of advantage of the opportunity to repeatedly kick the landmark picture while it was still up. As the film Paddington 2 maintains its 100% rating on the same site, the cuddly Peruvian bear was quickly seized upon as a cudgel to bash Welles’ 1941 magnum opus.
UPROXX brazenly declared Paddington 2 “the new greatest film of all-time” but it was the pop culture site A.V. Club that went the furthest. Striking an iconoclastic, crudely hyperbolic tone, the site stated that the Rotten Tomatoes incident “confirmed everyone’s sneaking suspicion that Paddington 2 was a better movie”, and that Paddington 2’s comparative greatness was “an unspoken truth shared by the whole of humanity”. The article concluded: “The movie is better than friggin’ Citizen Kane”.
It doesn’t take much Twitter scrolling to find multiple memes of Paddington celebrating at Citizen Kane’s grave and a host of users asserting Paddington’s superiority, seemingly without irony. Normally this kind of silly discourse wouldn’t bother me, but the Orson Welles bashing did get under my skin. Ironic or not, joking or not, praising a popular children’s film while calling one of cinema’s greatest ever triumphs outdated and boring only serves to preserve the strange status quo.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its intimidating reputation, Citizen Kane remains an under-seen film, especially among young people. Charming, adorable Paddington on the other hand has the same benefit as most Disney products: easy accessibility. This dominant paradigm of what I like to think of as “warm bath cinema” has an easy popularity. Designed for children and young teenagers, films starring anthropomorphic talking bears, superheroes and animated princesses allow Millennials to escape the horrors of the world while keeping one eye fixed squarely on their phones.
Paddington 2 has become a cinematic comfort blanket, but ultimately, it only serves to protect us from formative new experiences. We cling so desperately to escapist children’s media that we cheat ourselves out of something much greater. The love and passion for Marvel films, animated Disney films and movies about adorable bears is sincere, but it’s also stifling. It’s the cinematic equivalent of never leaving home, staying in that warm bath until you wrinkle up.
A film like Citizen Kane gets you out of the warm bath. A film like Vertigo gets you dressed. Tokyo Story gets you out of your front door. By the time that you’ve seen La Règle du jeu you’re on a journey to somewhere so magical, so thrilling and so incomparable that you might never want to go back home. I can’t help but feeling that the excessive, hagiographic veneration of Paddington 2 is ultimately just an excuse to stay in the bath, soaking until the water becomes tepid and filthy.
So why should we care about Citizen Kane? Because it’s exhilarating, but only if you approach it in the right way. It isn’t a film that can be enjoyed in the same way as Paddington 2, The Avengers or Mamma Mia!. You can’t sit staring at your phone as the movie flickers away in your peripheral vision. Truly great cinema demands time, dedication and patience. Go into a screening of Citizen Kane with these three things and you may well find it to be one of the most entertaining films that you’ll ever experience.
Video essayist Harris Brewis did a great service for his young audience when discussing Citizen Kane, stating “you expect it to be a stuffy old thing … but it can get properly funny and energetic”. This is exactly the kind of message about these ‘greatest films’ and classics of cinema that needs to be delivered to Millennials. The great secret is that with a little patience, the venerated greatest films of all time are incredibly accessible. Underlying the Citizen Kane bashing on Twitter is this rote assumption of its stupefying boredom, a notion dispelled immediately if you simply sit down and give it your full attention. With its startling editing, innovative deep focus cinematography and spellbindingly showman-like camerawork, Citizen Kane remains a deeply exciting cinematic experience.
As someone who has recently sat through 90 or so of Sight & Sound’s 2012 list of “The 100 Greatest Films of All Time”, I can state with absolute confidence that my entire view of cinema has been changed. Previously, I was used to treating film almost like a disposable commodity. Something to stick on and fill up my evening with some good laughs or thrills. Now, my understanding of cinema is something altogether different.
James Baldwin once wrote: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read”. The deep meaning that Baldwin attributes to literature can also be attributed to film. Working my way through the Sight & Sound list, I’ve seen some of my deepest, most incommunicable thoughts and emotions captured, developed and shown back to me in mesmerising cinema. These ‘greatest films’ aren’t inaccessible, boring or outdated. They are timelessly affecting, but only if you try to see them.
Allow me to provide you with just some examples of the life-changing films on the Sight & Sound list. At number 21 is Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura. On the surface an arthouse mystery story about a young woman’s disappearance, this existential road trip picture spoke more to my feelings of Millennial isolation, drifting and aimlessness than any film made in the 21st century.
At number four on the list is La Règle du jeu. This 1939 story of aristocrats gathering at a mansion for a hunting weekend is in fact a sneaky exposé of an entire way of living. Made on the eve of WWII, Jean Renoir’s film depicts a complacent bourgeoise, lost and out-of-touch with reality, destined to fail to protect their nation from the evils of fascism. It’s one of the most important films ever made.
At number three is Tokyo Story, a universal, devastating story of familial disappointment. At number one is Vertigo, not just a tense suspense thriller but a skin-crawlingly confessional tale of obsession, guilt and identity. These aren’t obscure, abstract, dull films. They are penetrating tales of a recognisable world, merely told a little differently.
If you want to jump out of the warm bath, watch as many of the films on this list as you can. Undoubtedly, you will hate some of them. Others will only stir up ambivalence, but it’s all worth it for those indispensable few. The few films that will dig into your skin and pump through your veins like blood. With patience, resilience, concentration and the ability to put your phone away before the movie begins, the films heralded as the all-time greats can change your life, just as they have changed mine.
The barrier to watching the greatest films of all time isn’t the fact that they’re subtitled, old or in black and white. The only barrier is your will.
Words by Frank Evans
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