You know, looking over all the hand-wringing and armchair quarterbacking that has gone on since last week's AFI top 100 list, one question lingers in my mind. Here goes: will there ever be another movie that'll replace Citizen Kane as the film to beat?
Honestly, I don't think so. If it were simply a matter of quality, I might say otherwise. Before Kane, there were other movies that headed up the pantheon. Remember that the first Sight and Sound list (in 1952) found Bicycle Thieves on top, and that Kane didn't assume its current position until a decade later. Just as there's always a bigger fish, so there might always be a better movie. And really, I hope there is, not because I dislike Kane- far from it- but because as long as cinema exists we should hope for continued greatness, or else why keep watching new movies?
But I'm not talking about quality here. I'm talking about reputation. Something that springs from a movie's quality, surely, but also implies a mystique that has grown up around Kane. The key word here is "grown"- a film doesn't simply become the universally-acknowledged "greatest ever" overnight. Kane wasn't exactly unseen when it was originally released, but it took years for it to achieve its status as the Film of Films.
And this is why I don't think it'll ever cede its position atop the canon- because criticism has changed so much that the mechanism that propelled Kane to the top is no longer the same. The study of film, once confined to a few rarified circles, has diversified and ballooned. And once the Internet became a force in both cinephilia and criticism, the rate at which films were evaluated and re-evaluated increased at an alarming rate. With the glut of information that we get even before a movie has been released, it has become difficult NOT to pre-digest the movies we see. Most well-received movies begin to amass a following soon after they're released, and a backlash often emerges within months or weeks, or even days. By the time a movie shows up on DVD, its reputation among the majority of cinephiles has more or less been cemented.
Another problem is that in the years between Kane's ascent and the present day, criticism has become much more self-aware. We're much more prone to compare movies to the greats (and not-so-greats) of the past, or even to specifically consider their potential places in the pantheon. The original Sight and Sound list was a novelty- now lists like it, and many others besides, are practically a culture unto themselves.
Finally, Kane will remain at the top because, no matter how many transcendent films get made, it's never going to go away. Short of someone discovering a (purely hypothetical) kiddie-porn collection hidden among Orson Welles' private effects, there's no reason to believe that it'll ever get shoved aside in the minds of the critical establishment. Think about the movies we love growing up- to our young and culturally unsophisticated minds, those movies represent everything we ever hoped movies could be, and we can't get enough of them. Sometimes when we revisit them as adults, they disappoint us, but occasionally they actually hold up, and the ones that do are the ones that we tend to value more than the more recent greats. Because they've become close to us in a way that the modern-day classics never could.
From the perspective of film history, Kane is a lot like that. It was made while cinema was still fairly young, and true criticism (rather than ivory-tower Bosley Crowther reviewing) was even younger. To many critics, Kane represented the possibilities of the medium in a way no other film could. And even as other timeless masterpieces were released, Kane never lost its luster- to the contrary, those other films often revealed Kane as the wellspring of their own greatness. I don't see this changing in the future. Other films may end up sitting beside it, but I say none will dethrone it.
Frankly, I kind of like it this way. It's sort of comforting that cinema has its grand masterwork- its Hamlet, you might say. For one thing, it gives filmmakers something specific to strive for- a goal, however lofty. Likewise, Citizen Kane's critical dominance in no way diminishes the other classics of its medium. As much as I love Kane, there are at least half a dozen films I love more. But that matters little here. What matters, as far as Citizen Kane is concerned, is its legacy and what it can still teach us. If someone interested in learning about film was to ask me what one movie he should start with, do you know what I'd tell him? That's right. And I wouldn't even have to think about it.