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“Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema”

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

Martin Scorsese recently delivered the 2013 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities entitled “Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema” at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

As reported in Dawn.com, Scorsese urged his listeners to preserve our shared cinematic heritage before it disappears, a sentiment which I am in absolute agreement with. As Scorsese noted, “I believe we need to stress visual literacy in schools. Young people need to understand that not all images are out there to be consumed like, you know, fast food and then forgotten. We need to educate them to understand the difference between moving images that engage their humanity and their intelligence, and moving images that are just selling them something.”

As Dawn.com’s anonymous correspondent added, “to fully comprehend the language of moving images, it is essential to ‘preserve everything’ from blockbusters to home movies by way of films that may not look like works of art on first showing, [Scorsese] said. To prove his point, Scorsese screened a clip from Vertigo – hailed today as a work of genius, but at the time of its release in 1958 regarded as just another in a string of crowd-pleasing Alfred Hitchcock psycho thrillers.

‘[Vertigo] came very very close to being lost to us,’ he said, adding that over time, viewers can identify and appreciate elements in a film that might not be evident upon its initial release. ‘Just as we learned to take pride in our poets and writers, and in jazz and blues, we need to take pride in our cinema, a great American art form. It’s a big responsibility, and we need to say to ourselves that the time has come to look beyond weekend box office numbers and start caring for films as if they were the oldest book in the Library of Congress,’ [Scorsese] said.”

You can the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Vertigo Takes Top Spot in Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for a brief video from CNN in which Sight and Sound editor Nick James discusses the poll results.

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic and deeply personal film Vertigo (1958) has taken the top spot in the prestigious Sight and Sound “greatest films of all time” poll.

It used to be Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) in the top spot, but Kane dropped to number two in the latest rankings. Actually, this doesn’t really surprise me; I have never been a Kane enthusiast; as remarkable as the film is, it still strikes more as an inspired pastiche of every possible style and technique jammed into one narrative, pegged on what Welles himself described as “a gimmick, really, and rather dollar-book Freud.”

I’ve always agreed with this admittedly rather harsh self-assessment, although I run the film every year in my Intro to Film History class nonetheless so students can see the film for themselves, and make up their own minds on the subject; certainly, everyone should see it.

Nevertheless, this poll seems like a very welcome breath of fresh air on a long rather static subject, and the choices overall seem both judicious and absolutely reasoned. And actually, there are two lists; one for critics, and one for directors. Critics get a shot at ranking the best of the cinema history, and then directors get a similar opportunity to pick their own favorites.

Here’s the top ten films of all time in the poll, as picked by the critics;

1. Vertigo

2. Citizen Kane

3. Tokyo Story

4. La Regle du Jeu

5. Sunrise: A Song for Two Humans

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey

7. The Searchers

8. Man with a Movie Camera

9. The Passion of Joan of Arc

10. 8 1/2

and then the top ten of all time as picked by directors;

1. Tokyo Story

2. Tie: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Citizen Kane

4. 8 1/2

5. Taxi Driver

6. Apocalypse Now

7. Tie: The Godfather and Vertigo

9. Mirror

10. Bicycle Thieves

As Nick James, editor of Sight and Sound noted in an editorial announcing the new rankings, “to many of you it’s probably a familiar story. Every ten years, from 1952 onwards, Sight & Sound has conducted a worldwide poll of critics in order to decide which films are currently regarded as the greatest ever made. (Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist parable Bicycle Thieves won the first iteration only four years after it was shot. Famously, Citizen Kane has won ever since.) We’re proud that the longevity of this poll means that it’s widely regarded as the most trusted guide there is to the canon of cinema greats. So for us this year is a very big moment.

About a year ago, the Sight & Sound team met to consider how we could best approach the poll this time. Given the dominance of electronic media, what became immediately apparent was that we would have to abandon the somewhat elitist exclusivity with which contributors to the poll had been chosen in the past and reach out to a much wider international group of commentators than before. We were also keen to include among them many critics who had established their careers online rather than purely in print.

To that end we approached more than 1,000 critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles, and received (in time for the deadline) precisely 846 top-ten lists that between them mention a total of 2,045 different films. As a qualification of what ‘greatest’ means, our invitation letter stated, ‘We leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.’”

You can read all about it by clicking here. I’m proud to say that I was one of those consulted for the poll; it was a distinct honor.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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