I discovered the magazine while I was trying to survive engineering school at Pitt (University of Pittsburgh). I would go the the library between classes to read stuff I hadn’t seen before, mostly periodicals. The only magazine I had access to growing up was LIFE and that gave me a feel for great reportage photography, W. Eugene Smith for one, but in the library, I was taken with the British quarterly SIGHT & SOUND as it spoke of films I had never seen and gave insight into those I had.
The quarterly had stills from PATHS OF GLORY and I eagerly awaited that film because the still photographs were so authentic looking, better than any war film I had ever seen. I waited and waited for the film, and it was finally released a few years later to my great disappointment. The movie contained the elements I admired in the magazine, but then Kirk Douglas showed up with a bunch of B-movie actors and scene-chewers that more or less took away the authenticity of my initial interest. Each character was what he was when introduced, GOOD, BAD, EVIL, VICTIM.
The photography and staging was magnificent though, except for the wood flooring in the trenches needed for the tracking shots. The final scene in the dance hall where the soldiers are listening to Kubrick’s future wife singing was well cast with authentic looking extras that showed what could have been done with the casting of the movie.
Then CITIZEN KANE showed up on a top ten list as number one. Even though my childhood seemed to be mostly in movie theaters (air conditioning and baby sitting chores) I had never seen it, even on the teevee. I think I first saw it in retrospective cinema in New York while I was catching up on the Cahiers films, Bergman, Eisenstein, Fellini, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Ray (Satyajit not Nicholas), Godard, Truffaut, mostly from SIGHT & SOUND’s lists.
I’m not sure how I liked CITIZEN KANE then. SIGHT & SOUND intimidated me as they looked upon film as an art form and all I ever wanted was to be entertained. So, I checked CK off my to do list without being impressed so much. My favorite film then was the western, SHANE, with HIGH NOON being a close second, mostly because of the song. ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN was also memorable. Frankenstein and Dracula funny? Go for it.
When I was a kid, my friend Petey and I would sit in the first row looking up at the screen. We saw everything, including mistakes. The thing that bothered us most were rear projections. They looked fake. I was seven and Petey was five. For a quarter our mothers had a four hour baby sitter. One day we were watching SANDS OF IWO JIMA with John Wayne and a soldier fell to the ground and some dust from an explosion fell on his face and his eyelids closed a bit more when he felt the dust. He was supposed to be dead. Maybe we caught it because we were sitting so close. Another time, I looked over at Petey and he was totally transfixed at what he was watching with a transcendental look in his eyes. Cinema at work!
When I got involved with film more, I went back to KANE and wondered what all the fuss was about. First, the opening scenes of Xanadu were pretty ratty matte paintings, made to look all the worse when they used some realistic newsreel footage.
When Kane dies, there’s no one in the room to hear, ‘Rosebud.’ All the acting is loud. Kane as a little kid is pretty bad and his guardians are worse than those in THE WIZARD OF OZ (didn’t you think Dorothy living with those codgers was weird?). The singing stuff could have (should have) been quicker, especially the crane shot up to the stagehands that held their noses at her singing.
I became re-interested in KANE when Pauline Kael wrote her book, RAISING KANE, where she disputes Welles’ authorship. I was curious about her take, and by that time I had met Welles and we had worked together on a few things and I admired him greatly. Welles’ work may have a flaw here and there, but he was a genius of some kind. McMurtry put it into perspective in his book of essays, FILM FLAM. He felt that KANE ‘was as great a film as we are likely to have’ but that the script of Kane ‘was appallingly dull,’ any magic came from Welles.
As for Welles, his films were as flawed as any, but all had special moments that only he could achieve. Anytime KANE, AMBERSONS, TOUCH OF EVIL run, I’ll watch.
But what Kael’s book uncovered for me is that critics review the scripts, not the film. They are writers and not very good writers because if they were good writers they would be writers and not critics.
The critics involved in SIGHT & SOUND are a strange bunch as well, as they have recently called VERTIGO the number one film of all time supplanting CK. CK is still on the list as is 2001. I never really ‘got’ 2001. It was impeccably done but it was slow getting to the point. My first issue was the use of the truly horrible and pretentious Also Sprach Zarathustra music to open the film. Then you had a bunch of dancers in ape costumes for an eternity. They find a monolith. Several million years later, scientists find a monolith on the moon. What happened to the one in Africa? The horror film part is damn good but did we need all that slitscan special effects stuff to get through the stargate?
Th S & S guys also like John Ford’s, THE SEARCHERS, one of Ford’s worst. I don’t get it. First, you’re in Monument Valley, on the border of Utah and Arizona and the title says you’re in Texas. That would be okay if’n the average person didn’t know where Monument Valley was. Then the bad Indian has blue eyes. You could make a case for an Indian having blue eyes, but that would take another film. The famous Comanche, Quanah Parker, had a Caucasian momma. Maybe that’s what Ford was thinking but Parker loved his mother and wouldn’t have taken the young girl that is the heart of the story. Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, and Natalie Wood are miscast in the film, as is Ken Curtis. Much of the film is beautifully shot but the entire search looks like it was all in Monument Valley or a Hollywood studio. Top ten? I don’t think so. STAGECOACH, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE are Ford films that are far better. Ironically, THE GRAPES OF WRATH was photographed by Gregg Toland, the brilliant cinematographer that filmed CITIZEN KANE. Ford had a great eye as well, having told a new cameraman he was working with, ‘I’ll tell you where to put the camera and I’ll tell you where to put the lights.’
Both Ford and Hitchcock are great directors with insane bodies of work, transitioning from the ‘silents’ to the ‘talkies’ to ‘color, ‘widescreen’ and even a foray into 3D (Hitchcock). It may be that the critics gave these ‘awards’ to them as a late career tribute as they were among the last films these guys made, but that doesn’t excuse 2001.
Enough of my pettiness. What the magazine did do was introduce me to alternative filmmakers. There were no ‘retrospective’ cinemas in Pittsburgh at that time, so there was no way of knowing Godard, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini. There was an Art Cinema theater that played Euro porn and we were not allowed to go there by the Church. They played BITTER RICE there for a year. The poster was very suggestive, terrific actually. I then discovered the SHADYSIDE THEATER that played foreign films. The one film that was astonishing was L’AVVENTURA. I walked out of the theater not having any idea of what I had just seen.
I began to catch up to what I had been missing from SIGHT & SOUND. Later I sort of researched film schools and there were three, USC, NYU, and Lodz, in Poland, none remotely possibile. The pronunciation of the Polish Film School is Wodjch. Go figure. Polish is a tough language. My parents refused to teach me so they could speak of my faults at dinner without my understanding. Andrzej Wajda became one of my favorite directors, particularly for ASHES AND DIAMONDS. Don’t ask how to pronounce his name (Vi-da).
Despite my quibbles with the magazine’s top ten lists, SIGHT & SOUND changed the way I saw film. I’m sorry I lost touch with the magazine in modern times, but the level of film criticism has fallen since the glory days of Pauline Kael, Judith Christ, Dwight MacDonald, Andrew Sarris, and Cahiers du Cinema, the French equivalent of SIGHT & SOUND.
I read an analysis of the ‘top ten’ rules and all the films have to be old and established. The reason for THE SEARCHERS being on the list is that John Ford and John Wayne went against their traditions in the film. The same could be said of VERTIGO and Hitchcock and James Stewart. MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA is an example of pure cinema and probably belongs for that reason only. RULES OF THE GAME has always been preposterous to me. I think the fact that it was banned by the French government for being subversive may be the reason it’s there. I could agree with most of the rest being there, except 2001. What bothers me is the absence of Chaplin and Keaton, both geniuses, but the quarterly influenced me greatly and is one of the few fond memories of suffering through an attempt at Chemical Engineering.