By Spencer. After four grueling weeks of group play face-offs, it’s finally time to crown our S&N World Cup Of Cinema champion! For those who need a refresher on the rules, you can find them here. For a broader introduction to the films we’ll be looking at, check out Group A, B, C, & D. Today, our four top pictures will face off in semifinals matches, and then we’ll select our champion!
Here are your Semifinalists:
Semifinals Match #1: United States vs. Japan
Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa are two of the giants of film history, so it should be no surprise that their masterworks have each come this far. Still, it’s worth taking the time to look at how these two movies played to the audiences of yesterday and today, because it raises questions about how a film should be judged through the lens of history.
In the 70 years since Citizen Kane was released, it has occupied virtually every position on the spectrum of popular and critical reception. In 1941, it was critically acclaimed, but failed to turn a profit — a surprise, given Welles’s popularity on the radio and the fact that he was now going into an even more popular medium. The movie lost the Best Picture Oscar to How Green Was My Valley, a movie few people have even heard of today. Its reputation faded from there, and the movie easily might have become a footnote in film history. But around 1956, a group of film critics, including Andre Bazin, Francois Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard (soon to direct another of our semifinalists, Breathless), rediscovered the film and hailed it as the starting point of modern cinema. Its reputation skyrocketed over the next decade, and in 1962, the British film publication Sight & Sound — which, every ten years, polls filmmakers and critics to select the greatest films of all time — gave the number one slot for the first time to Citizen Kane. And the result stayed the same in 1972, 1982, 1992, and 2002 (though Citizen Kane finally and somewhat controversially gave way to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the 2012 poll).
But audiences have never quite warmed to Citizen Kane the way the critics and historians have. In my conversations with other people who are passionate about movies, the most typical reaction they’ve expressed to the film is an indifferent shrug — as in, “I don’t see what the big deal is.” Is it that Citizen Kane hasn’t aged well? I don’t think that’s the reason; in tone and in dialogue, it’s a more mature movie than most pictures from its day. I think some of its reputation for mediocrity with casual moviegoers has more to do with plot. Stripped of any familiarity with the film’s many allusions to the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, some crucial context is lost for modern audiences. I think they’re left feeling disconnected from the characters — which of course is the whole point with Charles Foster Kane, a man who pushed away everyone who loved him until he died alone, able only to blurt out the name of his childhood sled as his last recollection of happiness. Like There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview or The Aviator’s Howard Hughes, you’re not supposed to connect with this character. You’re supposed to shake your head at him.
More than that, I think modern audiences undervalue Citizen Kane in part as a backlash to the gushing reactions they’ve heard about it. When a film is placed on a pedestal so tall, anything short of absolute perfection will seem like a disappointment. And Citizen Kane isn’t a perfect film — it’s just a hugely innovative one. Those innovations are lost on viewers who have come to expect the techniques Orson Welles ushered in. We see them everyday, in every movie. So an appreciation of history and technique are necessary prerequisites to enjoying Citizen Kane, and for most people, movies aren’t supposed to be homework.
I’d submit that they’re missing out. But I also understand.
Meanwhile, Seven Samurai is a movie adored by those who see it — which, in America, isn’t that many. I’m sure some of that has to do with the foreign language aspect. Then there’s the length — three-and-a-half hours in its original cut (which is the only one you should ever watch). And it’s also — gasp! — in black-and-white. Those three things, together, are the death knell for anyone hoping to convince a casual movie fan to watch something. I myself put off watching the film for years. When I finally did, I was floored. I wasn’t expecting this movie to be funny. I wasn’t expecting to care about the characters. I wasn’t expecting it to be suspenseful. Seven Samurai is all of these things.
If I may offer a modern analogue, think of The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (in my opinion, the best of the LOTR trilogy). The main story in that chapter is the long build-up to the Battle of Helm’s Deep, in which a small band of soldiers taking refuge in a remote castle prepare to battle an army that hopelessly outnumbers them. It’s a theme as old as the Alamo, the Spanish Armada, Thermopylae, Troy — a last, valiant stand in the face of certain death. Seven Samurai operates in similar territory, recognizing that the true drama is in the build-up to the battle, not the battle itself. The samurai and the townspeople know they may not come out of this alive. They prepare, they fight amongst each other, they fall in love and regret their choices and ask how it ever came to this. And they wait. To deal with that dread, over the course of weeks, is one of the great, beautiful human experiences that storytelling can capture.
And capture it, Kurosawa does, with some of the most majestic cinematography you’ll ever see. Seven Samurai is epic in every way, and satisfying to ordinary audiences in a way that Citizen Kane is not. That’s because, like the very earliest movies, it’s about spectacle. Movies were born as popular entertainment. They were also art, in their best instances, but the greatest filmmakers recognized the need for those two things to co-exist. No one does that better than Kurosawa.
Historical Importance: The United States scores first! Both films are giants, but when a film is hailed for five decades in a row as the greatest of all time, there’s no questioning its historical importance. United States, 1 – Japan, 0.
Direction/Visual Appeal: This may be like choosing between two brands of caviar, but I’ve got to give it to Citizen Kane for all of its richness and depth and those iconic deep focus shots. Direction is what made this movie famous. United States, 2 – Japan, 0.
Story: Japan scores! The plot may advance slowly in Seven Samurai, but it’s never boring. It’s using that time to ratchet up the suspense, minute by minute, until the battle — and the payoff — finally comes. United States, 2 – Japan, 1.
Acting: This is where I think there could be disagreement, but I’m giving the point to Japan. Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton deliver powerful performances. But the entire cast of Seven Samurai seem so much more human by comparison, and their portrayals even cross linguistic barriers, making them truly universal. United States, 2 – Japan, 2.
National Flavor: Japan takes down Goliath! Citizen Kane is the American success story in reverse. But you’ll find no better a depiction of Japanese culture, humor, and honor than Seven Samurai. United States, 2 – Japan, 3.
Semifinals Match #2: France vs. Italy
Citizen Kane and Seven Samurai are well-known even among those who haven’t seen them. By comparison, Breathless and Bicycle Thieves are smaller films, better known to art house aficionados. Judging such movies requires a different perspective.
What makes Breathless so special? Technical experts point to its novel use of cutting — the way the camera jumps sharply between shots, unconcerned with maintaining any kind of visual or even temporal continuity. It’s as if someone took real life and randomly slashed out sentences and moments, then stitched the remainder together. The look –they called it French New Wave — was exciting and sexy for its time, with a little bit of the attitude of a music video (long before music videos were of course invented).
That attitude is also in its characters. They’re obsessed with style, with image — much like the film around them. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel is a Frenchman who wants to be Humphrey Bogart; Jean Seberg’s Patricia is an American who wants to be French. They’re both trying to be something they’re not, and that’s an expression of a desire conspicuously more common in the youth of the 1960s — the desire for real life to be more like the movies. That this is happening within a movie is of course an ironic statement of its own, and that’s why Breathless was such a shock to the culture: it blurred the line between real life and movies so as to make a mockery of it. Why argue over whether “life imitates art” or “art imitates life” — why argue over which direction the line points — when you can just make it a tidy little circle?
That’s why comparing Breathless with Bicycle Thieves — a movie obsessed with capturing life in all its mundane moments of reality — is a particularly fascinating exercise. The Italian Neorealists wanted movies to be more like everyday life; French New Wave was very much guided and influenced by this same philosophy in the way it used naturalistic dialogue and real-life settings, such as Paris, almost as characters of their own, but it was also in some ways a rebuttal to that approach. Because many of the first French New Wave directors started out as film critics, there was always an ironic self-awareness in their films. Like Andy Warhol, Jean-Luc Godard was making pop art, always conscious of itself as both art and commentary on art.
Director Vittorio De Sica’s entire philosophy in Bicycle Thieves stands at odds with that. His film was itself a rebuttal to the glossy fantasy of Hollywood. So to ask the question, “what makes Bicycle Thieves so special?” it’s the way it turned the lens outward, away from the movies as we’d always understood them and back upon the world that made them. Its characters are utterly real, working real jobs (when they could even find them), suffering from real hunger, walking the streets of real places, and played by real people. These people don’t have time for glamor; they need to eat.
That a moving story could be found in such corners of the earth was a reminder to filmmakers of the power of movies not just to give us a brief respite from real life, but to comment upon it. So Breathless and Bicycle Thieves, compared side-by-side, show us opposite sides of the same coin. They gives us two contrasting examples of what film can express, what place it holds in our lives — what the point of it is.
Historical Importance: Choosing between these two films is agonizing, particularly in this category. Breathless was hugely influential in its time, and helped bring hipness back to the movies after the campiness of the 1950s. Its style was emulated the world over. But Breathless was itself an emulation in some ways of Bicycle Thieves, and so I’ve got to give the point to the one that came first. Bicycle Thieves helped usher movies into reality, and without that necessary step, film never could have taken its place as a serious artform. France, 0 – Italy, 1.
Direction/Visual Appeal: Both films are nearly perfect in this department; I’m giving the point to Breathless. There’s just so much style to it, so much fun, and yet also a soul-baring simplicity at times. France, 1 – Italy, 1.
Story: Bicycle Thieves has a huge statement to make in its finale about how crime and poverty feed each other in an endless cycle — but until that payoff, there’s very little story at all. So I narrowly give the point to Breathless, which keeps you intrigued by these horrible people and leaves you constantly changing your mind about whether you’re rooting for them or against them, whether they should fall in love or go their separate ways, whether they should escape the law or rot in a cell. And even in its resolution, you still won’t be sure. France, 2 – Italy, 1.
Acting: Again, I’ve got to give the slightest margin to Breathless. Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola are heartbreaking as Bicycle Thieves’ father and son, but Belmondo and Seberg give star-making turns in Breathless. Some might argue they are all flash and less substance, and I’m hard-pressed to disagree. But to paraphrase a prominent art critic, “they’re loathsome brutes, yet I can’t look away.” France, 3 – Italy, 1.
National Flavor: Bicycle Thieves takes this category for its multifaceted look at Italian life, but in what is easily the closest match of the S&N World Cup Of Cinema, France prevails. Bicycle Thieves is probably the better piece of art — but Breathless is both artistic and fun. That gives it the overall edge. France, 3 – Italy, 2.
Semifinals Match #1: Japan vs. France
And so we’re left with two: Japan’s Seven Samurai and France’s Breathless. They’re such different movies — and not in the way that they take opposing viewpoints of film. Seven Samurai is big, and Breathless is small. Seven Samurai is epic, and Breathless is intimate. Seven Samurai is a war picture, and in Breathless, half the movie is spent laying around in bed together. Seven Samurai is romantic, while Breathless is almost cynical in its attitude toward all things.
It’s hard to say that one is “better” than the other. But that’s the point of arbitrary competition — and only one film, one country, can win the World Cup Of Cinema.
Historical Importance: Seven Samurai has more fame. Breathless was more innovative. Which one of those things do you reward for historical importance? I’ll narrowly give it to Breathless. Japan, 0 – France, 1.
Direction/Visual Appeal: This time, Seven Samurai takes the point. As flashy as Godard’s camera work was, I have to reward Kurosawa for his three-hour technical clinic in composition and editing. You’ll never see a more beautiful movie, and you’ll never see a story told in images better than the final fight scene. Japan, 1 – France, 1.
Story: Seven Samurai takes this one, for a plot that deals in universal themes yet takes the time to also focus on the human element and build its characters. Breathless is less about the plot and more about the attitude. Japan, 2 – France, 1.
Acting: France scores again! Belmondo and Seberg are too good to ignore. We go into the final category all tied up! Japan, 2 – France, 2.
National Flavor: The point and the World Cup go to … Japan! Breathless is as French as croissants, Bordeaux, and rudeness. But it’s just as much a picture about an American expatriate. Seven Samurai is a purely Japanese experience. And with that, we crown our champion! Japan, 3 – France, 2.