Outing the phoney movie masterpieces

Great art? No, dull rubbish

Great art? No, dull rubbish. TIM LOTTtakes the critical hatchet to some of the lousy films cineastes love to exalt – and feels better for it

I’D LIKE TO begin, not with the customary introduction, but by asking forgiveness – given the passion that cineastes nurture for the films they love, this might be seen as a malicious provocation. But it is merely, for me, a clearing of the air – a personal catharsis to shake off years of tolerating, even pretending to admire, films that, in reality, I profoundly dislike.

What follows isn’t so much an objective article as a personal caprice – the “outing” of a number of films, claimed by those in the know to be not merely good but “great”; the story of why they leave me cold, bored and desperately searching for the eject button.

Is there anybody today, for instance, who will stand by the once widely held conviction that Luchino Visconti's Death in Veniceis a masterpiece? Apparently: the film critic Peter Bradshaw asserted in a five-star review that it is "magnificent".


It won a Palme d’Or, an Oscar and a British Academy award. It was lauded for its cinematography. But, as David Mamet once observed, if you come out of a film admiring only its cinematography, you have probably been sitting through a lousy film.

That's certainly true of Death in Venice: a lot of window-dressed, camp nonsense smuggling itself into the canon disguised as art.

The plot: German novelist Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) goes to Venice to recover his inspiration, checks into a hotel and spends the next two hours, as cholera threatens the city, rubbernecking an adolescent boy in repressed paedophiliac lust. After several months of this, Aschenbach drops dead in his deckchair.

It is beautiful, luscious, leisurely, elegiac and so forth. But it has the regrettable drawback of being staggeringly tedious. It captures none of the nuance of Thomas Mann’s original novella – an eloquent meditation on the creative impulse, longing, the fading of artistic powers and the final triumph of body over mind. The film, in contrast, is not so much a masterpiece as a colossal piece of soft-focus masturbation.

Many critics have rumbled Death in Venice. Not so John Ford's The Searchers. Cahiers du Cinéma magazine rated it the 10th best film ever made. The American Film Institute (AFI) recently hailed it as the greatest western of all time.

It’s 1868. Comanches attack a homestead, slaughter most of the occupants and abduct a young girl, Debbie Edwards. Ethan Edwards, Debbie’s uncle (John Wayne), sets out with a posse to find her. When he does – after several years – Debbie doesn’t want to go home. Ethan, infuriated, tries to kill her but Martin, her step-brother, prevents him. After a brief interregnum, during which Martin and Ethan return to the homestead for some light relief, they track her down once more and Ethan again looks as though he’s going to execute Debbie. But he changes his mind. He tenderly takes a now-willing Debbie home.

The film fails to explain why Ethan goes to such trouble to find the girl if he wants to kill her. Nor does it explain why he changes his mind (or, for that matter, why Debbie changes hers). The rude mechanics of the piece – such as the absurd Swedish homesteader, Lars Jorgensen, whose verbal repertoire is limited to statements like “yumping yiminy!” – add a patina of slapstick that, at times, drags the film down to the level of Blazing Saddles.

Beautiful landscapes, yes, but you could put Basingstoke High Street in Monument Valley and it would look mysteriously evocative. A critique of racism? Only if you believe that portraying Native Americans as sadistic, rapacious savages is enlightened. A subversion of the whole genre? John Ford would have laughed at the idea.

Like The Searchers, Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jimhas few detractors. I am, proudly, one of them. In fact, I would very happily tell Ethan Edwards that the cast and crew were Comanches and set his psychotic rage on to them.

High concept? It’s a nouvelle vague buddy movie set in France before the first World War. A pair of dreary, self-obsessed young men, one Austrian (Jules) and one French (Jim), meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), a “free spirit” and spend the film competing for her affection. They have philosophical discussions about art and literature. Then, to pep up the storyline, war breaks out and JJ are called up. Afterwards, they move to Austria and have more philosophical discussions. They swap partners and, despite the agony involved, show no emotion at any time – they are too cool. Catherine dies in a car crash with Jules, or possibly Jim. Who cares? Fin.

Despite its historical setting, it is a film anticipating attitudes of the 1960s by people with an absurd, privileged and conceited idea of what the 1960s should or will be. Its wit is not witty, insights are nonexistent and its script is mannered and self-indulgent. Jeanne Moreau is beautiful. That alone does not make it one of the greatest films of all time – even of 1962. Had Jules, Jim and Catherine been born a few generations later, they could have sustained 10 minutes of interest on Jerry Springer. Or at least five.

Fellini's La Dolce Vitamakes Jules et Jimappear restrained in its commitment to the unintentionally absurd and facetiously tedious. Marcello, the central character, a showbiz hack, has a clinging fiancee, Emma, with whom he lives in a dreary flat. Being Italian, he has lovers, one of whom, the bored and jaded Maddalena, he takes to a prostitute's flat and slips some of the old salami Romano. Emma attempts suicide but Marcello is unmoved, as characters in continental arthouse movies unaccountably are, in unusual or tragic circumstances. Then he finds himself alone with an "American" movie star, Sylvia (Anita Ekberg who, being Swedish, is staggeringly miscast). Sylvia is one of the most tiresome and unconvincing creations in world cinema. She vogues in the Trevi fountain, giggles like a hyena and repeatedly thrusts her enormous breasts at the camera.

The film was hailed as a non-narrative masterpiece and a unique exercise in the “aesthetic of disparity” (critic Robert Richardson), but it could more easily be summarised as a turgid, lazy mess of half-realised conceits. And yes, I know that it’s a satire on decadence, not a tribute to it. But only in the same sense that the Sun vilifies people over sex, while being obsessed with undressed women. It’s called having your panettone and eating it.

Shifting to modern cinema, there is Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, which features at number nine in the AFI's list of the greatest American movies and number one in Tim Lott's list of all-time embarrassments. This film is actively offensive. To watch a group of cringing Jews gather around the "good German" during the Holocaust is bad enough. To manipulate emotions, as when a group of incongruously good-looking refugees are tempted into the shower block only to receive – yes, showers! – is disgusting. And the final scene, straight out of a prime-time soap, when Schindler breaks down in tears and weeps "I didn't save enough", is enough to make the toughest stomach regurgitate its contents.

The only genuinely moving moment is when it's over, and the authentic Schindler survivors are shown visiting the real Schindler's grave. For documentary or literature are the only forms big and true enough to fit the Holocaust. Go and see Claude Lanzmann's Shoah,or read a book by Primo Levi, if you want to know about it. And if you want to be entertained by a tragedy with a happy ending set in an inhumane prison environment, go to see The Shawshank Redemptioninstead.

Or not. Shawshank is a perfectly okay B-movie, worth 3.5 stars from any critic, but the idea that it is the greatest movie of all time – repeatedly voted so by cinemagoers (though not by critics) – is not so much offensive as simply mystifying.

It’s a straightforward prison drama in which the good people are a bit too good and the bad, a bit too bad. The hero, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), accused of a murder he did not commit, settles into prison life after having the misfortune of being repeatedly sodomised for several years by those nasty sex-crazed monsters who feature heavily in prison films. He makes friends with Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) – unaccountably, pretty much the only black person in the prison. He builds a library and helps a nasty warden swindle his accounts. Eventually, he gets revenge on the warden, escapes and goes to live on a beach. Freeman joins him. The end.

The narrative is mildly engaging and the characters well enough drawn, so it’s a decent movie – certainly an improvement on Escape from Alcatraz, but not by all that much. And it’s certainly not the best movie ever made.

Dear reader, if I haven't offended you yet, be patient. Other films I consider profoundly overpraised include Kieslowski's Three Colours Red(nothing happens), Tarkovsky's Solaris(nothing happens in space) and Von Stroheim's Greed (nothing happens in 10 hours in the desert).

Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradisis dated, overlong and absurdly wordy – in short, overly French. Jean Renoir's La Regle de Jeu(according to many Francophile critics, the greatest film ever made), is a country-house drama with less veracity or dramatic power than Upstairs, Downstairs. Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunterhas moments of melodrama that would not shame an episode of Scooby-Doo. On the Waterfrontis a masterclass in ham acting – and if you really want to witness "the Method" at its best, check out Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker, from 1964.

None of these "masterpieces" deserves a place in history more than large numbers of other films either forgotten, unnoticed, or languishing on the outer periphery of the canon. The Blair Witch Projectand The Innocents, for example, are scarier and more innovative than the highly lauded Psycho. The dialogue-free Philip Glass/Godfrey Reggio project Koyaanisqatsi is one of the most original movies of the last 30 years. South Pacificand All That Jazzboth make Singin' in the Rainlook like the empty spectacle it is. Try, also The Rapture, a weirdly wonderful film about religious cults by Michael Tolkin (who wrote The Player), Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Terence Davies's masterful Trilogy and my personal greatest of all time, Elem Klimov's Come and See,a 1985 Russian war epic that makes Apocalypse Nowseem lightweight.

Feel free to tear these films to shreds. They may even deserve it. Let me tell you, you’ll feel a lot better. God knows, I do.