You know, it’s funny. We all have a different idea of what makes a masterpiece. Is it that we consider this work flawless? Groundbreaking? Original? Is it a masterpiece because important critics say it is? Can a film be considered a masterpiece even if you didn’t exactly like it? These questions would be answered differently by you readers, and they would be answered much more interestingly by someone like Roger Ebert or Manohla Dargis or Kenneth Turan.
For what makes a critic different from a blogger now isn’t necessarily their opinion, or their “professional eye.” What makes them different is their being held to a higher standard by the outlet they work for, and their being edited and kept in check. Their writing is just flat out better than most of us self-starters who have kept ourselves going on our own passion for film and the passion of our readers. But watch out if you ever dangle that word ‘masterpiece’ out there because, without the agreement of the critics, it can snap back in our faces.
Imagine if, say, the major critics had come out of the gate first, spewing the same hyperbole many of us were criticized for. Would Movieline make a cute little chart making fun of them for it? Probably not. It is one thing for critics to pull the masterpiece card, a whole different thing for a blogger to do it.
This got me thinking about Alfred Hitchcock and his triangulation with Christopher Nolan. When I first wrote my impressions of Inception, I included the film, and its director in a class of great filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen – those who broke new ground because they weren’t afraid to dive into a new way of telling a story. 2001: A Space Odyssey was the film that immediately leapt to mind. It is a hard sit and not one of my favorite films. Is it a masterpiece? WIthout question.
Annie Hall or Manhattan are both films I would call masterpieces but maybe I wouldn’t have back in the 1970s because they were so of their time it was hard to see them as the groundbreaking films they really were.
Inception, and The Dark Knight before it, are groundbreaking films but their impact won’t be fully felt, I suspect, for a couple of years to come. The reason I think Inception is one of those rare films like 2001 or Annie Hall is that Nolan is doing something most filmmakers can’t do: making a film from his own intellectual and emotional universe on a big budget scale, one that is being released by a major studio, one that isn’t dumbed down in the least to satisfy the 13 year-old demo. It is both the film in the context of its time, and it is the film itself.
The film needs to be seen twice at least. It isn’t one that is going to uncover a lot of depth, story-wise. What makes this film a masterpiece (I have to now qualify that with “to me personally”) is that it is the marriage of Memento and The Dark Knight – bravura filmmaking with mind-bending storytelling.
And yet, some of the critics have utterly dismissed what I think is a significant moment for filmmaking in general, far more significant than Avatar. The Cameron sci-fi epic broke new ground technologically but it told a very old story. What Cameron did with Avatar probably will never be done by another director. Is Avatar a masterpiece? Absolutely.
At any rate, my thoughts sent me down the road to the Cahiers du Cinema, a group of writers and filmmakers who reinvented the way critics wrote about auteurs, specifically Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and other “genre” filmmakers who had been mostly dismissed by American critics.
I can’t pretend to know more about it than I do, but what I do know is that Hitchcock wasn’t recognized as a cinematic genius, releasing one masterpiece after another, until the Cahiers du Cinema defined him as such.
I decided to go back and look at how the critics saw Hitchcock’s movies here in America, and the only reviews I could access were those on the NY Times archive site.
Bosley Crowther was the main critic for the New York Times for many years. He praised many iconic films, like Citizen Kane, but he completely missed the genius of Hitchcock. Reading his reviews gives us all a better idea as to why Hitch’s Oscar nominations and wins were so few and far between. Kubrick too, for that matter. That he managed as many as he did was some sort of miracle.
Crowther on Psycho:
There is not an abundance of subtlety or the lately familiar Hitchcock bent toward significant and colorful scenery in this obviously low-budget job. With a minimum of complication, it gets off to a black-and-white start with the arrival of a fugitive girl with a stolen bankroll right at an eerie motel.
The consequence in his denouement falls quite flat for us. But the acting is fair. Mr. Perkins and Miss Leigh perform with verve, and Vera Miles, John Gavin, and Martin Balsam do well enough in other roles.
He may be right about the last bit, the long lecture about psychosis, but he absolutely doesn’t seem to notice the best thing about this film: his camera’s eye, the portrait of Norman Bates, his gift for building suspense, and most of all – his strange and repeating archetypes. Perhaps it really was necessary to see this through the eyes of Francois Truffaut and the others in the Cahier du Cinema who defined Hitchcock as a major “auteur” of his time. We have many auteurs making vital cinema today: Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Spike Lee, Woody Allen (even if they kind of suck lately), Steven Soderbergh (for the most part), Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen Brothers (more than most people even), Sofia Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, etc.
But I still think we neglect to see it when an auteur operates within a popular, blockbuster genre. Therefore, people like Peter Jackson, Michael Mann, Jim Cameron and others could be overlooked because their footprints aren’t immediately apparent. I think Christopher Nolan is steadily creating a body of work that will emerge in decades to come, even if some of it is disregarded now. I don’t think he is reaching for artistic greatness with Inception (as Soderbergh did with Solaris) but he is attempting to realize his own vision.
Crowther’s Vertigo review is mostly just a plot description, the art of the thing totally missed. It’s not a bad review, just a bemused one. This is why it all had to be taken down and rebuilt with the Cahiers du Cinema, who changed the way critics saw and wrote about films.
A raw and unmitigated campaign of sheer press-agentry has been trying to put across the notion that Warner Brothers’ Bonnie and Clyde is a faithful representation of the desperado careers of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, a notorious team of bank robbers and killers who roamed Texas and Oklahoma in the post-Depression years.
It is nothing of the sort. It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie. And it puts forth Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the leading roles, and Michael J. Pollard as their sidekick, a simpering, nose-picking rube, as though they were striving mightily to be the Beverly Hillbillies of next year.
It has Mr. Beatty clowning broadly as the killer who fondles various types of guns with as much nonchalance and dispassion as he airily twirls a big cigar, and it has Miss Dunaway squirming grossly as his thrill-seeking, sex-starved moll. It is loaded with farcical holdups, screaming chases in stolen getaway cars that have the antique appearance and speeded-up movement of the clumsy vehicles of the Keystone Kops, and indications of the impotence of Barrow, until Bonnie writes a poem about him to extol his prowess, that are as ludicrous as they are crude.
Such ridiculous, camp-tinctured travesties of the kind of people these desperados were and of the way people lived in the dusty Southwest back in those barren years might be passed off as candidly commercial movie comedy, nothing more, if the film weren’t reddened with blotches of violence of the most grisly sort.
This review did not taint the film, Oscar-wise, in fact it was nominated for ten Oscars and won two. But it is worth noting, nonetheless.
And then there is the Renata Adler review of 2001 – a film that is, without a doubt, not an easy sit. But it was also a film that is so important to cinema history it’s hard to see how it wasn’t noticed by this critic in any remarkable way except the special effects:
And yet the uncompromising slowness of [2001: A Space Odyssey] makes it hard to sit through without talking‚Äîand people on all sides when I saw it were talking almost throughout the film. Very annoying. With all its attention to detail‚Äîa kind of reveling in its own I.Q.‚Äîthe movie acknowledged no obligation to validate its conclusion for those, me for example, who are not science-fiction buffs. By the end, three unreconciled plot lines‚Äîthe slabs, Dullea’s aging, the period bedroom‚Äîare simply left there like a Rorschach, with murky implications of theology. This is a long step outside the convention, some extra scripts seem required, and the all-purpose answer, “relativity,” does not really serve unless it can be verbalized.
So you see, sometimes it isn’t even the critics who are aware enough to know what it is they have. Sometimes it is the treasure itself, revealing itself over time to be both something wholly original, and something uncompromised, even if it is flawed.