Yesterday, I bought the great Carole King’s CD Tapestry as a birthday gift for my sister. The little text on the back of the CD box, as usual, promoted the music by saying that this was essential listening, the greatest piece of music ever put on record, a life-altering experience and so on. The writer even called the record a “breakthrough masterpiece”.
Now, I won’t deny that Tapestry is indeed very good, but the idea of a “breakthrough masterpiece” sounds off to me. It was Ms. King’s first record, and legitimately the one that made her famous, but doesn’t that sort of disqualify the thing as a masterpiece? It’s a term that gets tossed around often in reviews, and almost always seemingly quite thoughtless. I’m not such a language purist that I’m going to spend your time griping about this, and besides: when it comes to misusing words, modern reviewing has done a lot worse. Heck, does anyone even know what “awesome” is supposed to mean anymore?. But I think it wouldn’t hurt to give some more thought to the term.
(For the purist amongst you: I am going to discuss the word in such a way that “Magnus Opus” might be a better description. I am aware of the etymological distinction between the two, but since we don’t have guilds anymore, it’s of little relevance to this discussion)
I’d say a masterpiece can be defined as such:
“A great work of art from a great oeuvre that defines the artistic soul of its maker”.
Let me chop up that definition and elaborate bit by bit: “A great work of art”: the movie has to be an achievement all by itself, of course. I’m going to be a little prudish here and say that a work has to have genuine artistic merit instead of just being successful, so “Adam Sandler’s masterpiece” is sort of a contradiction in terms, but that is another discussion.
“From a great oeuvre”: if a director has made no other films to compare the artwork to, it is a little pointless to say the best of none. Similarly, if that person has only made one genuinely great film, it’s basically meaningless to talk about a masterpiece. This doesn’t mean, of course, that someone who has only made great film but has had a marvelous career in other creative fields should be dismissed.
“That defines the artistic soul of its maker”: this is the hardest to define, and the part that leaves the most room for discussion. What I basically mean by this is that a film has to contain, in one way or another, everything that makes this artist great.
So, after this lengthy definition, let’s get down to business. Which films would deserve the stamp “masterpiece” by this definition? Generally, it’s the director’s grandest (and longest) film: although Persona has my vote for Bergman’s best film, I would say Fanny Och Alexander is his masterpiece. It’s a film that contains all his themes, stylistic mannerisms, and even most of his regular actors. For P.T. Anderson I’d single out Magnolia, for Quentin Tarantino Pulp Fiction, and for Kevin Smith Clerks II.
But although masterpieces are generally pretty epic in scale, this is no rule. Todd Haynes and Wes Anderson, two of my favorite directors, made their masterpieces with shorts films (Superstar and Hotel Chevalier, respectively).
I’ve listed some more directors below, but first: what does this all matter? Very good question. Probably very little. The only real application of the term I can see is that it might give us an interesting perspective on the collected work of a director, and give us another reason to bitch at each other. And maybe we can stop tossing the term around so carelessly. One masterpiece per director, folks.
- Steven Spielberg: Raiders of the Lost Ark
- Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in the West
- Werner Herzog: Encounters at the End of the World
- Billy Wilder: The Apartment
- The Coen Brothers: The Big Lebowski
- Clint Eastwood: Gran Torino
- Akira Kurosawa: The Seven Samurai
- Masaki Kobayashi: The Human Condition
Talk amongst yourselves.