Name a film which you consider a masterpiece? You may say The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, or Manhattan, or you may say Star Wars, E.T, Ghostbusters or The Avengers. What defines a masterpiece needs to first define what we mean by ‘masterpiece’ – and no, from the off I don’t mean a film that took 200 squillion quid to make. So anyone who answered Transformers when they thought of a masterpiece of cinema should probably leave this article now.
You may well enjoy a film like Transformers though, but by anything critically objective is it a ‘good’ film? Is the script well written, or the lighting superb, or the direction above par or is it just big robots hitting things til they explode? Whether one enjoys a film is different from whether a film is objectively good, so for, example Braveheart is a load of utter guff historically that’s been clearly inspired by Kubrick’s Spartacus to create something which is well made, even enjoyable, but it is a pile of crap. So what are the things to look for in a masterpiece? Is there anything we can objectively measure what is a ‘masterpiece’?
The answer to that is yes – there is. The direction is the obvious one. Citizen Kane is a masterpiece because it broke new ground in terms of direction as Orson Welles pushed what technology could do in 1941 as well as invent new ways to tell a story on film. The techniques Welles used decades ago are still used today because they work to tell a story. Same goes with Francis Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather films. Coppola there used all the tools at his disposal (And then some) to weave a story of a crime family, yet that’s only the plot. The Godfather is also about relationships, as well as how a good man turns into an evil man which brings me to the next point of a masterpiece; the script. Without the script a film is nothing. Why do most people think The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the Star Wars films? Sure, the effects and action are fun but this film is so well written, constructed and told mainly due to the fact the script gives it the foundation to build something that still stands head and shoulders above the other films.
So we’ve got direction and script; what else? Acting is a given. Imagine a modern classic like say, Goodfellas if David Hasslehoff replaced Robert DeNiro? It’d be shit. It might keep post-modern ironists happy, but it’d be rubbish. A film may also be considered a masterpiece at the time, but upon reflection it isn’t so step up the likes of Forrest Gump which may well be technically brilliant but is a manipulative, morally dubious, work.
Which brings me to the biggest part of what makes a masterpiece: the critical response. By ‘critical response’ I don’t mean how much money it took, otherwise that means a dreadful work like Avatar is the best film ever made but how people critically assess a film. This means firstly accepting there are critics who aren’t very good so if you’ve ever seen a review that consists of ‘BEST FILM EVER’ (and such things exist) then they’re probably people who are unable to objectively review a film, or to apply a different set of standards depending on the type of film they’re watching. For example, I’d not call any of the Marvel films made so far ‘masterpieces’ to rank with a Goodfellas or a Manhattan. That’s not because they’re not good films or poorly made. On the whole, these are well made, fun films, but they’re cookie cutter production line filmmaking. Now that isn’t a bad thing: We sometimes get a genuine masterpiece like an Empire Strikes Back. However, if we’re lucky, we’ll get good enjoyable films that do what they’re supposed to do well but are as consequential as the last time you had a bag of salt and vinegar crisps.
In this age of hyperbole words like ‘masterpiece’ are thrown around far too easily, so we should only use the word for a film that really, honestly, truly deserves it and not stuff like Generic Superhero Film 12. Separate seeing film as purely a source of enjoyment (if that were the case then the best film ever made for me is Evil Dead 2) but as something which advances the medium of film beyond the mundane, the ordinary or just plain alright. Masterpieces don’t grow on trees – they are carefully nurtured things that should be separated from very good, or enjoyable films.
Of course, as this is my (more or less objective) opinion it may well not be yours. But ask yourself: are some of the films you masterpieces just films you really enjoy or have they helped the art of cinema progress?