Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Masterpiece Test: An Introduction

Everyone has films that they consider great.  But how do we decide which films represent the best that cinema has to offer?  What criteria are we using, beyond our own personal taste?

In his essay "Canon Fodder" - an epic magazine article that originally appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of Film Comment (and can now be found online at - Paul Schrader proposes seven criteria that we should use to determine whether or not a film is a masterpiece.  Though I highly recommend that you read Schrader's article in full, I'll briefly summarize his criteria (as I understand them) below.

Beauty  This isn't simply a matter of a film being pleasurable to look at, but could also refer to the elegant expression of an idea or ideal.  Masterpieces will not merely attempt to entertain the spectator, but also attempt to change the world for the better in some small way.

Strangeness  It goes without saying that a masterpiece should be original in some respect, treating its subject matter in a fresh new way.  "Strangeness" goes beyond "originality" by adding "unpredictability, unknowability, and magic."  A masterpiece will not only be original but will be so distinctive that it can never be exactly duplicated, or assimilated into the culture at large.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  The stylistic traits of a film - its approach to narrative, cineamatography, editing, acting, etc. - help give meaning to its themes.  The quality of a film can be largely determined by the degree to which its form and subject matter are unified.  "It's impossible to discuss the form of The Rules of the Game without also describing its subject matter."

Tradition  "The greatness of a film...must be judged not only on its own terms but by its place in the evolution of film."  A masterpiece will build on the successes of past works while also influencing the cinema of the future.

Repeatability  A masterpiece holds up over time, deepening its impact on repeat viewings and retaining its appeal for future generations.

Viewer Engagement  A masterpiece does more than entertain us.  It must also engage us, allowing each viewer the chance to experience the film in a different way and draw their own conclusions.  "The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it."

Morality  A masterpiece should not reinforce our preconceived notions - be they based on political, social, or religious beliefs - but should instead challenge these ideas, thereby enriching our understanding of the world.

The only disappointing part of Schrader's essay is the 60-film canon that he proposes at the end.  Certainly the list is interesting, containing not only expected classics like Tokyo Story and Citizen Kane and popular favorites like The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in the West, but also idiosyncratic personal choices like Performance and Nostalghia.  Schrader's canon doesn't disappoint me because I don't agree with each individual selection - any two people making such a list would come up with different results, even if they were both using the pseudo-science of Schrader's seven criteria.  Personal bias is going to intrude upon even the research of scientific facts, so we shouldn't expect any canon to be definitive. 

What does bother me is that Schrader doesn't include any justification for his individual choices.  No one could reasonably deny that Metropolis is one of the most important and influential films ever made, but shouldn't its incoherent patchwork of Christianity, Romanticism, Marxism, and Fascism disqualify it as a moral film?  What aspect of Seven Men From Now makes it distinctive enough from other westerns to pass the Strangeness test?  What about Talk To Her suggests that it will hold up for future generations, thereby meeting the Repeatability qualification?  I imagine that Schrader could offer elegant defenses for each of his choices, but it is frustrating that we don't know why he thought that some of these films lived up to his criteria.

I thought it might be interesting to start a series of posts devoted to reviewing films by using Schrader's seven criteria.  Established classics, personal favorites, and award winners will be put under the microscope and judged according to whether they live up to "Canon Fodder" standards - or whether they pass what I will call "The Masterpiece Test."  I'll try to withhold personal bias as much as possible, and not shy away from the flaws that inevitably pop up in even seemingly perfect films such as Rear Window and Seven Samurai.  I won't look at any films that will obviously fail the test - if I do review any films that I'm not personally fond of, they will at least be notable, culturally important works.  I'm going into this assuming that a number of films I love will not pass the test, and that some that I'm less fond of will.  If a film fails, it doesn't mean that it isn't terrific - it just means that it hasn't lived up to the very highest standards.  Perhaps we will find that a film does not meet all of the criteria, yet is still a masterpiece, or, conversely, that a film meets all of the criteria yet remains strangely lacking.  Should these circumstances arise, I'll attempt to adjust the criteria, and possibly add or take away one of our seven yardsticks.  Basically, I don't know what's going to happen.  But I look forward to finding out.

UP FIRST  Fritz Lang's M, which I have long considered to be the greatest film of all time.

No comments:

Post a Comment