Cinema 101: Masterpieces–Defining Great Films?

We all love different movies for different, often very personal reasons. But is there a more dispassionate, not to mention objective way, of how to define a great film.

Phrased differently, what requirements or elements a particular film should meet in order to qualify as a masterpiece?

The French filmmaker Jean Renoir made many good films but why do we always go back to “Rules of the Game” (1939). Ditto for Fellini, a master of many talents and impressive body of work, but “I Vitelloni,” “La Dolce Vita,” ”81/2,” and a few others are on another level. Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” in on a league of its own, even among his superlative works. And so are “Rashomon” and “Seven Samurai” among the many grand works made by Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa.


The work of filmmakers who are great artists follows a logical and progressive development, showing evolution of their thematic concerns and technical skills. Which means that Hitchcock was indeed an artist of the first rank. My ranking of Hitchcock’ American films, suggesting that “Shadow of A Doubt” (1943) is his first Hollywood masterpiece, and “Notorious” (1946) is his second, launched a huge debate among our readers of what’s a great film, a masterpiece, a masterwork. In other words, why is “Notorious” a masterpiece and “Spellbound” is not?


Here are some working definitions of what constitutes a masterpiece


1. Great films work on a number of levels simultaneously, whereas unsuccessful movies don’t even work on one. 


2. Great films call for active participation on the part of viewers on any number of levels, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, sensual.


3. Great films are ahead of the viewers at all times; when the viewer is ahead of them (in terms of narrative, plot, ideas), it’s no good.


4. Great films are multi-layered works that are much more than the sum of their parts. 


The distinguished film Andrew Sarris, my mentor at Columbia University, who, among many qualities, introduced auteurism into the American context, holds that great films must have hidden meanings, different levels, different layers.


5. Great films provoke strong emotional responses, and the more meaningful the emotion, the better the film. That said, all great works constantly change their meanings or reveal new ones. There is a dynamic relationship between the work s and the historical-cultural contexts within which they were created and the contexts in which they continue to be perceived.


6. The late Canadian critic-scholar Robin Wood has suggested that great works are statements about the human condition and about life, but statements that are essentially self-contained and self-sufficient. Great art strives, explicitly or implicitly, toward the realization of values and norms. It’s not a matter of whether the film is optimistic (upbeat) or pessimistic (downbeat); it’s a matter of the nature of the creative impulse. These works enable spiritual exaltation, offering a transcendental experience, even if it’s momentary one, akin to other sensual and spiritual (religion) experiences.


7. A successful work of art must be self-sufficient, its significance arising from the interaction of its parts. “Psycho is the best example for that, a well-made, well-constructed system.


8. Great films are marked by dramatic and spiritual qualities and the highest level of technical skill. In great works, such as Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” or Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” mastery of technical skills (visual brilliance), narrative poignancy, and emotional meanings are inseparable



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