Masterpiece: Definitions; Approaches

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 masterpiece and a great film.

Phrased differently, what requirements or elements a particular film should meet in order to qualify as a masterpiece, and who has the power and authority to declare a masterpiec.

Michael Haneke

Let’s start with the present: Austrian director Michael Haneke has made many good films (“”Funny Games,” “Cache”), but as soon as his latest film, “Amour,” world-premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film fest, where it won the top award, the Palme d’Or, many critics declared it a masterpiece.

You may wonder, why is “Amour” a masterpiece, and Haneke’s previous work, “White Ribbon,” which also won the Cannes Palme d’Or (in 2009) merely a very good film.

Renoir and Fellini

The French filmmaker Jean Renoir made many good films we always go back to “Rules of the Game” (1939). Ditto for Fellini, a master of many talents and creator of an 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 other superlative works. And so are “Rashomon” and “Seven Samurai” among the many grand works made by Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa, who enjoyed a long, prolific work.

Hitchcock: Master of Masterworks

The work of filmmakers who are great artists follows a progressive development, showing evolution of their thematic concerns, visual conception, 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? Why is “The Birds” far superior to “Marnie,” films made back to back and both starring Tippi Hedren.

Toward a Working Definition

Here are some working definitions of what constitutes a masterpiece:

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

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

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

Great films are multi-layered–they are much more than the sum of their parts.

The distinguished film Andrew Sarris (who passed away in June 2012), my mentor at Columbia University, who, among many distinctions, introduced auteurism into the American context, great films must have hidden meanings, different levels, different layers.

Great films provoke strong, often contradictory and ambiguous emotional responses. The more meaningful and personal the emotion, the better and more impactful the film. That said, with the passage of time, great works may—and do–change their meanings, or reveal new ones. There is a dynamic relationship between the work and the historical-cultural contexts within which they were created and the contexts in which they continue to be perceived and received by new viewers.

The late Canadian critic-scholar Robin Wood, who wrote one of the best manuscripts about Hitchcock, had 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.

Great works of art must be self-sufficient, the significance arising from the interaction of its parts and their forming a unified whole. “Psycho is the best example for that, a well-made, well-constructed system.
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. Substance and form, theme and style, go hand in hand, reinforcing each other.

Theories and concepts should be used only if they help illuminate the nature and quality of a particular film, or the output of a particular director.

Applying the above criteria to Hitchcock’s rich and prolific oeuvre (53 feature films), may I suggest that the following are his masterpieces:

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
The 39 Steps
Shadow of a Doubt
Notorious
Rope
Strangers on a Train
Rear Window
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Vertigo
North by Northwest
Psycho
The Birds

End Note

Please read our columns: Masterpieces of American Cinema and Masterpieces of World Cinema