Because fuck not having a pretentious title for a laughably pretentious post.
So let’s talk about this. Similarly to when I approached the way I feel about Inception with as little incandescent fury as I usually treat it- today I just have to break the programme and speak on a word that has popped up more times in recent memory than I can ever remember- film-wise. Our little eponymous friend the “masterpiece”.
Recently, there has been a wave of critics praising film after film as a ‘masterpiece’, something truly special and by my definition of the word: one of the best films ever made. To get some context here with my problem, I established earlier that I was going to use the term as sparingly as possible to honour only the greatest cinematic achievements where all other praise failed me. Here is a list of films, from every movie I have ever seen, that I would dub “masterpieces”.
The Seventh Seal
The Thin Red Line
The Lost Weekend
There Will Be Blood
Tally that up and we get seventeen. To put that into perspective, my big excel list numbers 626 films- every film I have ever seen- and for the past couple of years I have only looked out for ‘the best’. Notice also that there are only two ‘contemporary’ films up there: There Will Be Blood and Traffic. I am not saying that modern films are bad- far from it: Assuredly filling a ‘best of the 2000s’ list is the sole reason I haven’t started that series yet. My problem is with complacency in the modern film industry.
Movies aren’t dying, they are evolving. With advancements in the way we perceive the medium like Netflix, cinemas and movies with them are almost in decline. Film piracy is among the highest rate of theft in the majority of western countries and even now video-games are almost becoming the next big art. None of this would matter if good movies were released, and they are (trust me)- but not ALL THE TIME. Look back at 1970, or 60, or 50. Each and every year in those decades is home to an entirely masterful film and beyond that: one we will all remember and study. Required reading, if you will. Now look at 2010- perhaps the weakest year for film of the last two decades. Black Swan? Excellent movie, but not the one we are going to remember from 2010, despite being its best.
So where does “masterpiece” fit into all of this? Well- take a look at last year’s reviews. Whiplash, Birdman, Enemy, Boyhood, Budapest, American Sniper, Interst-
...Sorry threw up in my mouth there a little.
All films (and mostly great ones) that have been dubbed, many times by many critics, as masterpieces. Were they? Were they (all) really? If we take a look at modern film it’s not hard to see why. 2014 was home to a wave of truly exceptional films, but perhaps they are only that good by today’s standards. Look at 2015. San Andreas. An endless sea of 80s re-imaginings and sequels. None of these were good. This is recycling- turning old, abandoned properties with nostalgic appeal into one last bit of cash before they kill their franchises. It’s a cynical way to look at it, but that’s what it was. You could argue that every film is designed to make money- and you would be right (most of the time), but by that logic, every film should also be the best ever made.
So you take the films of 2014 and weigh them up against Transformers and Fast & Furious and they shine like diamonds in a computer generated desert- yet turn back time a few decades, even to the 90s, and in the context of the great films of that decade, they wouldn’t be half as memorable. Are they really masterpieces, as you say? Is Mad Max: Fury Road an “Avant Garde masterpiece” and the finest action film ever shot?
…Sorry I’ll get back to the point that just had to be said.
An era of crappy movies making big money and thus being exposed to millions around the world as crappy movies (more accept that than you’d think) has let an air of mundanity sneak in, so that anything even remotely above the normal vein of explosions and exploitative sex appeal (*ahem* Mad Max) is praised limitlessly. This may be a last-ditch effort by people to push film in the right direction- to praise the good instead of the GREAT because it’s all there is to praise. Perhaps if nothing else is great and you need one “masterpiece” review per year then why not slap it on what stood out, even if it didn’t stand very tall above everything else.
There has already been some excellent, decade topping films throughout this half of the 2010s (a-la Incendies, Somewhere and Shame), however all of these movies failed to garner that same praise from most critics? Why is this? If we are praising new methods of storytelling and conveyance, then why not adorn these with accolades, rather than- I dunno “let’s go to the promised land that then doesn’t exist for an unexplained reason after half a film’s worth of travel so we just GO BACK”.
So in the end the main point of all my venting here (sorry about that) is that if we just throw around this word, this word that, if anything, should be reserved for the very finest films of an era, or generation, or decade- then it loses all meaning. If we simply stick “masterpiece” on anything, in order to promote growth within a medium fast receding to 80s pulp commercial appeal only without the charm and nostalgia blinders- then soon it will mean nothing: “just another masterpiece, they say that about everything nowadays.” I know this because this is how I feel- and whilst I'm certainly not the center of the universe and pretty unimportant in the grand scheme of, well anything, I am, as we all are- a person. And people talk, and people think, and it doesn’t take long for people to think the same things. Throwing it at everything gives film a lack of direction- and that’s the most important part- if anything.
So I guess here I'm just appealing to anyone that will listen to ignore that “masterpiece” tag on the newest Nolan movie (go see it though because it’s probably still pretty good) and make your own mind up on it. I have read countless reviews from the very best, and indeed from decades and decades ago- and yet despite the exceptional movies released back then, I barley read that word. Why? Because, although there were bad movies, as there are now, there was also a hell of a lot of good ones- and to stand above the very best at the top of their games- you had to be a masterpiece.
…See what I mean?