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What Makes a Film a Masterpiece?

If the film is any good…the audience for a brief time is somewhere else, sometime else, concerned with lives that are not its own. Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people…Sooner or later every lover of film…understands that the movies are not about moving but about whether to move. – Roger Ebert

If a good movie is one that, according to Ebert, makes us better and more empathetic, then what does a masterpiece do?

The criteria a film has to meet to be considered a masterpiece is widely debated, even within the film community. After all, it’s difficult to say what, exactly, sets a work of art apart from a great film. And, whether or not the emergence of new cinematic technologies impacts this differentiation. But, there’s a general list of movies that most people agree meet the standard.

Film Poster for Citizen Kane (1941)
Citizen Kane (1941)

Let’s begin by examining Citizen Kane (1941), as it seems to be a work nearly every student of film concedes is a masterpiece. According to Jack Nugent, founder of YouTube channel Now You See It, the film boasted remarkable “cinematic influence” because it altered “the way movies are made.”

Slate’s Nigel Andrews pointed out that Orson Welles’ preeminence stems from his ability to understand and finesse various points of tension. “Reality in tension with artifice,” he wrote. “Crystallisation in tension with expansion. The distilled in tension with the discursive. And, of course, fact in tension with fiction.”

Rick Blackwood, former Louisiana State University film professor, agrees tension is a vital element for a masterpiece. “The thing most important…is the ability of the filmmaker to suspend us between two agonizing forces,” he told ARTpublika Magazine. These two forces are “the world as we wish it were…[versus] the world as we confront it.”

“We are wishing creatures and we want peace, love, understanding, good sex without complications, good food that doesn't make us fat, absolute fidelity from lovers who give us range to act like wild animals, and heaven. None of this really exists outside some real-life arenas extremely tightly circumscribed."

For the record, Blackwood lists 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Wizard of Oz (1939) as two masterpieces precisely because they meet this standard; both films “suspend us as if between two powerful magnets.”

So, a masterpiece suspends us between two opposing forces and exploits tension. But, shouldn’t it also tell some kind of universal story?

Film Poster for The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)

A film’s personal impact is absolutely crucial. As Paul Stekler — an award-winning documentary filmmaker and chair of the Radio Television Film department at The University of Texas — succinctly put it during the interview: “[Masterpieces] make you think about something bigger than just the story on [the] screen.”

According to David Engelbach — Steven Spielberg’s creative assistant on Jaws (1975), writer of more than 35 feature scripts, and film professor at Savannah College or Art and Design (SCAD) — a story needs to “present something remarkable and timeless about the human condition.”

Friedrich W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1925) is a masterpiece because it explores the universal emotions of “pride and despair” he told ARTpublika Magazine. So is Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), because it examines the timeless theme of “image and the power of celluloid to elevate mere mortals to the place of gods. And then destroy them. In that sense, it’s Greek tragedy in 20th century America.”

It’s worth noting, however, that a good story doesn’t necessarily mean a moral story. “It's never really about morality. That's a lie we tell you in school,” pointed Blackwood. “There are moral films and amoral ones. Some masterpieces are just sexist, racist, nasty, anti-goodness, etc. It don’t make a damn.”

All this considered, what other factors determine whether or not a film attains “masterpiece” status?

Jesse Wolfe — film professor at SCAD, and feature film director whose latest work, Eye of the Hurricane (2011), is currently playing on Starz Network — believes that for a movie to become a “masterpiece,” it “takes some fortuitous circumstances beyond any filmmakers control: timing, cultural trends, zeitgeist, etc.” What a filmmaker can do is try to make a good film.

“A ‘good’ film needs to clear two bars: It needs to capture your attention…[and it] needs to hold your interest with quality content that makes you care — that touches/moves you emotionally,” Wolfe told ARTpublika. “Without both, your film will ultimately be exposed as ‘less.’ And you can't cheat it or fake it…you get gimmicks [if you try].”

For Blackwood, however, elements beyond “straightforward competence” are at play in the creation of a masterpiece. To begin with, luck is important. “Somebody has to care,” he stated. “Mozart needed the King of Austria. Mozart today probably couldn't get a meeting with Madonna's now unemployed agent."

Another prerequisite is genius. “Genius is a kind of accident, rooted out by the efforts of somebody very smart, at some moment, offered some opportunity,” shared Blackwood. “For me genius is not something you are; for me genius is something that happens to you; when the greatest conceivable talent meets the greatest conceivable human opportunity, at the critical place and at the critical time.”

But what, ultimately, separates a masterpiece from a classic since geniuses can make both?

A “masterpiece” is a film that “[captures] a moment in time and emotion that sticks in the hearts and minds of the culture, and where any alteration would make the movie ‘less,’” reasoned Wolfe. “It is where the talents, potential, experience and point of view of a filmmaker all coalesce in one place and time in perfect alchemy.” A masterpiece, by this definition, can come out tomorrow.

Alternatively, a film can become a classic if it stands the test of time. “The principal difference, I believe, is that films referred to as classics often embody the attributes audiences expect to see in a genre film,” stated Engelbach. “Many popular Film Noir movies – The Big Sleep (1946), Double Indemnity (1944), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Fury (1936) – are all classics, but not masterpieces.”

So, a “masterpiece” exploits tension, tells a universal story, changes us, and is beholden to the synchronization of outside forces such as luck, genius, culture, timing, and so on.

But, does the criteria for a masterpiece remain stable over time or evolve with the advent of new technology?

Film Poster for The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The general consensus among consulted scholars and practitioners is that these benchmarks are basically stable. “Technology has enabled filmmakers to create absolutely anything that can be imagined. The development of VR will extend that possibility, but only in limited arenas,” explained Engelbach. “Being immersive may increase the sense of reality, but I don’t know that it will reveal more about human emotion and behavior than a silent B&W film like Joan of Arc (1928)."

New technologies move the technical side of filmmaking forward, but it’s still a storytelling medium. According to Miguel A. Alvarez, award-winning filmmaker and lecturer at the University of Texas, what threads together masterpieces is their ability to “tell stories that resonate within us well past the moment we leave the theater.”

“Our industry is in a new renaissance. New technical evolutions in production and distribution are creating interesting and even radical new paradigms in terms of storytelling structures and formats, but within this structural evolution, the…criteria of theme, story, character and visual delivery are still the vital, genesis material,” echoed Wolfe. “It's been this way since the first stories were told and painted on cave walls.”

From Paleolithic aurochs in Lascaux to “Rosebud” muttered in 35 mm film, and whatever three-dimensional scenes we’ll watch through our goggles in decades hence, a masterpiece is a masterpiece is a masterpiece. It all boils down to the story.

Note* Images are either in the public domain or available for fair use.


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