This short piece by Geoff Andrew caught my eye: O masterpiece, where art thou? [no longer available].
Between a couple of Berlin’s press screenings, Nick James and I found ourselves discussing the overuse of ‘masterpiece’, a word apparently as vulnerable to abuse as ‘classic’.
I felt uncomfortable on reading this, since I’m probably guilty of being a little too free and easy with my superlatives as far as films go (and music as well for that matter).
What, though, might the characteristics of a masterpiece be? Andrew suggests:-
The accent should be on ‘extraordinary’. A masterpiece can’t just be a terrific movie; it has to be far more than that. It is by definition the greatest work (or at the very least one of the greatest works) of a proven master; it is also a ‘consummate piece of work’. That surely suggests, among other things, immense depth, richness and resonance – a real sense of completeness.
This looks like a good, working guide (though I’m not sure about the ‘proven master’ component – what about Orson Welles). However, things begin to unwind a little for me when he says:-
In Berlin, some have claimed that Miguel Gomes’s Tabu is a masterpiece, just as others have harked back nostalgically to last year’s edition which, it’s alleged, produced two masterpieces in A Separation and The Turin Horse. Now, impressive as all these movies are, I consider none of them deserving of the M-word. Each is clearly flawed in one way or another; and if the film with the most persuasive claim to greatness is the one by Béla Tarr, I’m afraid even that must surely yield to the Hungarian maestro’s Sátántangó, which remains a truly monumental and extraordinary achievement.
I haven’t seen The Turin Horse yet, but I have seen and greatly admired Tarr’s Satantango. For me this film is indeed ‘truly monumental and extraordinary’; but I think it has its minor flaws and I’m not entirely convinced – if we are going to be really strict – that the label of ‘masterpiece’ is appropriate. I would be far happier to bestow that honour on Tarr’s perfectly formed Werckmeister Harmonies.
But in the end that’s just my opinion, and one that might possibly change with time and more cinematic experience… Still, when I’m next poised to hail a film as a masterpiece, I’ll try and hold myself in check at least long enough to put my assessment to the Geoff Andrew test.