"Masterpiece"?

“Masterpiece”?

Friday morning, I found myself in an interesting discussion on Twitter. It all began with this tweet by my friend James McNally…

 

Before anyone pro-BOYHOOD or anti-BOYHOOD gets up on their soapbox, let me say that what interests me today isn’t whether BOYHOOD is or isn’t a masterpiece. It wasn’t my interest on Friday, and it still isn’t these few days later. What does interest me is the very declaration of a masterpiece itself.

We live in an era of hyperbole. The latest is declared the greatest with increasing speed, often by people who want to take a thrill out of knowing they were the first to crown a new offering as champion. Opinions are not allowed to be any longer than one sentence – and lord help you if you want to use more than 140 characters. You cannot wait until the credits have finished rolling…cannot even wait until the lights come up. If you want to truly make your mark, you need to take your electronic gizmo out of your pocket and breathless publish to the world “________ is a Masterpiece!” and hope nobody beat you to it. You don’t know how the critical mass will receive it…don’t know how the public at large will take to it.

All you know is that it rocked your world, and before you light up a smoke you need to shout it from the open bedroom window.

"Masterpiece"?

“Masterpiece”?

In many respects, I believe this is what gets James’ goat (and a few others who joined into the conversation, lest it seems like I’m picking on James). The thought is that before we start throwing around “The M Word”, let’s see how we feel about it at year’s end. Hell, let’s see how we feel about it on Labour Day! Let us take time to let it rattle around in our brains. Let us watch every film that it reminds us of and see how it stacks up. Let us read interviews and listen to clips where the artists talk about what they were hoping to achieve, and ask ourselves if they achieved it. Let us seek out the works that influenced the film and decide whether the project stood on their shoulders or merely ripped them off.

Valid arguments all.

But what if we don’t do that?

What if we subject ourselves to a piece of art and see something we’ve never seen before. What if it leaves us uncertain of its meaning and it effect on everything else we’ve ever seen? What if it moves us deeply, delights us immensely, or inspires us in the very best ways? What then? Are we supposed to stand cheer and be content to say “that was wonderful?”…or are we as audiences and critics supposed to be able to recognize artistic genius when we are in its presence? Shouldn’t we be able to recognize merit, meaning, craft, creativity, and execution at the moment of its occurrence? There is much to be feared for giving in to fandom…should we not equally fear giving into our own skepticism?

What sort of fan would have walked away from Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire at Monterrey only to say “ask me again about it in five years”?

"Masterpiece"?

“Masterpiece”?

History is littered with critical thinkers who were unable to recognize genius in their midst. Impressionist painters like Monet were originally panned by critics who felt his work was too rustic and unfinished. When writing about The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, renowned rock critic Lester Bangs said “There is a sadness about the Stones now, because they amount to such an enormous ‘So what?'”. Or what about in 1967 when Bosley Crowther wrote a review of Bonnie and Clyde in The New York Times? On his opening weekend, when considering the seminal film he declared “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy…ridiculous, camp tinctured travesties…with violence as pointless as it i lacking in taste”. 

In Crowther’s case, his inability to recognize the artistic genius before him led to him being dropped as lead film critic after more than 30 years on the job.

Just as I believe that it’s important to hand out top marks when occasion arises, I believe it’s important to recognize the rare moments when one has been witness to something special. We live in a time where so much is so attainable – where the tools are so accessible that the playing field has never been more level. More than ever before, what audiences are bearing witness to is the product of vision, audacity, and raw. fucking. talent. I don’t know if BOYHOOD is a masterpiece – especially for a director like Linklater who likes to push the envelope of maverick-filmmaking so hard. He’s a spring chicken, relatively speaking, so he might well eclipse this effort in time. Or he might not. He might never again return to this level of ingenuity or experimentation. In that light, it could well be his masterpiece.

"Masterpiece?"

“Masterpiece?”

Even if it’s not, in the era of properties, remakes, reboots, franchises, and spin-offs, a film fan could easily be forgiven for calling BOYHOOD a masterpiece…even if it doesn’t prove to be Linklater’s masterpiece. These people are the ones who leap to their feet to begin a standing ovation, not the ones who slink up begrudgingly. They are the ones who are applauding as the pitcher gets ready to face the twenty-seventh batter, not the ones pumping their fists as strike three is called on a perfect game.

There is a place for such enthusiasm in the face of great cinema.

What would rather be? The person calling “Masterpiece!” and striking up the band? Or the skeptic shaking your head, not allowing yourself to be convinced until well after the victory parade has passed you by and all the ticker-tape has been swept from the streets. Or worse, being that person but still saying you need to see it a few more times?

Would you rather hail that which moves you, or wait it out and fall in with consensus?