CINEJABBER: The “M” word

Posted by · 1:08 pm · September 25th, 2010

I received an email today from a reader addressing a concern I’ve long had at the back of my mind, but I never really figured out a way to deal with it. In a nutshell, we discuss films early, generally before release around these parts, and when a large majority of you get a chance to have a look, the conversation ship has sailed.

I don’t want that, obviously, and I imagine it’s difficult to find a place to re-inject the talking points with our day-to-day topics running full speed, so I figured the best way to deal with it would be a general discussion post every weekend for you to cut loose about what you might have seen or what you’d like to discuss amongst yourselves.

It’s a no-brainer, really, but I just never got around to actually, you know, doing it.

So we’ll call it “Cinejabber” (I guess) and I’ll kick start the conversation this week, in case no one has any ideas (though I imagine there are those who’d like to discuss any number of films finally in release).

Reading Sasha Stone’s recent “hold your horses” item about the comparisons to “Citizen Kane” surrounding “The Social Network,” she noted peripherally, “When ‘Inception’ came out and was hailed as ‘masterpiece’ it angered critics, and viewers, that anyone would dare use a word like that to describe a big studio movie out of Warner Bros. Or maybe it was that the word shouldn’t really be applied to a film until a decade or so has gone by.”

It got me thinking about that word, which is really JUST a word at the end of the day. But I’m generally pretty careful about how I apply it because it’s a pretty solid definitive. It’s why I go with a four-star scale rather than five, because I feel like the latter gets into definitive considerations (to say nothing of the WTF 1-100 scale), whereas I’d prefer there to be larger gray areas. But if I were honestly asked how many masterpieces I’d seen in the last decade, I would say only two, the top two films on my best of the decade column, natch.

A masterpiece, to me, is another level and shouldn’t be tossed around lightly (and certainly not to make one feel better about a high opinion of a film, which is, I think, often the case). But what do you think? Should there be a time consideration before calling a film “masterpiece?” Personally, I think it can be an instant judgment because at the end of the day, it’s really just an opinion anyway. Granted, an opinion can mature and settle into different subtleties, but I tend to know whether I’ve seen something THAT powerful the moment I walk out of a theater. You just feel it.

Anyway, cut loose on that if you want or just address anything else you’d like to chat about with the community. Open thread. We’ll do it every Saturday.

[Photo: 20th Century Fox]

→ 69 Comments Tags: , , , | Filed in: Cinejabber

69 responses so far

  • 1 9-26-2010 at 3:46 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I think one should obviously be stringent in using the word “masterpiece,” but at the same time, there’s little point in instructing people what they’re allowed to feel, and how often they’re allowed to feel it. The word is more precious to some critics than others, who might just take it as a literal measure — is it the work of an evident master, and is it top-tier?

    I’m somewhere between the two, since I think the word doesn’t gesture toward all-round accomplishment, but to a certain level of creative authority at the helm. Not all great films are necessarily masterpieces, and that’s not necessarily a shortcoming.

    I abuse the word now less than I did when I was a kid learning to write reviews, but I’m more generous with it than some. I’ve used it twice this year — for “The Illusionist” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” both of which ticked the boxes of being scarcely improvable works that couldn’t have been made the way they were by any other filmmaker, and that struck unnerving wells of feeling and thought in me. I don’t think either call was reckless, but I understand why others might.

    As for star ratings, some readers (and, indeed, writers) get entirely too hung up on them and their implications. All I use them for is to bracket a film, and on a sliding scale at that — I like to think people place more stock in my words than in my math.

  • 2 9-26-2010 at 3:56 pm

    ninja said...

    I`m very happy that TSN is called Citizen Kane and if Jesse Eisenberg wins Best Actor, that`s going to be icing on the cake. The movie is brilliant and Jesse is out of this world. Whole cast is. JT, wow, great performance. Garfiled ditto.

  • 3 9-26-2010 at 4:20 pm

    Patriotsfan said...

    Off subject for a moment: what’s up with all the Patriot bashing on Twitter Kris? I agree Brady’s haircut is pretty awful, but at least the Patriots beat the bad teams like the Bills. The Redskins… not so much.

  • 4 9-26-2010 at 4:25 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    A lot of this discussion revolves around the cautions. But what about the flip side? Mick LaSalle said he thought it was important for critics to keep an eye out for game-changing trends. In that vein, the two hosts of At the Movies mentioned ‘Blue Velvet’ was being called a masterpiece when it came out. The film has held up, and is highly regarded.

    An interesting use of the term masterpiece with ‘Million Dollar Baby’: Ebert, Ty Burr, and Lou Lumenick called it that but didn’t include it in their best of the decade lists.

  • 5 9-26-2010 at 5:18 pm

    matsunaga said...

    I think, the word “masterpiece” is a hypothetical term… It varies from person to person..
    What is a masterpiece for me may not be masterpiece for you, what Guy considers a masterpiece may not work for Kris…

    It is different because we have different views and opinions in different films… We have our own “taste”…

    Usually in choosing what’s a masterpiece film, we set standards.. We compare to other films and most of the time people make “Citizen Kane” or other classic films in the earlier decades the standard in choosing what is a masterpiece and what is not in the recent decade/s. We tend to compare and if the film doesn’t qualify on our standards then we tend to shut it…

    To cut the story short, we have our own criteria in what’s a “masterpiece”…

    In the case of Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and “Inception”, I must say TDK has a masterpiece touch compared to Inception, though both were really good films…

    “Longevity” of a film, I think also plays a part in what’s a masterpiece and what’s not…

  • 6 9-26-2010 at 5:58 pm

    JJ1 said...

    I spoke about masterpieces above (I only see a few every so many years). On a somewhat similar note, I get hung-up on 2.5 stars out of 4 and 3 stars out of 4 for my personal ratings. I see many movies that I completely, unabashedly enjoy that are “bad” movies that I’ll give 3 out of 4 to. And then there are “good” movies that bore me or annoy me in a way that makes me give them 2.5; even though the film was “made” better than the 3 out of 4. It kinda drives me insane for my personal records. Anyone else have that annoyance, or am I cuckoo?

  • 7 9-26-2010 at 6:12 pm

    Glenn said...

    I don’t use it too often, but when I do I feel it can be used the moment the credits have rolled. If it hit you in a deeply personal way then why not?

  • 8 9-26-2010 at 6:53 pm

    Jeremy said...

    JJ1: That’s one of the many reasons that I never assign movies a star rating. You can drive yourself crazy trying to quantify things, especially with the comparative element (i.e., “I gave movie X three stars, and I feel like movie Y is probably as good as movie X, so don’t I have to give movie Y three stars as well?”). I recognize that star ratings may be a necessary evil in a business context, but as someone who isn’t writing for dollars, I’ll follow the Grey Lady’s approach and let the words tell the story.

  • 9 9-26-2010 at 7:29 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Well said, Jeremy. Thanks. I’ve just used the star ratings as my own personal quantifications for so long. Perhaps I should move to the 1-10 scale as a start, haha.

    I also think I’m just a higher rater than most. I actively seek out films that are supposed to be good. In other words, there are probably 100 bad commercial movies that come out that I’d assuredly give Zero, .5, 1, or 1.5 star out of 4 that I just refuse to see.

    Given that, most films I ‘choose’ to see (because it’s my type of movie or the critics enjoyed) I wind up giving 2.5, many 3s, and many 3.5s, etc. simply because I wind up liking them, a lot.

    I also find – on scale – that I give lots of 2.5 and 3 stars to films that may only be getting in the 40-50% on RT. So I feel crumby for liking said movie(s) more than the pro critics.

    On the flip side, I’ll see a movie that has a 96% on RT that I find pretentious and boring, and will give 2 or 2.5 stars, and feel bad for rating it thus, as well.

    Guess I just have a ratings complex, huh?

  • 10 9-26-2010 at 9:42 pm

    cineJAB said...

    glad to contribute.

  • 11 9-26-2010 at 9:58 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Patriotsfan: Because I generally hate Patriots fans. And consistently hate Tom Brady.

  • 12 9-26-2010 at 11:11 pm

    Patriotsfan said...

    Oh ok. It’s good to know I’m hated. Let Brady when three super bowls for your team though and I think you might have a different opinion (although his haircut is terrible regardless).

  • 13 9-26-2010 at 11:30 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Just generally. Not you in particular, necessarily.

  • 14 9-27-2010 at 12:45 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    JJ1: You’re overthinking your star ratings. That’s what I mean by “sliding scale” — a numerically higher rating shouldn’t automatically mean one film is “better” than another. It just succeeds on different terms. I grade on a similar system to yours.

  • 15 9-27-2010 at 6:49 am

    JJ1 said...

    Thanks for the info/pep talk, Guy. :-)

  • 16 9-27-2010 at 6:51 am

    Joe said...

    Zac: high five. Finally, someone else unafraid to say that Crash is a great film. And I agree with your definition.
    I would add that too me, “masterpiece” is probably synonymous with “all-time great”. Whether you just watched the movie an hour ago, or five years ago, if you have that feeling that it matches well with the greatest ever, then it should be termed a masterpiece.
    Of course, everybody’s taste is different. Some folks might love every other movie they watch; others might like only a select few. The terms “masterpiece” or “great movie” shouldn’t be limited to a certain number (I don’t believe in quotas!). But on average, I’d probably term 3-4 movies per decade as “all-timers”.

  • 17 9-27-2010 at 10:30 am

    Marvin said...

    I definitely saw more than one masterpiece this past decade: Gosford Park, Brokeback Mountain, Yi Yi, L’enfant, 5×2, Syndromes and a Century, The Saddest Music in the World.

  • 18 9-27-2010 at 12:06 pm

    Patriotsfan said...

    I understand. I don’t live in New England and I don’t know many Patriot fans, so I don’t know how most Patriot fans act, but their definitely seems to be sports franchises with annoying fans. For instance, whenever I go to a bar with a lot of Steeler fans, they tend to be pretty annoying. Or whenever I go to a game, somehow it usually seems that the lone guy with an Eagles jersey on always gets into a fight and gets kick out by security.

  • 19 9-27-2010 at 6:20 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Eagles fans can be pretty awful, too.