While listening to Manuel de Falla’s Harpsichord Concerto in the past, I’ve often wondered whether an artist with few works that I like can be considered a master.
Since then, I’ve come to an answer: yes, of course. He or she can.
It has been difficult for me to categorise such creators because I then have to determine how to differentiate them from lesser artists. But I’ve concluded that there is a way to separate one group from the other, though it’s not a tangible recipe. It has to do with the transcendence of an individual work and whether it’s great enough to overshadow inferior creations.
In this vein, I feel that directors Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro are all great directors. All three have created masterpieces – Mean Streets (1973), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), respectively – that, in my opinion, trump their cinematic misfires, which, unfortunately, have been many of late. Scorsese’s, Spielberg’s and del Toro’s recent clunkers, including works such as Gangs of New York (2002), Lincoln (2012) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), have been typified by weak scripts and plodding direction, yet I regard them as separate from true movie disasters helmed by, say, Tim Burton, whose Planet of the Apes (2001), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Alice in Wonderland (2010) suffered from overbearing productions, dreadful lead performances and excessive expositional content, including back stories that had no reason to be present. Burton has done fine work in the past, notably in films like Beetlejuice (1988) and Ed Wood (1994), yet I don’t consider him to be on a par as a director with the aforementioned triumvirate.
So why don’t I? Haven’t they all crafted strong flicks and horrid pictures in equal measure?
It’s a hard question to answer, but it brings me back to Falla and the issue of measurement … which just isn’t the same when it concerns these helmsmen. I grade Scorsese, Spielberg and del Toro on a different scale – perhaps inconsistently, but not unfairly. I do the same with Falla and composers such as Anton Bruckner, whom I consider second-rate, despite enjoying about the same amount of music of his as I do of Falla’s.
And that’s because of Falla’s glorious Harpsichord Concerto, which is better than anything else he or Bruckner has written.
This is all a matter of taste, of course. My likes and dislikes run toward the obscure and unpopular, but, to borrow a line from Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974), “I have never courted popularity.” And so it is that I deem Falla’s Harpsichord Concerto transcendent, able to leap high notational buildings in a single bound, way over Bruckner’s head, to greatness. Falla is a master composer. And all because of that single work.
Scorsese, Spielberg and del Toro have more of a track record, in my view, than Falla, though all, for some reason, have experienced a decline in movie quality of late following stretches of cinematic brilliance. Yet I still deem them great directors, and it’s the nature of their past masterpieces that leads me to this assessment. They’ve already created their masterworks. They don’t have anything more to prove.
These directors aren’t alone. Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa have also crafted duds in the latter stages of their careers, capping extraordinary runs that had seen some of the best cinema of all time come to light. I think, however, that they both succumbed to some of the same issues that Scorsese & Co. have experienced, with inconsistencies in films such as Torn Curtain (1966) and Dreams (1990) resulting from screenplay problems and directorial misjudgments, including casting errors. I don’t think these welts on their resumes pertain to age; instead, they concern declines, much like a sports star peaks and then falls in terms of performance. The inspiration isn’t there anymore. It has just petered out.
Does that mean I don’t believe Scorsese, Spielberg and del Toro aren’t capable of crafting great movies anymore? No – exactly the opposite. They certainly can do it, as precedent suggests. But like the stock market, it’s hard to predict whether they’ll be able to replicate the greatness of the past. Could Scorsese come up with another Taxi Driver (1976)? Spielberg with another Jaws (1975)? Del Toro with another Cronos (1993)?
I don’t see why not. It will take the inspiration of the past, though, to do it.
These are filmmakers who all have taken risks. Falla took a risk, too, using an obscure, antiquated instrument, the harpsichord, to create a musical masterpiece. In doing so, he achieved the heights of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Is his resume as filled to the brim as those composers? I can’t say it is. Yet like Scorsese, Spielberg and del Toro, he created greatness that will last forever, which puts him in rare company.
I won’t begrudge him such lofty status. And I feel the same way about Marty, Steven and Guillermo.