Art and Greatness: On the Essence of Being a Master

Taxi Driver masterWhile 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?

Pan's Labyrinth masterIt’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.

master raiders of the lost arkDoes 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.



Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse ( that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

12 thoughts on “Art and Greatness: On the Essence of Being a Master

  1. Pingback: Mind the Gap: You Haven’t Seen Taxi Driver? | Deadshirt

  2. The nineties movie,Ed Wood, is an interesting example you brought up regarding masters & masterpieces. It was courageous to make a movie lacking car chases, revenge and firearms being put at the heads of folks. Tim Burton, although I didn’t care for Beetlejuice, (I hate special effects), told a non-fiction story of tawdry, bargain basement Hollywood, the movie business at it’s most sad and depressing, yet it showed a touching charm. This one alone convinces me he’s a master. No, the real Ed Wood wasn’t a master, but, somone society should study in school….

    • All this talk of masters and masterpieces about people who are still only in their apprenticeship years. Burton is a skillful director with a personal style, who has improved with experience. Although critics, and subsequently impressionable audiences, have tired of him and cooled to his later work, there are in fact more examples of good directing to be found in Alice and Charlie than in Beetlejuice and Batman. Too many people who write about movies have only a vague, mystified idea of the film director’s job description. for the record, the director decides where the cameras are to be placed and directs the movement of the actors within the frame. He is also the boss on the set, which gives him the right to confer with all of the other workers on their daily objectives and how these objectives are to be achieved. Just because you like a movie does not mean that the director of that movie is a master. He may well of had little to do with the elements of the film you like so much. Ed Wood is also my favorite of Burton’s movies, but not because it is better directed than the others. The reason is that I am more interested in the subject matter of the film, and believe Burton handled the job well. Some directors, like Spielberg, have directed movies that everybody seem to like. The reason is because he has the power in Hollywood to choose movies that he knows are going to appeal to a great number of people. As movies such as Dances With Wolves have proven, a skilled director is not necessary to the production of a handsome, well mounted, audience-pleasing movie. The level of technical competence is so high in Hollywood that movies can virtually make themselves. I like Del Toro’s fairy tales about children in wartime, but his other movies are mediocre. Scorsese had a good run when he and his actors were young and inspired, but he died on the 50 yard line. So did DeNiro. Harvey Keitel, on the other hand, is going to make it into the end zone because he takes his work seriously and works hard at it. Many of the great directors made dozens of movies before anybody caught on to the fact that they were doing good work. And these directors seldom faltered in old age unles it was their health that prevented them from working. Torn Curtain was poorly received in 1966 because of people’s feelings about the cold war, as well as a backlash against Julie Andrews. People today have inherited the prejudice against the film. They have heard it was bad since they were babies, and haven’t the aesthetic grit to analyze the film themselves. Hitchock’s directing is strong in “Torn Curtain,” as it is in all his later pictures except his last, “Family Plot,” when he simply did not have the energy to work. Here is somebody who has had been directing films since the silent era. Just how did he all of a sudden forget how to direct? The same goes for Bunuel and Kurosawa. These are the real masters, not the geeks who came roaring out of the UCLA film school. As for poor Manuel de Falla, and how he got into this whole mess. I agree that his harpsichord concerto is a masterpiece. it was the first time a composer used a harpsichord as the featured instrument in a concerto. But it is the whole of de Falla’s work that makes him historically significant as the greatest Spanish composer of the 20th Century. Still, one need only a single masterpiece to claim the title of master. Cervantes had don quixote, Salinger had the Catcher in the rye, Sylvia Plath had Ariel, Altman had Nashville, Coppola had the Godfather Trilogy, and John Coltrane had A Love Supreme. In order to pull of these masterworks, the artists had to first develop the breadth and depth of vision as well as the technical skills necessary to their achievement. It wasn’t the single piece that made them a master. It was everything that led to that piece.

  3. My director litmus test. Take of the the most basic set-ups common to nearly all movies: A car approaches and stops in front of a building. A person gets out of the car and enters the building. What does the director do with this stock scene? The answer will tell you how good or who bad the director is.

  4. HI Simon. I know nothing of Falla’s music, so I cannot comment on that connection specifically. However, I can see your general point, that even those acclaimed as masters of the art can often produce indifferent results. I like Jon’s comment too, that individual ‘masterpieces’ do not give someone a place in a notional hall of fame, without a good body of work to back it up.

    I claim to enjoy the work of certain directors, at the same time considering their faults, and poor films. I am conscious though, that David Lean could not have made films of such scope, without the collaboration of superb cinematographers, lighting cameramen, and a good script and plot to begin with. Also that Scorsese’s best films would be very different without the casting, and acting abilities of DeNiro, Keitel, Pesci, and others.

    As for the three directors you mention in detail, I have admiration for all of them, in differing degrees. Like many long-serving film-makers, it seems to me that their best works were in the early days, before status and unlimited funds blunted their edges. Some have a tendency to make unfortunate associations. Once Scorsese hitched his wagon to Leonardo DiCaprio, he lost 75% of my interest immediately. Kurosawa’s elderly musings lacked the power of his historical dramas, and Spielberg seems to think that his name on the poster justifies anything.

    Another interesting article on curnblog. I do enjoy it here!

    Best wishes, and Happy Easter from England. Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete. Happy Easter to you, too. I noted below in my response to Jon that I’m more with Truffaut on this one in terms of seeing the director as the creative visionary of a picture. Therefore I equate him or her with other artists of the same level, including composers, while acknowledging the contributions of others. So Lean (despite Ryan’s Daughter) I find a great director, as well as Scorsese (despite his leanings toward DiCaprio, an actor I find very mannered), Kurosawa, Spielberg (generally his works prior to 1995), Del Toro and others. All of these filmmakers have crafted masterpieces that transcend their genres. No director is perfect, in my opinion–even Bunuel has directed lesser films!–but some are more perfect than others, as I see it. 😀

  5. I should preface this by saying that I come from a screenwriting background and screenwriters are notoriously bitter about directors taking possessory credit, and about the auteur theory in general. The problem I have with equating a composer, who is very nearly exclusively responsible for a composition, and a movie director, is that a movie director has varying degrees of responsibility. So I’m not as willing to make a judgment about a director based on a small sample, no matter how good I may deem it. Stanley Donen directed two of my favorite movies: Singing in the Rain and Charade. But I can never know how much Gene Kelly and Peter Stone contributed to those movies. So even though I love admire these, and enjoy several other Donen movies, I would not call him a great director. In the absence of other strong films, I can’t rate Charles Laughton or Richard Kelly as great directors, despite two movies which I think are excellent (Night of the Hunter and Donnie Darko). Maybe they were flukes. Another fine conversation starter, Simon. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Jon. I’m more in the Truffaut camp and give directors most of the credit, though I do give shout-outs as well to the cinematographers, editors, etc. Yet my view is that the director is in command, and everything from casting to dialogue must be under his or her auspices. I love Singin’ in the Rain and Charade, too, and frankly believe no matter what the contributions of others were that Donen should ultimately get credit. Charles Laughton is an interesting case, but while I’d rate him a great actor, as a director I’m not as much a fan of Night of the Hunter as some, so I wouldn’t rate him a great director. But others who have had directorial careers nearly as short, perhaps.

      • I think you’re on pretty firm ground in post-sturdio era America and post New Wave France. Prior to that, assessing directors without a substantial body of work is harder because the producer and the studio were more dominant. So I can assume that a director working for Gaumont, Paramount, or Shochiku had relatively more control than a counterpart at Pathe, MGM, or Nikkatsu. Victor Fleming is the litmus test for how much credit you give a director in the Hollywood studio era. Based on his action pictures, primarily with Gable, he was quite good. But how much credit can you give him for his two most famous pictures: Wizard of Oz (parts if which were directed by Vidor) and Gone With the Wind (parts of which were either planned or directed by Cukor, Wood, and Gable)? Maybe a better test case is an indie, Sweet Smell of Success. If Pete hadn’t prohibited top ten lists (sorry Pete, couldn’t resist), Sweet Smell would certainly be in my top ten American films, but I don’t know how to rate Alexander Mackendrick. He made two first-rate Ealing comedies (not Ladykillers, which I think is way overrated), before coming back to America, and I suspect he had a lot to do with how good Sweet Smell ultimately was. But Lehman conceived it, Odets wrote lines like “Cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river,” James Wong Howe filmed it in a way NY had never been filmed before, Tony Curtis was sensational, and in terms of casting, the producer Burt Lancaster cast the actor Burt Lancaster (Mackendrick, and most everyone else on the film, planned on using Orson Welles). Mackendrick deserves a lot of credit (especially for Curtis’ performance), but I can’t give him enough to elevate him to the pantheon of directors based on this pantheon-level film. (Hopefully Truffaut isn’t reading this.) You’ve set me off here, and I don’t even disagree with you all that much. I just think we need to take them as individual cases.

          • I have to tell you that Sweet Smell Of Success, now nearly sixty years old, is a TOTAL masterpiece. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. That gives you alot of leeway.”

        • It’s an interesting question you raise, here, Jon. I’m probably more of a fan of the original The Ladykillers than you are, but as much as I like that, Whiskey Galore and Sweet Smell of Success (which I don’t consider a masterpiece; though I do like it–it’s just not a great film, in my view), I don’t consider him to be a great director. Now Ronald Hamer on the other hand, I might have to think about owing to the utterly brilliant Kind Hearts and Coronets, which in my opinion is the pinnacle of Ealing comedy. Yes, I think we do have to consider each person individually, but I think that was the gist of my argument; directors can’t be lumped together. I do, however, believe that a single great work can differentiate a great director.

          As for the earlier eras when producers were dominant, I think we need to measure directors in much the same way that batters and pitchers are measured in the deadball era of American professional baseball; sizes, speeds, power, etc., were all judged on a different scale, making it hard to equate people from different periods. You can, however, establish how dominant they were, and I think we can do that for, say, F.W. Murnau as we can for, say, Honus Wagner. But I still subscribe to the concept of creative vision; otherwise, we give the director little credit other than saying “Cut!”

          There was a quesiton raised I believe some time ago about how responsible Raymond Carver was for the quality of his stories–that his editor perhaps was more of a defining force. Personally, I say “it’ll look like a line drive in the box score” … perhaps something of a simplistic notion, but one that, to my mind, holds water from a general perspective.

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