Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Allen or Scorsese?

Russell Blackford asks, Which is the greater filmmaker: Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese? His aim is not to settle the matter once and for all, but to provoke a discussion of the concept of "greatness." I just posted a response which is still awaiting moderation, and I didn't save a copy, so I'll have to go over my main points from memory.

First, I think if you want to discuss the concept of "greatness," you shouldn't ask people to judge which of two filmmakers is greater. What it does is set up a context in which everybody knows how to use the words "great" and "greater," and in which nobody would normally fuss over the meaning of the word "great." What we can--and should--do when discussing the relative greatness of two filmmakers is discuss available criteria for greatness. We all know what "great" means, but we might not agree on what makes something (or someone) great. So, I laid out the following rough criteria for evaluating the greatness of a filmmaker:

1) How much work they have produced;
2) How influential that work has been;
3) How positively we can evaluate that influence;
4) How high their films' standards for artistic achievement are;
5) How well their films satisfy their own standards.

I don't have a set standard for measuring these quantities or a calculus for evaluating their relative weights. These are just the five most important things I think we should look at when talking about how great a filmmaker is. I don't expect them to be decisive in all cases.

With that in mind, I favor Woody Allen. I have great respect for a number of Martin Scorsese's films. In addition to getting outstanding performances from his actors (especially Robert De Niro), I think he has an exceptional sense of style. I'd even say he's a style hound, and not necessarily in a good way. He's tried out a variety of other people's styles but hasn't established one of his own. He hasn't created a unique cinematic voice. Woody Allen has.

Woody Allen's well past his prime. He's made a lot of bad movies since the 90s. But if you look at his films from 1966 to 1999, the run is phenomenal. And it's not all dominated by his patented neurotic, middle-aged Jewish male character. Unfortunately, though understandably, that character turns off a lot of people. But that character is not Allen's sole, or even most significant, contribution to cinema. His films are rather distinguished by (1) a signature breaking of the fourth wall and (2) an often darkly comic exploration of deep philosophical and psychological problems through everyday relationships and dialogue. I might add a third quality which is unique to a number of his films: a realistic depiction of the struggle between intellectual and emotional life through human relationships. This third aspect might better be thought of as a subset of (2), though.

I think anybody can understand and either agree or disagree with my views here without taking issue with the word "great." You might take issue with my criteria or their application, but there doesn't seem to be much point in playing like you don't know what the criteria is meant to accomplish. Which is not to say that people can't be confused about what this is all about. People might legitimately be confused about what the word "great" means. But then, people might be confused about what the word "tornado" means, too. That's not necessarily an interesting problem.