Aug 22, 2009

A theory of unrepresentative masterpieces

I've been trying to hone my theory of unrepresentative masterpieces, which goes something like this: the works which critics single out for masterpiece status are often the least representative, and consequently least satisfying, works of the artist in question. It was with Vertigo that I first noticed this, a film frequently held up as Hitchcock's masterpiece by the Sigh & Sound crowd, and I get it, I really do: the film is melancholy and haunting and dreamlike, in many ways Hitchcock's greatest — or indeed only — love story. But that's just it. It is his only love story. The rest of the time he made sharp, speedy, suspense-filled pictures with great set pieces, droll jokes, and stars looking for a little mischief.

By those standards, Vertigo is not a patch on, say, Notorious or even Strangers on a Train whose plot is so tight you could bounce a penny off of it. It is slow and dolorous and illogical, and were it not for Barbara Bel Geddes, almost entirely joke-free. So why the critical raves? My guess is: the film is accorded masterpiece status precisely because it fails to play to Hitchcock's traditional strengths. Geniuses can — let's face it — get fairly tiresome after a while, knocking out one great work after another. Critics get bored; they start to look for the artwork that falls outside the norm, or "transcends" genre, or does something they haven't seen the director do before. They hanker for self-consciousness, technical innovation, broken ground.

A case in point is Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. On the whole, the Beatles are not a gimmicky, self-conscious band who serve up concept albums posing questions about the very nature of modern pop spectacle. In fact only one of their albums does this so that one gets to be the masterpiece. But really, when it comes down to it, wouldn't you much rather listen to Revolver? Sgt Pepper is so much of an operation: you've got to sit there admiring the overall concept. With Revolver all you have to do is listen to one great song after another.

I was recently reminded of this when the New Yorker's Richard Brody called Funny People Judd Apatow's "masterpiece." As I understood him, what he really meant was "not as funny as Apatow's previous films." Bingo. It isn't.

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