Posted by gregferrara on April 10, 2013
I’m not even sure I understand what I’m about to ask but here goes: Have you ever watched a movie that was better than another movie but you thought the movie that’s not as good as the better movie is better than the one that’s better?
To wit: I think goodfellas is a better gangster movie than The Godfather. I think The Godfather is a better movie than goodfellas. Except, as a gangster movie, I think goodfellas is better. But if I think goodfellas is better as a gangster movie, and I further consider The Godfather a gangster movie, how come I think The Godfather is a better movie? Damned if I know.
Ever happen to you? Happens to me all the time. It’s the age old conundrum of “this movie is an exemplar of its genre but I think this one is a better movie while not being as good a genre movie.” Amount of sense made: Zero. Except that it does make sense, kind of, and either way I would like to understand it just a little bit more.
Take westerns. I am of the mind that, as obvious and non-controversial as this is, The Searchers really is the best western ever made. But, and this is strange, I think Stagecoach is better. I think Stagecoach is so absolutely prototypical in defining the western as mythmaking Cowboys vs. Indians conflict, and truly bursting John Wayne, wasted for years up to that point, onto the scene with that shot, that amazing shot and then taking us on a wild chase with stuntmen crawling under a team of horses on a blazing stagecoach while other stuntmen fall from horses as one side shoots the other and… well, it’s just so damned exhilarating!
But I think The Searchers is better.
As a movie.
Except that Stagecoach is better as a western.
But The Searchers is a western and it’s a better movie.
Okay, forget genre comparisons. Let’s go recklessly headlong into the canon. I think Citizen Kane is one of the best films ever produced. I really do. I think it’s better than The Magnificent Ambersons but… well, you know what’s coming. I think The Magnificent Ambersons is better and this isn’t some weird semantic game where better means more enjoyable or I’m saying I think one is better but the other is more fun. No, I honestly believe Ambersons is the better movie and it bothers me that it gets left off that blasted Sight and Sound poll because it’s an extraordinary piece of work. And yet, I understand and kind of agree that Citizen Kane is the better movie. Which contradicts what I just wrote. So let’s figure this thing out.
I think a lot of this comes down to what came first. Stagecoach laid out the blueprint for the western and The Searchers perfected it. The Godfather took the gangster movie to a deeper, richer level and goodfellas removed the romanticism. Citizen Kane showed the wonders that Welles could perform and Ambersons made it more personal.
But that doesn’t explain all of it. It doesn’t explain why I still think, on any given day, that the best film of 1941 was The Maltese Falcon. Citizen Kane had more showmanship relish but Falcon created something deeper, something that led to the noirs I love and that places it even higher. At the same time, if backed up to a wall, I’d probably say Kane is better but I don’t know if I absolutely believe that.
Or how about movies that display little trace of studio professionalism or adept ability at the art of financing but still somehow work better than the other movie that is clearly better or at least more highly budgeted? Psycho clearly has a higher quality sheen to it than Night of the Living Dead but that doesn’t mean it’s better. Except, I do think it’s the better movie and if I had to rank the top 1,000 Greatest Movies of All Time, I’m pretty sure Psycho would make my top 100 while Night of the Living Dead would be on the list but further down. Except that, of course, Night of the Living Dead is such an absolutely primordial horror movie, not only unleashing (albeit, after years and years of nothing) an entire subgenre (as did Psycho, of course, with the slasher movie) but doing it in such a grainy, gritty, low-budget way as to make Psycho look like a David Lean epic which somehow makes it the better horror movie. But I still think Psycho‘s the better movie.
Let’s return to a single director’s work again, like we did with Orson Welles a moment ago. Jacques Tati is one of my favorite people in movie history. If nothing else, I admire him for going so strongly in his own direction and perfecting the art of the silent film long after sound became the norm. What’s more, he did it all with sound and without intertitles. When people list the great silent filmmakers and leave Tati off the list, it’s enough to drive a man crazy. But of his very few works, the two that stand out for me are Mon Oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967). I have always enjoyed Mon Oncle more and feel it’s gentle interplay between the modern suburbs and decaying central city tenements is more firmly on target than the over-reaching Playtime. But that over-reaching is exactly what I think makes Playtime so extraordinary. It’s so colossal in size and scope that it’s overwhelming to behold. That one man realized such a vision on the screen stuns me into a jaw-hanging silence. But if someone asked me what his best film was, I’d have to look that person straight in the eye and say, “I think Mon Oncle is his best movie but Playtime is probably better.” And then I’d have to assure them I didn’t mean I think one is better and the other is more enjoyable. No, I meant both are the best. Mon Oncle is better than Playtime but Playtime is better than Mon Oncle.
Personally, once you accept that nothing is the best ever and one film is better than another only for as long as it is lesser than the other movie which is better, it’s not confusing at all. It’s just another way of saying the movies are a living art and their existence is never static so long as the human mind has the ability to think two opposite things at the same time. Which is why 2001: A Space Odyssey is better than Blade Runner.
Except that Blade Runner is better.
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