Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Applying the rule of 5 to great directors...

I found this article yesterday to be really interesting, so while I'm back at home for the day before heading down south, I figured I'd pop in and post this for you all. It comes from Matt Singer of IFC:

At The AV Club, Steven Hyden wrote a really interesting piece today calling for a new measurement of excellence in the world of popular music. In addition to judging a band's "popularity" and "critical respectibility" he suggests you apply "the five-album test" to determine musical greatness. If an artist puts out five great albums in a row, they pass.

"Lots of artists have five or more classic albums (not including EPs or live records), but the ability to string them together back-to-back means being in the kind of zone that's normally associated with dominant college women's basketball dynasties."

It's a really fun test to apply to music -- The Replacements make the cut but The Rolling Stones don't -- which made me think that it would be equally fun to apply it to film. The five-movies test, though, is arguably even harder to pass than the five-albums test.

Many of the usual suspects for title of greatest director in historydon't even rate. Alfred Hitchcock has four classics back-to-back: "Veritgo," "North by Northwest," "Psycho," and "The Birds," but unless you're about to go all Robin Wood on me and hail "Marnie" as a film the equal of those other masterpieces, that's as close as he gets. Steven Spielberg never does better than two in a row: "Jurassic Park" and "Schindler's List" are bookended by "Hook" and "The Lost World;" "Raiders" and "E.T." are surrounded by "1941" and "The Twilight Zone: The Movie." Then again that last one is an anthology which might not count -- anthology films or TV work are probably the directorial equivalent of EPs or live records for musicians. But even if we bypass "Twilight Zone" Spielberg's next movie is "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." Not as bad as its reputation, but a great film? No way.

So who does pass the five-movies test? The first guy I thought of was Stanley Kubrick, who not only passes the test, he aces it: "Dr. Strangelove," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange," "Barry Lyndon," "The Shining," "Full Metal Jacket," and "Eyes Wide Shut" make seven great films in a row. Some might disagree on "Barry Lyndon," though I'd bet a lot of that some have never even seen it. What might be a better argument against Kubrick being the champion of the five-movies test is the fact that he did it over the course of thirty-five years. He never made a dud, but he also spent an inordinate amount of time crafting each movie. If every filmmaker had that luxury, they might make the cut too.

In my opinion, there are a few other guys who pass. Martin Scorsese, definitely (for "The Last Waltz," "Raging Bull," "The King of Comedy," "After Hours," and "The Color of Money"); Godard as well ("Alphaville," "Pierrot le Fou," "Masculin Feminin," "Made in USA," "2 or 3 Things I Know About Her"). Tarantino's in too, if you give him a pass for his part in "Four Rooms" ("Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown," "Kill Bill Vols. I and II") and so is Carpenter, if "Elvis" gets ignored because it's a TV movie ("Assault on Precinct 13," "Halloween," "The Fog," "Escape From New York," "The Thing"). James Cameron and the Coen Brothers are really close, but you'd have to elevate "True Lies" and "The Hudsucker Proxy" from very good status to great status to pass them, and, as much as I like both those films, I'm not sure that we really can in the interest of absolute fairness.

Other than that, I'm hard pressed to find too many more directors up to the challenge. Francis Ford Coppola has maybe the best four movies in a row of any director ever -- "The Godfather," "The Conversation," "The Godfather Part II," and "Apocalypse Now" -- but "The Rain People" and "One From the Heart" are never going to be mistaken for masterpieces. I've never seen "Home Movies" or "Wise Guys" but I have a feeling they're not up to the level of craftsmanship on display in the four movies Brian De Palma made in between: "Dressed to Kill," "Blow Out," "Scarface," and "Body Double." Sergio Leone has the "Dollars" trilogy and "Once Upon a Time in the West" and then "Duck You Sucker." Peter Bogdanovich has "Targets," "The Last Picture Show," "What's Up Doc?" "Paper Moon" and then "Daisy Miller." Clint Eastwood has "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby," two great World War II films and then "Changeling." Five great movies in a row is really, really hard.

It's also expensive. If there's one difference between musicians and directors in this regard it's that no pop star makes an album for a paycheck. Okay, yes, every album is made for a paycheck. But directors do work-for-hire, and rock bands, for the most part, do not. They may sell a song to a beer commercial, they might appear on an episode of "90210," but -- with the exception of, say, corporately engineered boy bands who wouldn't factor into this discussion anyway -- they don't make albums without a hefty amount of creative imput. Directors, on the other hand, might, and frequently do; a lot follow the model of "one for me, one for them" because they can't supplement their income by touring and selling t-shirts. Today indie-minded filmmakers ike Steven Soderbergh take high profile gigs like "Ocean's Eleven" to off-set the costs of more personal projects like "Bubble." In the Golden Age, guys like John Ford and Howard Hawks had multipicture contracts with studios, and they couldn't always control what they were assigned. Doing five great movies in a row requires a certain amount of financial freedom along with creative inspiration.

Of course, I'm sure there are directors I didn't think of that pass the test, and others I considered but couldn't let through because I haven't seen enough of their films (I'll give you two in particular: Preston Sturges and Yasujiro Ozu. But that's why this sort of thing is so much fun. It's the start of the discussion, not the end of it.

-Joey's Two Cents: I think 3 in a row is a good enough barometer, with 5 in a career working well too, but it's a really interesting system nonetheless...thoughts?


  1. A lot depends on how objective you can be about a director's body of work...

  2. Marnie not great but Barry Lyndon is? As much as Barry Lyndon was a well crafted movie, it was dull as hell. And I sat through all three hours of it.

  3. The general consensus does seem to favor Barry Lyndon, yes. It being dull to you doesn't prevent it from being a classic. I can't stand plenty of widely accepted classics, but they still retain that status.

  4. Very interesting article. Some directors I think that can do this in the future are:
    Darren Arnofsky
    David Fincher
    Jason Reitman
    Judd Apatow
    and Christopher Nolan
    all five of these directors would need another film or two and they're in.

  5. It could be argued Kubrick had 10 great films in a role, though I doubt many would put Lolita in that category. For what it's worth, I much prefer Barry Lyndon to Dr Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange. Beautiful film.

  6. John- I definitely consider Aronofsky to have done 5 in a row, though I'm more likely to downgrade Pi than any other film, especially The Fountain.

    Fincher isn't there yet, but could be soon.

    Reitman is 3 for 3 so far.

    Apatow is as well

    Nolan could be soon too.

  7. I say Sergio Leone passes the test. I absolutely would call Duck, You Sucker a masterpiece. That would give him six in a row since his next film was Once Upon A Time In America.


  8. Frank Capra has Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Lost Horizon, You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Meet John Doe, Arsenic and Old Lace, and it’s A Wonderful Life if you don’t count his war documentaries in between. David Lean has Summertime, The Bridge On The River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Ryan’s Daughter. Howard Hawks made Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Sergeant York, then Ball of Fire. Charlie Chaplin has six if you count The Circus: The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator. Rob Reiner has Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, and A Few Good Men. Hal Ashby has Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound For Glory, Coming Home, and Being There.

    I’m sure that Akira Kurosawa has made five great films in a row, I just haven’t seen enough of them to judge. Sidney Lumet comes close; if he wouldn’t have made ‘Lovin’ Molly’ then he would have had Serpico, Murder On The Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Equus. Woody Allen is also very close because his movies from Take The Money and Run to Manhattan are all great except for Love and Death and Interiors; and some people would argue for those last two. I also consider all five of Jacques Tati’s movies to be classics, with the possible exception of Jour De Fete. If Paul Thomas Anderson’s next movie is great, he will make the cut.

    Of course, all of these depend on which films you find to be great.


  9. Good call on Chaplin and Kurosawa. Although I think Kurosawa might just miss out though. He had really good films in between his great ones but maybe not quite good enough.