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.