So I was listening to some podcast while huffing glue and the two hosts introduced an interesting concept: if a film director makes two unquestionably great movies, then they belong in the canon of great directors.
It seemed like a sound enough argument. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it a hundred more times: it is extraordinarily difficult to make ONE good film. If a filmmaker can make one good movie, then replicate that impact in a subsequent film, then it’s obvious that the director knows what he/she is doing.
But the more you think about it, you come across some problems: specifically what it means to be “great”, or even a “Director”. Because if this criterion were true, then we find that a few questionable directors would belong in this canon.
Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Stop Making Sense)
John McTiernan (Predator, Die Hard, Hunt For Red October)
George Lucas (Star Wars, American Graffiti, THX-1138)
Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator)
Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Dirty Dozen)
William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer)
Etc, etc, etc
While there are a bunch of notable films on those director’s resumes, would any of those directors be considered “great”? (IMHO, I would say “yes” for Friedkin, Aldrich, and McTiernan. “No” for the others.)
A “three film” criteria would fix this: Ford, Hitchcock, Wilder, Lean, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Coppola, Scorsese, Tarantino, and Spielberg would easily hurdle this barrier. But what about directors that made ONE unquestionably great film?
The Deer Hunter is arguably the greatest film ever made. And it was the only great movie that Michael Cimino directed.
But here’s another example: Orson Welles.
Citizen Kane IS unquestionably the greatest movie ever made. Now name another movie he made that had a similar impact? The Magnificent Ambersons? Touch of Evil? The Lady From Shanghai? Sure, they were good to VERY good. But were they Citizen Kane…or even Deer Hunter…great? Yet every cinephile would undoubtedly place Welles as one of the greats in film history.
And what about the niche directors…David Lynch, Paul Verhoeven, John Carpenter, Sergio Leone, and even Paul Schrader, etc etc? I’d argue that it’s these directors that have the greatest influence on younger audiences.
What about the directors that aren’t auteurs? Some operate more as “CEOs” in their craft. George Lucas is one of these guys. Ridley Scott is too (and Spielberg to some extent). My personal fav is John Sturges, who directed such bangers like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and Bad Day at Black Rock (a forgotten classic).
So I don’t know, the “two film” rule doesn’t seem to work (neither does the idea of a “canon”). It’s all too subjective.
As a side not, I didn’t mention very many European directors or auteurs of other nations. That’s obviously my American bias. Like it or not, cinema is the one (and only) contribution that the US has uniquely made to the arts. Nevertheless, these filmmakers deserve a shoutout. The Japanese, Korean, and Italian directors have a distinctiveness that I greatly appreciate and I regret not mentioning more of them. The Mexican film industry is criminally underrated. British directors, at least with their mainstream work, mimic their American counterparts. Tarkovsky, Costa-Garves, Wim Wenders Fellini, Herzog, and Pasolini are all incredible as well.
But the French New Wave sucked.