by Jack Wareham
Godard’s films are particularly directed toward proof, rather than analysis. Vivre Sa Vie is an exhibit, a demonstration. It shows that something happened, not why it happened. It exposes the inexorability of an event… Vivre Sa Vie seems to me a perfect film.
— Susan Sontag
Here, I want to sketch out and diagnose an aesthetic characteristic of American cinema that I term “American Masterpiece Syndrome.” AMS is not a rare condition. In fact, it affects a diverse and talented group of directors, always male, including Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, Joel and Ethan Coen, Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, and Martin Scorsese. Usually contracted later in their careers, these directors become convinced it’s time for them to make a masterpiece of epic proportions – a ‘deep’ meditation on American capitalism, the male ego, representations of violence, or worst of all, humanity itself (whatever that means). The sickness infects their films, which become bloated with pretensions of artistic genius.
My goal in this piece is not to criticize these films per se. Some, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Raging Bull, are fascinating. Others, like There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men, I find vapid and even insidious. I also don’t wish to contest that films like Inception or Apocalypse Now have some moments of brilliance and inspiration.
Instead, I’m interested in the urge that these directors have to make ‘epic’ films that cover multiple large topics, vast spatial expanses, and many decades. And correspondingly, I’m interested in the uniquely male obsession with these films in pop culture. What drives men to produce YouTube video essays about the ‘philosophy’ of Fight Club or mansplain the quantum mechanics of Interstellar to you at a house party?
Women don’t make these films. They usually don’t write thousand-page novels like Infinite Jest either. There is something undeniably masculine about the imposition of the epically scaled film upon the viewer – a penetrative act that immerses one within the mind of the male director for an extended period of time.
Again, I would never holistically deny the value of this category of films. Sometimes, there is a supreme aesthetic object – case in point, 2001. And I couldn’t sketch out a complete alternate framework of what film should be. But I would suggest the answer lies in following Sontag’s evocation of what makes Godard so simple and beautiful. Instead of tackling a massive subject head-on, perhaps film should “[expose] the inexorability of an event,” the essential this-ness of reality, films that only cover a few characters over a few days: Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7, Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie. These are films that don’t over-extend themselves. They begin with the reality of immediate experience, which, after all, is the only thing the artist can truly work with.