A History of Masterpieces: What Are They?

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What constitutes a masterpiece, and how many works of art can be genuinely counted as such?

Success is what most of us strive for. Yet it is easier said than done, since the path to achieving success is always tough and arduous. This is universally accepted. The key to success is perseverance, and as we encounter failures on our way to achieving what we want, one just has to keep going, no matter what. One may reasonably think that the course to success is a linear upward curve, which probably is the case for the majority of success stories. However, there are also some striking examples where the way to success is by no means linear, let alone upward. Some of these include some very famous mainstream cinematic works of art which have made me reflect on some of my personal experiences too.

The Godfather’ (1972) is widely considered a cinematic masterpiece. Some (myself included) even contend that Parts I and II are two of the greatest films of all time. They are truly remarkable works of art, and I never tire of watching them, even though it has been more than ten years since I first watched them (2004) and have since watched them at least several times per year. Needless to say how amazed I was the first time I watched them, since as a Latin/Romance linguist, I was fascinated by the Roman/Italian cultural aspects of those films, especially the state of the Italian-American heritage in contemporary America, which is artfully explored in Part II. Recently, however, I discovered that the making of Part I was somewhat dramatic and nothing that I had expected.

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Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, head of the Corleone family, in The Godfather (1972)

For a film of such quality and scale, one would expect the production to be a happy collaboration between the best and finest artists in the world, and the Godfather franchise did involve some of the greatest, albeit unknown at the time, actors of all time- Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Lee Strasberg, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and many others (it must be said though that at the time very few of these actors were well-established figures, with the possible exception of Marlon Brando, though he was going through a dip in his career in the late 60s/early 70s). In a series of interviews with the main players in the production, namely the director Francis Ford Coppola and the lead actor Al Pacino, both of them said that the production of Part I was anything but happy, since the production company (Paramount) was very hostile to them both, especially Pacino as they were dead set against hiring a relatively unknown theatre actor to play the lead in such a momentous movie. They were also against many of the artistic choices made by Coppola, as they disapproved of his decision to cast Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone and, as mentioned, Al Pacino as his son, Michael Corleone. Both Coppola and Pacino even went as far as saying that they would be ridiculed publicly in rehearsals by members of the production team and they were both incredulous that they managed to stay in their jobs since they were certain that they would be dismissed. By a dramatic twist of fate, they managed to complete this movie and the rest is history. It is remarkable that such a tumultuous process ended up creating one of the finest pieces of art ever made, and judging from these testimonies probably neither Coppola nor Pacino (nor anyone involved in the production) anticipated the enormous success and life-changing consequences that ensued. It was truly a pivotal moment in western film-making. I have enormous admiration for Coppola and co for creating such an all-time masterpiece, but after discovering the amount of difficulty they had to go through in order to make this film, I have even more respect for them for their perseverance in achieving their goals and their abidement by their principles even in the most difficult of times. This is an inspirational lesson for us all, since it shows that process and outcome do not necessarily match and the latter cannot be predicted from the former. All that one can do in life is to offer one’s best even in the worst of circumstances and weather the storm as best as one can, since you never know- you may have a masterpiece in the making. It has been a funny week for me, and all that I can say at the end of this week is something that I have asserted all along: Don’t give up.

The Godfather: Part II (1974) is widely considered the best sequel of all time and one of the best movies ever made, on a par with its predecessor (Part I). Above I mentioned how paradoxical it was that a masterpiece such as The Godfather: Part I had actually gone through a very tumultuous production during which no one knew what was going on and could not possibly have realized that they were in the process of creating an all-time masterpiece. The making of Part II, on the other hand, is allegedly a much smoother process in that according to the director (Francis Ford Coppola) there was none of that non-sense in the casting as all the original cast members reprised their roles (with the exception of old Clemenza, but that is a different story with a possibly devious twist) and there were minimal fuss from the producers who did not doubt or interfere with Coppola’s artistic decisions and hence gave him maximum freedom to do whatever he wanted. This is hardly surprising, since after the seismic impact of Part I, all the members and participants of Part I finally received the trust and respect they deserved and Coppola could for once helm the production with maximum control. The end product is certainly astounding, since Part II brings the story of Part I to a beautifully tragic resolution, which is made more remarkable by the comparison and contrast between the lives of Michael Corleone and Vito Corleone, played impeccably by Al Pacino and Robert De Niro respectively, when they are both at prime age.

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Al Pacino in one of his signature roles as Michael Corleone, heir to the Corleone family

In a later interview, however, Coppola famously said that he never intended to do a sequel on The Godfather: Part I. He claimed that he had been so disappointed and fatigued by the production of Part I that he never wanted to touch the material again. He also claimed that he had hated doing Part I and the whole gangster genre and he had never had wanted to do Part I in the first place, let alone Part II. Rather, he wanted to do The Conversation, another fine film of his starring Gene Hackman and John Cazale (the actor who plays Fredo, whose performance is Part II is just breathtaking), which had been his goal all along and the agreement reached between him and the producers was that he would have to do The Godfather before he could do The Conversation, so he reluctantly consented to do The Godfather: Parts I and II which turned out to be two of his masterpieces.

It is truly remarkable how unintentional the making of The Godfather: Parts I and II was. The first one was a production disaster and a total administrative mess (for which see my blog), yet it turned out to be a landmark in world cinema. The second was never intended to be made, since the director (and presumably others) was so wearied by the first one that he did not want to do a second one, but it became one of the best cinematic art forms of all time. While I have always believed that passion and interest are crucial in one’s intellectual and artistic development in that it is my belief that one has to truly love and appreciate something in order to do well in it, I am also really intrigued by the paradox of human achievement, since often the greatest human achievements are not intentional but accidental. Sure, there have been famous cases of groundbreaking work that was achieved by sheer unbending human will and persistence (e.g. Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb and consequent discovery of electricity- god knows how many times he failed, and god bless him for not giving up, or the world we live in now would be VERY different), yet there have also been examples of great work being created due to the lack of effort or conscious pre-meditation. In the case of The Godfather: Parts I and II, the circumstances were such that no one really wanted to do it, yet by a stroke of fate, chance and luck they turned out to be two of the greatest movies of all time. I suppose it all boils down to the two-edged nature of human will which can either make you or break you. It is well-documented in sport psychology that huge determination can lead to excessive amounts of pressure and obsession, and while the former can certainly improve one’s performance, the latter have been argued to undermine it. Making a conscious and determined effort to do well can certainly take you far in achieving your goals, but sometimes having no such pressure at all may actually be the catalyst and missing link in one’s road to success. Funny, eh?

Another all-time masterpiece is Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ (1975). Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, among many others in his amazing career. This man must be one of the most if not the most successful film director of all time, since the commercial success of his work is absolutely colossal (it is interesting that he is also one of those great men who suffered from hard failures at an early stage of his career, namely being rejected by film school twice, which is pretty crazy considering what he has achieved since). There are very many masterpieces in Spielberg’s career, though he has always credited Jaws (1975) as his breakthrough, since it was this movie that catapulted him to international fame and secured his status as a world-class director, after which he received countless and unending offers and could pretty much do whatever project he wanted.

Classic poster of Jaws (1975)

I am sure that many of us have seen Jaws (1975) before, and it is truly a remarkable work of art. I mentioned before that the creative process of masterpieces need not be on a par with their reception, since there have been many famous examples of arduous and difficult processes which led to some all-time artistic landmarks. Jaws (1975) is no different in this regard, since the making of it, according to all those involved, was the hardest thing that they had ever undertaken. The one biggest problem they faced was that the shark, which was mechanically pieced together, did not work AT ALL. Spielberg has said that he originally envisaged this to be a Godzilla-type movie with a huge monster in the form of a shark terrorising the waters of Martha’s Vineyard (a hugely significant spot for linguistics, since this was where the great William Labov conducted his seminal sociolinguistic research). Due to the practical difficulties with the shark, however, Spielberg and his entire cast and crew were thrown into total desperation, since they simply did not know what to do or how to cope without the shark. He then allegedly did extensive and radical re-writes to his script and re-invented the whole movie on the spot. As the shark did not work, he had to learn how to imply the shark without actually showing it, which was, in many ways, the making of the movie, since it gained a lot more quality from suspense rather than from explicit horror. The shark does not really appear till over halfway through and throughout the first half it is implied terror which makes it truly frightening. When it does appear, it becomes a different movie altogether, as commonly noted by critics that Jaws (1975) consists of two halves, the first being a tense drama similar to the Swedish classic ‘Enemy of the People’ where the main characters are trying to warn the community of hidden dangers amidst corruption and intervention from the officials, while the second being a ‘Moby Dick’ kind of movie where the main characters become obsessive hunters whose quest is to hunt down this giant sea monster. The production of Jaws, therefore, like The Godfather Part I, was a total disaster, since, due to the shark not working and radical modifications to the story, it went way over-budget and way over-time. Everyone was under pressure bot during and after production, and no one had much (if any) faith in the final product either, given how it was made. In fact, numerous people (Spielberg in particular) thought that this would be the end of their careers, since they felt that they had been ruined by the shark. It turned out, however, that this would be the making of their careers, since Jaws (1975) became an instant commercial success and garnered almost unprecedented popularity throughout the world, all due to the unanticipated problem that the shark, which was originally intended to be on the forefront of the film, simply did not work. No one expected that, but that was how it was meant to be. It is funny how sometimes the way things do not work out the way we want them to may turn out to be the key to success. Huge credit goes to Spielberg for his resourcefulness, creativity and flexibility in dealing with difficult situations, but ultimately the source for his breakthrough success comes from a totally unanticipated disaster which not only messed things up for him but also ended up making him. In situations of despair, one must not lose faith and should perhaps take Spielberg’s success as inspiration for how to solve problems and give them our best shot, which may lead us to places that we have never dreamt of. Another funny paradox.

While I certainly do not claim to have created anything near a millionth the quality of the various masterpieces mentioned above, there have been some past experiences in my life which have made me think twice about success and failure, namely my academic career (as I am a (struggling) academic after all). I love and I hate exams (in the style of Catullus). Our generation has endured so many (public) exams that exams have almost become synonymous with education in the modern age. There are many controversies regarding this exam culture, and the message of this blog is not to launch another tirade against the pros/cons of exams (in a nutshell, I am not as hostile towards exams as some people are, since I do believe that exams can be an extremely productive intellectual process IFF they are taken in the right way by students and teachers, but perhaps another post on this). Nonetheless, I hate the process of doing exams and waiting for exam results, since they are always very stressful and not good for one’s health. Before the exam, one is busy preparing for it, and as it approaches, one gets increasingly nervous, until the very big day finally arrives and one fights for one’s life in the examination hall. Afterwards, one may have a brief moment of respite to breathe and recover (and celebrate), but before long the sense of yearning and anxiety returns when one awaits the announcement of the exam results, which can either be a moment of jubilation and celebration or a period of disappointment and grief. This cycle has happened to me many times before, especially at Oxford where the undergraduate assessment was almost exclusively exam-based with minimal assessment by way of research or coursework, and the sense of longing after the exams can be an absolute torture. Another thing about exams is that they are very funny things and unless one is psychic, one can never predict the results, no matter how one feels about one’s performance. One may think that one has done exceptionally welI in a paper but it turns out to be a disaster, or the reverse as one may be dreading the results for a paper thinking that one has completely ruined it but it turns out to be one’s best mark. I do not believe that exam results are totally random, as one does get a general sense of how one has done i.e. if the paper is so difficult that one submits nothing at all, one cannot possibly expect to do well (!), but on the whole the correlation between one’s assessment of one’s performance and the actual results is not particularly strong (at all), which can be both pleasantly and cruelly surprising. This certainly happened to me once before. It was in Easter 2007 after we completed the first part of our degree (Honour Moderations). It is always the case that, unless one does not care about one’s studies at all (in which case one would not study at Oxford), one always worries about one’s performance and even re-thinks the content of one’s responses, and the more one cares about a particular subject, the more one thinks about it. In the first part of my degree, my favourite papers (by far) were Greek and Latin Prose Composition. It is hard to explain why I loved those papers, but those were the ones I spent most time and attention on, and after the exams I found myself thinking about my prose passages over and over again. The more I thought about them, however, the more discouraged I became since I discovered more and more errors in my scripts. I started dreading my results for Prose Composition and was convinced that I was going to fail. When the big day came, however, I was very surprised to discover that my marks for Prose Compositions were (by quite some distance) my best and the other papers which I felt much more comfortable with were way lower than I expected. I was both encouraged and discouraged, which was a very funny experience. It seems strange that one’s results can run so far contrary to one’s expectations, but at the same time it does make sense. The subjects that I felt most insecure about were the ones which I liked best and for which I had done the most preparation, whereas those that I felt easiest about were the ones which I did not really care about and had not done nearly as much for. In this way, the apparent paradox between one’s expectations and the actual results does not seem to be so much of a paradox, since it is not surprising that the subjects for which one does the most work for turn out to be one’s strengths and vice versa. The real paradox lies in the negative correlation between one’s ability and one’s confidence level in a particular subject, the fact that one can prepare so much (and be apparently good at) a particular subject yet still feel so insecure about it, whereas those subjects that one feels most confident about can turn out to be one’s Achilles’ heel, but again this all makes sense in light of the fact that one’s strengths lie in the things that one practises most for and is hence most self-critical about, whereas one’s weaknesses lie in the things that one does not much care about and hence dismisses in the belief that one has done enough. One can never do enough, and the things that we feel least comfortable with are often the things that we know best, since we know just how little we have done and just how much more we need to do. In the words of my former Housemaster at school, ‘Those who are confident are those who have not done enough, whereas those who are insecure are those who have done most.’ He said this to me just before my Grade 7 Viola exam which I had also done a lot of preparation for yet felt very insecure about both before and after the exam. Another funny paradox, but one which somehow makes sense if one considers the amount of effort and self-awareness (i.e. input) that one invests. Our masterpieces are often created in moments of self-insecurity and doubt. Don’t give up.

Masterpieces often come when you least expect, and just when you feel that you are struggling and are heading out in failure, you may just be hitting the peak of your life. Just as a caterpillar reaches the end of its lifespan and hits a new low in its energy level, it bursts through its shell and becomes the best version it can ever be, namely a butterfly. This is a strange paradox, but an absolutely stunning one.

This is the case with such all-time classics like The Godfather Parts I and II and Jaws, and I have mentioned an episode from personal experience which supports this idea too. As we learn from Greek tragedy, the problem with man is that we are sometimes too clever for our own good, to the extent that we often second-guess our fortunes and over-analyse our situation, and this gives us an illusory impression of ourselves and our environment and leads us to make wrong decisions. Surprises can go either way, either pleasant discoveries of the true extent of one’s ability or the horrible disappointment at one’s lack thereof, but it all comes down to the mismatch between man’s estimation of oneself and one’s surroundings and the true extent of both, the latter of which, in Graeco-Roman religion, is only accessible to the gods. Unless one claims to be divine, one cannot boast to have knowledge of one’s destiny, which technically constitutes ‘hubris’ (ύβρις), a classic folly of man punishable by death. I have been thinking about this a lot lately and another piece of personal experience comes to mind. It was Spring 2010 when I was in the second semester of my Master’s in Linguistics at Manchester. Linguistics is a funny field since it is as yet a baby discipline with much yet to be done, but on the whole linguistics, being the empirical study of language, consists of two branches, namely data and theory, the former known more traditionally as philology (i.e. hardcore data-analysis) whereas the latter as modern linguistic theory (syntax, phonology, psycholinguistics, biolinguistics, and the like). In 2010, I was very much new to linguistic theory, since my undergraduate degree at Oxford was in foreign languages (Classics and Romance languages) where I did almost exclusively data-analysis of Indo-European and Romance languages and very little by way of linguistic theory. At Manchester, I was introduced to lots of linguistic theory and was taught that there was no mutual exclusivity between data and theory- indeed, we were always encouraged to pursue and combine both disciplines, since the most fruitful scientific investigations could only be achieved via a mutually informed approach between empirical adequacy and theoretical analysis. Nonetheless, it is customary for linguists to choose an orientation in their work by either concentrating on linguistic data (married with an impeccable understanding of linguistic theory) or linguistic theory (supported by lots of empirical coverage and analysis). I have to admit that I was a little scared of linguistic theory the first time I approached it, since it was very new to me and I initially felt much more comfortable with philology which I had been doing for four years at Oxford, and in Spring 2010 I chose two research papers for my course, Latin philology (supervised by Professor David Langslow) and syntactic theory (with Professor Nigel Vincent). Naturally, I thought that I was going to ace Latin philology, since it was a natural extension from my undergraduate education (and David is indeed an Oxford man and a world class philologist). The paper on syntactic theory worried me the most, since it consisted of highly technical approaches to language which had not been introduced to me before. I hence prioritized my studying of syntactic theory and kept philology in the background for regular checking. Things went on as usual and when it came to writing the term papers, I realized that I had done so much work on syntactic theory that I had discovered something rather exciting. I felt enthusiastic about it and went on reading and exploring more and finally when it came to the submission date, I submitted a substantial paper in which I proposed something quite original (which underlies my first publication in 2012). When the marks came out, I was surprised to learn that my paper for syntactic theory was by far my best mark for my entire course (and my marker/supervisor, Professor Nigel Vincent, was known to be a tough marker, which made this even more remarkable- all my coursemates were ‘wowed’ when they heard my mark). My mark for Latin philology, on the other hand, was disappointingly low, all because I had taken it for granted that it would be easy given my previous education and hence put it to one side. I have subsequently fallen in love with linguistic theory which is now firmly my focus of research, though, as explained above, empirical coverage is paramount in linguistic analysis so I still use lots of examples. However, my style of work has shifted so much towards linguistic theory that I have actually been accused and criticised (mainly by philologists) for being too theory-heavy and have been advised to focus more on data. It is funny how one’s perceptions of oneself can lead to totally different results, which, in my case, has led to a totally different career pathway. In 2010, I assumed that data-analysis would be easy and theory-analysis would be hard, given my levels of familiarity with the material, and while my ability in doing theoretical analysis improved significantly due to my initial insecurity, my data-analysis went awry due to my complacence. Why, then, do we make assumptions about ourselves and the world before we even take on the task at hand? Why jump to conclusions before we have seen all the facts? In the words of my old Spanish tutor at Oxford, ‘Cool it… if you go too fast, you miss things… I only wish that you would move slower so that you notice what’s around you and not miss things.’ Couldn’t agree more. Thanks Eric (Southworth).

This was originally published in keithtselinguist.wordpress.com.

#Linguist #DataScientist #Columnist #Balliol #Oxford #Manchester #York #Ronin #IGDORE #Scholar.

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