So your faithful podcaster has been slightly behind in productivity lately and of course means to get back on his high horse with weekly frequency, though we'll see how successful he is. He had a masterfully hubristic plan for the summer - to read all the great American novelists and see if they saw the American crisis coming. But having begun with Hawthorne, it was somewhere roughly around the sixth short story about a scientist or magician with an experiment which went awry for his subjects that he realized this would be a long summer indeed if he pursued this road. Which is not to say that The Scarlett Letter and Young Goodman Brown weren't transcendently good, but everything else was... well, the sooner I stop thinking about Hawthorne the better. Rather than focus on those things and people we dislike or hate, it's a much better time to focus on those things we love.
We should all probably beware of any concept which wreaks of the grand plan, the magnum opus, the giant work or concept that will explain the world and justify our existence. We defy augury, and the world is much too large to be understood except within the parameters of our little corners within it. Without pragmatic concessions to feasibility, the still shorter days of our lives will grow very long indeed.
So with that said, here's Evan's grand theory of cinematic greatness:
There are four kings on which all quality in the movies are based. Their movies the yardstick by which all other directors are measured, and they were all roughly contemporary with each other, each of which embody the four most important, longest, most fruitful and vital traditions in film. From the beginning to the present day, there are three countries whose proliferation of great movies have been pretty much unceasing from the early 1900s to right now: the US obviously, but also France and Japan. Each of them has a grand master at the height of movies' importance to the world which exemplify the greatness of movies in their classical period - the mid 30s to the early 60s, when, like all classical periods, the movies were in thrall to formal and emotional balance. Every expression was balanced by its opposite - tragedy with comedy, sublimity with vulgarity, compassion with contempt.
But still more important than the emotional balance of these directors' films was the particular focus. The focus was human beings; their frustrations, their triumphs, their dignity and their indignities. What makes a society live on is the belief that life of human beings matters above all else - once we believe that, then the world is worth fighting on against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It may be a lie that human dignity matters at all, but if we want to survive at all, we have to convince ourselves that it does. Before them were the Baroque stylistic experiments of silent film directors which seemed to communicate to us in the language of dreams: Fritz Lang, FW Murnau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Wiene, Victor Sjostrom, and yes, Griffith too, and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. After these directors were the romantic generations with yearnings to the transcend our humdrum realities, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa, Bergman and Fellini, Godard and Truffaut, Scorsese and Spielberg, David Lynch and Oliver Stone. Directors whose movies electrified and stimulated audiences to the point that the yearning to break free from the confines of reality became a narcotic.
But in between them was a very different, more grounded and settled, conception of art and movies, indicative of a society that, whether correctly or not, believed in itself - that its problems could be changed with proper application, and that there was little enough which needed to change that even if they weren't, it would ultimately turn out alright. This approach didn't necessarily make for the best lives for its citizens, but it did provide future generations with still greater prosperity, prosperity enough that, in some ways at least, it turned their successor generations to various forms of decadence.
This still greater prosperity could be found in art as well as life. Moreso than the experimentalism of silent film, which seem like postcards from a completely different universe, we are still dining out on the conceptions of movies that were codified from the mid 30s to the early 60s.
In America, the codifying figure was, of course, Orson Welles - I sometimes think I should call this podcast The Orson Welles Worship Factory, even though I've barely discussed Welles in any detail.