There are many cinematic debates that have raged on for years. These debates provide two options–two icons or two tremendous films–that are strikingly similar, and yet still distinct from one another. Almost universally, they’re presented in black and white. As the title suggests, there can be only one option chosen as a favorite. There’s no room for gray area. I find that notion horribly misguided. I can love pizza and beer equally, for instance. Having said that, the debates are still a whole lot of fun and they’ve made me try to learn more about the other side far more than I would have without the debates. Here are some of my favorite debates, and my verdict.
Clint Eastwood or John Wayne
America has given the world the two giants of the Western genre. The first, John Wayne, dominated the silver screen as an icon for over three decades. Producers and studios could bank on his name, his brand, luring in large audiences. He made his hay with a distinctive walk, a penchant for testosterone-filled one-liners, and a do-right attitude. Late in Wayne’s run of dominance, a new contender emerged when Clint Eastwood made the jump from television to the big screen. Like Wayne before him, Eastwood was dripping with testosterone. But that’s where the similarities end. He spoke to a new generation. The lines of morality with Eastwood’s characters were blurred. His one-liners were far more infrequent and were often dwarfed by his character’s brutality. He was mostly silent, with an air of mystery surrounding him. The other night, I was talking to my best friend about the difference between the two. “John Wayne”, he said, “is like Luke Skywalker. And Eastwood is Han Solo.” I thought it was a very apt description. I’ve always been a Han Solo guy, myself.
The Writer’s Verdict: Clint Eastwood
Star Wars or Lord of the Rings
Speaking of Han Solo, fans of the fantasy and science fiction genres have debated the merits of the Star Wars trilogy vis-à-vis Lord of the Rings for almost a decade now, ever since Peter Jackson completed his award-winning trilogy. The Lord of the Rings films drew upon extraordinarily deep source material- J.R.R. Tolkien’s series of books. Jackson crammed a tremendous amount of the books into the films, and decorated them appropriately with outstanding special effects and grand cinematography. By the time it was completed, the finale had won an Oscar for Best Picture and the films had a legion of devoted fans. Star Wars came first, of course, amassing its own legion of fans decades prior. George Lucas’ trilogy was revolutionary in the film industry, opening up special effects that would alter the path of cinema. The story itself was as classic as it could be, right out of Joseph Campbell’s studies of hero mythology. And Lucas created a brilliant mash-up that combined science fiction with Westerns and samurai films.
The Writer’s Verdict: My heart says Star Wars, but my head says Lord of the Rings
Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin
This debate was brought to the forefront in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003). Both men were incredible icons of silent comedy. Chaplin was “The Tramp”, persistently down on his luck. He was an unmistakeable character, with a derby hat, a cane, a toothbrush mustache, and bowlegged gait. Chaplin was a performer in every sense of the word, capable of using his body nimbly for humor. His films were lovable and saccharine sweet. Keaton, on the other hand, was a pure athlete, twisting and contorting his body in ways that only an athlete could. He was a daredevil, willing to literally risk life and limb in the interest of getting laughs. Like Chaplin, he had a highly-recognizable character, possessing a porkpie hat and a stone face that never changed expression–to much comedic effect–regardless of the chaos swirling around him. His films lacked the sugary sweetness of Chaplin’s films… and that’s exactly why Keaton’s comedy enjoyed a resurgence in the mid-to-late 20th century. I hate to do this because this is the most gray of gray areas. Anyone who loves cinema really should love and appreciate both of these comedians. I would hate for my endorsement to come off as a knock against the other comedian in any way. But…
The Writer’s Verdict: Buster Keaton
Goodfellas (1990) or The Godfather (1972)
If you ask the overwhelming majority of cinephiles about the gangster genre, they will begin by discussing either The Godfather or Goodfellas. They’re both tremendous crime epics. The Godfather came just as moviegoers were embracing the anti-hero. And anti-heroes were all over the place in The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola’s saga about the Corleone family glorified villainy, and blurred the lines of morality in a really beautiful way. It used the father-son dynamic as a right jab and a slew of memorable scenes and quotes as a left hook. The film embraced the grit and the darkness of the streets of New York, a feat that had rarely been done, if ever. At the end, filmgoers were left applauding a film that wound up ranked #2 on the AFI Top 100 list. Eighteen years later, a New York native–Martin Scorsese–would take Nick Pileggi’s non-fiction book, Wiseguy, and spin it into gangster film gold. Scorsese’s film turned the notion of the anti-hero on its head. The film’s protagonist (Henry Hill) rises to the top, just as you’d expect from the template forged by films like The Godfather. But it breaks from the template when Hill falls from grace. It’s fun to think of the anti-hero getting away, but it doesn’t happen that way in the real world. Scorsese put his own personal imprint on the film, as the portrayal of the streets of New York during Henry Hill’s childhood mirrored Scorsese’s own childhood experience. And in keeping with the real world aesthetic, in an homage to Italian neo-realism, Scorsese’s cast was generously peppered with non-actors from the neighborhood.
The Writer’s Verdict: Goodfellas
Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut
The French New Wave revolutionized cinema, gripping established standards by the collar and shaking them to their core. There were many filmmakers who took part in the revolution, but none were as successful or as celebrated as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. It was Truffaut’s essay, A Certain Tendency in French Cinema, that really got the ball rolling. Truffaut delighted in breaking accepted filmmaking practices–spliced frames creating a disjointed feel for the viewer, long tracking shots, jump cuts, and post-modern films about filmmaking. And it was all so fantastically subtle, blended seamlessly into the actual story. Godard, on the other hand, embraced French New Wave techniques like none other. He was extremely bold in the ways that he demolished accepted filmmaking practices, lacking any subtlety in the exercise. His characters would destroy the fourth wall; his camera would take on impossibly long tracking shots; current events and political statements were shoehorned into his films.
The Writer’s Verdict: François Truffaut
Robert Deniro or Al Pacino
It’s downright eerie how similar the careers of Deniro and Pacino have been. Both used Godfather films as springboards to huge careers. Both made their name in crime dramas, usually revolving around New York. Both were favorites of prominent directors in the 1970s and 80s. Both continued their run of crime dramas into the 1990s before turning to lighter fare in the 2000s, a turn that has been excruciating for fans of both actors. Deniro’s filmography includes a heaping helping of Scorsese films and plenty of other successes. Most notable are Raging Bull (1980), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Goodfellas (1990), Taxi Driver (1976), and The Deer Hunter (1978). Pacino’s list is anchored by all three Godfather films, Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Scarface (1983), Donnie Brasco (1997), and The Devil’s Advocate (1997).
The Writer’s Verdict: I’d love to say Pacino, but how can you argue with that incredible list of Deniro films? Deniro gets the nod.
Samurai or Kung Fu
As foreign films washed onto American shores in the 1950s, the US was treated to samurai films for the first time. It wasn’t until the early 1970s, thanks to Bruce Lee, that kung fu made a splash. Samurai films, a Japanese creation, run parallel to the American Western, with characters that are often loners, outsiders with emotional scars. They were violent for their era. The protagonists followed a code of honor, and plots often revolved around the internal struggle of individuality battling against the code. The sword fights were wonderfully choreographed, and the heroes were tailor-made for moviegoers with a rebellious streak. Kung fu films, a Chinese creation, ditched the swords, but amplified many of those same themes. The battle scenes border on ballet. Like samurai films, there is action, but it’s stronger in the kung fu genre. They differ in that there’s less plot development in the kung fu genre.
The Writer’s Verdict: Samurai
No Country for Old Men (2007) or There Will be Blood (2007)
This particular debate is obviously a more recent creation. I can’t think of a year in my lifetime that has had two films both that deserved a Best Picture Oscar as much as this duo. And yet, there it was in 2007 with both of these films going head to head for the honor. No Country was a departure for the Coens on at least a few levels. Their typical dark comedy was still present, but took a back seat to loads of tension and intrigue. On the other side of the coin was P.T. Anderson’s There Will be Blood. Anderson’s tale of a greedy, power-mad oil man had social timeliness (it was the Bush era, after all). The film echoed classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey with a gripping, yet dialogue-free, opening sequence. And it worked as a tremendous parable for the bloody battle for the conscience of America between religion and business in the early 20th century.
The Writer’s Verdict: There Will be Blood (with full acknowledgement that it’s a shame that both couldn’t be awarded an Oscar)