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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Who is the greater filmmaker - Martin Scorcese or Woody Allen?

Discuss. You should describe any philosophical difficulties that you see with the words "greater", "greatness", and their cognates.


Cary Lenehan said...

'Great' is a word that I have difficulty with. What makes something great? Sometimes it is merely largeness or power (eg Great Britain - formerly), sometimes it is a certain quality (but then surely 'better' would be a better term to use) and sometimes it is just a general term of approval (eg that is great).

As for the film makers mentioned, is one greater because they have produced more work? They work within different sets of tropes. Can they be realistically compared at all? Perhaps the best that can be said is that they are both great filmakers (using the term as a general term of approval).

Unknown said...

Trick question. The answer is Stanley Kubrick.

Jerry Coyne said...

Scorsese by far. Woody Allen made one great movie, Annie Hall, a couple of ok ones, and the rest are dreck. Scorsese made at least one great movie (Goodfellas) and a couple of almost-great movies (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Departed) and lots of very good movies (Casino, Shutter Island, etc.)

Svlad Cjelli said...

Obviously "great" relates to the levels of certain parameters and scales to be decided by context, convention, agreement, et.c.

Spencer Troxell said...

Woody Allen (by far). He has made his share of bad movies (when you put out one every year you are bound to have a few duds) but the great ones far outweigh the duds. Annie Hall. Manhattan. Hannah and Her Sistes, Crimes and misdemeanors...he's the greatest moralist we have. I would argue that many of his recent movies are just as good, if not better than his earlier ones. Matchpoint, Cassandra's dream, Midnight In Paris, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona are all great, and his mature philosophy is compelling. Gangs of New York and the Departed are probably in my top twenty though. But Scorsese can't touch Woody.

Bruce Gorton said...

I never really enjoyed Woody Allan's movies, there was too much Woody Allan in them, not enough movie.

Put me down for Scorsese.

Russell Blackford said...

I'd like to see some more debate on this. You probably know where it's leading, but it's an interesting debate whether we just look at the merits of the two filmakers or we start trying to work out the meaning of the word "great".

Marshall said...

I completely agree with Dr. Coyne on this one. Except for Manhattan, because I am a sucker for Mariel Hemmingway. And what about the Orgasmatron schtick? Neurotic Jewish comedians is a tough bracket, and I don't see Woody as a standout. I think maybe Mort Sahl.

"Greatness" of authors must have something to do with influence and longevity and it's too early for a Hall of Fame nomination for any director. Shakespeare was great. And while 'greatness' can be used at least ironically, 'greater' seems quixotic. (Cervantes was great.)

Spencer Troxell said...

In terms of movie reviews, I go with the Ebert standard of 'did this movie do what it was trying to do as best it could' to put parameters on greatness.

So a person really could say 'this action movie is a better action movie than that romantic movie is a romantic movie, and thus this action movie is a better movie than that romantic movie'. In that sense, Scorsese and Woody are probably at a draw, because they both do what they do very well.

And then there's an element of art that will always be subjective. Woody resonates with me. I would much prefer to watch a Woody Allen movie when I'm sick, happy, sad, etc., than I would a Scorsese film.

In the end, that subjective element is really the thing that probably tips the scale the most.

Jamie said...

I thought that Cary (post #1) pretty much covered the issue of the meaning of 'great'. But as I thought about it I would add that 'great' implies more than ordinary portions of multiple desirable qualities. If something is merely large, we simply call lit large. But if it is large and powerful or large and strong or some such combination (wealthy and kind… especially competent and well known and attractive) then great may apply. I remember my father telling me that Cecil Rhodes was a 'great man.' I argued that he had some very unattractive qualities having essentially swindled native Africans out of their mineral resources. In the end I had to agree that it was not wrong to call him great, as great does not entail 'good,' though it may imply it.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I don't think there's any need to discuss the meaning of the word "great" in order to talk about which filmmaker is greater. Unless you don't speak English, you have an intuitive-enough understanding of what the word means. But we could benefit from a discussion of possible criteria for greatness.

My inclination is to look at the following:

1. how much they produced;
2. how influential it has been (in various context, including cinema, politics and culture);
3. how positively we can evaluate that influence;
4. how high their films standards of artistic achievement are;
5. how well they satisfy their own standards.

On that basis, I'm leaning pretty heavily towards Woody Allen.

Some of my favorite Allen and Scorsese films haven't been mentioned. For Scorsese: Cape Fear. For Woody Allen: Another Woman, Husbands and Wives, Deconstructing Harry, Interiors, Bullets Over Broadway, September, What's Up Tiger Lily?, Sweet And Lowdown, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex . . . I haven't seen Zelig, Sleepers, Love and Death, Purple Rose of Cairo and a number of other earlier Allen films in a long time, but I remember thinking highly of them. Allen's made a lot of bad movies since the 90s, but if you look at what he did from 1966 to 1999, it's phenomenal.

Scorsese has done a lot of great work, too. He has a great sense of style, but he has not established a unique style of his own, or a unique voice. Many of his films have been very influential, but more I think because of the performances he's gotten from his actors than because of any unique mark he's made on cinema. Not that he hasn't contributed to the greatness of his films. I don't want to make my case against him too strong. But I don't think he's made the mark that Allen has.

Allen's significance is not what a lot of people usually think it is: the neurotic, middle-aged Jewish male. It's rather (1) the breaking of the fourth wall and (2) the realistic (and usually comedic) portrayal of deep philosophical and psychological conflicts through everyday human behavior and relationships, especially dialogue.

March Hare said...

Film critic: Without a doubt Allen. Scorsese may make enjoyable films that occasionally attain the status of classic, but Woody makes art. Even when his films don't quite work you can see the depth and layers and meaning beyond what is on the screen, that is what makes him great.

Movie producer: Scorsese, hands down. Allen has his audience and makes great films but when it comes down to it Scorsese makes money.

Public: Scorsese makes films we want to see. He makes films that we still quote decades after they were made ("you lookin' at me?" "Funny how? Funny like a clown?") whereas Allen's films are simply amusing.

Film buff: Scorsese is great, but Allen is greater. Allen's films break with tradition, they speak to me and reference things that the public may not see but add depth and longevity to his work.

Roman Polanski: Woody Allen.

Actors: Scorsese is marvellous but Allen makes films that sate my artistic hunger and he is the great director I want to work for.

Awards: Scorsese has 3 films in the AFI's top 100 American movies and 1 Oscar, Allen has 2 Oscars (as director) and has more screenwriting nominations than anyone else. This swings it in Allen's favour as a fimmaker (rather than simply director.)

Me: I have to go with Scorsese. I looked through the films I own and Scorsese has the greatest number of films and are the most watched.