The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

The one word you’ll never hear from me in a film review

with 50 comments

Let me reveal something you probably didn’t know about me. I swear. I swear quite a lot. Well I suppose it’s not a lot compared to let’s say the thugs in Attack the Block. But I swear more than you would expect from a middleclass woman of my age.

It dawned upon me only recently when colleague had brought her toddler to the job. She and I had a meeting and he was supposed to occupy himself making a drawing. However he didn’t. There was something more interesting in the room pulling his attention. That thing was me.

Every time a curse or invective – no matter how harmless – came over my lips, he looked at me triumphantly and told me bluntly that I needed to put a coin in the curse pot. Apparently they kept one at home for those occasions. The frequency of those coin claims made me realize that my language can get pretty filthy at times. (As in the case with my co-worker, it turned out. She admitted to me that the biggest donations to the curse fund came from her, not from her kids.)

Actually my cursing doesn’t bother me as much as it maybe should. At least not as much as it bothered the little boy. Words are just… words. There is no magic involved. I don’t think God will take offence because I call him out and I don’t believe there’s a devil that will come running to my assistance if I pick a word from his realms.

On the contrary I think a good cursing that is done with consideration, variation and precision can enrich your language. I’d probably swear a lot more in this blog if I wasn’t writing in a foreign language. Swearing correctly, in the right moments, choosing the appropriate word, is about the hardest thing you can do when you’re not on your home arena. It takes skill. So that’s why you don’t see a lot of f-words in my writings, even though I’m principally not against it.

But there is another word that you’ll never see in a film review at The Velvet Café. Can you guess which one? It’s the m-word. Got it? Not? OK, I’ll spell it out then.

MASTERPIECE.

The world seems to be filled with masterpieces considering how often I hear it tossed out by film fans and I suppose I’ll step on a few toes when share my dislike for it but I’ll do it anyway. Because I cringe every time I see it. It’s pompous and arrogant.

If you say: “I really love movie X; I think it’s fantastic because…”, you leave it open for someone else to say “I didn’t like it at all”, and then you can hopefully get into a constructive conversation about your likes and dislikes and get into a deeper understanding of the film.

But if you just toss on the word “masterpiece” as a label on the movie: “The Masterpiece X”, you’re making a claim of objectivity, taking for granted that there is a general consensus that this movie is outstanding. It becomes untouchable, out of reach for discussion.

The word masterpiece indicates that you’ve taken a position above everyone else’s. You’re a self appointed judge, who thanks to your superior knowledge about the film art can make verdicts and distinguish the masterpieces from the rest.

I admit that the word comes out slightly better when used by an established, respected film critic who can put some weight behind it. I still don’t like it, but when it comes from an authority at least it doesn’t sound silly as when it comes from a teenager who appoints “masterpieces” among the handful of movies he or she has seen.

If I had a pot where film bloggers had to put a coin every time they used the word “masterpiece”, I’d be rich by now.

Let’s talk about movies we love or hate. Let’s explain why we think a movie is good or bad, from our own, very subjective standpoints.

The m-word is [insert appropriate filthy word] annoying. Please drop it.

Written by Jessica

March 23, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

50 Responses

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  1. I’m pretty sure I must have used it in some reviews, usually of movies which are considered masterpieces by others. But reading your post I think the same thing should go for this, it is just a word right? Or do you descend onto the people who use it to punish them 😉 I get what you are saying, but I don’t mind people using it. It makes me want to check out said movie to find out if they are right.

    Nostra

    March 23, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    • I’m not taking myself too seriously in this post. In a draft of this post I had a sentence where I said something about this post being completely silly but in the end I decided to leave it out. It makes a more fun read if you pull things to its edge.
      I promise I won’t sent punishing thunderstorms on those who use the m-word. As long as you pay the fine in my pot…..

      Jessica

      March 23, 2012 at 7:32 pm

  2. Hehe, I’ve used the word masterpiece five times in the shade under 1200 posts on my blog, but always qualified in a sense:

    Barbarian Invasions: “This is just a masterpiece of bittersweet.”
    Ruby In The Smoke: Just referring to the fact that it was released as part of the “Masterpiece Theatre” program.
    Bachelor Mother: “so I go in and find it largely underwhelming, as a timeless masterpiece” being critical of how hearing a film is a masterpiece sets your standards unbearably high.
    Rope: “the ability to make masterpieces” referring to the potential great directors with large filmographies offer even if they often make movies I don’t like.
    Toys: “it is one of the great unappreciated masterpieces”

    On the other hand, I’ve used the f-word 5 times, the s-word about 8 times. I apparently am more chaste when writing formally than I usually am. I can make non-swearing come out absolutely filthy though.

    Bondo

    March 23, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    • I think your usage of “masterpiece” is pretty much ok since you’re qualifying it. I’m somewhat surprised at how family friendly your language seems to be. On the other hand there ARE other ways to make edgy content than just using filthy words.

      Jessica

      March 23, 2012 at 7:37 pm

  3. This comment is a masterpiece… definitely.

    Pete

    March 23, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    • I was waiting for that comment. I guess I was asking for it. 😉

      Jessica

      March 23, 2012 at 7:23 pm

  4. Man, I was really hoping the word would be “pretentious.”

    I use descriptors as my movie ratings… “Crap”, “Poor”, “Fair”, “Good”, “Very Good”, “Great”… and at the highest level, “Masterpiece.” It just means “I love this film a whole lot, like tons!” I don’t think the word has any more connotation of objective quality than any other word. Isn’t giving a film a numerical score the same thing? You’re assigning value. What about “a work of greatness”? Or on the other end, what if I say “This movie is a shitstorm”? Isn’t it understood that that’s my opinion? What is it about the word “masterpiece” that’s more offensive than any other indicator of opinion?

    martinteller

    March 23, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    • I think the biggest problem is when you say: “The masterpiece Scenes from a Marriage” rather than: “I personally consider Scenes from a Marriage a masterpiece”. It depends on how you put it. Do you take responsability for your own views or are you leaning on the word of “authorities”.

      But now that you mention it I realize that “pretentious” isn’t a very good label either. I’ve probably used it in the past, but I’ll try to refrain from it. It’s pretty pointless picking, isn’t it?

      Jessica

      March 23, 2012 at 7:25 pm

  5. What about Inglourious Basterds? That movie declares itself a masterpiece!

    Alex Thompson

    March 23, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    • I think you’re allowed to label yourself. A heartbreaking work of staggering genius falls into the same category I think.

      Jessica

      March 23, 2012 at 7:26 pm

      • Yeah, that makes sense. Both of them were tongue-in-cheek as well.

        Alex Thompson

        March 23, 2012 at 7:49 pm

        • The Inglourious Basterds bit turned out to be true, which only makes the tongue-in-cheek aspect of it more awesomely meta.

          Corey Atad

          March 24, 2012 at 8:15 am

  6. I agree…to an extent. My reason for not using it more has to do that it gets used to such a point that it’s lost all meaning for me. Much like the word “classic,” everyone seems to ready to ascribe to to everything they like that it no longer holds the special weight it originally conveyed.

    I’m not sure I’d call masterpiece an objective claim, any more than saying a film is great is an objective claim, but I think it does carry a weight to it that implies an educated and informed opinion. At least for me, if you call a film a masterpiece, I assume you’ve actually weighted it against ALL (or at least 80%) the other works of its creator. Otherwise, I hardly see how you can call it a masterpiece.

    This also speaks to the fact that I think each creator only has one masterpiece. It’s their singular crowning achievement. Not everyone agrees with that assessment, but I think there’s an elevated status to that word that insists it is referred to as a singular thing for a specific creator.

    The only time I use masterpiece now is ironically, which is a shame. Although, seriously, The Room is a Cinematic Masterpiece!

    James Blake Ewing

    March 23, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    • The Room… tbh I hadn’t heard of it before. It stands at 3,2 at IMDb so it must be pretty good, right?

      I think your take on it, that every director only is allowed to have one masterpiece, is an interesting one. It must be pretty hard to determine which movie this is in some cases when it comes to directors with a huge and evenly high quality production.

      Jessica

      March 23, 2012 at 7:42 pm

  7. And I was waiting for you to say that should you ever use the word masterpiece it would be for the excellent House series but you never did. What disappointment.

    Science Guru

    March 23, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    • It’s never “Masterpiece”.

      Sorry, just had to get that in before anyone else did!

      Alq

      March 24, 2012 at 4:08 am

    • Hehe. I don’t use the word “masterpiece” even for House. But I’ve got a week spot for him. Probably my favorite hospital series, I give you that much.

      Jessica

      March 24, 2012 at 8:42 am

  8. Luckily I rarely encounter that problem since most of the movies that I review tend to be on the opposite end of the spectrum rather than a masterpiece.

    Bubbawheat

    March 23, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    • That’s a shame. 😦
      You must be unlucky. 90 percents of the movies I watch are 4/5.

      Jessica

      March 24, 2012 at 8:43 am

  9. Yeah, guilty as charged.

    I really try to use it sparingly–in two years, I’ve probably dropped it fewer than two dozen times, and most of those in my first year. It’s an overused word, no doubt, so I am doing my part to curb its use.

    But some films almost demand it. Almost.

    movieguysteve

    March 23, 2012 at 10:09 pm

  10. Up until 2008/2009, I avoided using the word during that growing period of writing about films. There’s been a few exceptions I use the words on films that I feel very strongly about. Yet, I do avoid it.

    Largely because I don’t want to pull a Ben Lyons and make myself look like a total idiot.

    Steven Flores

    March 24, 2012 at 12:23 am

    • I had no idea who Ben Lyons was but now I looked it up at Wikipedia. And no, I wouldn’t like to be bunched with him I reckon. Even though I must admit that I never got the idea of Synecdoche NY when I saw it as it came out. I was completley clueless about it. I might want to give it a revisit one day and see if I get it on the second try.

      Jessica

      March 24, 2012 at 8:48 am

  11. I am definitely guilty of employing the word masterpiece, though I use the that more sparingly than any other word in regards to movies and part of the point of my writing is to purposely be melodramatic. If you REALLY want to get in there and discuss the nuts and bolts of a a great film I think you’re probably right. It does a disservice.

    I also find it quite interesting that you swear a lot in real life but not in your writing. I’m the exact opposite. I don’t swear A LOT in my writing, but sometimes I just like those naughty words to get my point across.

    Nick

    March 24, 2012 at 12:32 am

    • I would love to use more naughty words if I could. I just feel that I’m not very good at it. Melodrama is good for the writing. Makes for a more fun read. But I think it’s possible without the m-word.

      Jessica

      March 24, 2012 at 8:49 am

  12. Great piece. I’m realizing how much I overuse the word masterpiece.

    Dave Enkosky

    March 24, 2012 at 3:14 am

    • Thanks! So I’ve managed to talk at least one person out of the habit? That’s a great outcome from a blogpost.

      Jessica

      March 24, 2012 at 8:50 am

  13. I wonder maybe if you’re a bit sensitive to meanings from film critics. Masterpiece (in music) just means you can tell the piece was composed by a master. So if I say I think Pulp Fiction is a masterpiece, I’m admiring the creator and saying I think this is one of his best works. I wouldn’t be so afraid of language 🙂

    spinks

    March 24, 2012 at 6:31 am

    • I think the problem is that when you use it as an attribut “The masterpiece [movie name]”, you’re doing more than just expressing your own positive feelings about a certain movie. You’re implying that this is an undisputable fact. Roses are red, violets are blue and this movie IS a masterpiece. But such objectivity doesn’t exist if you ask me.

      I’m not afraid of language! But I care a lot about it and that’s why I can write an entire post about just a single word.

      Jessica

      March 24, 2012 at 8:53 am

  14. I rarely hand out the word “masterpiece”, but when I do, I mean it. Babel is one such film I’d label as such.

    Rodney Twelftree

    March 24, 2012 at 6:59 am

    • Well, the lesser you use it, the stronger impact will it have. Even though I personally won’t use it at all.
      I haven’t seen Babel I’m afraid. But I probably should check it out. I liked Biutiful a lot.

      Jessica

      March 24, 2012 at 8:55 am

  15. A) I’ve used the word a dozen times in the past two years, the last time being in July while referring to Alien. Other movies that deserve the title for me are Full Metal Jacket, one half of Michael Caine’s career, Touch of Evil, Night of the Hunter, The Earrings of Madame de… and Psycho. I also do these annoying things when I use the word as opposed to ‘near-perfect’ or as a way of referring to a movie that everyone loves but I only just really like, if that makes any sense.

    B) It’s totally ok to use the word ironically. The same thing goes for the word ‘seminal,’ which annoys me more.

    C) I try not to swear in my blog because I end up with search terms like ‘she f***** her husbands best friend in film.’

    I should really write these insightful things on my own space.

    paolocase

    March 24, 2012 at 10:12 am

    • No you shouldn’t! And there’s nothing that stops you from taking over the discussion to your place extrapolating on the topic.

      I just learned a new word thanks to your comment. I had never ever heard the word “seminal” before, so I had to look it up. I guess that’s a sign of that it’s not all that common. Good for you. Less stuff to get annoyed at!

      Jessica

      March 24, 2012 at 10:31 am

  16. […] the trend of disagreement (Try to act surprised), Jessica dedicates a whole post to a word she never uses in her writing…though I feel does deserve to be mumbled from time to […]

  17. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word for a film, but I have used the word “perfect”, which is also an impossibly high standard. But when I use that, I mean that I couldn’t see that the film had any flaws or drawbacks.

    However, I am disappointed at our current use of the term. It used to mean “the work that determines that one is a master at the craft”, and there are a number of films that do that.

    In my mind, however, there is only one film that ranks so high as to be a “masterpiece”. And I have no qualms to give it the highest praise above all other films.

    Steve Kimes

    March 24, 2012 at 5:43 pm

  18. We should combine them. Pulp Fiction is a fucking masterpiece.

    carrandas

    March 24, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    • Ewww. There’s one word in that sentence that has no right to be there. I did like the movie though, even though it’s been a long time since I watched it.

      There’s something very satisfying about watching a non-linear movie where you actually “get it”. Makes you feel smarter than you are.

      Jessica

      March 25, 2012 at 9:20 am

      • Pulp Fiction is known for its excessive use of the “fuck” word.

        Hey, I actually found a wikipedia page! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_films_that_most_frequently_use_the_word_%22fuck%22

        I no longer hear it as a swear word. I watched Casino two months ago and I’m surprised to hear that they use the fuck word 2.32x a minute.

        carrandas

        March 26, 2012 at 1:25 pm

        • That’s a fascinating list! And no wonder we stop hearing it after a while. At least I filter it out. I haven’t watched all that many of the films on the list, but as of the ones I’ve watched I really can’t remember the word being said that many times.

          Jessica

          March 26, 2012 at 7:13 pm

  19. There are many words that anger me to read in a review (the biggest one is “pretentious,” which makes me want to strangle a small animal every time I hear it), and masterpiece is one, though I can’t say too much because I have used it many times. Need to cut back.

    Also, if I may ask, what’s the Swedish equivalent of “fuck”? I’d love to have a word to say every now and again that means the same thing but doesn’t get me slapped or scolded.

    Tyler

    March 25, 2012 at 8:27 am

    • Again: translating curses is about the hardest thing you can do. We don’t use sexual intercourses a lot for swearing. There are some words from that area too, but I think more of our filthy words come from the religious area. It depends a bit on the context, but if you ask me for a general translation for the exclamation “fuck”, I would probably go for “fan”. This is pronounced with a long “a”, lika in “barn” and is a nickname for the devil. If you use the word to emphasise something, such as “he is fucking good”, I’d translate it with “djävligt”, which means “devilish”. “Fuck off” I’d translate like “Dra åt helvete”, which means “Go to hell”. But I could probably write an entire essay just about this little word. And I’m sure I don’t know all the meanings of “fuck”. It seems like you can use it in many different ways.

      Jessica

      March 25, 2012 at 9:27 am

  20. Kinda browsed the comments. I think masterpiece is taking a bit of a similar turn to ‘epic’ in gaming, where it’s slowly getting thrown out more and more until it’s going to become the next ‘really neat!’ phrase.

    Now for more silly happy fun time thoughts! Whenever I read ‘masterpiece’ it makes me think of ‘monsterpiece theater’ with cookie monster. Link to one of these skiiits here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSiVZ524yW4

    I completely trust Alistair Cookie’s opinion. *nom nom nom* just not around my cookies *nom nom nom*

    Holly "Digit" Dotson

    March 26, 2012 at 9:00 am

    • Aww… cookie moster! That’s… epic! 🙂

      Jessica

      March 26, 2012 at 10:27 am

    • And for gaming “next-gen” is another of those keywords.

      carrandas

      March 26, 2012 at 7:34 pm

      • Also true. or HD graphics! on…things that don’t even support HD! Yaaaay!

        Holly "Digit" Dotson

        March 26, 2012 at 10:40 pm

  21. […] skådespelarinsatser och spännande historier. Och nej, jag skulle inte tveka att använda ordet ”mästerverk” i det här sammanhanget. Flera gånger […]

  22. […] written an entire blog post about my hatred for this word. In short: I think it’s arrogant and […]


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