Three Great Scenes
“Howard Hawks is the best director of the 20th century” is a hill that I’ve always been quite content to die on. The director made quite a few of my favorite films, from His Girl Friday to Bringing Up Baby to Rio Bravo. But what I admire even more is how seamlessly he skipped from genre to genre. In one career, he found equal success in romantic comedies, film noir, westerns, and science fiction. With so much pressure placed on artists to specialize, here was somebody whose specialty was simply “film.”
I’ve talked about this before, but over the weekend I fell down an Internet rabbit hole reading about this guy. I’ve always liked his movies, but I realized that I knew an embarrassingly small amount about his actual life. He was very much my kind of artist, doing things quickly and not having any delusions about the importance of his work. He realized that he was producing an entertainment product, not changing the world, but focused his life on making the best possible entertainment products.
One thing I particularly liked, though, was his perspective on what makes a great movie. To work in as many genres as he did with as much success as he enjoyed, you have to employ a very elastic philosophy. And I learned that he defined a successful film as “three great scenes and no bad ones.”
That’s it. You have to have three fantastic moments that everybody remembers, and nothing else can be bad enough to distract from those. It’s so simple, but it makes perfect sense. How many films have more than three scenes that REALLY stick out? Maybe The Godfather and The Big Lebowski, but that’s not exactly a bar we can set for all of cinema.
As I finish up my fine arts degree, I’ve learned so many insanely complex theories about what makes art good or bad. And quite a few of them are brilliant, but I’m not sure if they’re better than “three great scenes and no bad ones.” The idea of making a movie is so intimidating, but when you reduce it to that, it seems like something that anyone can do. Obviously a great scene is a big accomplishment, and there are plenty of bad scenes out there. But it sounds a lot more manageable than writing The Shawshank Redemption from scratch.
It just goes to show that “elevating” the study of a subject does not always improve it. My hunch is that Hawks was a better filmmaker than 98% of people working today, and film students would be wise to put aside their complex books of criticism and focus on writing three great scenes. Sometimes the simplest advice is the best.