I got an e-mail from a reader apropos of my posting on Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. He likes Crimes and Misdemeanors, and thinks that this film and a couple of others–I can’t remember which ones, alas–justify calling Allen a major filmmaker. I replied:
Very interesting. Do you really think that “two or three movies” are enough to put you on the top of the list? I can see arguing that “Citizen Kane,” “Touch of Evil” and “Chimes at Midnight” are three of the greatest movies ever made, but do they add up to a bonafide oeuvre? How many points does it take to make a curve? I don’t know–I’m asking.
To which he replied:
I come from mathematics on this issue. There is a saying, which I will quote and then explain: “You judge a mathematician in the L-infinity norm, not the L1 norm”.
— A norm is a measurement of the size of a function, “size” suitably interpreted.
— L-1 norm of a function is like an average value (many details omitted)
— L-infinity norm is like the maximum value of the function (many details omitted)
This is funny in a math class, believe me. One thing it means is that in the long run, productivity is not the standard for greatness. An example is Henri Lebesque, who has his definitions and theorems (and his name) in all the standard graduate textbooks for the work he did for his PhD thesis on integration and measure (which is the basis for modern analysis and
probability); that’s all he is known for, but that’s enough. Then there is Randall Jarrell’s famous remark: “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times, a dozen or two dozen times and he is great”. This is another way of saying not to look at the “collected works” but at the “selected works”.
If we were under the gun to be official we would have to settle on a cut-off count (two? twelve?) for discrete achievements (theorems, poems, movies) in a given field. And for films, I’m saying three, although my reasoning doesn’t get much better than saying, well, if it’s three then the Woodman makes the cut….
To which I replied:
I’ll take your word that it’s funny! My answer would be that there’s a difference between discovering E=MC2 (or whatever) and writing one or two good books. Ralph Ellison is not a great writer–he just wrote a great book. I do think Jarrell is absolutely right about this, but note that his numbers are a bit higher than yours. It’s fun to kick around, isn’t it?
Indeed it is, although I don’t have any definitive conclusions to share with you, other than this: you don’t have to write a whole shelfful of great books to be a great writer…but it doesn’t hurt.