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  • Lauren Bacall, with curtain designs, in The Cobweb

I’m convinced that a great movie can be made on any subject, no matter how arcane, provided that its makers find something of greater significance in the material or else employ cinematic form to transform that subject into something interesting. One of Vincente Minnelli’s best films, The Cobweb (1955), centers on a debate over who gets to design the curtains of a posh sanitarium’s common room. In the movie’s intricate structure, the debate becomes intertwined with larger psychiatric issues—namely, the benefits of regimented treatment versus a more exploratory approach. The patients who want to design the curtains (and the doctors who encourage them to do so) see the project as an outlet for self-expression, and Minnelli presents their case sympathetically. The curtains come to reflect the his long-running theme of the redemptive power of art.

For a very different example, consider the sequence in Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Meat (1975) where beef-industry salesmen in Colorado make phone calls to potential clients. It’s a brilliant piece of social portraiture, showing men who dress and talk like cowboys even when employed in bureaucratic work. Wiseman, a great listener, is keen to their jargon and cadences—he illustrates how every office place develops its own particular music.