Sunday, December 03, 2006

Melting down the canon

I realize I’m a little late to the party with this, but having recently re-read Paul Schrader’s piece on cinematic canons in the Sept/Oct issue of FILM COMMENT, I’ve got to say that I was left with a lot of questions. The biggest, in my mind, was “what purpose does a canon serve in our cinematic culture?” Personally, I think Schrader overestimates its importance. I believe that the primary reason for a canon is educational- if one wishes to build a foundation of cinematic knowledge and experience, a firm foundation is necessary. Thinking back to my school days in the D.A.R.E. program, I recall the phrase “gateway drugs,” used to describe alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, the use of which presumably could lead to the taking of harder drugs. Similarly, a filmic canon would serve as a list of “gateway movies.”

But to be honest, once you’ve seen the canonical movies, do you still need the canon? Honestly, I don’t think so, especially in our current critical climate. Many have bemoaned the decline of the critical establishment following the rise of the blogosphere, but one happy side effect of this has been a greater diversity in the types of films that can be labeled “great.” This is perhaps the most glaring way in which Schrader reveals himself to be a critical fuddy-duddy. Naturally, I don’t expect a cinematic canon to overlook CITIZEN KANE or RULES OF THE GAME, but looking at the genre offerings on the list illuminates how little Schrader cares about the full spectrum of great cinema.

Out of sixty films on the list, five are Westerns, and musicals are also well-represented. However, important though these are to film history, they’re all fairly safe fallbacks- all three genres are well past their prime, notable in today’s cinematic landscape not so much by modern-day popularity as by the long shadows they cast. In the past decade or so, both Westerns and musicals have experienced a resurgence of sorts, but whereas the classic offerings in these genres were intended first and foremost as populist entertainments, today they’re seen as specialty fare, for the purpose of garnering Oscar™ attention.

But to cite a counter-example, horror (a genre that’s as commercial viable as ever) has no place in Schrader’s canon. Part of this is no doubt due to the author limiting himself to one film per filmmaker, or else PSYCHO might have found a place on the list. The fact remains that Schrader proudly proclaims his goal of keeping his canon “highbrow”- a dubious claim for a list that includes zero experimental or documentary works- and a scruffy genre like horror has no place among the likes of A PLACE IN THE SUN (perhaps the most glaringly out-of-place “classic” on the list, a film I’ve never been able to watch more than half an hour of before stopping). Personally, I can’t fathom trying to acquaint someone with classic cinema without directing him toward the hallucinatory imagery of FREAKS, the sly subversiveness of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, or even the gory satire of DAWN OF THE DEAD.

Perhaps the issue here isn’t one of ‘brows at all, but rather Schrader’s stressing of the director above all else. Naturally, when compiling a list of this nature, all of the greatest filmmakers should be represented. But concentrating one’s attention on the directors of the films rather than the works themselves tends to lead to great films by less-than-legendary filmmakers getting overlooked. There are a few exceptions on the list, notably SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, which tends to be singled out for Ernest Lehman’s screenplay and the tart performances, but for the most part auteurism has won the day. In particular, many of the great comedies in the cinematic medium (silent masters notwithstanding) have succeeded as much due to performance and writing as direction. So where are Fields and the Marx brothers? If nothing else, one’s cinematic development would no doubt be a dreary one without these guys to help brighten the way.

Similarly, by limiting his canon to one film per director, Schrader begs the question of how he selects which of the director’s works is the most canonical. In the essay, he somewhat long-windedly explains his criteria for the list- beauty, strangeness, morality et al- but I can’t for the life of me see how he uses these criteria in practice. Perhaps the lack of writing on the films themselves is to blame here. But when I was recently making a failed attempt at creating my own list along these lines, I found myself faced with the same problem.

With some filmmakers it’s easy- not many would argue with CITIZEN KANE being the most feted and influential work of Welles’ career, for example- but some of the great filmmakers have created such a uniformly excellent body of work that boiling it down to one is a formidable task indeed. For example, when looking at the career of Ingmar Bergman, how does one select the most “canonical?” So many possibilities- PERSONA may come closest to summing up Bergman’s greatness as a filmmaker, but THE SEVENTH SEAL has been the most culturally-pervasive and arguably the most influential. And those are just two films in a career that has produced dozens of works.

Another issue I have with the list is Schrader’s insistence on ranking the films in order of preference. How does it benefit the readers of the list to tell us that one thinks a certain canonical film is greater than another? If a film is deserving of its place in the canon, placing it on the list should be enough (also, Chaplin at #3 and Keaton at #60? What gives?). In my opinion, any ranking (or if I was doing it, grouping) that is done of canonical films should be done for reasons of accessibility rather than preference. You won’t get any argument from me that both John Ford and Andrei Tarkovsky belong in the cinematic pantheon, but if I was going to make a list of “canonical” films for a newcomer to film history, I’d try to make damn clear that he should probably take on Ford before he tries Tarkovsky.

But perhaps the biggest issue I have with Schrader’s compiling of a canon is that, at the end of the day, it’s a unilateral act. Yes, many of the titles on his list are fairly widely accepted as being significant works of the cinema, but a number of them are not. Of the most recent entries on his list, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE is probably the only one that has been widely acknowledged as a timeless work by the critical cognoscenti. The others- MOTHER AND SON, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, TALK TO HER- are all good-to-great films, but what exactly makes them more worthy of inclusion than other great modern-day works like THE NEW WORLD, DOGVILLE, or THE SON?

Schrader doesn’t take time to say. He takes roughly fifteen pages justifying the need for a canon but can’t be bothered to comment on the films themselves, much less his reasons for including them. As a result, the list feels less like an attempt at creating a definitive working canon than a gussied-up list of personal favorites- hell, PERFORMANCE is great, but canonical? Really?- under the guise of supposed objectivity. For all its faults, the SIGHT AND SOUND poll is a much more useful snapshot of the films that, in the opinion of those in the know, represent the greatest and most important works in cinematic history.

By comparison, Schrader’s list is woefully inadequate in this and most any other respect. If he wanted to stir up discussion, he’s succeeded, but if the purpose of a canon is to define films that are above debate, then he’s failed miserably.

For those readers who haven’t seen Schrader’s list, here it is. The boldfaced titles are films I’ve seen, and the italicized ones represent films that are in my personal greatest-films list. I wouldn’t presume to call mine a canon, by the way.

1. Rules of the Game (Renoir, 1939)
2. Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
3. City Lights (Chaplin, 1931)
4. Pickpocket (Bresson, 1959)
5. Metropolis (Lang, 1925)
6. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
7. Orpheus (Cocteau, 1949)

8. Masculine-Feminine (Godard, 1965)
9. Persona (Bergman, 1966)
10. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
11. Sunrise (Murnau, 1927)

12. The Searchers (Ford, 1956)
13. The Lady Eve (Sturges, 1941)
14. The Conformist (Bertolucci, 1970)
15. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)
16. The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)
17. In the Mood for Love (Wong, 2000)
18. The Third Man (Reed, 1949)
19. Performance (Roeg/Cammell, 1970)
20. La Notte (Antonioni, 1961)

21. Mother and Son (Sokurov, 1997)
22. The Leopard (Visconti, 1963)
23. The Dead (Huston, 1987)
24. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
25. Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, 1961)
26. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)
27. Jules and Jim (Truffaut, 1961)
28. The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969)
29. All That Jazz (Fosse, 1979)
30. The Life of Oharu (Mizoguchi, 1952)
31. High and Low (Kurosawa, 1963)
32. Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick, 1957)

33. That Obscure Object of Desire (Buñuel, 1977)
34. An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951)
35. The Battle of Algiers (Pontocorvo, 1965)
36. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)
37. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, 1974)
38. Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
39. Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen, 1989)
40. The Big Lebowski (Coen, 1998)

41. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, 1948)
42. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, 1952)
43. Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)
44. The Crowd (Vidor, 1928)
45. Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950)
46. Talk to Her (Almodovar, 2002)
47. Shanghai Express (Sternberg, 1932)
48. Letter From An Unknown Woman (Ophuls, 1948)
49. Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone, 1969)
50. Salvatore Giuliano (Rosi, 1962)
51. Nostalghia (Tarkovsky, 1983)
52. Seven Men From Now (Boetticher, 1956)
53. Claire’s Knee (Rohmer, 1970)
54. Earth (Dovzhenko, 1930)
55. Gun Crazy (Lewis, 1949)
56. Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)
57. Children of Paradise (Carne, 1945)

58. The Naked Spur (Mann, 1953)
59. A Place in the Sun (Stevens, 1951)
60. The General (Keaton/Bruckman, 1927)

In addition, here are a few links to the FILM COMMENT site that deal with reactions to Schrader’s piece, including results of a poll about great filmmakers who didn’t make the cut, plus Schrader’s reponse to the haters.


Anonymous said...
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Robert said...

I don't know about shoes but I was also disappointed Schrader didn't explain why each of his canonic films deserved their status. He complains about Jonathan Rosenbaum's Essential Cinema lacking criteria for inclusion but then he spends all his time defining his criteria in the abstract but not how they applied to his list.

I also like your idea of ranking by accessibility.

Robert Gable

Jason_Alley said...

Duuuuuuuuuude. Update this mofo! And check your e-mail.