In the September 2006 issue of Film Comment, writer-director-critic Paul Schrader wrote a 16-page history/defense of film canons that ended with a proposed film canon of his own. The films Schrader selected were based on seven criteria: Beauty, Strangeness, Unity of form and subject matter, Tradition, Repeatability, Viewer engagement, and Morality.
For Schrader, this was an admittedly-elitist list made for the purpose of selecting the greatest films ever made. It was, as he wrote, an effort “to counter the proliferation of popularity-driven lists” and announce, without qualifiers or ideological handicaps, a firm position that attempted to reclaim an objective view of film as art.
Whether Schrader’s thinking is sound, whether he succeeds in putting that thinking into action, and whether his film choices are correct were issues debated after the magazine came out, and many of the responses are good reading; however, that’s not what this article is about. Instead, I’m interested in a deliberate misinterpretation of his motive: I want to understand a “popularity-driven list” as Schrader didn’t mean it, and, in doing so, propose the benefits of a type of popularity-driven film canon (a backhanded canon!) specifically for people who want to both appreciate cinema and participate in the online discussion of films that takes place on personal blogs, through email, and on websites such as this one. If Schrader aimed for the greatest films, I’m aiming at the most-practical ones.
My basic premise is, like with all canons, simple: I believe that not all films are made equal—
But, how is one film more practical than another?
The first way is directly related to a film’s popularity. In a few words: some films have had more written about them than others. By viewing these “popular” films you gain access to more material, knowledge, and potential discussions than if you watch the “unpopular” films that have had less written about them. A concrete example:
Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker are two films almost-generally regarded as masterpieces. I’ve seen both, I like both. However, when I type “Citizen Kane” + Welles into a search on Google Scholar, I get 2,530 hits; whereas if I search Stalker + Tarkovsky, I get only 236. The same is true when I look for the same combination of terms using Google’s blog search: Kane yields 17,723 blog posts, Stalker 3,742.
Therefore, while I don’t conclude that Citizen Kane is a better film (either because it’s more popular or because it’s more beautiful, stranger, etc.) than Stalker, I do conclude that it’s the more practical film to watch. Doing so will let you engage in more conversations and give you access to a wider range of reading and interpretation than if you watch Stalker.
Without claiming that films don’t have value in themselves and that you’re not enriched simply by watching a film, part of the fun of being a film nerd is participating in the film community (thank you, Internet!) by reading, writing, sharing, interacting. Discovery and re-discovery are vital for the community, but explorers, by definition, venture into the unknown—and usually either by themselves or in small groups (some are never heard from again). Their efforts often provide rewards, but the lifeblood of the community remains in the Old World, where life goes on as usual and according to tradition. Any treasure or raw materials found in the New World are exploited for the benefit of the Old. Though they may eventually change that community, that’s never the point. And, if the explorer finds riches that can’t be brought back, only a few (say, those who can attend film festivals) prosper while the rest of the population is left [with]out: reading letters describing glories that they’ll never see. For the explorer, meanwhile, there’s the danger of getting lost or going Native. Not uncommon are stories of explorers abandoning their homelands and languages for the allure of an exotic life with one or another of the many mysterious tribes. Although that makes them less explorers than converts. There’s also the simple fact that a community with too many explorers falls apart because no one’s around to grow the food, run the economy, or organize the army. But, I digress…
A second way in which one film can be more practical than another is if it embodies more than its own, one-film self. For example, film writing often revolves around groupings of films categorized as national cinemas, genres, film movements, or (as the name of this site suggests) works by an individual filmmaker. If a single film illustrates the thematic/cinematic interests of a nation, the conventions of a genre, the importance or uniqueness of a film movement, or the style of an individual filmmaker, then watching it will benefit you more than watching a film that represents only itself. Furthermore, some films—whether they’re the best examples of one of these groupings or not—have, through repeated use, become cultural touchstones of national cinemas, film movements, and so on. Hence, to put both of these ideas together, we get something like:
If you watch Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, you’re seeing not only one film, but also a good example of an entire movement (French New Wave); plus, chances are that if you ever read anything about the French New Wave, Breathless will be used as a reference—which you will subsequently understand. There may be better or more-enjoyable Godard/New Wave films, but they won’t be as practical.
The same is true for films that are commonly-used to illustrate concepts, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin as an example of editing techniques. David Cook’s great film history A History of Narrative Film grants more time-and-space to Eisenstein and Potemkin than, for instance, it does to Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother—another Soviet film from the same period that’s also noteworthy as an example of many of the same techniques. Once again, the issue becomes not which film is better, or even necessarily better-edited, but which one gives you more of the proverbial bang for your buck. I say it’s Potemkin rather than Mother because Eisenstein’s film is the more commonly-traded currency.
There are, of course, many more reasons while one film could be more practical than another, but I don’t want to belabour the point, which, simply enough, is that some films are more practical than others if your goal is to learn about cinema, understand cinema, and participate in a discussion about cinema. Moreover, these films are granted this special status largely by their popularity (or use) within the film community. In other words: dismissing Citizen Kane for being a bad film or praising Stalker for being a good one changes little. Watching the practical films still gets you acquainted with the community’s rules and references, which is always to your benefit—even if your eventual goal is the subversion or destruction of the established system. Speak the language of your friends and your enemies.
If this all seems a bit ritualistic, it probably is. But: when in Rome, do as the Romans do. At least in the beginning, and at least to a small degree. Not only will you lessen your chances of being thrown to the lions or being blamed for city-wide fires, but you may end up meeting some interesting pagans and finding a good film or two. The wisdom of the ancients, after all, is still wisdom. St. Augustine was a neo-Platonist.
Load the canons.