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Film Canons

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.

I see where you’re going with this, because scholarly canons are usually very intimidating and even discouraging. Rosenbaum’s top1000 is too big to know where to begin for the beginner, or to get the impression to advance, one film at the time. So a practical basis of references to be able to impress your cinephile friends at a dinner is helpful to popularize film discourse, indeed, like you say. But I wouldn’t call that a “canon” which is supposed to give a standard of reference. If your criterion is “practicality” instead of straight “authority” over all other films not mentioned on the list, this flawed/approximate canon would build a “popular culture” on incomplete references, and it leads people who use it as their touchstone to diss the actual scholarly canons, because they don’t match theirs. Thus increasing the divide between intellectual film discourse and popular discourse, instead of mending the fence. This sounds like what Jim Emerson proposed with his 102 Movies You Must See Before…" : “These are the movies I just kind of figure everybody ought to have seen in order to have any sort of informed discussion about movies. They’re the common cultural currency of our time, the basic cinematic texts that everyone should know, at minimum, to be somewhat “movie-literate.” I tried to represent key examples of all important genres, movie stars, directors, historical movements, and so on — like an overview of the 20th century in 101 movies.” Though, the inclusion of “popular hits” like ET or Manchurian Candidate and the absence of certain obvious cornerstones makes this type of endeavour more of a “recommendation viewing guide” than an educational framework. I have a problem in general with the vulgarisation of canons, like the consensual listing at They Shoot Pictures don’t They?, for example. This said, if your “guide” or “overview map of film discourse” was to explicit the reason why each film is present on the list : for its representation of a major genre, for its representation of the montage technique, then the reader is able to figure out why the films is a stand out, and won’t be surprised if it is overlooked in another canon that doesn’t take into consideration his criterion.
I guess I join Harry Tuttle in not exactly being on board with the project you have laid out here. I’m not sure exactly what the point is, but I will offer this: if practicality is what you are going for, movies you should see in order to carry on a intelligent conversation with a knowledgeable cinephile, then there are a few films that you should definitely be familiar with. These are not the uber-obvious, AFI 100 films, nor are they poverty row, obscure Bs. These are what I would call A prime films, films that you will see much discussed in scholarly film literature and academic criticism, but without the Kane-level fame surrounding them. Here’s a few examples of what I’m talking about: The Scarlet Empress (Sternberg) You Only Live Once (Lang) Letter From an Unknown Woman (Ophuls) Detour (Ulmer) To Have and Have Not (Hawks) You know what I’m getting at with this list?
I didn’t want to lay out a project, but I guess my point is that canons which profess to name the “best films” — even if their selections are right (if you believe they ever can be right) — may not be the best guides of what to watch. Assuming that watching a film is not the end in itself, I’d be more interested in a list of films that will help me better understand cinema or join the film-conversation than one which gives a list of greatest films based on mostly-nebulous criteria that usually only disguises a thick mix of personal taste, tradition, and chance (with a slight hint of obscurity/snobbery). Cherokee may be a wonderful and beautiful language, and Esperanto may be the most logical language of all, but learning English, Spanish, Chinese opens you up to more people, more ideas, and more opportunities. You’re right that a “recommended viewing guide” is the better name for it; but, at the same time, I don’t want to make an actual list. I just think that the greatness of films in-and-of themselves shouldn’t the only way we judge what we should and shouldn’t watch. The argument that bad films say more about their society than good ones is common enough; why not the idea that certain films are better educational tools than others? A second point, which I probably didn’t make very well, is that while Harry and I agree about the ain’t-so-goodness of print-based film criticism, I think Internet criticism may be diving head-first into another pitfall: an obsession with discovering new films that prizes obscurity above all else and then discards all that is not new and obscure. Discovery and re-discovery reign, with a fight-to-the-finish over who blogs first about x film. Then, after the first post goes up, the film is forgotten and everyone jumps after the next new film. No talk, no time for ideas to evolve. Of course, I may just be young and bitter, but I miss reading about Kurosawa and Hitchcock and Welles. Today, I can read a blog by an amateur film critic in Thailand and learn about the latest Thai masterpiece, another by a writer in Peru, and so on. The writing may be excellent, the ideas profound, but I haven’t seen the films — may not have even heard of them; may not be able to ever see them — so I can’t really join in the discussion or post a meaningful comment. What do I do? I respond by watching and posting about an old, unknown film from my own country. I guess you could see the Internet circle of criticism richer for these contributions. I’m not so sure: I think the discussion splinters and suffers from a lack of common ground. The horror scenario at one end is that nothing ever gets discovered, we codify Citizen Kane and Casblanca, and all we ever do is talk about those films. But the other end has its own horrific outcome: we codify nothing, share nothing in common, and each end up talking to ourselves.
No, you’re right, it’s very helpful. And I do think we need a handy list of films, that would become “discussion starters” to get into a cinephile circle. But we need to define the population you intend to educate there… Because if you talk about Hitchcock and Welles, you address people who haven’t seen anything in their life ever. I guess there are classics that are continuously tossed around in popular culture… so beginners don’t really need the help of a list to figure these out. This guide should address the next level: film enthusiasts with an active viewing habit, but who don’t know where to begin after being seduced by a couple of “mainstream classics” like Pulp Fiction, The Lord of the Rings, No country for Old Men have enticed a new generation of cinephiles (i’m using “cinephile” as opposed to Box Office driven popular culture, but it may include low-brow B cinephilia too). So my criteria would be: - a short list of famous classics among cinephiles (viewable in one year) - and standalone pieces (that don’t require knowing the context of the entire film movement to fully understand) - the widest representation of major film nations and a significant masterpiece from small nations (to be familiar with foreign languages and culture and style) - examples of the largest number of essential auteurs in cinephile culture - a representation of all major trends (movement, technique, genre, niches) - representative of key debates in cinephile circles (being able to participate in every discussion having seen a significant film related to the topic) - films giving envy to discover more of this filmmaker, more of this style/genre, more of this country’s cinema And the disqualifiers: - avoid movies with big B.O. that most people already saw or would be recommended by any non-cinephile - avoid obvious cinephile-classics everyone heard of already in popular culture - avoid obscure masterpiece that only small niche of cinephile talk about - avoid films hard to find, taking too long to track down, that may discourage beginners - not too many films so that beginners could commit to a task easy to accomplish, giving a quick satisfaction to reach a certain knowledgeable status - avoid strenuous films (too long, too painful, too complex, too intellectual, too shoking) - avoid films from small countries with limited impact on the rest of “general film discourse” (reserved to advanced explorers) - avoid films that not every cinephile heard of (it’s not a guide to sound expert, but to catch up with the average cinephile knowledge) something like that. It would be interesting to come up with a list together I think, and figure out which films appear truly significant and which ones should be postponed for cinephiles who already acquired basic culture. I don’t mean that it’s an obligatory order to watch “classics” first… but it’s a kind of crash course to avoid being left behind on the cinephile blogosphere.
Great list of parameters. How about some actual film…?…. I think the partial listing i provided above fits your exceedingly narrow qualifications pretty well.
I’m confused as well. While I take your point that there are issues to be raised about any film canon—including, of course, Paul Schrader’s—I feel the project of compiling a list of films that include everything a cinephile should watch has been done countless times. Wouldn’t something like Slant’s 100 Essential Films meet a lot of these criteria? I feel that that list in particular took into account works that have been heavily discussed both online and in print, even if Stalker (and not Citizen Kane) made that list.
I think Slant’s list (which, like you say has no Citizen Kane + no Breathless & no Potemkin) is a prime example of “exploring”, with its declaration that it aims to give “serious critical thought to neglected, forgotten and misunderstood gems.” Which would make it more of a “neglected films” list than a list of essential films. So perhaps it’s moot that I don’t understand why ¡Que viva México! (or the reconstruction of what was actually shot of it) should be the best / first / only Eisenstein film that someone should watch.
Oh, I don’t understand why ¡Que viva México! should be anyone’s introduction to Eisenstein either, but I guess what I meant to do was elaborate on what the person above me had mentioned, which was that there are already a series of lists that could name the best/ first/ only film to watch by any number of directors. With that in mind, Slant’s list is the next step in finding lesser-known, but still critically important films by those directors—you’ll discover F for Fake after watching Citizen Kane, McCabe & Mrs. Miller after Nashville, The Passenger after L’avventura, etc.
Just to add something else: one of my own frustrations (then and now) when looking at film lists is what one writer expresses here in a Q/A with Jonathan Rosenbaum about his own great, big list of 1000 (what he calls his favourite) films: “…[the films] weren’t accompanied by an account for why you selected them (a couple of sentences on each would have been very helpful — in fact I’ve had to cite your Reader capsule reviews in several instances when others wondered aloud “why the hell did he choose THAT?”). The thing that’s always frustrated me about lists (from AFI to Sight and Sound) is that there’s no contextual information to explicate their merits to those unitiated with the films in question. Without such an account, how are we to approach your list? To which Rosenbaum responds: “You can approach my list however you like. But writing two sentences each on 1000 films would have been not only a grinding chore for me but a way of making the whole exercise superficial and sound-bitey. It’s a list of personal favorites—nothing more. (If I said that chocolate was my favorite flavor of ice cream, would you require two sentences of explanation about that?).” (You can read the rest of the interview here: Perhaps what I’m aiming at is some kind of list of not the greatest films, not anyone’s favourite films, not forgotten or unavailable films, but films that it’s in someone’s interest (if that person is interested in learning about films, being the qualifier) to see for one or more clearly-definable reason(s). Bullet points are superficial, but even they would help! Example: Breathless (Godard, 1960) - often cited as an example of French New Wave style: some examples… - first feature film by Jean-Luc Godard, a major international filmmaker. - etc.
The TSPDT aggregation of lists doesn’t serve the same purpose, because individual lists are not designed in an educational way, they intend to sound smart, they cite obscure titles, or guilty pleasures, or just movies that everybody know… exactly the ones that fill the usual canon with films that are not necessarily the best help to quickly acquire a minimum set of references. The point is to give an efficient list easy to handle for a beginner who couldn’t tell if (s)he can skip this one or that one, because they are less of a common recurring reference. So to answer Jason, this kind of list is expected to be boring for any cinephile who’s been around already. It’s not supposed to feature surprises or shockers. It’s a very conservative and practical list. I was thinking of breaking down this exercise in several levels according to the filmic culture already acquired by the reader. 1) Mainstream classics (like Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, The General, Modern Times, Rear Window, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard…) the really obvious ones (the ones I wanted to exclude in my previous comment) accessible to people with general culture. 2) Cinephile Classics (like Sunrise, Potemkin, Birth of a Nation, La Règle du Jeu, A Bout de Souffle, Andrei Rublev, M, Les 400 coups, Tokyo Monogatari, L’Avventura, Caligari, Ladri di Biciclette, Voyage to Italy…) the most famous currency among cinephile circles (that’s the kind of guide I had in mind, and what Pacze Moj is talking about I believe) 3) Advanced Cinephile Fringe (like Mouchette, Stalker, Ordet, Marienbad, Un Chien Andalou, Nanook, Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau, I Was Born But…, Bande à Part, Le Sang d’un Poète, Non Réconciliés, Nuit et Brouillard…) the ones a bit more disconcerting to watch for beginners who haven’t seen anything before (and notably the films listed in the section (2)), but are still very commonly brought up within cinephile discussions as “universal standards”. Let’s say they are not urgent to watch immediately, but you’ll have to soon or later. 4) Obscure References (like La Roue, L’Espoir, Les Vampires, Out 1, F for Fake, the House is Black, Wavelength, Jeanne Dielman, Las Hurdes, Histoire(s) du cinéma…) films that are relatively hard to find, and less mentioned in cinephile discourse, more the Grail of scholars and narrow niche of specialists. Just to tell beginners that if they hear about these, not to worry if it takes time to get their hand on them. That way, people can jump from one list to the next, if they think one level is too easy for them, if they feel more adventurous, while always knowing the level of difficulty they face. And even if they didn’t see the films, the lists also serve as a benchmark to figure what level of discourse a reference they hear about corresponds to, to contextualize the name dropping, to feel a little less left out of cinephile jargon. The number of films in each list will vary. For example, the first and third could be relatively long, while the 4th is shorter, and the 2nd is meant to stay under 100 for practical purpose. And we have to figure out if a film should be in such or such list… is it more obscure or more current? We’d need to debate these decision together. I couldn’t tell all by myself. It’s often a matter of point of view. Some films appear easier to certain people and less useful a reference to others. The establishment of list #2 should be a consensual choice, but with the educational purpose in mind.
Let me remind you this list is not an “availability barometer”, even in category 4 we are still dealing with MAJOR CLASSICS in film discourse for beginners to acquire a BASIC SET OF REFERENCES that everyone else uses. The truly “impossible to find kinda films” are of no use in this project. “If one starts to read widely and intensively about film, how many times does one hear Feuillade or Rivette or Godard or Akerman’s films referred to in nothing short of reverent tones (on the blogosphere or elsewhere)?” The operative word there is “widely”! This guide is not meant for you, it’s for people who haven’t read WIDELY, who haven’t seen a lot of films yet. Obviously, well read cinephiles don’t NEED such lists. re: urgency. If you listen to individual cinephiles, who don’t agree on which films must be watched first, you’ll end up with a Rosenbaum Top1000… and thousands of hours of films to watch is not a “kick start”, it’s more than most people will ever watch in their life. We’re talking about levels of priority among the urgent references to know.
I reckon my phrasing was misleading. I shouldn’t use the word “Grail”. I meant “relatively harder to find among classic references” or more precisely “less frequently prone to name-dropping in film discussions” Now let me ask you a question. Did you see them all yet (in my short list #4)? If you did, how long did it take you since you first heard about them or since you began a cinephile? How soon is “soon”? How urgent is “urgent”? It takes time to watch movies (not just to order them). How many movies do you expect a beginners to swallow in one month? Even if every film made was equally available and ready to be watched, there is only so many films you can watch “first”, you have to make a choice, the others will wait for “ASAP”. I don’t expect beginners to watch every films in category #4 in their first month of intensive viewing… not even the first year. Not that they can’t (if they want they can jump to “expert level” right away, since the list is there for them, no college credits needed to move to the next level), but the more “classics” are preferred (first) by most cinephiles. The harder ones, we see them sporadically, to anticipate them, to savour them, to digest them, to give them the time of reflection, not all at once in a row. It’s a guide for people who ask for advice because they don’t know any better, not an imposed “drawing by number”. If you want to watch movies from the end backward, nobody stops you.
Quite the discussion! And I agree: no point in arguing for the sake of argument. I’ll try to put together a list (or the beginning of a list) — hopefully with Harry’s help — in the next few weeks, and we’ll see how it turns out. It’s quite possible it won’t be any better or helpful than the ones already out there. I hope otherwise, but we’ll see. But, either way, at least there’ll be something concrete to discuss. Cheers! :) Thanks for the comments.
Like I said, Jim Emerson’s list is admittedly meant to cover the ground to know the popular movies in general zeitgeist culture… to be able to know where come from famous quotes, culturally significant characters, in-jokes about movie titles and stuff. He talks about the presence of cinema in general (non-cinephile) culture. Roughly, breaking down his list of 102 movies, I only keep 59 as actual major references in cinephile discussions. What I consider a “major reference” is not just the films most often cited on critics lists (like at TSPDT), but films that have become archetypes, that are influential to later generations of filmmakers, that are used in theory to illustrate a term or a technique. That’s why the purpose I had in mind was not a “recommendation guide” to view the greatest films, but a list of theoretical references that should be seen in order to follow what critics refer to. Of course he cites some obvious references in his list, but as a whole it doesn’t give the right basis for someone who wants to read film discourse. From his 102, a quick count looks like this : 24 go to category1 (mainstream), 31 to category 2 (cinephile) and 4 to Advanced. And the #1 is what I wanted to omit from this survey originally. So all in all, only 33 fit my criteria to be useful references.

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