Monday, December 4, 2006

Film Canons

Film canons. What do we do with them? What do we think of the idea of them? Recently, Paul Schrader, notable screenwriter (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and film scholar (author of Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer) was encouraged to write a film version of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon. Schrader got as far as writing an introductory chapter to the book, as well as a list of 60 films, but soon realized that his heart was not in the project, and decided to stop his work on it. What remains is an article in the September/October Film Comment, of which we have an online version, and his list.

The list and article have caused quite a stir in some circles, since Schrader is such a well-known scholar (especially), and there have been many responses that have come out. One of which is Zach Campbell's response, found on his blog here and here.
Campbell talks about how Schrader's list does not include what he sees as the necessary element of a film canon: a variety of film forms. Schrader's canon is a list of what may be called "Criteron-type Greatest Hits." Schrader does not touch short films, documentaries, or avant-garde film. He does not delve into the non-narrative world of film. At any rate, this is one of the many critical responses to Schrader's work on the canon, though again it must be mentioned that he DID NOT actually write a book, just published an article on the failed project in a magazine.

So what I'm wondering is this: Are film canons helpful? What is the purpose of a film canon? Is a film canon worthwhile in and of itself, or does it need to have a helpful function in order to be valuable? I would probably argue that the purpose of a film canon should line up with the purpose of film criticism, which I believe should fall somewhere along the lines of: helping the audience of the criticism in question understand something about film. It should be helpful. It should point to films that are essential for someone to understand what film is about, why it is beautiful, why it is important. If we were to box up 60 films (or whatever the number would be) and bury the films in the ground to be dug up in thousands of years by an alien race, these films would represent the best of what we as a filmmaking humanity have to offer.

Now, whether it is possible or not to have 60 films or any number of films encapsulate the creative spirit of humanity captured in film is not really the question. Of course no list can be definitive. However, the nature of a list like this is inevitably a source of much debate, heated debate that does not always involve people's better sensibilities. It is this outcome, the nitpicking and the negative reaction to a list (which comes across as definitive) which is why canons would not be a good idea. Maybe another reason that canons would not be a good idea is that if one person were to make a canon, that canon would be personal in nature (which is not the point of a canon). No one person can successfully determine the essential films. Could many people together voting determine this canon? Who are you asking to vote? Would you ask scholars? Directors? Actors? The general populace? There are always problems with coming up with canons.

Another problem is that along with the definition of canon comes the word "Fixed." The biblical canon, for example, is a fixed set of books that have remained the same for a long, long time, and are unlikely to be changed short of Kingdom-Come. If a canon is fixed, then can it be helpful when people are so different from each other in taste and background? How can one list really be helpful to everyone? If one were to live by the list, that person would probably be missing something, at least in my opinion. Schrader says:

Not only is there no agreement about what a canon should include, there’s no agreement about whether there should be canons at all. Or, if there is agreement, it is this: canons are bad—elitist, sexist, racist, outmoded, and politically incorrect.

For example, the people that have been given the greatest opportunity to make films have been males with a lot of money and education. Of course then, a canon of essential films will probably include films made by directors who were men with a lot of money and education. It is an issue of class, sex, among the other things Schrader noted.

But in spite of all this, Schrader was going to go on the write this book on a film canon, because canons are "needed," he says, they serve a function.

Do they? What do you think?

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