17 November 2006

Canon Fodder

Canon Fodder
The September-October issue of the journal Film Comment contains a lengthy article by Paul Schrader, titled Canon Fodder. In the article, Schrader attempts something never previously tackled at such length: he explores the history of, and criteria for, a canonical list of necessary films.

There have been many previous attempts at compiling 'definitive' lists of classic films, sometimes selected by public votes, sometimes chosen by individuals or panels of critics, and sometimes distilled from polls of critics and directors. I identified the most frequent types last year. The acknowledged leader in the field is Sight & Sound's list of ten 'greatest films of all time', chosen by hundreds of international critics and published every decade (most recently in 2002); Citizen Kane has remained at the top of their list ever since 1962.

In his article, Schrader traces the fascinating history of the notion of artistic and literary canons. Inspired by Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, he then proposes and explains a series of criteria by which to judge the films of the past 100 years: beauty ("the bedrock of all judgments of taste"), strangeness ("unpredictable burst of originality"), unity of form and subject-matter ("this traditional yardstick of artistic value"), tradition ("The greatness of a film or filmmaker must be judged not only on its own terms but by its place in the evolution of film"), repeatability ("appreciated by successive generations, it grows in importance and context with time"), viewer engagement ("The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it"), and morality ("Good or bad resonance [is] beside the point. The point is that no work that fails to strike moral chords can be canonical").

Schrader is consciously elitist in his choices ("to counter the proliferation of popularity-driven lists"), and he also eschews auteurism ("I'd like to concentrate on films, not filmmakers"). Furthermore, he maintains that canons need not contain 'equal opportunities' quotas ("Genre and subject matter don't matter; nor do the age, race, and sex of the filmmakers"). His list is divided into three tiers:


1. The Rules Of The Game
2. Tokyo Story
3. City Lights
4. Pickpocket
5. Metropolis
6. Citizen Kane
7. Orphee
8. Masculin-Feminin
9. Persona
10. Vertigo
11. Sunrise
12. The Searchers
13. The Lady Eve
14. The Conformist
15. 8½
16. The Godfather
17. In The Mood For Love
18. The Third Man
19. Performance
20. La Notte


21. Mother & Son
22. The Leopard
23. The Dead
24. 2001: A Space Odyssey
25. Last Year At Marienbad
26. The Passion Of Joan Of Arc
27. Jules & Jim
28. The Wild Bunch
29. All That Jazz
30. The Life Of Oharu
31. High & Low
32. Sweet Smell Of Success
33. That Obscure Object Of Desire
34. An American In Paris
35. Salvatore Giuliano
36. Taxi Driver
37. Ali: Fear Eats The Soul
38. Blue Velvet
39. Crimes & Misdemeanors
40. The Big Lebowski


41. The Red Shoes
42. Singin' In The Rain
43. Chinatown
44. The Crowd
45. Sunset Boulevard
46. Talk To Her
47. Shanghai Express
48. Letter From An Unknown Woman
49. Once Upon A Time In The West
50. Voyage In Italy
51. Nostalghia
52. Seven Men From Now
53. Claire's Knee
54. Earth
55. Gun Crazy
56. Out Of The Past
57. Children Of Paradise
58. The Naked Spur
59. A Place In The Sun
60. The General

(In Film Comment's printed list, #35 and #50 were incorrect. Schrader wrote an erratum in the current issue, and the list above is the correct version.)