Positive Cynicism – Is there actually a film canon?

Aaron Davis

Aaron R. Davis

This week, to much online discussion, Sight & Sound released their decennial list of the Greatest Films of All Time. The big shake-up this year is that, after a 50-year stay at number one, Citizen Kane has been supplanted by Vertigo, which, according to the majority vote of 846 critics, distributors and selected academics and professionals, is now the Greatest Film of All Time.

The Sight & Sound list, which has been voted on and compiled every decade since its first appearance in 1952, is supposed to represent the closest thing films have to a literary canon. But what I wonder is what that means today. I’m not even sure what a literary canon means today, but that’s an even bigger subject to tackle in the post-Harry Potter, post-Twilight world where most people encounter the real classics only in classes (and even that’s starting to change). As for the film canon, I think the concept of one has become more and more vague in the Internet Age.

See, as I’ve said before, I got seriously into film when I was in high school in the very early 90s. No Internet and limited access to foreign films and classics that weren’t carried at the local Blockbuster. The only real guides I had on what films I should see were library books, Roger Ebert and the Sight & Sound list. I couldn’t just go online and find the AFI lists or polls or what was highly-rated on the then-nonexistent IMDb. And in that time, the idea of a film canon was taken very seriously, indeed. Unless you had seen every film on the Sight & Sound list, you couldn’t even credibly call yourself a film buff.

But my generation seems to have really broken away from the idea of a canon of classic, important films, and gone off in their own direction. For a while, it became uncool to really be into anything made before Reservoir Dogs, never mind how many Godard movies Tarantino was influenced by. The Sight & Sound list was stodgy and outdated, and even though it was impossible not to worship Citizen Kane, it was some weird sign of rebellion to call Raiders of the Lost Ark its equal.

You see it reflected in a lot of lists online today, especially (for whatever reason) in British film magazines, where the lists of the greatest movies ever made could really just be called The Greatest Movies Made Since 1977, and Also Snow White, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane and The Godfather. And maybe I’m stodgy, but I still am not ready to say that a list of the greatest films of all time is ready to include Blade Runner or The Dark Knight.

Is there actually a film canon? Are there more than one? And which one do you adhere to?

When Sight & Sound released their newest poll this week, it really did cause an intense discussion about what the canon was and whether the list reflected it. Should the list be slow to change and should it be filled with nothing newer than 1979’s Apocalypse Now? Personally, I say it should be slow to change; it should be considered deliberately, measured precisely. Although I do think the list is too often regarded as “The Official Film Canon,” I also think every film on the list is a great film that people should see. Especially people who are serious about films; if you haven’t seen the entire Top 10, then stop what you’re doing and sit with them. Let them surprise you. But don’t sit there and think about how you “have” to see these highly-regarded movies. Approach them with honest interest and on their own terms, like you’d approach any other movie. A movie like The Passion of Joan of Arc or The Rules of the Game can change your perception of film forever if you let it.

But that’s the other problem with this idea of “The Official Film Canon”: too many people view that as a challenge, because the list admittedly has a tendency to argue from a position of intellectual superiority. Personally, I’m glad to see Citizen Kane fall to number two, because maybe that will let it breathe a little bit. It’s a masterpiece, certainly one of the greatest films ever made, but it carries this daunting reputation that too many people take as a challenge. As a result, I think I know maybe one other person who loves it as much as I do, and maybe one other person who is honest about just not caring for it as a story. Almost everyone else in my life who I’ve brought the movie up with has said something along the lines of “This is the greatest movie ever made? What a snore!” I guess maybe now they’ll say the same thing about poor Vertigo; there are a few Hitchcock movies I enjoy more on a personal level, but I don’t think Hitchcock ever made a better one. Another truly rewarding and incredible film now shackled with an incredible weight of expectation.

Should there be a film canon? Absolutely there should. And we can debate what should be on it until the films themselves crumble into dust and scholars breathlessly tell their students that there was once a man — a certain man — and for the poor you may be sure that he did all he could, and if only you could see that film today you’d understand so much about what came after. It’s the history of an art form and if you’re serious about film it would be nice if you knew where today’s filmmakers were borrowing so much from.

Take some time with what’s left of your summer and give Vertigo a chance. See The Searchers goddammit, it’s an amazing film. Broaden your horizons to include the canon and you’ll understand why it’s canon in the first place. There are a lot of delights to be had in films that remain as vital today as when they were made — some of them, even more so. And don’t think that you “have” to like those movies just for your opinions to be taken seriously. Don’t be afraid to not like them. But don’t be intimidated. Just watch them for the sake of the fact that they’re really, really good.

You’ll at least have the benefit of having educated opinions on film. And on the Internet, that’s as good as cash money.

Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at samuraifrog@yahoo.com.

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