Lists and Canons

I didn’t intend to create this blog on the same day that the vaunted “Sight and Sound” poll was released, but that’s what happened.  Since it worked out that way, and since I view this blog as a useful ancillary activity to teaching, I’ll commence with some comments on canons and lists.

Everyone likes to make lists, and everyone likes to look to them for validation.  As a child, I pored over my father’s copy of Michael and Harry Medved’s “Golden Turkey Awards” to see how many of the films I knew, and whether or not I thought they were as awful as implied.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Lists give us a baseline.  It’s natural.  So when something comes along (especially something that only happens once a decade like the “Sight & Sound” list) that bills itself as a repository of greatness, it only makes sense that people froth at the mouth to compare, criticize, discuss and/or excoriate the results.  It seems to me, however, that lots of people tend to miss the point.  These lists NEVER encapsulate any sort of grand truth, and they are NEVER the final word.  The one and only use for such lists is that they engender conversation (comparison, criticism, discussion and excoriation).  Lists themselves are sort of silly, and I have trouble trusting anyone who is confident that they can pick a top ten (or one hundred) anything out of tens of thousands of options. Such thinking usually says more about the compiler than anything else, and what it says isn’t always confidence-inspiring.  Can you pick a favorite spice?  Animal?  Person?  Do you rank your friends in top ten order?  I just don’t think that way.

Depending on how you count, we are now in the 116th year of the age of film.  Huge swaths of material from the first third of that period are gone forever, and huge sections of what remains are ignored (even by people who should know better).  It’s fine to make a list, but the most important thing about the exercise should be that it leads you to wonder about what you haven’t seen.  If you haven’t seen TOKYO STORY, it’s a fine starting point for Ozu, but why is it on the list instead of LATE SPRING?  Or DRAGNET GIRL?  If you haven’t seen the first, you probably haven’t seen the second (which was unavailable longer), and it’s pretty much guaranteed that you haven’t seen the last (which remains unavailable in the U.S.).

Two final points.  First, it’s a little ironic that I’m knocking list-making when I’ve posted such a list here on my blog.  That list was created because people would ask me what they should watch before they graduated, so I came up with a cross-section of things that are generally considered important (or that I thought should be considered important).  It was never meant to be more than a starting point, but I think it serves that function reasonably well.  Some of the titles are canonical, and some of them aren’t, but you can make a case that they’re all worth watching for someone who wants a basic grounding.

This brings me to the final point.  Neither my list nor my course syllabi pay particular heed to the standard list of “classics” (a term I loathe).  There are plenty of things people should see on their own that show up on lists all the time (like CITIZEN KANE, TOKYO STORY, THE SEARCHERS and BICYCLE THIEVES), but I’m not interested in that.  If you’re remotely interested, you should take the time to watch them.  They’re all easy to find.  Without knocking the many merits of any of these, though, their simple ubiquity helps them to stay out in front of their rivals. Their regular appearance in discussions is dictated by the ignorance or unavailability of other choices.  I probably prefer THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, THAT NIGHT’S WIFE, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and SHOESHINE (respectively matching directors), but three of the four of them have been difficult to see since their original releases (if then).  Only John Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY has been readily available, and it’s always been unfairly punished for having won the Best Picture Oscar instead of CITIZEN KANE (which is absurd, and a whole other ball of wax).  When I talk about films (or teach classes) I hope that I find a way to redress that balance by putting forward work that may be just as good, but unfairly remains lesser known.  It’s my own way of suggesting that people shouldn’t take any list as an end point, but a beginning.  To my mind that’s what a really good list should do and that’s what makes them useful – despite their silliness.

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2 thoughts on “Lists and Canons

  1. I believe the correct answer is: Cinnamon, Prairie Dogs, and Paul McCartney. However, I will say that I think lists DO actually encapsulate a grand truth – what society thinks should be considered important. The AFI list is hackneyed, yes, but it represents what people think other people should find important. And the thing about lists is, if people only watch what is on the list then the items on that list really DO become part of a grand truth. It’s a cyclical effect. We have a certain canonical view of cinema precisely because of listmakers: Iris Barry, Henri Langlois, and yes, Leonard Maltin. So to say they don’t hold any sort of grand truth is sort of disingenuous, don’t you think?

    • If “grand truth” were that easy to encapsulate, we could just shut down every institution of learning and stop debating. Instead we would all sit around eating french toast (with lots of cinnamon), stroking our pet prairie dogs and fantasizing about Paul McCartney (an unpleasant fate on multiple counts in my book). I’m not suggesting that lists are useless, but that they are most likely to codify the thoughts of a particular time or person and (perhaps especially with film) what happens to be available when they’re made. But that’s a comment on any given list and its makers, more than the quality of what’s included. There’s nothing wrong with that, but let’s see the exercise for what it is. Neither Barry, Langlois or Maltin watched/watch much Indian cinema, but does that mean that Indian cinema never produced anything worth watching? I know you’d never concede that…

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