I’m sitting on the couch of my share house flicking through the cable TCM guide and hitting record on the films of interest. Woman of the Year (1942) with Katherine Hepburn? Record. An Affair to Remember (1957) with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr? Record. To Have and Have Not (1944) with Bogart and Bacall? Record. As I go to click record on These Wilder Years (1956) with Barbara Stanwyk and James Cagney an error message informs me that the hard drive is full. There’s no more space. And there’s not enough time either. My appetite for filmic knowledge has filled my DVR. It’s filled countless notebooks with lists. It’s filled my computer and my shelves, and as the list grows, it fills every spare minute of my time. The vast, insufferable history of film lingers over me like a raincloud, and as I sit on my couch attempting to deal with the hard facts—that I will not record These Wilder Years, and will probably never get to see it—I simply give up. I resign myself to the fact that I don’t have time to watch every film ever made. I don’t even have enough time to see all the essentials, because that list is growing too. Where people like me turn when this raincloud transpires is to the canon. The film canon, discussed and debated over, has transformed from an exercise of ranking the greatest films into an expanding universe of lists on any given topic. It comes from our innate compulsion to judge a work of art by its counterparts in order to assess its worth, and as it becomes increasingly confusing and debated over, its value increases.
How does someone who saw the 2005 version of the The Producers before the 1968 version gather the essentials of film history into a concise, concrete and expertly packaged bundle? Paul Schrader, in his Film Comment piece ‘Canon Fodder’, writes “there are too many ﬁlms, too much history, for today’s student to master”. As one of today’s students, Schrader’s comment leaves me no choice but to admit a fact that so many good film writers today happily ignore: the canon is essential, but also impossible. The canon can only exist through a multitude of different lists from different outlets, each given the same weight. It’s easy to dismiss film lists as gimmicky click-bait, but it’s harder to admit that the list is essential to the modern filmgoer. If one were to argue against the multitude of lists circulating film journalism, I’d argue that exclusivity is exactly the opposite purpose of such lists. If I were to look only at Sight & Sound’s poll, conducted every decade, not only would I exclude the vast majority of Hollywood’s output, but I’d be tipping my nose upwards, giving favour to films considered high art and ignoring the very thing films were originally created for—entertainment. Were I only to look at Rotten Tomatoes’ Top 100 Movies of All Time, I’d be doing the opposite, and ignoring the great innovators of artistic cinema. A multitude of lists provides vast coverage across all countries, genres, styles and periods. Of course, these insights can only be provided if we ensure we’re looking at them all. To canonise the different canons would be a post-modern exercise beyond all purpose. Let them all be equal, and let the canon be as lucid as film itself.
Looking at the canon as a singularity also provides a major disturbance in film history. It gives repute to a select few films and ignores great chunks of film history that, unless given their valorisation, will lie in the depths of history. The valorisation of great films and great directors leads to in imperturbable ignorance of the histories unfolding before us. It blinds us from the movements and innovations that are occurring beneath our eyes at this very moment. Who is to say that in fifty years time, the history books won’t read “2010-2020: The Superhero Years”, or that Avatar (2009), like The Birth of a Nation (1915), will be fondly remembered for its bold innovation above its narrative. The lists that are given weight in the current film criticism climate—Sight & Sound’s in particular—ignore any modern films that don’t bear that indelible stamp of ‘high art’, giving way to films like In the Mood for Love (2000), The Tree of Life (2011) and The Turin Horse (2011), lauded beyond any recognition of their importance in terms of innovation, influence and entertainment value. To find balance we must also look elsewhere—yes, to the depths of the Internet and the back issues of magazines.
The formulation of a canon also blinds us of subjective judgement if taken too seriously. As I watch Jean Renoir’s The River (1951) — essentialistic, aged and snobbish — I struggle to find any reason why it’s inclusion on any list could be reasonable. Others have found immense significance in the film; perhaps its aesthetic holds value to them. Were I to have watched this film five years ago, before I studied, I’d have happily lauded it too. The canon, a pushy sort of artistic grading, should never blind this perception. The answer, again, lies in forbidding the canon as a singularity. Respectable opinion from the glorified canon led me to watch The River, and as I sit through to its conclusion I wonder if I may have had a better time if I’d consulted Empire’s 500 Greatest Movies of All Time, or 1001 Films to See Before You Die.
These lists should never cloud our subjective judgement of a work, and nor should they take precedent over the words written about them. The consultation of writing on film should always come first. A single piece of writing about a film can enlighten us beyond its placement on a list.
So as I sit here, distressed that These Wilder Years won’t ever reach my eyes, and anxious that my time on Earth might not allow me to plunge the impenetrable depths of film history, I gladly remember that the plenitude of lists in books, magazines and the four corners of the Internet exist to guide me through it all. Let there be lists! Let this list guide me to Baby Face (1933) and this one to Come and See (1985). Let the list exist in hordes and varieties so as to not be ignorant or pretentious or exclusive. As we, the new generation of students, attempt to grasp film history in an age of countless lists, let the list be our canon.
About the Author
Jaymes Durante is the founder and editor of LoadedFilm.org He is currently completing his BA in film studies at Curtin University and is a member of the Australian Film Critics Association. Jaymes panics regularly at the thought that he may never reach the end of his ‘to watch’ list. Read his reviews here.