Showing posts with label canon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label canon. Show all posts

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

"The Greatest Films of All Time"

I am back from my summer break and the first post of the season will be about last week's major list event, the release of Sight & Sound's decennial list of the "Greatest Films of All Time". It has generated a lot of blog posts, tweets, facebook status updates and face to face debates the world over, so it has been a very successful launch. It has also been attacked and ridiculed. The purpose of it has been questioned, it has been called racist, sexist and boring (the last complain was I believe from me in my initial show of displeasure on twitter and facebook). However.

Calling the list racist and sexist (and/or calling the contributors racist and sexist) is unfair. The list is the sum of  846 top-ten-lists from people all over the world, and it is quite possible that these lists were filled by works made in Africa, South America, the Middle East, and films by women. But even if every list was, say, gender neutral (having as many men as women filmmakers represented), the final list might still not reflect that due to the way the process works.

I made a top ten list (which I posted here three months ago) Of the ten films I listed only two would have counted had my list been part of the 846. By this I mean that La règle du jeu (Jean Renoir 1939) and Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini 1954) were the only ones on my list that were mentioned on other lists as well, so they would have been the only ones that ended up on the final list. My other eight films would never have been heard of again. So even if they had been made by female African filmmakers, that would not have mattered in the least for the final list.

It was inevitable that the list would end up looking pretty much the way it did. Why? Because in order to get many votes a film would have to be known by a large number of people. I think it is safe to assume that everybody who contributed had seen Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock 1958) and Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941) and it is no surprise that they come out on top. The Senegalese film The Price of Forgiveness (Mansour Sora Wade 2001) is a great film but since hardly anyone has seen it, it does not matter how good it is, it still could not win. The same is true for the magnificent Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka 1937). It is mainly due to statistics that these 50 films ended up on the list. Let's call it an example of the weak law of large numbers.

At film festivals it is often the case that they have an audience award. Everybody gets to vote on the films they have seen and the film that gets the most votes wins. Democratic and fair. Only it is not in the least fair. Film A might have been shown three times in a relatively small venue, perhaps seen by 250 people, whereas Film B was shown four times in large venues, perhaps seen by 2500 people. So even if 100% of those 250 who saw Film A voted it "the best", and only 11% of the 2500 voted Film B "the best" it would still get more votes, and that is not fair at all. There is something similar going on with this list.

So it is of course wrong to say that these are the 50 best films of all time. It is not even necessarily the case that the 846 contributors think that Vertigo is the best film ever made. It would still have ended up as the overall winner as long as enough people considered it good enough to be among the top ten. (It would be different if the contributors were asked to name just one film each.) But you could say perhaps that these are the most liked well-known films of all time. They are the films that are shown on most film history courses, they are the films most written about, they are the films that end up on these lists. It is a closed set, a self-perpetuating process. This is why I think this list is somewhat meaningless. It has been said that this is a cinephilic list, but it really is not. It should have been much more diverse for it to have been a cinephile's list. It has also been said that this list is great to use for newcomers, in order to explore cinema history. But again, it really is not. There is not much history there, too much is lacking. The only valuable purpose of it is to see what the lowest common denominators are among scholars and critics today, and its function as a water cooler subject at film journals and department of cinema studies.

What would be interesting is a list of all the 2045 films mentioned on the 846 individual lists. That list has the potential to be much more varied, interesting and historic.


This is not to deny that many of the 50 films on the list are very good. Some I find fantastic, and are on my top 50 too, namely these eight:
Sunrise (F.W. Murnau 1927)
La règle du jeu
Journey to Italy
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa 1954)
The 400 Blows (François Truffaut 1959)
Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard 1960)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese 1976)
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai 2000)

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

My favourite filmmakers

I am frequently asked what my favourite film is, or my favourite actor, or my favourite filmmaker. In order to humour these people, and those who have been afraid to ask, I thought I write some blog posts on the subject. Today I will list my favourite filmmakers, actors will come later in the spring. As for favourite films I tweet one every Monday during 2012 (with the hashtag #mytop52) and at the end of the year I will blog about them here too.

Before the list I better say a few words about it. First of all, and obviously, all those listed have made great films. Films that move me, thrill me and dazzle me and films that I want to watch again. And again. But to qualify on this list there is more to it than that. They must have made great films over the whole of their careers. As an example, Michael Ritchie made some fantastic films in the 1970s but he then unfortunately fizzled out so he will not be listed. Some other filmmakers did not make the list because either they have made too few films or I have not seen enough of their films (which is the case with for example Jacques Becker and Abolfazl Jalili, even though their films that I have seen have been fantastic). Then of course there are a few filmmakers whose films I have not seen at all but that I am must eager to explore, such as Sacha Guitry or Fred Niblo. Maybe there will come a new list in the future.

Another important factor is that the listed filmmakers have a strong presence in the films that they have made. This presence is stronger with some (John Ford for example) and lesser with others (such as Satyajit Ray or William Wyler), but it is almost always there. These are also filmmakers who had (or still have) an idea about their work, conscious artists with a way of looking at the world and something to say about that world.

Finally, before the list, remember that these are my favourite filmmakers. If your favourite filmmaker is not listed, do not get upset. Make your own list instead. Also, I have listed 58 filmmakers. Instead of doing a top 10 or top 50 or any other neat, even number, I just listed all those that I felt must be on such a list. Restraining myself because of numerical reasons did not seem necessary. This is not science, it is for fun.

But enough said, here are the 58 filmmakers. First comes Howard Hawks, who is in a league of his own. The rest is alphabetical. Some of them I have written about before, and when I have there is a link after their name to one of these posts (on some of them I have written several posts, but I just link to one anyway). Some of the others I will write about, sooner or later.

Howard Hawks (read more here)

Akira Kurosawa
Woody Allen (read more here)
Wes Anderson
Ingmar Bergman (read more here)
Budd Boetticher
Jane Campion
George Cukor (read more here)
Claire Denis
Clint Eastwood
Hasse Ekman (among many posts, here is one)
John Ford (read more here)
Sam Fuller
Hal Hartley
Henry Hathaway (read more here)
Alfred Hitchcock (read more here)
Nicole Holofcener
Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Buster Keaton
Abbas Kiarostami
Fritz Lang
David Lean
Sergio Leone
Joseph H. Lewis
Ernst Lubitsch
Anthony Mann (read more here)
Michael Mann (read more here)
Jean-Pierre Melville
Mikio Naruse
Vincente Minnelli (read more here)
F.W. Murnau
Max Ophüls (read more here)
Sam Peckinpah
Michael Powell
Otto Preminger (read more here)
Nicholas Ray
Satyajit Ray
Carol Reed
Jean Renoir (read more here)
Jacques Rivette (read more here)
Roberto Rossellini
Robert Rossen
Martin Scorsese
Don Siegel
Douglas Sirk
Aleksandr Sokurov
Steven Spielberg (read more here)
Josef von Sternberg
Arne Sucksdorff
François Truffaut (read more here)
Orson Welles
Peter Weir (read more here)
Billy Wilder (read more here)
Luchino Visconti
William Wyler
Wong Kar-Wai
Yasujiro Ozu
Fred Zinnemann

addition after posting: it occurred to me that Sarrisians might be interested in this list. If any should drop by, my list here would be a combination of those directors suitable for Pantheon Directors and those suitable for The Far Side of Paradise. The implication of that is of course that I could narrow the list done to just Pantheon Directors, but it would be too short a list.

Corrections: 2012-02-16 I forgot Wes Anderson. This is unforgivable and unacceptable. But he is there now, and the list now has 58 instead of 57 names.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Theory canon

In About a Boy, Will (in the film played by Hugh Grant) had the good fortune of having a father who wrote a popular Christmas song, and Will has been able to live well ever since on the royalties of that song.

Sometimes in the world of film theory, there's occasionally something similar going on. Laura Mulvey wrote the essay Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema, Tom Gunning wrote the essay The Cinema of Attractions, Roland Barthes wrote (admittedly not in film theory, but it's still used there) The Death of the Author. And they're forever deeply connected with these essays, despite having written a lot of other things. These three examples are just a small sample. One thing about this is that what they wrote in those essays is not necessarily something that they later felt was really accurate, or something they had really thought through. I'm not saying that Tom Gunning is wishing his essay was removed from the market, he might still swear by it, but it's only reasonable that as you progress and expand as a scholar, you get new ideas and new impressions, and perhaps even feel that the essay you once wrote is today somewhat embarrassing.

Another such essay is François Truffaut's A Certain Tendency in French Cinema. Truffaut wrote it when he was 22 years old, and needed to make a name of himself, so he tried to be as provocative as possible, and not really writing what he actually believed, but rather what would get people's attention. And attention it got. And still gets. And it's basically just a young guy harassing two older scriptwriters, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, blaming them for what ills French cinema, and for making French cinema vulgar. Yet two years later Truffaut wrote a review saying that Aurenche and Bost were indispensable.

But still all the world's film students have to read these essays. There's a well established canon of film theoretical texts, even among scholars and departments that deplores the very idea of a film canon. There's something contradictory here.

And these texts are not only read, indiscriminately, but they are also quoted and references ad nauseum. Probably since they and their fellow canonical texts are the only texts people have read to any large extent, so not only do they know it themselves, but they also know that everyone else will know about it, so it's a safe thing to quote. I recently read an anthology about cinema and nation but when the fifth essay used the phrase "as Benedict Anderson argues in Imagined Communities" in the first paragraph I throw away the book in desperation. I've got nothing particular against Benedict Anderson but surely there's been something else written somewhere, at some point, on the subject. That book (Imagined Communities) is 27 years old, has nothing happens since then?

Robert Ray at University of Florida once wrote, in 1988 to be precise, that since everybody in film studies, from graduate level and onwards, are pushed to publish as much as possible "the inevitable happens: a catchy malleable idea like Lacan's 'mirror stage' suddenly crops up as the basis for hundreds of articles and conference papers, only to be replaced by a new fad, the race/class/gender template". (Reprinted in "How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies") When I studied Film History and Theory at Stockholm University in the 1990s I made a solemn promise not to quote Foucault in anything I wrote, since that was the only person everybody were quoting, or so it seemed at the time. Now I've mellowed a bit, and he is actually quoted in my thesis. But very briefly.

So what is the problem then? Well, it is that the study of film theory so often is monolithic and canonical, that many theoretical texts are read and re-read even though they either are well past their sell-by-date, or were bonkers to begin with, and that it so often happens that those that read the theoretical texts, be they essays or books, somehow becomes absorbed in this or that theory, and treat it as gospel. Whenever I happen to meet such a person I'm reminded of what John Maynard Keynes said after a meeting with some other economists: "I believe I was the only one in that room who wasn't a Keynesian."

A lot of the theoretical stuff also happens to be written by either French Marxists or by writers very much inspired by French Marxists, and occasionally psychoanalysis (i.e. Jacques Lacan). That is another conundrum (or spectre) which we can discuss some other time.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010


I don't want to get all Harold Bloom on you, but thoughts about canon appears every now and then and I'm fascinated by it. Usually they give birth to fierce discussions, and questions are raised such as, what are they for? who decides what's in them? do we really want this kind of elitism? since there are no objective truths in art, are not canons by definition bad?

But a canon, i.e. a selection of works deemed to be of special value, is in itself neutral, and can be whatever you want it to be. If we just keep to the art form at hand, hundreds of thousands of films have been made over the years, and it's simply impossible to see them all, or even keep track of them, and the older they are, the more anonymous they become. For me, that's when a canon can be an invaluable help, as a starting point, for the budding student of film history, or the young eager film enthusiast who wants to get ahead in the game and watch some seminal films on a rainy day.

And canons, just like any other lists, are almost always stimulating and thought-provoking. But if they don't come with a clear definition and an argument, they can easy become pointless, and the debates they bring about equally pointless. Like when Woody Allen mentioned his six favourite films last month. We only knew what films, not why and how they were selected, and then we're none the wiser.

When I was teaching last semester, we ended the course with discussing canon, and my students was wondering which films I would myself put on a list. I thought about it for a while and came up with the following list. It should, as I said, be seen only as a starting point for exploring film history, but with these films I believe that you get both a very good idea of all the possibilities that narrative feature films have to offer, as well as a bunch of brilliant films. (But if you asked for a list of my favourite films, it would be a rather different selection.) Among the films here you get early cinema and modern cinema, colour and black and white, polyester and digital, English and Iranian, fast and slow, short and long, conventional and modernist, comic and tragic, complex and simply, but all of them artful and essential.

Ingeborg Holm, Victor Sjostrom 1913, Sweden
Sherlock Jr, Buster Keaton 1924, USA
Ten Days That Shook the World / Oktyabr, Sergei Eisenstein 1928, Soviet Union (Russia)
Our Daily Bread, King Vidor 1934, USA
The Great Illusion / La grande illusion, Jean Renoir 1937, France
You Only Live Once, Fritz Lang 1937, USA
Only Angels Have Wings, Howard Hawks 1939, USA
Meet Me in St Louis, Vincente Minnelli 1944, USA
A Matter of Life and Death, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger 1946 UK
Summer Interlude / Sommarlek, Ingmar Bergman 1951, Sweden
Ugestu Monotagari, Kenji Mizoguchi 1953, Japan
Illusion Travels By Streetcar/ La ilusion viaja an travia, Luis Bunuel 1954, Mexico
Flowing / Nagareru, Mikio Naruse 1956, Japan
The Searchers, John Ford 1956, USA
L'eclisse, Michelangelo Antonioni 1962, Italy
The Battle of Algiers / La battaglia di Algeri, Gillio Pontecorvo 1966, France/Italy
The Spider's Stratagem / Strategia del ragno, Bernardo Bertolucci 1970, Italy
The Adversary / Pratitwandi, Satyajit Ray 1972, India
Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, Sam Peckinpah 1973, USA
Je, tu, il, elle, Chantal Akerman 1974, Belgium
La belle noiseuse, Jacques Rivette 1991, France
In the Soup, Alexandre Rockwell 1992, USA
The Truman Show, Peter Weir 1998, USA
The Wind Will Carry Us, Abbas Kiarostami 1999, Iran
Beau Travail, Claire Denis, 1999 Frankrike
Delbaran, Abolfazl Jalili 2001, Iran
Prize of Forgiveness / Ndeysaan, Mansour Sora Wade 2001, Senegal
Lovely and Amazing. Nicole Holofcener 2001, USA
Collateral. Michael Mann 2004, USA