Canon and Canonicity


By the end of the 1960s, some theorists and academics began questioning the tendency of auteur critics to consider the aesthetic value of films outside of any economic, historical, or ideological context. The adoption within film scholarship of theories drawn from structuralism, semiotics, Marxism, and psychoanalysis made problematic notions of authorship and conventional critical assessments. The rise of a modernist European art cinema and a vibrant American avant-garde encouraged some scholars and critics to embrace alternative filmmaking practices. At the same time in academia, feminism, race and ethnic studies, and queer studies led to a re-evaluation of orthodox canons in literature, art, and film.

In cinema studies, scholars critiqued the canon from a number of angles. They noted that organizing film history around "great men" who produce masterpieces ignores other important aspects of the field, including film style, technology, genre, industry, national film schools, and spectatorship. Some highlighted the exclusionary nature of the orthodox canon, including the paucity of female, non-western, and non-white directors, and the neglect of documentaries, avant-garde, and animated films. Others argued that not all viewers value the same films, and those films that are valued can be significant to viewers for different reasons; thus, the personal canons of critics, filmmakers, and audience members will likely differ, as will those of individuals in different countries and age groups. A new approach to canon formation appeared necessary.

Janet Staiger summarizes four common approaches adopted in the 1970s and 1980s to address perceived problems in canon formation. First, some scholars analyzed acknowledged film classics against the grain, seeking to reveal new meanings and significance through alternative readings. Others revised the criteria that determined the nature of film art in an effort to include previously marginalized work within the established canon. Many called for the creation of new canons of oppositional work that challenged dominant modes of representation. Finally, still others argued for the abolition of the canon itself, as the process of canon formation inevitably elevates selected films at the expense of others. Rather than a complete abandonment of the canon, the primary result of several decades of debate within film studies discourse has been a greater awareness of the varied criteria used to form canons and their implications for film culture and history.

As academia grappled with the relative merits of canon formation, the evaluative impulse of auteurism became enshrined within mainstream film culture, leading to an embrace of the masterpiece tradition and an ever-growing number of "best of" lists. Individual critics at daily newspapers, magazines, and specialized film publications as well as critics' groups around the world now annually rate each year's releases, while the Library of Congress has its National Treasures list, and on the Internet thousands of personal web sites offer their own idiosyncratic canons. The urge to define cinema's masterpieces reached its apex with the wave of national cinema centenaries celebrated during the late 1990s and early 2000s, as organizations in country after country conducted polls to select their top one hundred film productions. Meanwhile, growing popular interest in box-office grosses and ancillary sales has led to the promotion of a different kind of canon, one formed by consumer taste rather than critical opinion. In the United States, Gone with the Wind (1939) has achieved canonical status as the all-time highest box-office performer, reflecting not its critical clout but its firm hold on the popular imagination.

While some academics and critics continue to favor a core canon dominated by art cinema and select Hollywood auteurs, the boundaries of the canon are continually expanding. Early tastemakers were able to see movies only via theatrical release, a few major film festivals, and specialized exhibition, yet modern scholars and critics enjoy dramatically increased access to titles through a diverse array of additional media: cable, video, VCD/DVD, and the Internet. Institutions such as the American Film Institute (AFI) and British Film Institute (BFI) mount programs of film screenings and publications that aid in redefining the canon. At the same time, growing scholarly interest in commercial, cult, and previously marginalized cinemas has expanded the criteria applied to canon selection. These shifts have enlarged the fringes of the canon, such that Tokyo nagaremono ( Tokyo Drifter , Seijun Suzuki, 1966), a campy, pop art genre picture, is as likely to be featured in today's film magazine or college cinema course as the venerated classic Tokyo monogatari ( Tokyo Story , Yasujiro Ozu, 1953). As individuals are encouraged to compare their "top tens" to those of critics, and access to films and film scholarship expands, the re-evaluation, expansion, and renewal of the canon will continue.

SEE ALSO Auteur Theory and Authorship ; Criticism ; Film History

Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? , 2 vols. Translated by Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Christie, Ian. "Canon Fodder." Sight and Sound 2, no. 8 (December 1992): 31–33.

Rotha, Paul. The Film Till Now , 3rd ed. New York: Twayne, 1960.

Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1928–1968 . New York: Dutton, 1968.

Staiger, Janet. "The Politics of Film Canons." Cinema Journal 24, no. 3 (Spring 1985): 4—23.

Lisa Dombrowski

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