Canon and Canonicity


Following World War II, a new generation of critics challenged the definition of film artistry posited by early theorists and historians, embracing cinematic realism and expanding the orthodox canon. Such writers as André Bazin (1918–1958) and Roger Leenhardt (1903–1985) located the essence of cinema in its capacity to record, preferring an aesthetic that respected the specificity, continuity, and ambiguity of the world in front of the camera rather than one that transformed it. Where earlier critics attempted to define cinema as a unique art form, Bazin described it as an impure art, acknowledging its links with theater and literature. Bazin celebrated the cinema of the 1930s and 1940s, elevated the reputation of commercial Hollywood films, and together with Alexandre Astruc (b. 1923), laid the foundation for the rise of auteurism. Bazin's influence canonized La Règle du jeu ( The Rules of the Game , Jean Renoir, 1939) and Ladri di biciclette ( Bicycle Thieves , Vittorio De Sica, 1948), while his praise for Citizen Kane (1941)—as well as the self-promotion of director Orson Welles (1915–1985) and cinematographer Gregg Toland (1904–1948)—established the film's reputation as one of cinema's greatest achievements. Citizen Kane has subsequently topped Sight and Sound 's critics poll of cinema's top ten movies every decade since 1962.

New outlets emerged in the postwar years for the promotion and exhibition of cinema, reinforcing the reputations of some directors while introducing others to critical tastemakers. Film publications and cinéclubs expanded, while the Venice Film Festival was revived in 1946 and international festivals began in Berlin, Germany; Cannes, France; Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic; and Locarno, Switzerland. Screenings at Venice of Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) and Ugetsu monogatari ( Tales of Ugetsu , Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) entranced Western critics and initiated the entry of Japanese films into the established canon.

The rise of auteurism in France, Britain, and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s hastened the comparative evaluation of films and filmmakers at the same time as a growing number of young people embraced international film culture. Proponents of the auteur policy argued that although cinema is a collaborative medium, its most significant works are the expression of the director, in whose films appear original thematic and stylistic consistencies that transcend production circumstances and assigned screenplays. Auteur critics utilized its principles to attack mainstream critics and celebrate the work of previously unheralded filmmakers. As auteurism became the dominant critical approach to cinema in the 1960s, film journals, ciné-clubs, and university film societies multiplied, while film studies programs were widely instituted across American college campuses. Steeped in auteurist principles from their youth, some members of this generation would later carry auteur principles into mainstream film criticism, while others eventually championed filmmaking practices that challenged classical conventions.

The missionary zeal of many auteur devotees invariably led to new canon formation. The young writers at Cahiers du cinéma formed the vanguard of auteur criticism, elevating Max Ophüls (1902–1957), Jacques Tati (1909–1982), Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980), and Howard Hawks (1896–1977) over the Tradition of Quality directors favored by the contemporary French press. The critics writing in Cahiers du cinéma reassessed the significant works of directors previously canonized, rating Welles's Mr. Arkadin (1955) higher than Citizen Kane and Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) above The Last Laugh , while also embracing Mizoguchi's Saikaku ichidai onna ( The Life of Oharu , W 1952) and Tales of Ugetsu for their long-shot, long-take aesthetic.

In the United States, Andrew Sarris (b. 1928) railed against native critics who favored foreign, experimental, and documentary films over commercial Hollywood productions. In The American Cinema (1968), he offered a reassessment of American film history based on auteurist principles, analyzing the work of over a hundred directors and sorting them into hierarchical categories ranging from "The Pantheon" to "Less Than Meets the Eye" to "Subjects for Further Research"; the result was a personal canon that served as both a model for critical assessment and a lightning rod for debate. The values underlying auteurism revolutionized the way critics conceived of artistic significance, opening the door for more low-budget, transgressive, and idiosyncratic directors to be endorsed by the critical mainstream.

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