Film Studies and Canon Building

The air is filled with the sound of canons! The world of journalistic/cinephile film culture is astir with discussion and debate: please see David Hudson’s handy post for links to pieces on the recently announced results of the Sight & Sound poll.

While one domain of film culture is engaged in energetic conversation around this poll, another remains more or less silent. I refer to the film studies discipline.

In an essay that appeared in the Journal of American Culture last year, Jonathan Lupo laments that academic film studies, in the last few decades, has lost interest in canon building. He cites two major reasons: first, an increasing sensitivity to the “hegemonic” potential of canons to enshrine dominant values and ideologies; and second, the gradual displacement of aesthetic evaluation in film studies by context- and ideology-based readings of films. He writes:

I contend that while academic Film Studies had clear reasons for wanting to avoid explicit canon building with their own field, this abdication exacerbated clefts in the relationship between journalistic critics and the academy, the latter thereby missing an opportunity to fully contribute to the wider film community.

Lupo reminds us of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s argument in his book Movie Wars that when auteurism fell from favor in the academy beginning in the 1970s, films and filmmakers were de-canonized — only to be replaced by a canon of theorists such as Althusser, Barthes, Foucault, and Lacan. Films were more and more viewed as symptoms of social or economic or psychic phenomena — and less as aesthetic objects. For Rosenbaum this lack of interest in film-canon building was a disastrous development for the field because it resulted in abandoning this important activity to the hands of mainstream film critics and (most distressingly) to the marketplace. Increasingly, with opening weekend receipts being reported faithfully and regularly as “news,” box-office revenues now play a major role in constructing a populist canon for society and culture at large.

Rosenbaum also remarks on the divide that gradually sprung up between journalism and academia:

…each sphere of criticism was expected to stick to its own turf and mind its own field, and the most pronounced form of interchange between the two spheres was a growing disdain and mutual lack of respect. What might have figured in a more interactive film culture as some sort of dialectical and polemical struggle became instead a kind of reciprocal alienation.

Now, no one would deny that implicit — or de facto — canons exist in film studies. Despite the great move in postmodern thinking that flattened all cultural objects to the same level, the reality is that certain films find greater favor than others for the purposes of teaching or scholarship. Why then doesn’t the discipline call attention to this fact by making it public and explicit — in a gesture of institutional self-examination — by means of a poll? Is it because of an underlying (and embarrassing) suspicion that the idea of a canon is too often associated with aesthetic preferences?

In point of fact, I’m aware of at least one large and exemplary canon-building survey in film studies — the one conducted by the Australian journal Screening the Past five years ago. In a remarkably enlightened move, the scope of the poll included not just films but also the discourse surrounding films: books, essays, websites, DVD supplemental material, etc. It makes for fascinating reading.

Let me add: I am not advocating the creation of a small, static, stable canon. In fact, just the opposite. The recent aggregate top ten list that emerged from the Sight & Sound poll is of limited interest to me. What is most interesting about such a poll is the individual ballots — and the range of unexpected, unknown and unlikely titles that it brings to our consciousness. These titles spur our curiosity and spark our enthusiasm, expanding our horizons of film-viewing and thinking. Rather than shutting down multiplicity and difference (as many believe canons tend to do), they have the potential to do the exact opposite.

I think there are two key reasons for film studies to get actively involved in the canon formation effort. First, it would initiate public conversation by bringing two film cultures — journalistic and academic — into dialogue, conflict and exchange. Second, in today’s Internet and social media environment, such an effort — sponsored, for example, by the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) — would receive widespread publicity, thus pulling a large number of voices into a visible and international debate. Both these reasons can only be healthy for the film community.

I’m wondering what you think: Is there value in a film studies canon building effort? Are there alternative ways to conceive of a canon that might bypass the difficulties of traditional canons (e.g. their predominant focus on aesthetic evaluation)? Are there any specific obstacles to canon building in academe today? I’d love to hear any thoughts you may have on the subject.

* * *

FYI, here’s my ballot for the Sight & Sound poll:

The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967)
Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964)
Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
The Devil, Probably (Robert Bresson, 1977)
Subarnarekha (Ritwik Ghatak, 1965)
Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
India (Roberto Rossellini, 1959)
Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984)
L’Enfance Nue (Maurice Pialat, 1968)
Dil Se (Mani Ratnam, 1998)

No sooner had I drawn up the list did I notice that I had outrageously neglected silent cinema and all films before 1959! To echo the mantra on everyone’s lips this week: “Ten minutes later, my list would’ve been different.”

Your thoughts on the Sight & Sound poll?

pic: Chris Marker, 1921-2012.

Comments (32):

  1. girish

    August 8, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    I'd be remiss if I didn't include a link to Adrian's great essay on the subject of canons, "Light My Fire"! If you haven't read it yet, you must right away…

  2. Peter Labuza

    August 8, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    Great, interesting thoughts and I totally agree that academic circles of film studies have been fearful of canon forming since the overtake of Marxist/Feminist/Race/Queer/etc-theory that leaving any one of those out is to suggest and deny whole forms of film.

    However, the one thought that did pop into my head was aren't professors essentially forming a canon whenever they prepare a syllabus for a class? The goal of choosing your 12-15 films each semester is to encompass an entire area of film studies through a small selection of films. Do you watch Hiroshima mon Amour or Last Year in Marienbad in a French New Wave class? What film do you choose to represent Latin American cinema in a World Cinema class? (If any at all!). Do you just show a clip from Man With A Movie Camera so you can show the entirety of The General Line? Sure this is a very minimal way of canon formation that never leaves the individual classrooms, but in a way it is canon forming. I remember my first intro class: Griffith, Eisenstein, Weine, Keaton, Ford, Welles, Hitchcock, Marker, Godard, Coppola, Denis, Kiarostami, and Vinterberg. Those choices gave me a sense of what the history of film was and what were the essential films.

    But again alas, this is a small look into the canon, one informed from professor to student. I agree that it would be excellent to see something like SCMS come out with their own list every five or ten years or so. And I'm curious to what a list like that would look like. Perhaps even less from classic Hollywood? More experimental/avant-garde? Someone should put together a panel.

  3. dipanjan

    August 8, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    Pleasantly surprised to see Subarnarekha – close to my heart. Pretty sure it got exactly one vote.

  4. Peter Nellhaus

    August 8, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    OK, six out of ten, leaving four films to explore should the opportunity arise.

    I'm not fond of making lists, probably because for me, it's sort of like love, "the heart has its own reasons".

    My biggest reservation about these lists is that people use them as a reason NOT to see a film. Some of these lists enforce the idea that the only worthwhile films are from Hollywood, Western Europe and Japan. Some of my own exploration is looking past some of the self-appointed gatekeepers like Donald Richie or Tony Rayns. And if anyone wants to challenge me on my Top Ten Thai list, so be it, I can take it!

    I don't know if you saw Anne Thompson's list of 50 female directors in indiewire. As good as her intentions may have been, I think it a terrible list, ignoring so many of the better filmmakers. Any seriousness is undermined by listing Barbra Streisand's Yentl as the second best film by a female director, not even listing Elaine May, and oblivious to the fact that in Asia, the most lauded film of 2011 was Ann Hui's A Simple Life.

  5. Bobby Wise

    August 8, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    It seems like a lot of people voted for "Marnie". I'm surprised it didn't place somewhere on the list. Though I never liked the film myself. I notice it is often the sexy pick for the flawed, but quirky and interesting Hitchcock "masterwork".

    About canons, I don't think we need another competing list. However, I do think academics should have a vote. I would move for Sight & Sound to do three separate polls, strictly divided along lines of film critic, academic, and director. Try to keep people sectioned off as much as possible, if only for the supposed purity of the lists (no multi-hyphenates). Then aggregate them all and have your overall top 50. Top 100 is a bit boring to me and inconsequential. I'd rather the films play for higher stakes and spark even more heated discussions!

  6. girish

    August 9, 2012 at 5:54 am

    Thanks so much, Peter, Dipanjan, Peter and Bobby!

  7. Anonymous

    August 9, 2012 at 8:06 am

    I feel vindicated on seeing Dil Se in your list! Have had many debates about the film's importance in Indian cinema, its fresh filming style but have always come up short. This will help.

    Lists are an exercise for the mind, and a way to review your own choices and preferences, which undoubtedly change over time. And to group them into journalistic (mass, commercial) and academic (film studies, auteur) is defeating the purpose. A scholar of film needs to be educated with commercial cinema and a city-bred newspaper critic needs to understand the sense of purpose of good cinema.

  8. Joseph Pomp

    August 9, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Peter has a good point that syllabi are small steps toward an academic canon. A lot of film studies departments also publish suggested viewing lists (for one, Harvard's is readily available online). To me, it makes sense that this is the closest thing to a comprehensive canon Film Studies gets. Students need their film viewing guided, before they've chosen an area or theme in which to specialize. Many professors like to stick to their chosen turf, so a more academic-centered Sight & Sound-esque poll would run the risk of being weighed down by certain areas, e.g. specific national cinemas. See, for example, the following top ten ballot:

  9. Matthew Cheney

    August 9, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    It would be interesting to create (perhaps through SCMS) a survey of undergraduate film/media teachers and see what is on their syllabi. I expect there would be a lot of overlaps. I tend to feel (without having done research to see if my feelings are justified) that at least at the undergraduate level there really are a lot of films that are basically canonical, and that the various Theories over the years have in fact helped solidify that — though auteurism may be weaker, feminist and Freudian/Lacanian approaches certainly kept Hitchcock, for instance, on plenty of syllabi.

    Or we could just do a survey of, say, intro to film textbooks. I've read a lot of them. Most are pretty predictable.

    I honestly don't understand the push for canon-making — it feels like some nostalgic yearning for days when We Had Power. What's being lost? Where? How?

  10. Matthew Cheney

    August 9, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Actually, I need to edit/argue against myself — what I meant above is that if list-making is a intended as an activity for questioning and complexifying the existing canon of academic film studies, then it's useful; if it's an attempt to switch out one hegemony for another, then … yuck.

  11. Corey Creekmur

    August 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    I have little to say on the question of film canons, which I find diverting — I view these lists as games — but also distracting from more significant concerns. I've been working for a while now on trying to explain (not just complain) how popular Indian cinema — as the cliche goes, the world's largest cinema — has been excluded from film studies on the whole. My aim is to understand this historically, culturally, and institutionally — but not to give much credit to the notion that this was the result of actual aesthetic judgments or preferences. (How could people praise or dismiss films they hadn't seen?)

    But I do want to weigh in in scholarly mode and note that the discussion of canons animated by the Sight and Sound poll doesn't seem to have encouraged many to do their homework and go back to key essays that have explored this topic with some care, such as Janet Staiger's "The Politics of Film Canons" in CINEMA JOURNAL 24:2 (Spring 1985), or Virginia Wright Wexman's "The Critic as Consumer, Film Study in the University, VERTIGO, and the Film Canon," from FILM QUARTERLY 39:2 (Spring 1986), which in effect predicted (and explained as a historical phenomenon) the rise of VERTIGO in the rankings.

  12. Dave Johnson

    August 10, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    Great topic and discussion, as always, Girish. And many thanks to Corey for reminding us of those key 1980s essays. In fact, Dudley Andrew and Gerald Mast both wrote responses to the Staiger piece (both in Cinema Journal), and Staiger then responded, once again, to them (again in CJ). So there's a nice mid-1980s scholarly exchange on this very subject that's worth looking at, if you've got access to those back issues, either in print or digitally.

    I'll also mention one of my personal favorite essays on this subject, Paul Schrader's "Canon Fodder," which appeared in Film Comment in Sept/Oct 2006. (Forgive me if Lupo's piece already discusses this one–I have yet to read Lupo's argument but plan to do so.) Although Schrader's revised criteria are understandably broad, and as at least one other writer pointed out, it's not always clear how his new criteria yielded the actual selections for the new canon he puts forward, his history of canons more generally, as well as his opening reflections on why forming a canon is so difficult, make for some very stimulating reading.

    Link to Schrader’s essay (from his own site):

  13. girish

    August 12, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Thank you, all! So many interesting and thought-provoking ideas here.

    And thanks to Corey and Dave for the citations of Staiger (and the exchange with Andrew and Mast) and Wexman. In this vein, let me add: the Lupo article, well worth tracking down and reading, is from the Journal of American Culture, 34(3), September 2011.

    BTW, Corey, Lupo's piece also draws upon Staiger's.

    Also, Dave, not sure if you've seen this "counter-canon" from Zach Campbell in response to Schrader's, but it makes for good reading.

    Now, Corey, I find the exercise of canon-making more important than you seem to. But it is important to make a distinction between what is truly valuable and what is merely "diverting" and "distracting" about this process.

    What I find "distracting" and less interesting is the endless fretting over the top 10 or the top 50 (the rankings of films; which films went up or down and by how many positions), the kind of arguments we indulged in on Facebook for a couple of days after the poll was unveiled.

    But canon-making holds real value for both scholars and cinephiles.

    For scholars, it crucially provides both the impetus and rationale and legitimacy to the kind of work you are involved in, i.e. trying to explain why certain films have been excluded from film studies. I would argue that this kind of work gains enormously in urgency and perceived worth when large canons (like the S&S poll) can be used to demonstrate how certain large zones of cinema production (like India) are more or less ignored by such a canon.

    For cinephiles, it furnishes a sudden opening of horizons on to films previously unseen. Now, anecdotally, we all carry with us lists of films that we've been meaning to either see for the first time or revisit but the appearance of such films on the all-time top 10 list of a critic we admire immediately boosts the likelihood that we will make it a priority.

    Also, let's not forget: cinephilic and scholarly impulses are not divorced from each other. They are, ideally, symbiotic. Nourishing the cinephile side of a scholar might likely result in stimulating the scholarly side as well.

    And finally, canons such as this as are key to encouraging and developing new cinephiles and young would-be scholars. I know many film-lovers (myself included) who, armed with the complete S&S poll results, set out on a 10-year journey to track down and see as many films from that list as they could. The sheer level of investment in one's cinephilia that this gesture inspires is tremendous. And it's good for both film culture and (potentially) film scholarship.

    This is a great back-and-forth–thank you, all.

  14. girish

    August 12, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    A crucial contribution of the canon-making process is an amassing of explicit evidence of everything a canon leaves out (as Corey pointed out with respect to Indian cinema).

    Let me excerpt from Adrian's essay that I linked to above:

    "I would expect that a new canon would try to correct some of the problems, absences, biases and exclusions of existing canons. Unfortunate problems like these:

    * Canons massively favour the feature length format, and exclude short films.

    * Canons massively favour narrative films, and exclude documentaries.

    * Most canons have a heavy bias towards the classics of American cinema, because they reflect a long-ago period in (mainly Western) film culture before Asian cinema, Indian cinema, Iranian cinema and so forth finally broke into some people's consciousnesses.

    * Canons favour drama over comedy, just like at the Academy Awards. Buster Keaton always hovers just outside the established canons (while Chaplin sometimes scrapes in as timeless, universal and noble), while Jerry Lewis is a complete outcast – and that's a crime.

    * Canons have little regard for the achievements and traditions of many popular genres. At best, you might find one musical (usually Singin' in the Rain [1951]), a token horror movie by a great auteur (like Hitchcock's Psycho [1960]) and a single, exceptional science fiction classic (Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]). But there is so much more in the great sea of pop culture, from Louis Feuillade serials to Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1995).

    * Virtually all forms of avant-garde or experimental cinema are banished from canons – which means, for example, that the best women filmmakers in cinema history, like Maya Deren and Chantal Akerman, are rarely honoured in such surveys.

    * Canons like to take refuge in the past, and flee from the challenges of the present. Some canons are happy to shut up shop with Raging Bull in 1980.

    * Canons favour an organic aesthetics – they valorise whole, entire films as perfect objects. This leaves no room for imperfect films, or brilliant bits or fragments of films. And we all know there are many films that are great for just ten minutes, maybe just for one scene.

    * Canons valorise singular masterpieces over bodies or corpuses of work. But there is no single great masterpiece to be plucked from the careers of many important and influential directors, including Fassbinder, Pasolini and Preston Sturges.

    In short, canons simply ignore too many good, important, significant and pleasurable movies. But what, realistically, is the alternative?"

  15. Corey Creekmur

    August 12, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    I should clarify that I am hardly immune to the compelling draw of canons — I pore over these lists like many others, pleased and appalled at selections that match or challenge my own, and I've certainly benefited from learning of previously unknown films — especially when I see they are highly regarded by a critic I admire. So I accept that canons (I'm using that term as shorthand for various kinds of lists that claim "best" or at least "favorite" status) have those uses, and pleasures.

    But I'm struck by your claims, Girish, supported by many of Adrian's points, that the real value of canons is that they illuminate what they lack or exclude. I agree, but that seems to me curious justification, like saying a mainstream bookstore is of value for reminding us of all of the books they don't stock! Just to take one of Adrian's many on target points: why do we remain so loyal to the praise of the whole film rather than the great sequence? A good deal of film theory — from Bazin to Deleuze — cites key scenes in films to support major claims about cinema as a whole: but when pushed, we rarely gather lists of the great scenes/sequences/shots in cinema. We take it for granted — that's my real point — that greatness must adhere to a whole: and, again, I fully understand the appeal of a film that is rich from start to finish (I'll be a bit retrograde now and suggest that CITIZEN KANE fits that bill), but why has that become an implicit criterion, rather than a stated (and debated) rule? I guess this very discussion suggests that a canon opens up such topics, but on the whole I think canons keep these questions at bay, rather than invite or encourage them. (So thanks to you for encouraging them, but I think you are going above and beyond what the Sight and Sound poll expects …)

    I'll also fall back on an obvious point, but one that still nags me: have even the most dedicated cinephiles seen enough films to make these judgments? Every list from even the best critics strikes me as one that should include "(of those I have seen)" as a reminder of those realistic limitations. (And given my own interests, I'm often aware that many great critics haven't seen any of the thousands of Hindi films produced, so those are missing from lists not because they have been judged lesser films, but because they are simply unseen. And I'm painfully aware of my own limitations: how do I know that one of the greatest films ever made isn't a Nigerian "Nollywood" film? After all, I've only seen two or three, and there are hundreds of them now.) And then there are all the lost films, or films that exist but are almost impossible to see … as others have pointed out, current lists are also now lists of films that (with curious exceptions) are available on video; it's fascinating to consider that the earlier Sight and Sound lists were based on films that could only be seen as projected prints (or perhaps via television broadcasts). VERTIGO's rise is closely related to its release from the rights limbo that made it hard to see (Robin Wood relied on a black and white pirate print, he notes) for so long. Is it any surprise that some films probably don't get onto these lists because they aren't — for whatever reason — on video? I won't be surprised if in coming years, LONESOME rises in status with the forthcoming Criterion release, since it's a film that has been notoriously hard to view up to now.

  16. Corey Creekmur

    August 12, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    By the way, I've been trying — without success — to recall the title of a book that appeared many years ago that collected the "best" forgotten or neglected films from international archivists. It was fascinating, but frustrating, because it was often made up of titles that existed in a single print in a single archive. Does anyone recall this? My poor memory tells me this was based on an international poll, perhaps by the Belgian Film Archive, or FIAF? Help! It should be part of these discussions, but seems to have been forgotten (and only dimly recalled by me).

  17. Jonathan Rosenbaum

    August 12, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. Jonathan Rosenbaum

    August 13, 2012 at 2:59 am

    Hi Corey, What a drag. I answered your query in detail hours ago, but for some reason it didn't post, and now I'm in the Miami airport awaiting a delayed flight to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where I no longer have access to the book and its precise title. It was put out by the Royal Film Archive in Belgium in 1977, and the term "misappreciated American films" (which should have been "underappreciated…") was part of the lengthy title. Emile De Antonio listed his own features as the most "misappreciated", and Rivette included Snow's La Region centrale on his own list of the "best American films," committing the common French error of confusing Canada with America.

  19. girish

    August 13, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Hi Jonathan, I'm not sure why the comment didn't post, but I received an email notification of it. So let me cut and paste your original comment here. Thank you–and have a great trip to Brazil!

    "Corey: The book you're referring to is THE MOST IMPORTANT AND MISAPPRECIATED AMERICAN FILMS SINCE THE BEGINNING OF THE CINEMA. It was out together by Jacques Ledoux in 1977, shortly before his death, and published by the Royal Film Archive of Belgium. I'm proud to say I was one of the people polled….Among the more eccentric entries were Rivette's inclusion of La Region Centrale (not distinguishing between American and Canadian) on his own list and Emile De Antonio listing five of his own titles as his only "misappreciated films". (I assume that what was meant my "misappreciated" was "underappreciated".) A fascinating book, in any case."

  20. Corey Creekmur

    August 13, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Jonathan, thanks thanks thanks for finding the time to post this, and to Girish for the rescue operation! I had forgotten not only the title (and now I see why …) but that it was limited to "American" (well, North American, I guess) films. I'm going to seek it out again — as I recall, a wonderfully counter-canonical work of canon formation.

  21. girish

    August 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Haha, Corey, your example made me laugh:

    "But I'm struck by your claims, Girish, supported by many of Adrian's points, that the real value of canons is that they illuminate what they lack or exclude. I agree, but that seems to me curious justification, like saying a mainstream bookstore is of value for reminding us of all of the books they don't stock!"

    Indeed, my claim does sound a bit loopy at first glance! But here's my argument for it–even if none of it will be new or revelatory to you…

    One of the important tasks of criticism is to expose and critique 'dominant ideology' in its many forms. In our day-to-day lives, we see plenty of examples of such ideologies, but what the critic really desires and longs for is the existence of rich and interesting cultural objects for her analysis–objects that in some manner embody this dominant ideology. Such objects provide something for the critic to both work with and against, to write with and write against. The large S&S poll is just such an object for world film culture.

    Would Barthes' Mythologies exist today if it weren't for the array of diverse mainstream, mass-cultural artifacts that he drew upon to mount his critiques of bourgeois myths and values? Would Jonathan's invaluable "Essential Cinema" 1000-film list of suggested viewing exist if it weren't for the 1998 AFI Best Films list that he was writing up against? I don't believe they would–or at least not in the same form.

    And whether S&S intended for the poll results to be used in this way is, to me, not relevant. Think of the countless cultural objects and practices analyzed by the cultural critic–few of them were explicitly intended for the use to which the critic put them…

    I'm still thinking about your "mainstream bookstore" example … LOL, as the kids say these days…!

  22. Bobby Wise

    August 13, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    I think in all the debates about whether canon formation is worthy or not, we forget to embrace the joy of the task. It's fun and somewhat refreshing to try to list what you think are the top films, it's fun to see what other people you respect put on their lists, and it's fun to debate and discuss.

    Things don't always have to be so dastardly and ruthlessly debunked in the traditional academic manner. Everything can be critiqued — to the point that we can make any endeavor seem weighted with poisonous bias and ultimately worthless. At the end of the day we may leave ourselves with nothing to celebrate. Cinephilia was meant to be enjoyed. We should relax and be patient. The canon is a living, breathing, evolving organism.

  23. girish

    August 13, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    P.S. Corey, your tribute to Alexander Doty (part of Catherine's collection of links in this post) was very moving. I didn't know him, and had read only a little of what he wrote. In the last week I've been enjoying his book FLAMING CLASSICS: QUEERING THE FILM CANON (thus the connection to this thread!). Let me post here the striking opening paragraph of the book:

    "I have huge cultural and erotic investments in so-called mainstream and classic popular culture texts and personalities that date from my childhood in the 1950s and 1960s. They gave me as much pleasure as they did pain and bad ideological lessons. For example, Marilyn Monroe was my first sex education teacher. From her emotional and physical struggles with Robert Mitchum in The River of No Return, I learned that heterosexuality was about a woman resisting, then submitting to, a man who said he was concerned about her welfare, but who, finally, had to show the woman who was boss by forcing his attentions upon (i.e., raping) her. But it all looked very exciting and erotic to a nine-year-old sissy boy and his eight-year-old sister watching Saturday Night at the Movies on television: Monroe’s creamy, breathy blondeness crushed up against Mitchum’s rough, unshaven darkness. My sister and I performed variations on the film’s crucial sex scene for months afterwards, alternating in the Monroe and Mitchum roles. So I guess Monroe also helped me learn about queerness, since I would act out fantasies of desiring her and of being her at the mercy of my butch-acting straight sister."

  24. Bobby Wise

    August 13, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    Whoa. Queerness is practiced and learned? That's explosive stuff.

  25. Yusef Sayed

    August 14, 2012 at 6:58 pm


    Corey said:

    “I'll also fall back on an obvious point, but one that still nags me: have even the most dedicated cinephiles seen enough films to make these judgments? Every list from even the best critics strikes me as one that should include "(of those I have seen)" as a reminder of those realistic limitations.”

    Corey, you beat me to the punch with this. I think it is this attitude that usually hinders me from having any say on this matter, being relatively green when it comes to exploring film history in comparison to many of those polled by Sight and Sound.

    No sooner have I drawn up a list when, rather than recalling films that I have excluded that I feel should have a place in the Top Ten, I see a film I have not previously seen and am overwelmed yet again, since there truly are more blistering works than any list like this could ever contain. A top 5,000 maybe – it’s as if there should be a placeholder on my list: ‘The film I have yet to see that is going to change everything and propel my love of cinema to greater heights’.

    Yet, this leads us to a troubling question: how many films, and how wide-ranging, must we have seen before we feel that we are in a place to make a truly informed decision? Since nobody can see everything ever made, who is going to determine that magical number? Anybody can be made to feel inadequate in this respect. But while you might sit and ponder these questions, others are happily getting on with shaping film culture to some extent, through contributing to a magazine as prestigious as Sight and Sound, whether they’ve seen a thousand or ten thousand films. One shouldn’t just sit idly by, in my view.

    I will admit that I did not refer much to any of the Sight and Sound polls when my interest in cinema was growing – I think I was aware of the 2002 Top Ten. Jonathan’s list in ESSENTIAL CINEMA was definitely my initial guide and one I would recommend to anyone who is interested in learning about cinema. But with respect to both of these lists, I still have not seen everything on them. I have used Jonathan’s list as leaping off point and as a harbour to come back to from time to time, even if just for inspiration.
    What I feel that the canons like the Sight and Sound poll neglect – or more accurately, what I would value in any list of the ‘greatest films ever made’ – is the addition of key critical texts, or reference books on the films.

    Whether one is a tireless cinephile, or a regular filmgoer, we are still all interested in sharing our thoughts and feelings about works that are important to us or interest us. Criticism or other film texts help us to reflect and improve our thinking with respect to works of art, develop the ability to articulate what fascinates us about them, learn about their genesis, and the contexts in which they were made and released and encourages topics for conversation and a motivation to return to these works again and again. And I would like to see criticism itself being recommended alongside the films to those who would really like to learn more – at least on the critics' lists.

    While many films have been overwhelming experiences for me through a direct encounter alone, my passion for other films has developed in tandem with texts about them. I wouldn’t expect someone to have their life changed by simply handing them a list of films that I consider to be among the best ever made. That provides no insight into how I developed my interest, what aspects of the work helped me appreciate the medium and continue to bring me back to the work, or which other viewers/critics presented ideas about the film to which I responded strongly, either positively or negatively.

  26. Yusef Sayed

    August 14, 2012 at 7:00 pm


    Jonathan’s blog contains an poll he organised in 1976 called My Favourite Films/Texts/Things that I think takes this different, and in my view more interesting, approach – Paul Willemen’s entry struck me in particular. This is to say that I would have enjoyed the individual lists being even more detailed and informative, full of more suggestions.

    But just as I encounter plenty of people who recoil from anyone attempting to, as far as they see it, ‘explain’ a film to them, perhaps putting these reading suggestions in with the canon would turn people off. Homework!!

    I enjoyed reading Zach’s Counter-Canon, which I hadn’t seen before and I think his point about Schrader’s canon not reflecting the possibilities of cinema holds for this latest Sight and Sound poll too.

    Anyway, without further ado, and without anything from the history of Japanese cinema, which has provided me with so many revelations to date, and with my heart set on learning more about national cinemas of which I remain in the dark here's a list from me:

    1. NOSFERATU – and Gilberto Perez’s writing about the film. Where the hell was this in the Sight and Sound poll??

    2. OUTER SPACE – Tscherkassky is my go-to guy for introducing folks to the avant-garde.

    3. FILM FEEDBACK – and a look at Tony Conrad’s diagram and notes on the process – I have an intense fascination with works that develop out of systems like this, in music too. A perfect example of an artwork operating solely using the specificities of its own medium.

    4. LA VIE NOUVELLE – I recommend that this one in particular be played loud through a decent stereo system and TV, if you don’t get chance to see it in a cinema, or not at all. Don’t you dare watch this on YouTube or streamed on your laptop!!

    5. LA REGLE DU JEU – The only film among previous Sight and Sound Top Tens that I am including in my own.

    6. RIO BRAVO – a well-known classic that I put off for a long, long time and then wondered why, oh why. The new Sight and Sound list will, of course, lead to similar occurrences.

    7. AFRICA 50


    9. THE BLACKOUT instead of VERTIGO – alongside Nicole Brenez’s book on Abel Ferrara, which will open up his work for you so intelligently and beautifully, and might just change your life.

    10. ROSETTA

  27. girish

    August 15, 2012 at 10:28 am

    Thanks for your thoughts and the annotated list, Yusef!

  28. Michael Guillen

    August 16, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    The recent aggregate top ten list that emerged from the Sight & Sound poll is of limited interest to me. What is most interesting about such a poll is the individual ballots — and the range of unexpected, unknown and unlikely titles that it brings to our consciousness. These titles spur our curiosity and spark our enthusiasm, expanding our horizons of film-viewing and thinking. Rather than shutting down multiplicity and difference (as many believe canons tend to do), they have the potential to do the exact opposite.

    That statement alone confirms for me why you have become such an important mediating voice in film culture, Girish. It couldn't be said more succinctly or fairly. I've never much been one for film studies, but have become engaged with film festival studies in recent years, primarily because of the challenge adopted by your position: that academics and non-academics have a lot to offer each other. In that domain there seems to be much more participation between academics and "critic-practitioners" (as Dina Iordanova calls them).

    I support 100% your suggested bridges of discourse.

  29. girish

    August 22, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    Thanks, Michael! We'll miss seeing you in Toronto this year.

  30. Unknown

    August 27, 2012 at 6:56 am

    Its very excellent to read about the Film Studies and Canon Building,its very new topic to read,thanks for sharing keep posting.

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