Canon Fodder

pulp-ficiton.jpgThis week saw the debut of “The 50 Greatest Films,” with the One-Line Review’s Iain Stott compiling responses from 187 movie buffs, including me. The list made me wonder: Has the “film canon” become too ossified?

I was frankly shocked that the results were so ... ordinary. A top 10 of Citizen Kane, Vertigo, 2001, The Godfather, Casablanca, The Third Man, Taxi Driver, Seven Samurai, Psycho, and Dr. Strangelove is perfectly reasonable and respectable, but it’s also merely reasonable and respectable. Given Stott’s admirable democracy (“[I]gnoring thoughts of position or pedigree ... ,” he wrote, “professionals and amateurs sit side by side”), I expected a tension between the canonical and the contemporary and the popular.


The oldest movie to make the top 50 was Pulp Fiction (20th), and the list only includes four movies from the 1980s and ’90s. (Fiction is joined by Raging Bull, Blade Runner, and Do the Right Thing.)

Here’s the breakdown by decade:

1920s: 3 films (average rank of 26)
1930s: 6 films (average rank of 34)
1940s: 6 films (average rank of 19)
1950s: 14 films (average rank of 23)
1960s: 10 films (average rank of 25)
1970s: 7 films (average rank of 18)
1980s: 3 films (average rank of 38)
1990s: 1 film (rank of 19)
2000s: 0 films

These results suggest that the movies of the past three decades are simply not worthy of discussion, that they can’t hold their own against the rarefied classics of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Let’s allow that it’s too soon to pass judgment on the movies of the current decade; that still leaves almost 20 years of films that are effectively shut out.

Without getting into arguments about inclusions, omissions, and positions, some questions: Are the best movies of the ’80s and ’90s nearly across-the-board inferior? Or will those decades be better represented in surveys 30 years from now? Or has cultural fragmentation meant the end of the “common” experience required for classic status, relegating everything to a niche? Or ... ?

I dunno; I’m just askin’.

Compare this new list to the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 (as of July 15, 2009):

1920s: 0 films
1930s: 1 film (rank of 45)
1940s: 5 films (average rank of 34)
1950s: 7 films (average rank of 24)
1960s: 6 films (average rank of 26)
1970s: 7 films (average rank of 20)
1980s: 2 films (average rank of 13)
1990s: 13 films (average rank of 23)
2000s: 9 films (average rank of 24)

Obviously, we have the opposite situation here: The past two decades are clearly overrepresented. But the distribution among decades prior is more even.

When Stott’s list is broken down into decades, it’s a bell curve. But are the best movies of the 1950s and ’60s so superior? Or is the curve more a reflection of the surveyed people than the movies? Or ... ?

I dunno; I’m just askin’.

Consensus lists are always gonna’ be dull. That’s just the truth; no changing it. The reputation of films which have already been canonized insures that everyone has seen them -- after all, you can only pick what you’ve already seen -- and people feel pressure and some sense of obligation to include a number of these films along with whatever more outre picks they might make, lest their list look amateurish or needlessly contrarian. Voters tend not to overlap in their more outre picks, so when it’s all added up, you’re staring straight at some awfully typical, humdrum list full of Citizen Kane-type stuffiness.

Films need time to be canonized, too. (Yeah, this is a pretty obvious point.) In most cases, you’ve got to bludgeon people with a film for, like, at least a decade or two before anyone takes it seriously enough for a list like this, and most people don’t have the guts to get out ahead of a film and start voicing serious critical support for it before its position has already been established*.

Also, the way the project was presented doomed it to exactly the sort of staid, vanilla stodginess that it ultimately fell into, although I doubt it could have ever avoided that fate, even under other conditions. If you want to shake things up, you ask people for their favorite films, not “the greatest”, which just sounds like a request for the regurgitation of some bland, impersonal canon.

Thumbing through people’s personal lists looking for aberrant picks is much, much more interesting -- especially if you’ve already seen all the standard, set-in-stone selections before -- because the fact that someone would include such an unusual film on their list is often a good indicator that the voter really cares about the movie and isn’t including it for the appearance of respectability.

As for whether those decades really have a monopoly on great films: like you, I don’t know. I’ve seen some people trying to argue that the conditions during those times, particularly the 1960s, made for especially fertile ground for the creation of great film art -- and certainly there are many very, very good movies from the period -- but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s all a bunch of bullshit surreptitiously directed by some indefatigable ‘boomer nostalgia** -- that when they go on and on about the preeminence of the era and how nothing else holds up, secretly it’s really just them pining for some glittering memory of their youth. Whatever; like you, I don’t know. All I can say is that I’m really excited to see the state of the film canon after they’re all dead and buried. No rush.

* I was glancing over some lists from other polls. Robin Wood -- who has at least some trail-blazing critic cred for being perhaps the most vociferous champion of Mandingo -- appends his list with the comment: “I was tempted to include La Pianiste (Haneke) but it’s too soon to be sure.”
** Most of the people I’m talking about: not really representative of the voters who participated in this AFI clone list. For the most part, this is about the Godard, Bergman, Antonioni, Fellini, “I attended university in the 60s! What a time to be alive!” crowd, which is mostly different from the O-LR one.

The bell curve made me highly suspicious of a generational bias in the survey results.

I agree that the phrasing of the survey (“greatest” versus “favorite”) was one key problem, but like you, I’m retrospectively skeptical that the results would have been much different.

Iain’s disappointment spurred him to a new project that has the potential to be much more interesting: Beyond the Canon.

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