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Remarks about film(s)

Firing the canon

Largely as a delaying tactic, I compiled an unnecessarily comprehensive list of film-based blogs and sites to accompany this new blog before actually writing anything down, and fortuitously enough one of these has relieved me of the effort of generating a first subject of my own. The latest issue of the rather wonderful American journal Film Comment has an exclusively online section on a favourite hobby-horse of mine, the ‘film canon’. In the previous printed issue, the director Paul Schrader umm’d and ahh’d for several pages before finally giving us a long list of films he considers the greatest ever made. Now the Film Comment site publishes a sample of the responses to his article, along with Schrader’s reply and a list of directors that his readers considered he’d omitted.

This distinction between films – which is what the canon consists of – and directors – whom the readers want to see represented – is an interesting, and perpetual, feature of these lists, or at any rate the more ‘serious’ ones. (Presumably few of the people who voted for Channel 4’s ‘100 Greatest Films’ can be expected to know who directed The Shawshank Redemption (no 3) or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (no 14).) Some directors – eg Hitchcock and Buñuel – have such a store of first-rate films that it’s difficult choosing between them; and I’ve been wondering for some time whether the gradual elevation of Vertigo to become Hitchcock’s ‘greatest’ film tells us less about the qualities of the film itself and more about the pressing need to have so virtuoso and influential a film-maker represented in the lists. (Buñuel hasn’t entered this phase yet, so that his representation is usually dissipated through some half-dozen films.) The great beneficiary of this need to choose one particular film – and it’s interesting that individuals making these lists tend to limit themselves to one film per director (cf Schrader himself and Derek Malcolm, in his ‘Century of Films’ for the Guardian in 1999–2001) – is Orson Welles, whose Citizen Kane is not only a marvellous piece of work in its own right, but is also the only one of his films which was not in some way hobbled, whether by studio interference (Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil) or by lack of funds (Othello, Chimes at Midnight). I have to say that, fond as I am of Kane, I’ve always admired Welles more for the imperfect but sporadically impressive films he made under difficult circumstances, and I suspect that the pleasure I take in a film’s rough edges and/or accidental felicities derives from this original preference. (One result of the primacy of Kane in Welles’ output is that critics who want to show off occasionally choose another of his films. Ambersons and Touch of Evil seem to be the most popular alternatives, though I’m seeing more and more references, alarmingly enough, to that rather peculiar film Confidential Report. I suppose it’s the Vertigo-like self-referentiality that people are going for.)

I might have a go at Vertigo on a later occasion, but I do wonder in any case what the point is of bringing together such mismatched films. To use that tired old analogy from school, it‘s a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Before the most recent Sight and Sound poll in 2002, the two top films on their list were Kane and La Règle du jeu, which made me wonder whether it was worth thinking of the films as either ‘spectacle’ or ‘meditation’ – Kane being very much the former, and on some levels ‘inferior’ to more ‘meditative’ works on the list. That’s an unnecessarily black and white view, of course, though I do think it’s nice to use the terms to tweak Stanley Kubrick’s tail (eg ‘2001 is spectacle masquerading as meditation’) and consider whether the combination of the two is what makes Tarkovsky such an interesting figure…

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