Friday, March 30, 2012

Wide Angle: The Canon Conundrum

Occasionally I will take a break from reviewing movies to complain about something else: this is "Wide Angle"

Ever since reading Kristen Thompson's piece earlier this month on the "Citizen Kane assumption," I've been thinking a lot about the mythical ideal of a cinematic canon - the list of films that been's cultivated into a not-so-secret garden of greatness, a well of exclusivity ironically defined by the mandatory inclusion of certain titles. Given the constant mutations of popularity and taste over 115-plus years of film history, our continued insistence on a one-size-fits-all approach is decidedly odd. We recognize this, but are loath to admit it, creating a scenario where our tortured critical psyche seeks validation by repackaging our notions of the "best" lines of dialogue in three-hour TV specials and countless webpage slideshows. But it's instructive to take a step back and realize what we are really doing with these endless inventories - it's become less about examining what makes a film the "best" than setting up the same tired arguments.

That's largely because it seems like the main function of a film canon is not celebrating greatness, but identifying and re-affirming consensus. That goes double for the Oscars. By winning the Academy Award for Best Picture this past February, The Artist entered what is perhaps the most widely-recognized artistic canon in the world, whether we like it or not. (Consider this post a very belated Oscars postmortem.) The fact that much of this year's Oscar narrative revolved around how underwhelming the nominees were - a common complaint, year after year - again revealed the disparity between the our expectations of a Best Picture's worthiness and what this choice actually represents.

Let us abduct you into our world of whimsical nostalgia

The Artist's canonical authority is derived from a quality that a great many past winners have also possessed: electability. As much as they are about popularity, everyone admits that the Oscars are also a contest of political will and consensus-building. So it only makes sense that we often discuss them in political terms. It's not coincidental that studios launch "campaigns" to raise a film's profile within the electorate and turn their nominees into front-runners. (If you extend the analogy to include a kind of Oscars Electoral College, the directors are the progressive upper Midwest and the actors are the solidly sentimental Sunbelt.)

Thompson echoes this sentiment in her post, comparing John Ford's How Green Was My Valley to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane to illustrate how even film critics - a group that should feel the least unencumbered in expressing its sincere opinion - are guided by the search for consensus. Though How Green won the big prize at the 1941 Academy Awards, it is Kane that has endured as a staple of lists of the greatest films ever made, to the point that Ford's classic suffers from an inverted halo effect. Entertainment Weekly had the gumption to include How Green on a list of "most overrated" Oscar winners, mostly because it had the temerity to be released in the same year as Kane.

Man, I really wish I was watching Citizen Kane instead

Frankly, I have no patience for the kind of ex post facto exercise that EW indulges in here. (How is it possible for the winner of a democratic vote to be "overrated?") Any fair and balanced reckoning of Kane should note that its ubiquitous presence on best-of lists is as perfunctory a narrative as a nakedly "sentimental" film temporarily distracting Academy voters from recognizing the great artistic triumph right under their noses. But we forget that the Academy's decision is made by a relatively minuscule group of people, with a scant few months to locate the films in their proper historical and artistic context. With time, it's become clear that Kane and How Green are each great films in their own right. It's slightly insane that we invest so much in an either-or proposition. Why can't our canon make room for both?

Well, we love the speculation, we love the competition, and we love the fact that, though capable of producing idiosyncratic results, the output of our collective critical machinery is usually as predictable as the process of nominating a presidential candidate. The contenders on the margins are initially exciting, but suffer under greater scrutiny. We end up with a winner that represents a collective compromise and best resembles a "classical" form. It's a process designed to vet our fiercest and messiest passions, for better or worse, and preserve our prudence for posterity.

Charles Foster Kane and all the publications that have declared his biopic the best film of all time

Given that the walls of good taste can be torn down as quickly as they are built up, consensus isn't a terrible foundation to build a canon on. Maybe the self-curating film buff plowing through his or her Netflix queue doesn't care a whit about the year's best middlebrow dramas, but for a great many people an Academy Award is a film's ticket to a cinematic Shangri-La. And despite several choices that may appear subpar or uninspired, even the stuffiest of snobs has to admit you could construct a formidable Film Appreciation 101 syllabus from the Academy's selections. Casablanca. The Godfather. All Quiet on the Western Front. Annie Hall. The Lord of the Rings.

In the end, neither they nor we should sweat what's not on that list, especially when the vast majority of the public is excluded from its assembly. Rather, we should focus on the canons that include us as decision makers. The Library of Congress's National Film Registry is unique in this regard. Anybody can make a nomination for the list of up to 25 films that are added to the Registry every year. The main criteria for inclusion are that a film must be at least 10 years old and should be "historically, culturally, or aesthetically significant." Thus, we have a comprehensive, continuously expanding list where James Cameron can rub shoulders with John Cassavetes, and Mrs. Doubtfire is as viable a candidate for inclusion as Mulholland Dr.

And isn't this the best example of what a canon can be - inclusive, diverse, and personal? Not a hierarchy, but a level playing field? It all boils down to a simple choice: we can decide on a film canon that easily anticipates the old arguments, or we can endeavor to create our own.

1 comment:

  1. Great read. Now I have a life goal of watching everything in the NFR. (overt sarcasm) Thanks a lot!