Backdoor Canonization

Speaking of Category E films, there's an article in Slate on The Searchers that blames academic film studies for the popularization of Ford and his film:
[I]t is Ford's status, and even more so Wayne's, as troubling anachronisms that help levitate the reputation of The Searchers. For everything in The Searchers can be said to be "problematized," that favored term of art for film and culture studies, starting with the old standbys race and gender but moving on quickly to Wayne and Ford themselves. ..The argument that Ford, and by extension Wayne, set about in the mid-'50s to "subvert" (another film-studies byword) their own meticulously constructed personas as defenders of a heroic code of the unsettled West was first floated in the early days of film studies, and has been catnip to the institutional critic ever since.

The author, Stephen Metcalf, doesn't cite which academics or which readings he talking about. Not knowing the scholarship on the film, I can't say how accurate his assessment is. It does seem like a caricature, partly because film scholars are now less inclined to those Category E sorts of readings than they were in the 1980s and 1990s, partly because there not all Category E readings serve auteurist impulses, the "Sirkian system" notwithstanding. To my knowledge, plenty of scholars find Ford and Wayne thoroughly racist but find enough contradictions around racial and gender politics in the film to make interpretation of its multivalence an appealing project.

Perhaps that distinction gets to the heart of an interesting issue: is it a problem when presumably nonhierarchical theoretical paradigms end up recreating a canon? Do contradictory, reflexive, and otherwise illustrative texts get to the front of the line when we create our syllabi and write articles - in the same way that films conforming to high modernism did in the 1960s and 70s?

Of course, not every one is as resolutely committed as I am to the evacuation of questions of evaulation from film studies (i.e. they like traditional canon-making). And others go further than I in resisting canonicity, particularly in the pedagocial situation. I happen to think you need to teach students the canon while also modeling scholarship that's non-evaluative. Students need to learn somehow the way film has been conceived as an art (by some) while it functions as popular culture (by most). Other scholars, perhaps, disagree, preferring to either emphasize film-as-popular culture or else push the notion of film art in directions other than with the interpretive communities that historically have defined it.

So, in short, my take on the matter is "canons OK, evaluative scholarship something to avoid." Also, depending on what one is researching, an anti-canonical approach may be necessary. Bordwell, Thompson and Staiger's statistical sample in Classic Hollywood Cinema (Columbia UP, 1985) is partly gimmick (they happily will choose another film if it suits their purpose) but works well as a first step in constituting an object of study, an "epistemological break" as Bourdieu would call it. It's a spirit in intellectual inquiry that could be emulated more, I think.


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