Friday, September 20, 2013

After the Canon Wars

I've written about the canon before but one thing worth pointing out is that the discipline has largely moved beyond the canon wars. By that I mean that in the 1980s, film studies explicitly took up theoretical debates about the canon that were raging in literary studies; Janet Staiger's 1985 Cinema Journal essay "The Politics of Film Canons" (or Gerald Mast's reply) is a good example. It's not fair to say that the debate was settled since scholars still held cinephile tastes and since Citizen Kane hardly disappeared from college syllabi. That said, the anti-canon forces could be said to carry the day on several key fronts of scholarship. Even canonical auteurs like Nicholas Ray were examined on the basis of historical-ideological reading, not aesthetic exegesis - I'll call this the Category E camp. Cultural studies, particularly in its dealing with contemporary cinema, privileged objects of study with historical-ideological importance, with aesthetic importance secondary. And Wisconsin school film historians gave a method to film history that did not always take the canon as the starting point.

Approach #3 is still going on strong, in fact I'd say its fruits are just starting to bear, but within the discipline there's been a little bit of a turn away from the first two. The Deleuzian and New Theoretical work is frequently canonical and auteur-oriented. Moreover, the explicit debates of the 1980s seem largely absent: scholars have their working assumptions about the canon and what they should be researching but don't seem to be debating those assumptions.

I guess I'm wondering where this all leaves me. I still find many of the 1980s critiques of the canon persuasive and productive, yet I am trying to be more honest in acknowledging my cinephile taste and background. I currently teach in a largely production program, where aesthetics and aesthetic models are very important, and my teaching context has reoriented me to the aesthetic dimension of cinema. And then there's the excitement I find in the reintegration of film theory and film criticism that canonicity and the New Theoretical Turn has brought.

I do not want to return to 1960s style auteurism and canon-building. To my eye, there are too many theoretical reasons not to do so, but even more than that, there are too many movies worth seeing. As our available knowledge of film history continues to fill out and more titles become accessible, the more impoverished that our previous canon seems.


For instance, last night I watched a terrific program of Lithuanian documentaries, many from the 1960s period inspired in part by Free Cinema. It was a revelation to me, not only historically, as a national cinema I was unfamiliar with, but also for the distinctive poetic approach the documentaries took. They were beautiful, evocative, and difficult films. And largely absent from the documentary canon, much less the broader film canon. In fact, I'd say they've been largely absent in the American academy because they don't quite qualify with the canon as we've followed it. They were not trailblazers like Free Cinema makers, nor were they formally rigorous - there was something messy about them. And yet, they were and are gripping films that beg to be watched on their own terms.

I don't want to argue that these films need to be in the canon. After all, there may be dozens of national cinema movements equally worthy of reevaluation. Nor do I, if I'm honest, want to give up the pursuit of looking for aesthetically distinctive films. Rather, I'd like an expanded or supplemental canon, or a half-canon or canon-prime if you will, a broader set of films that encourages us to think and watch broadly while giving us some guidance in the process.

Maybe this is not a satisfactory compromise but it's the one I keep gravitating toward.

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