Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Expanded Canons


Following up on Friday’s post about the canon, I’d like to elaborate on my half-baked idea of an expanded canon. That could mean any number of things, many of them unremarkable, but I do have a few specific qualities in mind.

The half-canon I imagine would avoid superlatives. To use a variation on the cliché of “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” the search for the best and the masterpiece gets in the way of appreciating merely good cinema – or films that are vital or worthwhile in sometimes surprising ways. In the process a half-canon can make viewers aware of new masterpieces but that is not effectively its main goal.

The half-canon is based on discovery. As we gain historical distance on prior movements, we can reappraised prior critical priorities. And digital technology makes a wealth of movies more easily accessible, across national borders, than they were previously. Sometimes the discovery process will be a dead-end but just as likely it will yield surprising results.

There are several alternatives to the traditional film canon: 1) the anti-canon, which resists claims of aesthetic distinction and in any case is completely omnivorous in consuming texts. I see some of this in non-theatrical film studies and orphan-film cinephilia; 2) Pluralistic canons, e.g. those of national traditions, women filmmakers, or the avant-garde. ; and 3) expanded canons, which militate for including more and more films in our canon.... something like David Cook's history of film textbook. 

However, there are several limitations to these current alternatives. The anti-canon is good for certain kinds of critical practice but not others. These alternative canons would often be happy if a larger critical public adopted them and they do exert a useful pressure on dominant canons, but they can also be subdisciplinary practices cut off from larger dialogues in the discipline (through no fault of their own). And while expanded canons are ideal, there's a limit to our attention and critical practice. I’m always impressed by someone like Bill Nichols or David Bordwell, who have watched incredibly broadly and voraciously. But I'm not one of those people.

So a half-canon would be a way of going beyond traditional canons without dissolving aesthetics or trying to do the impossible. And unlike pluralistic canons they would seek an explicit incorporation into dominant dialogue. The half-canon would combine the sensibility of all three above approaches, but would present a model in which each scholar is a generalist  who does not presume to know everything, but rather who can explore a few surprising areas outside her/his expertise and the general canon.  Canonicity would be multi-nodal and a way of thinking two separate levels simultaneously.


The half-canon is a process of translation and popularization. This is where area scholars, film critics, and film historians can be especially valuable. I always value the scholarly, programming, and critical work of others to point me to new films. In turn, I can discover and share works through my research and teaching.

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