Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Film Studies and Canon Building

The air is filled with the sound of canons! The world of journalistic/cinephile film culture is astir with discussion and debate: please see David Hudson’s handy post for links to pieces on the recently announced results of the Sight & Sound poll.

While one domain of film culture is engaged in energetic conversation around this poll, another remains more or less silent. I refer to the film studies discipline.

In an essay that appeared in the Journal of American Culture last year, Jonathan Lupo laments that academic film studies, in the last few decades, has lost interest in canon building. He cites two major reasons: first, an increasing sensitivity to the “hegemonic” potential of canons to enshrine dominant values and ideologies; and second, the gradual displacement of aesthetic evaluation in film studies by context- and ideology-based readings of films. He writes:

I contend that while academic Film Studies had clear reasons for wanting to avoid explicit canon building with their own field, this abdication exacerbated clefts in the relationship between journalistic critics and the academy, the latter thereby missing an opportunity to fully contribute to the wider film community.

Lupo reminds us of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s argument in his book Movie Wars that when auteurism fell from favor in the academy beginning in the 1970s, films and filmmakers were de-canonized — only to be replaced by a canon of theorists such as Althusser, Barthes, Foucault, and Lacan. Films were more and more viewed as symptoms of social or economic or psychic phenomena — and less as aesthetic objects. For Rosenbaum this lack of interest in film-canon building was a disastrous development for the field because it resulted in abandoning this important activity to the hands of mainstream film critics and (most distressingly) to the marketplace. Increasingly, with opening weekend receipts being reported faithfully and regularly as “news,” box-office revenues now play a major role in constructing a populist canon for society and culture at large.

Rosenbaum also remarks on the divide that gradually sprung up between journalism and academia:

…each sphere of criticism was expected to stick to its own turf and mind its own field, and the most pronounced form of interchange between the two spheres was a growing disdain and mutual lack of respect. What might have figured in a more interactive film culture as some sort of dialectical and polemical struggle became instead a kind of reciprocal alienation.

Now, no one would deny that implicit — or de facto — canons exist in film studies. Despite the great move in postmodern thinking that flattened all cultural objects to the same level, the reality is that certain films find greater favor than others for the purposes of teaching or scholarship. Why then doesn’t the discipline call attention to this fact by making it public and explicit — in a gesture of institutional self-examination — by means of a poll? Is it because of an underlying (and embarrassing) suspicion that the idea of a canon is too often associated with aesthetic preferences?

In point of fact, I’m aware of at least one large and exemplary canon-building survey in film studies — the one conducted by the Australian journal Screening the Past five years ago. In a remarkably enlightened move, the scope of the poll included not just films but also the discourse surrounding films: books, essays, websites, DVD supplemental material, etc. It makes for fascinating reading.

Let me add: I am not advocating the creation of a small, static, stable canon. In fact, just the opposite. The recent aggregate top ten list that emerged from the Sight & Sound poll is of limited interest to me. What is most interesting about such a poll is the individual ballots — and the range of unexpected, unknown and unlikely titles that it brings to our consciousness. These titles spur our curiosity and spark our enthusiasm, expanding our horizons of film-viewing and thinking. Rather than shutting down multiplicity and difference (as many believe canons tend to do), they have the potential to do the exact opposite.

I think there are two key reasons for film studies to get actively involved in the canon formation effort. First, it would initiate public conversation by bringing two film cultures — journalistic and academic — into dialogue, conflict and exchange. Second, in today’s Internet and social media environment, such an effort — sponsored, for example, by the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) — would receive widespread publicity, thus pulling a large number of voices into a visible and international debate. Both these reasons can only be healthy for the film community.

I’m wondering what you think: Is there value in a film studies canon building effort? Are there alternative ways to conceive of a canon that might bypass the difficulties of traditional canons (e.g. their predominant focus on aesthetic evaluation)? Are there any specific obstacles to canon building in academe today? I’d love to hear any thoughts you may have on the subject.

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FYI, here’s my ballot for the Sight & Sound poll:

The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967)
Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964)
Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
The Devil, Probably (Robert Bresson, 1977)
Subarnarekha (Ritwik Ghatak, 1965)
Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
India (Roberto Rossellini, 1959)
Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984)
L'Enfance Nue (Maurice Pialat, 1968)
Dil Se (Mani Ratnam, 1998)

No sooner had I drawn up the list did I notice that I had outrageously neglected silent cinema and all films before 1959! To echo the mantra on everyone's lips this week: "Ten minutes later, my list would've been different."

Your thoughts on the Sight & Sound poll?

pic: Chris Marker, 1921-2012.