The canons of cinema

Canons to right of them,
Canons to left of them,
Canons in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d …

If a canon may be defined as a consensus of the cognoscenti – and I really don’t know how else it may be defined – then the BFI (British Film Institute) poll of film critics and of directors, carried out every decade, and the latest of which was published only last week, has a greater claim than most of being definitive.

There are those, of course, who question why we should need a canon anyway: aren’t our own tastes sufficient? Well, yes, up to a point: no canon, after all, is going to alter our individual tastes. I am not going to start liking Vertigo – a film that I have long disliked – just because it now tops this latest list; and neither am I going to stop loving those favourite films of mine that didn’t make it. But nonetheless, a concept of a canon is, I think, important in any field of activity in which we value excellence, for the simple reason that only those titles that belong to the canon have any chance of surviving into the future. Far too many films have been made over the years for them all to be available; and even if they were all to be available, it is not reasonable to expect even the most devoted of cineastes to view every one of them. What we choose to view from the past is determined by their canonical status: I am, after all, unlikely to see some forgotten film from the 1930s, for the very reason that is forgotten. Our personal canons are, inevitably, subsets of a wider canon.

For that matter, this BFI list too is a subset of a wider canon: most of us, I imagine, can think of films of the highest quality that didn’t make this Top 50 list. Fifty really is too small a number: cinema is a relatively new art form – it has been around now for only slightly over a century – yet, already, the number of films made over these hundred or so years that are of the highest artistic quality really is quite staggering. Yes, it is true that there is also much – possibly the vast majority – that is utter rubbish; but even after applying the most stringent of filters, I find myself quite astonished by the sheer number of films that, for a bewildering diversity of reasons, seem to me to bear the mark of greatness.

Inevitably, when speaking of excellence – whether with films or with anything else –  we hear the glib comment that “it’s all a matter of personal opinion”. Well, our personal opinion is a matter of personal opinion, certainly, but that’s mere tautology: excellence, if we are to believe in that concept at all, seems to me not a matter of personal opinion at all, but of considered judgement. While it is true that judgement, even considered judgement, may vary, it varies considerably less erratically or unpredictably than does personal opinion. That a consensus exists at all, and that such a consensus proves to be quite stable over time, indicate a certain stability in critical judgement; and whether or not my personal judgement corresponds with the consensus is frankly irrelevant: whether we agree or not with the choices – and there are certainly many that I personally would take issue with – the BFI lists over the decades embody what we collectively understand as “excellence”.

But with that out of the way, I do find the current list to be rather curious. That’s personally speaking, of course. After some five decades, Citizen Kane – a film I picked as one of my personal top ten – is no longer at the top of the list: it has been replaced by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film whose reputation frankly puzzles me. It’s not that I dislike Hitchcock: indeed, he has made some of my favourite films – The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, and that dazzlingly inventive and influential addition to the horror genrePsycho. But, while he was unquestionably masterly with individual sequences, he all too often, I feel, misjudged the pacing, or long-term effects. I cannot, for instance, see any reason to introduce that scene in North by North-West after the United Nations murder in which a gathering of senior FBI agents assures us that they are aware of the innocence of the Cary Grant character: up to that point, the film has been superb, deftly balancing suspense with comedy, but this scene, quite apart from introducing into the proceedings a disruptive shift in narrative perspective, helps dissipate tension at the very point where there should ideally have been a few more turns of the screw. The reasoning behind this directorial decision to include this scene seems to me quite incomprehensible. And neither do I understand why Hitchcock then proceeds to slow the pace down in the sequence on the train, largely substituting glamour and romance for menace or suspense. Of course, there are fine sequences afterwards – the famous scene with the crop duster, for instance – but the tension built up so beautifully in the earlier part of the film seems to me, to a great extent, to have disappeared. And this can only be put down to poor long-term planning.

Similarly with Vertigo. Admirers of the film tell me it is an incisive study of obsession, but, despite several viewings, I really cannot see it as such: merely to show the protagonist (played by James Stewart) as obsessed does not amount to an exploration of the nature of obsession. But maybe I am missing something on that front, so I’ll let that pass: what is more serious, though, is Hitchcock’s poor long-term planning. As is well-known, the twist in the plot is given away considerably before the end of the film: this has been justified to me on the grounds that by doing so, Hitchcock shifts the focus of interest from “what happens next” to “why it happens next”; but if this had indeed been Hitchcock’s intention, why set it up as a mystery in the first place? Shifting the audience’s focus of attention so radically at so late a stage in the proceedings merely disrupts the narrative momentum; and, further, it requires a sudden change in narrative perspective (from Jimmy Stewart’s perspective to Kim Novak’s) that, no matter how often I see the film, merely jars. And as for the ending – well, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but really, there is nothing to spoil: far from resolving anything, it is merely arbitrary, and, frankly, rather silly.

Well, my opinion on this matter is clearly out of step with the “consensus of the cognoscenti” I had mentioned earlier, but there it is: Hitchcock, at his best, certainly made very entertaining films, but I do not see in any of them the substance or the depth that his admirers seem to see. Substance and depth are not always required for cinematic excellence, of course: there is little of either in Singin’ in the Rain, say, or in Casablanca, to name but two films that are rarely far from my own personal Top Ten: but when admirers cite such qualities in his films, and, further, put forward the presence of these qualities as reasons for rating these films so highly, then my own failure to find these qualities inevitably affects my own critical judgement.

The film that Vertigo has replaced, Citizen Kane, is rarely included nowadays in personal Top Ten choices for the rather curious reason that it is too predictable a choice, and, hence, rather boring. Well, I include it in mine, because, predictable though the choice may be, I personally love it. All too often, it is regarded merely as a bag of cinematic tricks: it is conceded that it has contributed much to cinematic technique, but it is, I often hear, dramatically uninteresting, and even shallow. I do not understand such criticism at all. It is a film that depicts and explores personal failure: a rich man dies at the start of the film, surrounded by vast wealth, but the only people who are near him at the point of death are those who are paid to be there: this is a failure by any human standard. The rest of the film then explores the nature of this failure. First of all, a brilliant pastiche of a newsreel footage tells us “what happens next”, thus removing from the very start any curiosity on the audience’s part on this issue; and it proceeds then to focus, from a multiplicity of overlapping viewpoints and with a narrative and dramatic panache that still leaves me breathless with excitement, the reasons behind the human failure. That so potent a theme, explored with such intelligence and insight, can be seen as dramatically uninteresting or even “shallow”, leaves me as puzzled as does the often uninhibited praise awarded to Vertigo.  But at least I’m in step with critical consensus on this film: second place in the list is hardly a fall from grace.

Looking through the other films in the Top Fifty, there are several individual observations I could offer: I’ll refrain from commenting on 2001 – A Space Odyssey, since, as I have said often enough, I find it difficult to connect with the science fiction genre; I find myself disappointed that John Ford, one of my favourite directors, should be best known for what seems to me one of his least successful films (The Searchers); and so on. And as ever, there are many films I love deeply that aren’t in here. But one shouldn’t complain too much: while this list may, as I think, embody what we collectively understand to be cinematic excellence, it would be foolish to imagine that a list so short can in any way be exhaustive. After all, if you don’t like any particular list, you could always make up your own!

No – don’t worry! – I am not going to compile a boring list of my favourite films. But if I did, I suspect that a sizable chunk of it would consist of classic Hollywood films – films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The Maltese Falcon, Singin’ in the Rain, Frankenstein, The Lost Weekend, My Darling Clementine, To Be Or Not To Be, Casablanca, The Big Heat, Shane, Sullivan’s Travels, screwball comedies, Jimmy Cagney gangster movies, the Marx Brothers, Laurel  & Hardy … These were the films I grew up with, and it seems to me that, for a while at least, cinema was a form that was both extremely popular, and also of considerable artistic merit – a rare and possibly unique combination. Hollywood in these decades really did produce a popular art. There was, I think, a resurgence in Hollywood films in the late 60s and early-to-mid 70s, with films such as The Wild Bunch, the two Godfather films, The Last Detail, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Chinatown, etc. In a sense, this was my era: if the classic Hollywood films were the ones I grew up watched on television, these were the films I used to go to see in the cinema. But this resurgence didn’t last long: some time in the mid-to-late 70s, Steven Spielberg realised that there was a vast potential audience out there which wasn’t interested in serious drama, but wanted spectacle: and so, he gave them spectacle – essentially children’s movies given the big budget treatment. The phenomenal success of the Star Wars films sealed the trend, and cinema became juvenilised; some may even say “infantilised”. And I don’t think there’s any recovery in sight yet. Of course, once in a while an intelligent and absorbing drama does get made (I particularly enjoyed About Schmidt, for instance), but one has to do an awful lot of hunting around to come across these; and, more importantly, such films are not widely distributed: About Schmidt, for instance, certainly did not make it to my local cinemas.

How many of those treasured films from the past, if made today (assuming that they could be made today) would receive widespread release? Not too many, I suspect.

Recently, my wife and I watched on DVD Sunday, Bloody Sunday, a British film from 1971 directed by John Schlesinger, starring Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch, and boasting a script by Penelope Gilliatt of tremendous intelligence and subtlety: it is a challenging and intricate adult drama (by “adult drama”, I mean a drama for grown-ups, and not pornography: isn’t it strange what “adult” has come to mean these days?), and I couldn’t help thinking that this film, at the time, was released into the mainstream: it wasn’t just an art-house feature. For such a film to be released so widely now would be unthinkable: we have yet to recover from the juvenilisation of cinema that came with Spielberg & co. And yet, the very fact that a film as demanding as this was, once upon a time, made for a mainstream audience is indicative of how ambitious, at least in artistic terms, cinema was not so very long ago.

Perhaps list such as the BFI’s – whatever one’s personal view of the choices – could help rekindle interest in cinema as an art form. For that it what it is. For what else could one call a form that could deliver works such as The Third Man, Wild Strawberries, La Grande Illusion, Sunset Boulevard? Are works of this stature really inferior in terms of artistic quality to, say, the major plays and novels of the 20th century? The decline that I perceive in cinema is indeed sad, but, as someone-or-other once said, though much is taken, much remains. And if cinema is once again to attain the artistic levels that it had once attained, then consideration of its past glories – the canon, in other words – may not be a bad place to start.

Even though picking Vertigo as the best film ever is damn odd!

Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence.

– from “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats

10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Richard Halfhide on August 8, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    I wonder to what extent Vertigo’s crowning is a consequence of today’s critics seeking to distinguish themselves from previous generations? It strikes me as an acknowledgment of Hitchcock’s unassailable influence over mainstream cinema, in terms of both the grammar he refined and his tongue-in-cheek philosophy. In the age of irony his teasing of our kinkier foibles and vicarious thrill-seeking perhaps resonates more sonorously than Welles’ grandiose statement. That said I’m equally baffled why any Hitchcock fan would rate it above Psycho, Rear Window or The Lady Vanishes; even Hitch himself could be ambivalent towards it.

    Personally I think neither Vertigo nor Kane matches the gentle and affecting poetry of Ozu’s Tokyo Story.


    • Hello Richard, I did love Tokyo Story, and, to a lesser extent perhaps, Ozu’s other films, such as “Late Spring”: but I do get teh impression that one needs to have an instinctive understanding of the cultural background of these films to appreciate them fully. I feel the same about Satyajit ray’s “Charulata”: Ray himself thought it his best film, and in certain moods, I agree with him; but its cultural background is such that, perhaps, those unfamiliar with it may find it more difficult to grasp than, say, the Apu Trilogy, the emotional impact of which is more direct. In short, I’m sure there is much in Ozu that I am missing.


  2. One particularly good and telling thing about that list is that it only has 2 films from the 21st century on it. A popular vote would have 48.

    But Ozu, ahead of Kurosawa and Mizoguchi? And that frightful bore Carl Dreyer?

    I believe, though, it was George Lucas, rather than Stephen Spielberg, who destroyed Hollywood. I remember reading a biography of Lucas, wherein it was written – with reference to Lucas’ difficulties getting financing for the film – that “Star Wars was the first film Hollywood had refused to make because its artistic standards were too high.”

    I’ve never thought much of Vertigo either.


    • You’re obviously not an Ozu fan! I personally find Ozu difficult (as I explained in my reply to Richard above), and am with you in preferring Mizoguchi & Kurasawa (Mizoguchi’s “Sansho Dayu” is a particular favourite of mine). But I do suspect that there’s a lot in Ozu that I just don’t get.

      Love that quote about Star Wars! But Spielberg remains a bête noire of mine, and I reserve the right to stick the boot in as and when the mood takes me! (What else is a blog for? 🙂 )


  3. If the measure of success for exercises like the 10-yearly Sight & Sound poll is to encourage debate about cinema as an art form, then I think they can probably claim to be successful. I doubt many take the individual standings that seriously, but they do reflect how (little?) critical opinion changes over time.

    The problem with these things is, as Sherlock Holmes once observed, that the behaviour of the individual may be singular, but the behaviour of the masses is predictable. If you look at some of the individual 800+ critical responses you will see some interesting choices.

    There’s also an intriguing distinction to be made between “10 best” and “10 favourite”; the answers to those may be very different, with the former perhaps encouraging us to think a little too carefully about what others may think of our choices.

    I’m not sure I agree that Hitchcock “poorly planned” NBN though; I think it’s one of his most perfect “entertainments” (to adopt the classification of Graham Greene) and the various changes in tone and mood throughout the film seem to be evidence of someone who is actually quite good at “planning”.

    But I do agree that something terrible happened to popular cinema in the mid-1970s, after the glory years that preceded it, and that we are still dealing with the fall out from that, at least in the English-speaking countries of production. I’m still optimistic about the vitality of world cinema though – there have been many very fine films in the past 20 years, and many contemporary directors that could stand with the best from the past (Miguel Gomes, Nure Bilge Cylan, Hou Hsaio-Hsen, The Dardennes Brothers, Abbas Kiarostami, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Christian Mingu, Paolo Sorrentino,Theo Angelopoulos, Aki Kaurismaki etc. etc.).


    • Hello Alan, I do realise I am very much of a minority in my opinions of Hitchcock – so much so that my opinions here may be termed “eccentric”: but there it is – most of the time i find his changes of mood jarring and disruptive: “Vertigo” does seem to me a good example of this. But I am, as i say, very much in a minority on this.

      That critical opinion remains so stable over time indicates to me that the concept of excellence, of quality, is not completely subjective: for if it were, the very concept of a consensus – let alone one that remains stable over time – would have been an impossibility. The interesting feature about this list is that it is a consensus, and, as such, individual quirks and eccentricities have largely been ironed out. It answers the question: “On the whole, what films do the current generation of cognoscenti considyer as embodiments of cinematic excellence?” It’s by no means an exhaustive list, and it’s certainly not prescriptive; but as far as the question posed above is concerned, and insofar as the answer to the question is, at least, interesting, this poll surely serves its purpose.

      I must confess that I have not seen too much of non-English language films – and certainly not in recent years: for various reasons (which I need not go into here) I have not had regular or easy access to film theatres. But now that the children are growing up, I suppose I will have the time to explore these films on DVD. (I may have the time, if not necessarily the finances… 🙂 ) It’s just that we have had so many disappointing experiences in our local cinemas – even with many films everyone was telling me were “masterpieces” – that I have effectively stopped going to the cinema. That there has been a decline in English-speaking cinema since the heady days of the 70s does seem to me rather obvious: we keep speaking of the odd film such as “About Schmidt”, but, in the 70s, a film such as that would have been merely one amongst many.


  4. Posted by alan on August 9, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    I think that you may overstate the case.
    There may havebeen few great Hollywood movies made since the 70’s (I would make an exception for “About Schmidt” and most of the work of Clint Eastwood), but competent and unremarkable movies are still being made, such as the remakes of “True Grit” and “Solaris” or “The King’s Speech”, which are competent but wouldn’t have made any headlines 40 years ago.
    I will admit a fondness for “Master and Commander” because it doesn’t take too many liberties with the works of Patrick O’Brian and is an example of cinema as a visual form as much as a dramatic form – I’ve noticed that you tend to judge cinema just as drama and don’t seem to prepared to see it in any other way.


    • I think anything that takes place over time – films, novels, plays, operas, symphonies – has to be shaped over time; and that this inevitably involves a dramatic structure. This is true even of films such as “2001- A Space odyssey” or “Solaris”: the dramatic structure required here is no doubt different from that required in, say, “The Third Man” or “The Grapes of Wrath”, but it’s there: “2001- A Space Odyssey” is not, after all, a painting that remains frozen in time: one cannot, I think, judge it purely on visual qualities alone. Like it or not, such matters as pacing, of building up and relaxing dramatic tension at appropriate moments, remain important.


  5. canons always make me uncomfortable, but I can see the purpose if:
    a) they serve as springboard for one’s own exploration
    b) they provide fodder for debate and thus spark interest.

    One of the reasons I feel uncomfortable about canons or lists of this sort is that when people draw up the top 100 films or whatever, they can’t possibly have seen everything ever made. I can believe that the list is THEIR top 10 or 100 but not necessarily the best ever.

    I’m becoming fonder of Hitchcock, but even so….
    Perhaps part of the film’s cachet is its pure recognisability?


    • Hello Guy, can it not be argued that it’s precisely because we can’t see (or read) everything, that the concept of a canon is important? For instance, when I want to read 19th century French novels, the existence of a canon directs me towards the likes of Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Zola, etc. If the concept of a canon didn’t exist, I’d merely be reading titles at random. No doubt I may get to Flaubert et al eventually (or, then again, I might not); and, no doubt, I may even discover some forgotten masterpieces. But I’d certainly be wasting a lot of time reading mediocre books, or worse. If nothing else, surely a canon directs our attention to the worthwhile, or, at least, what is likely to be worthwhile.

      But yes, I do agree with you that any list anyone puts forward can only be, by definition, a personal list – THEIR Top 10 or Top 100; and that it cannot claim to be anything else. It’s merely thatthis particular list is a consensus of critics and directors that, perhaps, give it a greater weight. But I won’t insist on that. There are certaonly many features in this list that I, personally, do find a bit odd.


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