I’ll have an order of canon with a side of canon and some extra canon please!
Last year I decided to listen to the podcast Filmspotting for my Podcast Review feature. In my review I spoke of a moment that irked me, when the hosts stated “listen, we’ve always said you can watch whatever movies you want, but if you want to see real art, then…”. This statement was made in relation to Blue Velvet and how the hosts considered it an essential film for any true cinephile to see. That sort of attitude is everywhere in the cinephile community, in the film critic community, and even in the filmmaking community. There are problems not with this way of thinking, but with the way it is applied within film culture.
This issue starts with the idea of canon films. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines canon as such,
a : a regulation or dogma decreed by a church council b : a provision of canon law
[Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin, from Latin, model] : the most solemn and unvarying part of the Mass including the consecration of the bread and wine
[Middle English, from Late Latin, from Latin, standard] a : an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture b : the authentic works of a writer c : a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works
a : an accepted principle or rule b : a criterion or standard of judgment c : a body of principles, rules, standards, or norms
[Late Greek kanōn, from Greek, model] : a contrapuntal musical composition in which each successively entering voice presents the initial theme usually transformed in a strictly consistent way
For the purposes of this essay, and film discussion in general, numbers one, two, and five can be thrown to the wayside. Of the two entries remaining the third is a bit too ambiguous and thus we are left only with entry number four. Going off of that definition it is easy to see how canon is defined within the film community. In film terms canon refers to the films that have been selected by a majority of informed individuals as the most important when it comes to aesthetics, importance, and other proper criteria.
I have no real issue with the idea of canon, or the practice of seeking out films that have been deemed as canon by the majority of the cinephile population. However, I do think a line needs to be drawn in the sand. We, as fans of the experience of watching movies, need to rethink the way we think of and discuss canon. The traditional definition of canon doesn’t quite work for me because I view canon as a very personal exercise.
Canon is what each individual makes of it. A defining aspect of humanity is our individualism. Even within cultures that promote a collective approach over that of individual autonomy there is still individualism within the subjective world of art. Each of us takes something different from the art that we experience. Some films impact me more than they will the person sitting next to me, and so on and so forth down the line that train of thought goes. I have my own canon, a set of films that are very specific to me that shaped my view of the cinematic landscape. Each of us has our own canon, but more often than not the tendency is to demure to other canonical lists.
It’s great that Martin Scorsese created a list of the 100 films he thinks every film fan should see. I have a jolly time reading a list like The Moving Art’s 100 Greatest Movies. I am a member of and love the discoveries that can come about from the website ICheckMovies. There’s an annual list called The 1,000 Greatest Films published by the website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? that is a major guideline in my film watching. The canon of other people and the canon of the cinephile (in this case I mean fan, critic, and filmmaker alike) majority are great for discovering movies and I love canon for that fact.
The key part of canon that most needs to be reappraised is the guideline aspect. There are far too many people I encounter who are dogmatic when it comes to the accepted majority canon. Just because Jonathan Rosenbaum has Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans in his list of essential film that doesn’t mean that film is actually an essential film. It’s an essential film to Mr. Rosenbaum, but it’s up to each individual who sees the film to decide where that F.W. Murnau films fits in their own canon. Would seeing Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans help a person to better understand film history and the emergence of German expressionism into Hollywood? Yes, of course it would, and that’s why Mr. Rosenbaum has suggested that people seek out Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans. At the same time if someone else thinks that Armageddon is an essential film because of the chaos cinema movement that is just as valid of an approach because of the personal nature that canon should have.
I’m not telling anyone that canon is a bad thing or that it’s not important to explore film history. I’ve simply grown tired of the strictly dogmatic approach most cinephiles take to film canon. Well respected lists and the films that the majority of the cinephile population have decided are essential viewing are great guidelines, no more and no less. Go ahead and make your own canon, love the films you love and give the films you think are important the treatment they deserve. Take a second to rethink the idea of canon, I did and I’ve enjoyed my film watching a lot more since I stopped watching what I felt I had to watch and started watching what I wanted to watch.