The Lure of the Canon

Six months ago, when Phil Dellio and Jeff Pike asked me to join a Facebook group where we would list and discuss our fifty favorite movies, I responded with a question: would this be a list of our favorites, or a list of the best? While they sympathized with my frustration to varying degrees, they didn’t feel this distinction would be a problem for them. But I was worried.

The first paragraph I wrote for the group reflected this concern:

These lists are intended to reflect our 50 favorite movies rather than the 50 best movies. I am aware that there is no difference between “favorite” and “best” for some people. My guess is I’ll have more fave-not-best films at the bottom of my list, and more best-and-fave films near the top. I might love Re-Animator, but I’m incapable of making it #1. #49, maybe.

As our respective lists began to take shape, it became clear that Phil and Jeff were comfortable with an easy blend of favorite and best. But even though my own list ended up proceeding along similar lines, I couldn’t help fixating on the distinction.

Making this sort of list may not be significant in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn’t make it any easier to decide what to include. The responsibility weighed heavily on me. Maybe Phil was used to it because, along with Scott Woods, he had done something similar on Facebook, counting down the top 100 songs of all time. For me, though, the process was as interesting as the result and worthy of some serious reflection.

Although I’d mentioned Re-Animator in my first statement for the group, I never got around to including it. Still, early on, I managed to get in some movies that were far from anyone’s idea of “best.” I wanted to include a James Bond movie, for instance. The primary candidates were From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and Casino Royale.

However, I also wanted to say something about possible ways the Bond franchise could change, which is why the lesser film Tomorrow Never Dies ended up at #49 on my list; that gave me a chance to talk about Michelle Yeoh and how I thought she would make an interesting Bond. A bit later, I put Evil Dead II at #46, which I suppose may have bothered those Re-Animator fans who were paying attention.

The point I made in that first post turned out to be quite relevant. In those early picks, I found myself playing around. My first five selections (#46-50) were two forgotten films of merit, two cult films, and a mediocre James Bond entry. I finished off my first ten with the vampire movie Near Dark. With rare (and arguable) exceptions, I was never as fun-loving for the rest of the project.

I realized, if I didn’t know it before, that whatever my public opinion about canons in general, I was more devoted to the idea of a film canon than I was to, say, a literary canon. When I was a doctoral student in the English department at the University of California at Berkeley, I staked out my little corner as the anti-canon guy. I resisted the concept. I often said I wasn’t interested in expanding the canon, but in destroying it.

And I wasn’t just posturing when I said that. I consciously sought to drop bombs on the canon. I included the National Enquirer and TV Guide on course syllabi, I showed movies in every course, I wrote an entire chapter of my dissertation on the work of Mickey Spillane.

So why do I find the canon so distasteful in literary studies, while being drawn to the same idea in film studies?

There may be something in my personal academic relationship to the two disciplines. I was a film major for a couple of years in the early 1970s, when I was just turning 20. It was the first time I felt truly engaged with schoolwork in many years, having been a dope-addled underachiever in my final year of high school (and then a wannabe hippie dropout for a couple of years more.) I gobbled up everything I was offered, which in that case meant a thorough soaking into not just the film canon but film history as a whole (the example I usually give is that we watched six weeks of silent Ukrainian films). The result wasn’t just that I’ve seen a lot more of the film canon than the average Joe or Jane, but also that it never felt oppressive to have that knowledge as a base for my own thinking.

When I became a full-time college student in my 30s, I was mostly an autodidact who had read a lot of books on the job in my ten years as a steelworker. I had the kind of chip on my shoulder that comes from feeling insecure about your abilities. When I entered graduate school in the English department, I had a bachelor’s degree in American Studies, which left me with enormous holes in my knowledge of canonical literature, especially British literature. The stance that seemed safest was to just dismiss all that stuff I didn’t know. Hence, I became Mr. Anti-Canon.

Yet here I was with Phil and Jeff, choosing my fifty favorite movies, and somehow ended up using the list not just to describe my favorites, but also to announce my expertise in this one area of the arts where I might actually have the expertise I pretend to.

As the project progressed, my selections became more traditional. I still worked in some of the undervalued films I loved (#40, The Rapture.) But most of my picks were like Singin’ in the Rain, His Girl Friday, or Night of the Hunter: critically-acclaimed films that had stood the test of time. Even when my choice was of a more recent vintage, it was a safe pick: In the Mood for Love, which I had at #38, has been called the best film of the 21st century.

Perhaps nothing marked the stodginess of my list better than my pick for #20, City of God. The choice itself was something of an anomaly for me, and argued for my choices as being livelier than people might have thought. But City of God was the only 21st century movie amongst my final 37 selections. In fact, for the 19 choices after City of God, the newest came out in 1974.

Jeff and Phil retained an ability to surprise, even as we approached our top picks. Phil had the cult Canadian film Goin’ Down the Road at #8; Jeff chose a “50s sci-fi trilogy” for his #3 (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The War of the Worlds, and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) Jeff’s pick in particular showed how tame I’ve become. I like all of those films, and would say the last two are among my own favorites, but it never occurred to me to include 50s sci-fi on my list.

Meanwhile, the higher reaches of my list were scattered with the likes of L’Avventura and Citizen Kane and The Third Man. The only time I really put myself on the line was with my #10, Performance, and even there, I chose a film that has its champions.

Would I do things differently if we started over? Probably not. I’d need an explicit instruction to mix 4 parts favorite to 1 part best, instead of the other way around. I don’t want to suggest I failed to consider my love for these movies; all of my top five, for instance, were movies I love very much. My #4 pick, Rio Bravo, might be the most interesting of those.

For a long time, Rio Bravo was thought of as an entertaining lesser work, although I loved it from the first time I saw it. Now, it is considered a classic. It’s a popular work that has entered the canon, and as such, is something of an argument in favor of just choosing your favorites, and letting the rest of the world catch up.

For me, the real joy of this project has been the chance to work with Jeff and Phil, two great and opinionated writers, and to take part in the discussions with the members of our Facebook group. Plus, I re-watched every one of my choices, and there aren’t many better ways to have fun than to watch 50 or so of your favorite movies. I’m just glad I had six months to get it done!

Here’s my list:

1. The Godfather / The Godfather: Part II
2. The Sorrow and the Pity
3. Bonnie and Clyde
4. Rio Bravo
5. The Third Man
6. The Rules of the Game
7. Citizen Kane
8. The Wild Bunch
9. A Streetcar Named Desire
10. Performance
11. King Kong (1933)
12.  Top Hat
13. Breathless (1960)
14. The Earrings of Madame de…
15. The Passion of Joan of Arc
16. Vertigo
17. L’Avventura
18. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
19. Mean Streets
20. City of God
21. Night and Fog
22. The Big Sleep (1946)
23. Touch of Evil
24. Run Lola Run
25. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
26. The Terminator
27. Steamboat Bill, Jr.
28. Fires on the Plain
29. A Better Tomorrow
30. Taxi Driver
31. The Night of the Hunter
32. Cabaret
33. Do the Right Thing
34. Supercop
35. What’s Opera, Doc?
36. His Girl Friday
37. From Here to Eternity
38. In the Mood for Love
39. Singin’ in the Rain
40. The Rapture
41. Near Dark
42. A Hard Day’s Night
43. Hoop Dreams
44. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
45. The Lives of Others
46. Evil Dead II
47. My Family
48. Sid and Nancy
49. Tomorrow Never Dies
50. Under Fire

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