Oct 29, 2008

A Canon in Film

I mentioned some time ago that I have put some work into a book of film critiques from a Wintersian-classicist point of view. This work led me to many books of film reviews and criticism, many of which involve ranking and rating films and making a “canon” of the great films. One recent book in film criticism in particular, despite the fact that I disagree with the critic on most of his judgments about specific films, made some excellent points about canon-making that I think are germane to the discussion and defense of Yvor Winters’s ideas about evaluation.

The book I am referring to is Jonathon Rosenbaum’s Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (2004). Rosenbaum (pictured), knowledgeable and discriminating film critic of the Chicago Reader, opines that though they are much maligned, canons are highly valuable for getting a grasp on any particular field of artistic study, for forming one’s own values, and for refining one’s critical judgment. Now, these views seem consonant with Winters’s and mine on the making of canons, even though Rosenbaum’s introduction is much more circumspect on the question of “necessity” than his bold subtitle.

In his book Rosenbaum tries to convey his pleasure in watching films, especially those that have yet to find their way onto U.S. screens. Much as Winters believed of poetry, Rosenbaum believes that too many films of too great achievement and value have been overlooked. This was exactly Winters’s point about the development of classical poetry in English through the past five centuries. Almost exactly like Winters on poetry too, Rosenbaum is passionate about the subject of film and its canon, the discoveries he has made and the effort to draw attention to them. Rosenbaum, as Winters did with classical literature, cares about what the Hollywood machine has kept us from seeing and aims to enrich our viewing with the films he believes to be neglected masterpieces and talented filmmakers who are difficult to pigeonhole. Rosenbaum is certainly more eclectic about film than Winters was about poetry, I will not deny. But he points out the blind spots and arbitrariness of the commercial distribution system in film.

This was exactly Winters’s viewpoint, and this is a primary purpose of setting a canon. Exactly, it is my primary purpose in discussing and trying to develop Winters’s canon in the discussion of the poems of Quest for Reality and my repeated endeavors to bring attention to John Fraser’s New Book of Verse.

Rosenbaum’s liking for Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis -– he calls it “the best piece of literary criticism that I know” -– is revealing about the canon he sets. Films, for Rosenbaum, as literature for Auerbach, are supposed to depict reality, i.e. represent the life of “the common people.” Erudite as it is, the book has a tendency to favor realistic films with a social value as the authentic artistic form. Experimental films do not easily or clearly fit into this vision.

Seeing such things, however, is just what is so useful about a canon -– to get into the mind of the critic. It is the best and fullest way to fathom the critical principles by which the critic judges and by which he thinks we should all judge. That was Winters’s purpose as well. It is my purpose too.

I have not read all of Rosenbaum’s book. Frankly, he is no Wintersian -- nor even classicist in any sense. I found it surprising that he looked to Auerbach, for his judgments are almost entirely anti-classical. (Film has never had a classicist critic. John Simon might be the closest so far.) But my central point is that his justification of canon-making is helpful in the study of Yvor Winters.

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