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Cannon Foder: Paul Schrader’s Cannon Criteria

By Paul Schrader

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What constitutes a cinematic masterpiece?

The Book I Didn’t Write

Rules of the Game

The Rules of the Game

In March 2003 I was having dinner in London with Faber and Faber’s editor of film books, Walter Donohue, and several others when the conversation turned to the current state of film criticism and lack of knowledge of film history in general. I remarked on a former assistant who, when told to look up Montgomery Clift, returned some minutes later asking, “Where is that?” I replied that I thought it was in the Hollywood Hills, and he returned to his search engine.

Yes, we agreed, there are too many films, too much history, for today’s student to master. “Someone should write a film version of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon,” a writer from The Independent suggested, and “the person who should write it,” he said, looking at me, “is you.” I looked to Walter, who replied, “If you write it, I’ll publish it.” And the die was cast.

Faber offered a contract, and I set to work. Following the Bloom model I decided it should be an elitist canon, not populist, raising the bar so high that only a handful of films would pass over. I proceeded to compile a list of essential films, attempting, as best I could, to separate personal favorites from those movies that artistically defined film history. Compiling was the easy part—then came the first dilemma: why was I selecting these films? What were my criteria?

What is a canon? It is, by definition, based on criteria that transcend taste, personal and popular. The more I pondered this, the more I realized how ignorant I was. How could I formulate a film canon without knowing the history of canon formation?

This sent me back to school. Following the example of then–New York magazine critic David Denby, I contacted Columbia University (where I’d taught) and asked to audit relevant courses. Over 2004–2005 I took two classes in the history of aesthetics taught by Lydia Goehr and another in the history of film aesthetics by James Schamus (the same James Schamus who is CEO of Focus Features).

Rather than refine my thoughts, these courses expanded them. I became interested not only in the history of the canon, but also in the history of Aesthetics, the history of Art, and, by extension, the history of Ideas. I felt as if I were trapped in an out-of-control reverse zoom. I began by looking at the hand of the sleeping man in Charles and Ray Eames’s Powers of Ten and ended up in theoretical outer space.

The demise of the canon was tied to the demise of high culture, the demise of high culture to the demise of commonly accepted standards—and the demise of accepted standards led to questions about “the end of Art.”

I kept returning to Hegel’s insight that the philosophy of Aesthetics is the history of Aesthetics. That is, the definition, the essence of Aesthetics, is nothing more or less than its history. The philosophy of Aesthetics equals the mutation of the Aesthetic Ideal—understand the mutation, you understand Aesthetics. By extension, the philosophy of Religion is the history of Religion, and so forth.

Aesthetics, like the canon, is a narrative. It has a beginning, middle, and end. To understand the canon is to understand its narrative. Art is a narrative. Life is a narrative. The universe is a narrative. To understand the universe is to understand its history. Each and every thing is part of a story—beginning, middle, and end.

The much-debated “end of Art” is not the end of painting and sculpture (they abound), but the closing of the plastic arts’ narrative. Life is full of ends; species die or become outmoded. There are still horses, but the horse’s role in transportation has come to an end. Likewise movies. We’re making horseshoes.

I saw where this line of thinking was leading and followed it there. It led to the writings of Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity Is Near), Joel Garreau (Radical Evolution), and Jeff Hawkins (On Intelligence). Art, religion, psychology are subsets of a larger narrative—the story of Homo sapiens, which in turn is a subset of the narrative of planet life, a subset of the narrative of our planet, our universe. All with beginnings, middles, and ends—at an ever-accelerating pace.

I agree with Kurzweil that humankind is on an evolutionary cusp. We can foresee both the end of the 20,000-year reign of Homo sapiens and the beginnings of the life-forms that will replace it (something Kurzweil and Garreau predict will happen in the next hundred years). Art looks to the future; it is society’s harbinger. The demise of Art’s human narrative is not a sign of creative bankruptcy. It’s the twinkling of changes to come. Such thoughts fill me not with despair but envy: I wish I could be there to see the curtain rise.

Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad 

What then to make of my film contract with Faber? Being the dutiful Calvinist I was raised, I soldiered forward, writing an introductory chapter that discussed the history of the canon and setting forth criteria for the film canon. The fact that movies were in decline, I reasoned, was all the more reason to define and defend the film canon. In fact, it was only as I was approaching the end of the introduction that I comprehended the full scope of what I was arguing.

When it came time to delineate the films and filmmakers, chapter by chapter, I found my heart was no longer in it. My foray into futurism had diminished my appetite for archivalism. I abandoned the project (I’d wisely placed Faber’s commencement fee in escrow). It’s a worthy project; let someone else do it. In deference to the time I invested, I’m including, at the end of this essay, a list of the films I’d planned to include in the film canon.

I’ve always been interested in films that address the contemporary situation. Historical films interest me more as history than art. I have, perhaps, 10 years of films left in me, and I’m perfectly content to ride the broken-down horse called movies into the cinematic sunset. But if I were starting out (at the beginning of my narrative, so to speak), I doubt I’d turn to films as defined by the 20th century for personal expression.

What can be gleaned from this adventure? If Walter Donohue asks you to dinner in London, think twice.

Movies Are So 20th Century

“Critics have found me narrow.”—F.R. Leavis



Motion pictures were the dominant art for the 20th century. Movies were the center of social mores, fashion and design, politics—in short, at the center of culture—and, in so being, dictated the terms of their dominance to the other art forms: literature, theater, and painting were all redefined by their relationship to cinema. Movies have owned the 20th century.

It will not be so in the 21st century. Cultural and technological forces are at work that will change the concept of “movies” as we have known them. I don’t know if there will be a dominant art form in this century, and I’m not sure what form audiovisual media will take, but I am certain movies will never regain the prominence they enjoyed in the last century.

It’s an appropriate time, then, to look back on the past 100 years of narrative cinema. The “great middle” of film criticism has fallen shallow; each year more and more of film writing falls into one of two polar categories: populist, epitomized by the “people’s choice” approach to film, or academic, epitomized by jargon and extra-filmic considerations. It is no longer possible for a young filmgoer to watch the history of film and make up his or her own mind: there are just too many movies. It’s barely possible to keep up with the yearly output of audiovisual entertainment on TV and in theaters, here and abroad. Like book readers, filmgoers must rely on the accumulated wisdom of film studies—which films have endured and why—a “wisdom” increasingly polluted by populist or academic criteria. What is needed, disingenuously enough, is a film canon.

The notion of a canon, any canon—literary, musical, painting—is 20th-century heresy. A film canon is particularly problematic because the demise of the literary canon coincides, not coincidentally, with the advent and rise of moving pictures. There is much debate about the canons but no agreement. Not only is there no agreement about what a canon should include, there’s no agreement about whether there should be canons at all. Or, if there is agreement, it is this: canons are bad—elitist, sexist, racist, outmoded, and politically incorrect.

The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch

Yet de facto film canons exist—in abundance. They exist in college curriculums, they exist in yearly 10-best lists, they exist in best-of-all-time lists of every sort. Canon formation has become the equivalent of 19th-century anti-sodomy laws: repudiated in principle, performed in practice. Canons exist because they serve a function; they are needed. And the need increases with each new wave of films. What I propose is to go back in order to go forward. To examine the history of canon formation, cherry-pick the criteria that best apply to film, and select a list of films that meet the highest criteria.

The model, of course, is Harold Bloom’s 1994 bestseller, The Western Canon. Mustering a mountain of hubris and a lifetime of close reading, Bloom proposed a canon of Western literature: books and authors who meet the highest “artistic criteria.” The Western Canon is also a screed against “the cultural politics, both of the Left and the Right, that are destroying criticism and consequently may destroy literature itself.” These cultural politicians, whom Bloom dubs “The School of Resentment,” count among their number Feminists, Marxists, Afrocentrists, New Historicists, Lacanians, Deconstructionists, and Semioticians (Bloom doesn’t flinch from making enemies). Film studies’ subordination to these “isms” hasn’t reached the grotesque proportions Bloom speaks of, but it’s catching up. Film departments abound with resentful academics. Film is not literature, of course, and the issues involved, though similar, are not the same. The greatest difference is that there is still a debate about whether motion pictures are art at all.

Trash, Art and the Movies

Tokyo Story Ozu

Tokyo Story

What better place to start than with the most influential article in the history of film criticism, Pauline Kael’s 1969 essay “Trash, Art and the Movies.” (A 1999 nyu survey of the top 100 works of 20th-century journalism listed this essay as number four—yet another example of how canon formation has infiltrated every aspect of contemporary life.) Kael’s polemic, a defense of art as entertainment, influenced a generation of film critics and, subsequently, a generation of filmmakers. The piece was heady, invigorating stuff in 1969, an artillery barrage aimed at the East Coast critical establishment, the armchair newspaper moralists, and self-appointed arbiters of high art. Rereading Kael’s essay after 35 years I find it not only wrong-headed but deleterious. It remains a hugely influential essay, now for negative reasons.

The underlying assumption of “Trash, Art and the Movies” is that motion pictures are a lower form of art (“a tawdry corrupt art for a tawdry corrupt world”) or, perhaps, not a form of art at all. “Movies took their impetus not from the desiccated European high culture, but from the peep show, the Wild West show, the music hall, the comic strip—from what was coarse and common.” Movies were, bless their heart, trash. Directors such as Kubrick (2001) and Antonioni (Blow-Up) were accused of “using ‘artistic techniques’ to give trash the look of art.” A sow’s ear is a sow’s ear, and anyone who talks of purses is pretentious and just plain phony. “When you clean them up, when you make movies respectable, you kill them.”

“Does trash corrupt?” Kael asked. No, she responds, “they may poison us collectively though they don’t injure us personally” (huh?). We enjoy movies; we use them to grow up. “If we make any kind of decent, useful life for ourselves we have less need to run from it to those diminishing pleasures of the movies.” So there you have it. Movies are fun, corrupt, and juvenile, and decent, useful people outgrow them. She concludes her essay with the statement, “Trash has given us an appetite for art.”

Wrong. Trash does corrupt. Trash doesn’t give one an appetite for art any more than Big Macs give one an appetite for healthy cuisine. And trash has won the day. Later in life, after she’d retired, Kael confided to David Denby that she hadn’t realized that “everything would be trash.” In the name of common sense and proletarian taste Kael attacked the wall of High Culture—and the walls came tumbling down. What in 1969 seemed like a breath of fresh air was actually the stench of trash to come.

An American in Paris

An American in Paris

Cut to the “Postart” cinema exemplified by Quentin Tarantino and his imitators. (I find Allan Kaprow’s term more descriptive than the more widely used and confusing “postmodern.”) Kill Bill is the apotheosis of Kael’s movies-as-trash ideology. Movies are assemblages of pop culture; the only criterion is “fun.” Is it fun? Is it cool? Is it hip? There’s no distinction between high and low, genuine and ersatz, existential or ironic, melancholy and parody, Shakespeare and Stephen King, Children of Paradise and The Dukes of Hazzard—all that matters is how you put them together. (It’s been said assemblage is the art form of the 20th century and Joseph Cornell its Godfather. If so, Tarantino is its Michael Corleone.) And whatever you do, don’t pretend it has any meaning beyond the moment. Sensation replaces sentiment.

It’s ironic that Kael lists comic books as one of the impetuses for movies because comic-book heroes, comic-book stories, and comic-book situations, once regarded as disreputable, have become prestige fare. The moral scolds have been run from the ranks of film reviewers (and onto the op-ed pages). The academics Kael derided for treating Hitchcock and von Sternberg as artists are applying their analytical skills to The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings. Hitchcock and von Sternberg start to look pretty good in this post–“Trash, Art and the Movies” culture.

Studio executives who once felt obliged to produce a certain number of “prestige” or “quality” films have been replaced by corporate ceos who can’t be bothered. If there is no stigma attached to trash, why attempt anything more demanding? Kael set in motion the legitimization of trash: ideas float obliquely through culture, and once that idea took root—with critics, with filmmakers, with financiers, with audiences—there was no turning back. Kael was writing during the most artistically vibrant era of film’s short history. I don’t think she imagined that trash would actually prevail. She’s become, unwittingly, the Victor Frankenstein of film criticism.1

In retrospect, Kael’s attempt to judge movies as trash seems yet another in a series of 20th-century attempts to avoid judging art, particularly popular art, as “art.” If movies are trash, they can be good and bad trash, neatly avoiding all that inconvenient controversy about low and high art through a redefinition of terms.

But movies are not by definition trash. If anything, they are by definition art (the dictionary definition, “the products of human creativity,” seems as good as any) and can even be, on rare occasions, high art. And what is high art? That question brings the discussion back to the canon. Any time a qualitative adjective is used (“better,” “more integral,” “purer”), a canon is implied. If art objects are to be compared qualitatively they can be ranked; if they can be ranked, there must be a canon.

Read the full article in the September/October 2006 issue.

1. Pauline (“Movie art . . . is not to be found in a return to official high culture”) Kael would turn in her grave if she could read this defense of a film canon by her onetime protégé and disciple. (I’m quoted on the jacket of Going Steady, the book which features “Trash, Art and the Movies,” describing Pauline as “the Matthew Arnold of film criticism”—an absurd assessment that baffles me to this day.) I remain indebted to her as a mentor, inspired by her as a writer, deeply fond of her as a person; but in the matter of trash, art, and the movies, she was simply wrong.