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.

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