Canon and Canonicity

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Canon and Canonicity


Canon formation involves making choices based on assessments of value, a process that highlights both the utility of evaluating and re-evaluating past artistic accomplishments as well as the pitfalls associated with championing some artists' work at the expense of others. The formation of a canon is directly influenced by the education, taste, and viewing habits of those who participate, the range of films they have seen, and the vision of cinema they champion. In film studies, the canon has typically been created by theorists, historians, and critics; perpetuated and reassessed by academics, archivists, and programmers; and influenced by the members and machinery of the film industry itself. The shape of the orthodox canon has evolved over time as outlets for viewing and writing about films have multiplied and opinions regarding artistic significance have changed.

Through its selective nature, the canon suggests which films merit recognition, exhibition, and analysis. It influences decisions regarding the titles chosen for preservation and restoration, as well as those directors who are worthy of retrospectives. The canon plays a role in determining which films will appear on television, be distributed in print form, be released on video and digital video disc (DVD), and be purchased for inclusion in stores and libraries, thereby remaining in the public consciousness. Availability from distributors, in archives, and on television, video, and DVD in turn enables a film to be discussed in classes and scholarly publications, further contributing to its critical reputation. Canonical status thus helps to ensure the continued circulation of a film, affecting how directors, national cinemas, and genres are described and impacting the writing of film history. Because of the likelihood for the canon to influence which films are preserved, shown, and analyzed, the process of canon formation has been heavily debated over the years. While a core group of films and filmmakers remains consistently recognized as canonical, challenges to the orthodox canon continually interrogate and expand the criteria for determining motion pictures of significance.


The history of canon formation is a history of changing attitudes toward what is valuable in cinema. Early film theorists and historians who sought to establish cinema as a legitimate and unique art form had a vested interest in crowning the medium's masterpieces. Rudolph Arnheim and other theorists of the silent era argued that the most accomplished films moved beyond the recording capabilities of the medium, utilizing those tools specific to cinema, such as editing and cinematography, to represent the diegetic world in a stylized fashion. The drive to distinguish cinema from other art forms by emphasizing its transformative properties encouraged writers to describe film history as a journey toward artistic maturity marked by the development of expressive narrative and stylistic techniques. For example, in The Film Till Now (1930), the most influential of the early English-language film histories, Paul Rotha (1907–1984) identifies the 1920s as the height of film artistry, particularly championing the work of Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977), D. W. Griffith (1875–1948), Abel Gance (1889–1981), Jean Epstein (1897–1953), F. W. Murnau (1888–1931), G. W. Pabst (1885–1967), and the Soviet montage school. Rotha's appendix of 114 "outstanding" films served as a reference point for the orthodox film canon until after World War II.

Along with the writing of early film theorists and historians, the blossoming of international film culture during the 1920s played a particularly important role in the formation of the film canon, advancing the identification, promotion, exhibition, and preservation of those titles that were considered to expand the boundaries of the medium. Within national film industries, studio publicity and trade publications trumpeted directors according to the new methods in their work, offering critics and audiences overt cues to their significance. Art theaters and cinéclubs in Paris, New York, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and other major cities provided specialized venues for film screenings, nurturing the tastes of individuals who were key to the creation of archives, such as the Cinématheque Française, the Museum of Modern Art's Film Library, and the Belgian Cinématheque. Simultaneously, film journals sprouted across Europe and the United States, featuring ongoing discussions of films by acclaimed directors.

As access to film titles was limited during the first half of the twentieth century, the critical opinions of those who programmed cinéclubs and purchased films for archives exerted a powerful influence on canon formation. Historians, critics, and teachers relied on repertory exhibition, film archives, and circulating libraries for research, restricting their ability to "discover" previously unrecognized work. While tens of thousands of movies were lost to history, titles such as The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903), The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1915), Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920), Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, Murnau, 1924), and Bronenosts Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) were more likely to be screened and written about once anointed as films of significance, thus perpetuating their status as masterpieces.


Following World War II, a new generation of critics challenged the definition of film artistry posited by early theorists and historians, embracing cinematic realism and expanding the orthodox canon. Such writers as André Bazin (1918–1958) and Roger Leenhardt (1903–1985) located the essence of cinema in its capacity to record, preferring an aesthetic that respected the specificity, continuity, and ambiguity of the world in front of the camera rather than one that transformed it. Where earlier critics attempted to define cinema as a unique art form, Bazin described it as an impure art, acknowledging its links with theater and literature. Bazin celebrated the cinema of the 1930s and 1940s, elevated the reputation of commercial Hollywood films, and together with Alexandre Astruc (b. 1923), laid the foundation for the rise of auteurism. Bazin's influence canonized La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir, 1939) and Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica, 1948), while his praise for Citizen Kane (1941)—as well as the self-promotion of director Orson Welles (1915–1985) and cinematographer Gregg Toland (1904–1948)—established the film's reputation as one of cinema's greatest achievements. Citizen Kane has subsequently topped Sight and Sound's critics poll of cinema's top ten movies every decade since 1962.

New outlets emerged in the postwar years for the promotion and exhibition of cinema, reinforcing the reputations of some directors while introducing others to critical tastemakers. Film publications and cinéclubs expanded, while the Venice Film Festival was revived in 1946 and international festivals began in Berlin, Germany; Cannes, France; Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic; and Locarno, Switzerland. Screenings at Venice of Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) and Ugetsu monogatari (Tales of Ugetsu, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) entranced Western critics and initiated the entry of Japanese films into the established canon.

The rise of auteurism in France, Britain, and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s hastened the comparative evaluation of films and filmmakers at the same time as a growing number of young people embraced international film culture. Proponents of the auteur policy argued that although cinema is a collaborative medium, its most significant works are the expression of the director, in whose films appear original thematic and stylistic consistencies that transcend production circumstances and assigned screenplays. Auteur critics utilized its principles to attack mainstream critics and celebrate the work of previously unheralded filmmakers. As auteurism became the dominant critical approach to cinema in the 1960s, film journals, ciné-clubs, and university film societies multiplied, while film studies programs were widely instituted across American college campuses. Steeped in auteurist principles from their youth, some members of this generation would later carry auteur principles into mainstream film criticism, while others eventually championed filmmaking practices that challenged classical conventions.

The missionary zeal of many auteur devotees invariably led to new canon formation. The young writers at Cahiers du cinéma formed the vanguard of auteur criticism, elevating Max Ophüls (1902–1957), Jacques Tati (1909–1982), Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980), and Howard Hawks (1896–1977) over the Tradition of Quality directors favored by the contemporary French press. The critics writing in Cahiers du cinéma reassessed the significant works of directors previously canonized, rating Welles's Mr. Arkadin (1955) higher than Citizen Kane and Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) above The Last Laugh, while also embracing Mizoguchi's Saikaku ichidai onna (The Life of Oharu, W 1952) and Tales of Ugetsu for their long-shot, long-take aesthetic.

In the United States, Andrew Sarris (b. 1928) railed against native critics who favored foreign, experimental, and documentary films over commercial Hollywood productions. In The American Cinema (1968), he offered a reassessment of American film history based on auteurist principles, analyzing the work of over a hundred directors and sorting them into hierarchical categories ranging from "The Pantheon" to "Less Than Meets the Eye" to "Subjects for Further Research"; the result was a personal canon that served as both a model for critical assessment and a lightning rod for debate. The values underlying auteurism revolutionized the way critics conceived of artistic significance, opening the door for more low-budget, transgressive, and idiosyncratic directors to be endorsed by the critical mainstream.


By the end of the 1960s, some theorists and academics began questioning the tendency of auteur critics to consider the aesthetic value of films outside of any economic, historical, or ideological context. The adoption within film scholarship of theories drawn from structuralism, semiotics, Marxism, and psychoanalysis made problematic notions of authorship and conventional critical assessments. The rise of a modernist European art cinema and a vibrant American avant-garde encouraged some scholars and critics to embrace alternative filmmaking practices. At the same time in academia, feminism, race and ethnic studies, and queer studies led to a re-evaluation of orthodox canons in literature, art, and film.

In cinema studies, scholars critiqued the canon from a number of angles. They noted that organizing film history around "great men" who produce masterpieces ignores other important aspects of the field, including film style, technology, genre, industry, national film schools, and spectatorship. Some highlighted the exclusionary nature of the orthodox canon, including the paucity of female, non-western, and non-white directors, and the neglect of documentaries, avant-garde, and animated films. Others argued that not all viewers value the same films, and those films that are valued can be significant to viewers for different reasons; thus, the personal canons of critics, filmmakers, and audience members will likely differ, as will those of individuals in different countries and age groups. A new approach to canon formation appeared necessary.

Janet Staiger summarizes four common approaches adopted in the 1970s and 1980s to address perceived problems in canon formation. First, some scholars analyzed acknowledged film classics against the grain, seeking to reveal new meanings and significance through alternative readings. Others revised the criteria that determined the nature of film art in an effort to include previously marginalized work within the established canon. Many called for the creation of new canons of oppositional work that challenged dominant modes of representation. Finally, still others argued for the abolition of the canon itself, as the process of canon formation inevitably elevates selected films at the expense of others. Rather than a complete abandonment of the canon, the primary result of several decades of debate within film studies discourse has been a greater awareness of the varied criteria used to form canons and their implications for film culture and history.

As academia grappled with the relative merits of canon formation, the evaluative impulse of auteurism became enshrined within mainstream film culture, leading to an embrace of the masterpiece tradition and an ever-growing number of "best of" lists. Individual critics at daily newspapers, magazines, and specialized film publications as well as critics' groups around the world now annually rate each year's releases, while the Library of Congress has its National Treasures list, and on the Internet thousands of personal web sites offer their own idiosyncratic canons. The urge to define cinema's masterpieces reached its apex with the wave of national cinema centenaries celebrated during the late 1990s and early 2000s, as organizations in country after country conducted polls to select their top one hundred film productions. Meanwhile, growing popular interest in box-office grosses and ancillary sales has led to the promotion of a different kind of canon, one formed by consumer taste rather than critical opinion. In the United States, Gone with the Wind (1939) has achieved canonical status as the all-time highest box-office performer, reflecting not its critical clout but its firm hold on the popular imagination.

While some academics and critics continue to favor a core canon dominated by art cinema and select Hollywood auteurs, the boundaries of the canon are continually expanding. Early tastemakers were able to see movies only via theatrical release, a few major film festivals, and specialized exhibition, yet modern scholars and critics enjoy dramatically increased access to titles through a diverse array of additional media: cable, video, VCD/DVD, and the Internet. Institutions such as the American Film Institute (AFI) and British Film Institute (BFI) mount programs of film screenings and publications that aid in redefining the canon. At the same time, growing scholarly interest in commercial, cult, and previously marginalized cinemas has expanded the criteria applied to canon selection. These shifts have enlarged the fringes of the canon, such that Tokyo nagaremono (Tokyo Drifter, Seijun Suzuki, 1966), a campy, pop art genre picture, is as likely to be featured in today's film magazine or college cinema course as the venerated classic Tokyo monogatari (Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu, 1953). As individuals are encouraged to compare their "top tens" to those of critics, and access to films and film scholarship expands, the re-evaluation, expansion, and renewal of the canon will continue.

SEE ALSO Auteur Theory and Authorship;Criticism;Film History


Bazin, André. What Is Cinema?, 2 vols. Translated by Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Christie, Ian. "Canon Fodder." Sight and Sound 2, no. 8 (December 1992): 31–33.

Rotha, Paul. The Film Till Now, 3rd ed. New York: Twayne, 1960.

Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1928–1968. New York: Dutton, 1968.

Staiger, Janet. "The Politics of Film Canons." Cinema Journal 24, no. 3 (Spring 1985): 4—23.

Lisa Dombrowski