In Search of a Cinema Canon

New York City opening of “Citizen Kane.”

The September/October 2006 issue of Film Comment magazine featured what it calls its longest ever article: an exploration of a proposed “cinema canon” of the 60 greatest feature films as proposed by director/writer Paul Schrader. Even I, who have known and worked with Paul on five of his films since 1980, was surprised, and in complete accord, with his choice of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. He concludes his essay with this thought,”For me the artist without whom there could not be a film canon is Jean Renoir, and the film without which a canon is inconceivable is The Rules of the Game.”

Schrader begins the article with an interesting anecdote:

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.

Donohue suggests that someone should write a book that defines a film canon, something along the lines of literary critic Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon.

Amazon.com—The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages link

Harold Bloom: “The Western Canon.”

He says that critic turned filmmaker Schrader is the right man—and Paul accepts the challenge. The result becomes not a book, but the Film Comment article. Schrader writes that such a canon must be rigid, even elitist, one that can survive the passing distractions of an easily distracted critical community. As preparation he enrolls himself in several courses on aesthetics at Columbia University, where he has taught. The preface to his article can be found here:

Film Society Lincoln Center—Film Comment—“Canon Fodder: Paul Schrader’s Cannon Criteria” article link

You can download a PDF of the entire article with photos at Paul’s website:

paulschrader.org—2006 Film Comment pdf of article link

Schrader is careful to avoid any taint of a “best of” list; he disparages the inanity of the multiple AFI categories’ hundred best. His rumination is in fact a brief history of the philosophy of aesthetics from Plato to Walter Benjamin and beyond. He has taken his self-generated assignment seriously and in doing so, places film criticism on a par with critical analyses of older traditional arts.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

At the end of every year we are deluged with “Top Ten” movie lists by the nation’s film reviewers and critics’ associations, opening salvos in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ own Oscar nomination battle, the annual ritual exhausting everyone, including the academy’s six thousand plus members.

I’m neither a critic nor film historian, just an avid lover of movies like all of you who read these essays on a regular basis. As such, it will be no surprise that my own proclivities lean toward one of the golden ages of cinema, the European New Wave films of the 60s; I define this in the larger context of postwar film beginning with Rossellini and DeSica and ending with the short-lived American New Wave of the early seventies. This period is examined with insight and a particular perspective in Tino Balio’s book The Foreign Renaissance on American Screens. Balio writes a focused history on foreign cinema distribution in the United States beginning with Rome, Open City to Last Tango in Paris. It’s an alternate slant on a well covered period and offers insight to the market forces behind America’s near three decade dance with the European “art film.”:

Amazon.com—The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, 1946-1973 link

I have been fortunate to present many student seminars that attempt to go beyond the immediate concerns of lighting and equipment demonstrations, and consider film grammar and style. In fact, I see workshops as nothing more than an entry point to discussing what constitutes great filmmaking, as opposed to that of purely commercial movies, a distinction that one has to admit is personal, despite what nominally objective criteria you cite. Because so many of the movies we love are bound up with our own life experiences, it is with a large caveats that I venture into providing any kind of great film list whenever I am asked. I acknowledge that film history today has a longer historical tail than when I was in film school; moreover, analysis of film history and aesthetics has become its own raison d’être, a field of study with well over a century of work to plumb. I am continually amazed at how much of an academic discipline cinema history has become: “Critical Studies” departments now firmly ensconced in many major universities. I have even had academics challenge me on intentions in films I have photographed or about the nature of cinematography itself. I can only imagine what an ex-critic like Paul Schrader encounters when sitting across a seminar table of scholars intent on explicating his own work to him.

Carol and I have recently returned from Africa as part of an International Outreach program in Kenya and Rwanda sponsored by the Motion Picture Academy. We met young filmmakers in both countries and gave workshops in cinematography and editing to emerging film students.

Oscars.org: Education & Outreach—East Africa Outreach link

East African film students' first encounter with a non-digital, ie. 35mm film, camera.

Nairobi has a few commercial movie theaters; Kigali has none. In both countries we found ourselves limited in how we could reference films and filmmakers from the historic canon. Most of the films that the students know are contemporary studio fare. This is altogether understandable in two countries that are dealing with the many economic and social stresses of emergence. In Rwanda, there is also the reality of personal history ( and a generation of their fellow humans) being obliterated with the deaths of over 800,000 Rwandans during the Spring 1994 genocide (about which I will write much more here soon.)

We are in many ways our history, a record of our own brief moment in time. And we define and discover ourselves, perhaps more than in any other public medium, in the films we love that survives our own moment. Here is a list of ten prominent people in the arts. Consider what they have in common:

  • Anthony Bourdain, restaurateur.
  • Gary Giddins, music historian and critic.
  • Jonathan Lethem, novelist.
  • Tom Schnabel, KCRW music director.
  • Nicholas Roeg, film director.
  • Sonic Youth, iconic music group.
  • D.A. Pennebaker, filmmaker.
  • Ricky Jay, writer/magician.
  • Jean-Pierre Gorin, film scholar.
  • Marcel Dzama, Canadian artist.

It’s an eclectic group, to be sure, and hard to imagine what common thread could bind them together.

A year ago Kim Hendrickson, a friend and producer of the Criterion Collection, invited me to participate in an ongoing section of their website. The heading is “Explore,” and in it is a sub-section called “Top Ten.” The ten people listed above, as well as over five-dozen more, offer their selection of ten movies from the Criterion catalog, movies that they most admire. Yes, the lists embrace only Criterion Collection titles, but that roster includes a large swath of what many regard as the cinema canon, and Criterion is the most highly regarded of all DVD producers, not only for the quality of their masterings but for the in-depth “extras” that are featured on almost all releases. Criterion is strong on the Janus library, which looms large in Tino Balia’s book as well. A sampling of the “Top Ten” lists reveals an incredible diversity but also a kind of consensus. In alphabetical order, my own page falls between that of writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s and Sony Classics executive Michael Barker. I would have no problem embracing their lists as my own; Barker and I even share two titles, Antonioni’s L’Eclisse and Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. Reviewing some of the more outré selections will lead you into some unexpected delights, idiosyncratic films that may cause you to ask, “Who the hell knew about that film?”

The Criterion Collections: Top Ten Lists link

My own selection is not necessarily adventurous or arcane; rather, it represents films that have had a very great influence on my work and on me. Look at Paul Schrader’s list (without any explanatory notes) for a perspective on films that he chose because they are lesser-known or rare, but films of merit. I choose to include reasons why I chose certain films, even though I knew I was eliminating others that I admire as deeply, such as Bresson’s Pickpocket. Keep in mind that the list is not meant to be anyone’s “greatest of all time,” but a list chosen from the riches of Criterion. Here is my list, numbered as requested, but not necessarily in that order. In fact, I put the Renoir film at the end. I also cheated on the number of films in a way that I hope is justified.

Ali Le Pointe in hiding, "Battle of Algiers."

1. The Battle of Algiers
Gillo Pontecorvo

This is a film that every year becomes more and more timely. On a sociopolitical level, its struggle of a people to win national identity against an oppressive regime is the ongoing story of our times. Its raw visual camera technique is in perfect synchronicity with the digital aesthetic of much contemporary filmmaking. Even now, it justifies its up-front disclaimer that not a foot of it is “documentary.”

The Nuns' refectory, "Black Narcissus."

2. Black Narcissus
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

A film that is the cinematic antipode of The Battle of Algiers. Photographed by the great Jack Cardiff, designed by Alfred Junge (both of whom received Oscars for their work here), this film was considered by Michael Powell to be the “most erotic” of all his films. That it takes place within a community of nuns gives his claim a deliciously profane edginess. It is the film that made me first realize how much cinematography can and should contribute to the emotional, dramatic thrust of a movie. It was also a great influence on my own film, the never released Mariette in Ecstasy, a bittersweet experience that made me realize how much more freedom I would always have as a cinematographer than as just another struggling director trapped in the Hollywood system.

Maurice Ronet, opening scene of "The Fire Within."

3. The Fire Within
Louis Malle

This is the single most underrated film of the entire French New Wave. Its near obsessive tracking of Maurice Ronet through the wet Paris streets as he retraces the steps of a wasted life makes for one of the most tightly focused of the era’s film portraits of a desperate man at the end of his rope. Its slow build toward an inexorable end is Louis Malle’s most nuanced work—this from a director who was already noted for his almost classical discipline. Ronet, until then largely thought of as a lightweight romantic film actor, surrenders himself to the downhill yet strangely transcendent fate that awaits him on the mirror of his room.

The existential pivot of "Wages of Fear."

4. The Wages of Fear
Henri-Georges Clouzot

This is a companion portrait to the existential man of The Fire Within, but it is the obverse—men facing their end not by the personal choice of suicide but by literally being blown to bits by placing themselves in near death circumstances. Beginning in a slow, sleepy town (an extended sequence that was once severely trimmed), it tracks men who are moving toward their demise on a literal and metaphorical road, but whose ability to face the void ahead of them is Camus-like in its indomitability. Screwed down as tightly as a pipe bomb, this Clouzot film threatens to blow up in front of you at every turn. You want to scream as you reach to grab the truck’s steering wheel.

The lovers about to part in "I Fidanzati."

5. I Fidanzati
Ermanno Olmi

Quiet and gentle, in stark contrast to the ever-looming violence of The Wages of Fear, this human tone poem by Ermanno Olmi has the intimate lyricism of Truffaut or Renoir but layered with Italian neorealism. It is toward this latter strain that Olmi moved in his subsequent work, even to the extent of being his own (albeit mediocre) camera operator; for this film, the fluid camera of Lamberto Caimi creates a near dreamlike space while staying rooted in the details of daily life.

The cadet corps on parade in "Mishima."

6. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Paul Schrader

This is the third film that I photographed for writer-director Paul Schrader. It is the film he was born to make, even though it is in a language that neither he nor I understood. It is the film of which I am most proud. I had never expected that I would photograph a film that I felt could take a place in the cinematic canon. It opened to some indifferent, even hostile reviews, by critics who had little patience to plumb its depths. This film and Two-Lane Blacktop (a film that was my first assignment as a camera assistant and that was also subject to poor initial reviews) represent two poles of the directorial aesthetic that has informed my own work as cinematographer. Paul Schrader and Monte Hellman, as different as their styles are, represent for me the integrity that American filmmaking can aspire to.

Anna Magnani fights off German soldiers in "Rome. Open City."

7. Rome Open City
Roberto Rossellini

Paisan
Roberto Rossellini

Germany Year Zero
Roberto Rossellini

I know it’s a cheat to select three films as if they were one, but it’s almost impossible to consider Rome Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero as anything other than a linked narrative of the ashes of World War II and of the struggle to rise out of that dustbin of history. They are vital, raw, even primitive in style, full of nonactors who are alternately charismatic and arch; there is an aesthetic in these movies that is stripped to the bone. These films, taken together, are immediate godfathers to the French New Wave. When Truffaut saw the cinematic journey of the eleven-year-old Edmund Meschke in Germany Year Zero, the seeds of his Antoine Doinel character were planted. The interviews and documentary extras in this set are one of the great treasures of neorealism research.

Alain Delon and Monica Vitti, desperate lovers in "L'Eclisse."

 8. L’Eclisse
Michelangelo Antonioni

Antonioni’s great L’avventura, La notte, and L’eclisse are yet another linked trilogy, though their stories and characters are as disparate as those of the Rossellini trilogy. It may be the director’s hyper-refined architectural style that we remember most in this film, people lost in its urban landscape. But Antonioni was also very much a child of Italian neorealism, as we can trace in his early films and documentaries. The long, wordless sequence, devoid of the main characters, that concludes this film is justly cited as a masterpiece of visual alienation and loss. But the hectic frenzy of the Turin Bourse sequence, a near stand-alone set piece in the middle of the film, shows the director at his documentary best, even as the camera smoothly glides through the rushing masses of stock traders with a singular determination of its own mission.

Raoul Coutard, open tracking shot in "Contempt."

9. Contempt
Jean-Luc Godard

Even with a nod to some of Hollywood’s best navel-gazing films, I will make a case that this is the best film ever made about filmmaking—made by one of the most self-referential of all filmmakers. Visually lush to the point of a Powell and Pressburger surfeit, Godard’s film lays bare a marriage in crisis. The long apartment sequence between Bardot and Piccoli is a dystopian analogue to the hotel room playful casualness of Seberg and Belmondo in Breathless. A back-to-back viewing of the two sequences constitutes a mini-history of the French New Wave. Raoul Coutard’s cinematography and Georges Delerue’s score give the Greek myth parallels of the film’s story line (and of the film-within-a-film trope) a sensuous subtext—music and image caressing the body of the star of And God Created Woman. It’s great to see Fritz Lang and Jack Palance, two polar opposite cinematic icons, in a room watching dailies. Below the screen is a running legend that reads, “Cinema is an invention without a future. Louis Lumière.” An uncredited character in the film is the Casa Malaparte, an architectural oddity placed like a shipwreck on a remote cliff on Capri. The film’s opening long shot over verbal titles—as the BNC anamorphic camera approaches the viewer along tracking rails, then pans and tilts so that Coutard’s lens points right at you—is one of those great “gotcha” cinematic moments.

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), "The 400 Blows."

10. The 400 Blows
François Truffaut

This is the definitive portrait of conflicted youth struggling toward self-identity. The final tracking shot of Antoine Doinel—running down the beach to the water’s edge, stopping, with no further escape route in front of him, then turning toward camera and freeze-framed with an optical zoom into his young and lost face—always brings me to tears. It is one of the most moving and deeply earned endings to a film ever made. It was Truffaut at the brink of his career, not yet the “Truffaut” to come, still the haughty Cahiers critic who thought that just maybe he could do it better than the films of the French “Tradition of Quality.” And he and his fellow Cahiers writers did do it better. Truffaut and Malle were the two humanist poles of the New Wave, with Truffaut most closely mirroring the mix of emotions that resided in the work of his mentor, Jean Renoir, whose own film . . .

Jean Renoir (at left) as Octave, "The Rules of the Game."

11. The Rules of the Game
Jean Renoir

… is for me the greatest film ever made, and cannot stand in any list of “top ten” because it is simply of its own class. Renoir’s upstairs-downstairs comedy-drama so defies categories that it is almost impossible to talk about it. You just have to see it—over and over. It’s a film that was almost lost to us, as the original camera negative was destroyed in the early forties. This magnificent restoration (especially of the dialogue) is as close to returning the film to its magisterial pinnacle, as we are likely to achieve. New Wave critical demigod André Bazin said that this film contained “the secret of a film narrative capable of expressing everything without fragmenting the world, of revealing the hidden meaning of beings and things without destroying [their] natural unity.” Bazin died at age forty, just as Truffaut was starting production of The 400 Blows.

And what about Citizen Kane, the film consistently selected by an AFI poll as the greatest American film of all time and a photo of the New York City premiere which opens this essay? Sadly, it is a title not in the Criterion catalog—but a multi-disc 70th anniversary will be released mid-September. This film, and its cinematography by Gregg Toland, is a benchmark for us all. But there may be a certain blowback in the very idea of these lists as reflected in a customer review from Amazon.com:

Probably the most unfortunate thing that ever happened to `Citizen Kane’ was that it found itself atop the AFI top film list. Now, no one can simply enjoy the film. Everyone feels compelled to scrutinize it and make a decision about its greatness. Asking whether `Citizen Kane’ is the best film of the century is like asking if Marilyn Monroe was the most beautiful woman. It depends on whom you ask.

I’m of several minds about lists. At worst it’s a kind of parlor game. At best, it is a window into one’s own informed aesthetics—a kind of “we are what we see.” I could easily make up a second list of films, several of which I have cited in earlier essays, several of which I will discuss soon. Here’s an alternate reading, sans comments, in no particular order, some of which are found in the Criterion Collection:

  • Sweet Smell of Success
  • Le Samourai
  • Citizen Kane
  • Mourir a Madrid
  • Sunrise
  • L’Atalante
  • Hud
  • Jules and Jim
  • Pickpocket
  • Conformista

Please don’t berate me for omissions, however obvious they are to you. Undertaking such a list is a by definition idiosyncratic, even allowing for Schrader’s admirable analysis.

I’m sometimes asked why my list has so many foreign films. Don’t I like American movies? How do you answer thwarted logic like that? Alternatively, I just saw a list of one blogger’s “Best 500 movies.” There were no foreign language films in the first one hundred, only two in the next one hundred.

Send me your list—with or without any comments. I’ll keep this essay up for two weeks: it is August, after all.

Next up: A look at the recent AMPAS International Outreach African workshops in Kenya and Rwanda.

10 Responses to “In Search of a Cinema Canon”

Leave a Comment


  • A wonderful read as always.

    Here is my list I compiled for Moviemaker magazine some months ago which I titled: 11 Films Every Cinematographer Should See.

    Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

    The Third Man

    The Night of the Hunter

    Winter Light

    I Am Cuba

    The Conformist

    The Spirit of the Beehive

    The Parallax View

    Barry Lyndon

    Raging Bull

    Saving Private Ryan

    JOHN’S NOTE: FREDERICK, AN ADMIRABLE SURVEY OF GREAT CINEMATOGRAPHY AND EACH FILM A UNIQUE VISUAL WORLD.

  • While I’m all for a a cinema canon the question invariably the uninitiated will always be: “Why should i look at this?” and the answer: “Because it’s on the list,” is not a very satisfying one. It has been suggested that 1939 was the movies’ greatest year, and though one could quibble, it certainly a good enough year to support my argument, which is this: The movies got better and better with each passing year from 1893 through 1939 because the audience literaly grew up with the medium. After that new generations were plunked down in the middle of this already mature visual storytelling environment–not unlike being tossed into the deep end and being told to swim–or drown–without even the basic interpretive skills the earlier audience acquired by osmosis as filmakers and audience matured together.
    So, how is one to form this canon? The films I like best? The films others like best? Films that are for your own good whether you like them or not? Films that reflect the time in which they were made or films that aim for a certain timelessnes?

  • Part II, I why does the tab key always serve as a send key in these blog programs?

    How can one reconcile a canon in a medium that includes works by the likes of Sergei Eisenstein and Josef von Sternberg? Vincente Minnelli and Don Siegel? Frederick Weissman and Max Ophuls? I love them all, and yet if forced to limit my canon to 60 or 1060, invariably some filmmakers would be forced off the list.

    Of the classic era cinematographers, Hal Rosson ASC is my man–but then there’s Charles Lang, Jr., Arthur Miller, J. Peverell Marley. I once saw a moving camera shot by Harry Stardling, Jr. that was so outwardly simple and yet such a lighting and exposure challenge that I thought surely he must be the greatest cameraman who ever lived–though I’m not sure anybody else–even cinematographers–would have the same reaction because there was nothing in the shot, complex as it was, that called attention to itself.

    I could make an argument for including a single shot Vitaphone vaudeville short in any pantheon I might put together–I could also argue why “Rules of the Game” should not be included. Ultmately, taste, style, artistic sensibilities, prejudices and just plain stubbornness will enter into any list I (or anyone else) may concoct.

    Rather than a canon, I would be much more inclined to favor media education. Not the post-modern, semiotic, diegetic sort of stuff–but the nuts and bolts of what is a shot, how does putting two shots together create something different than the sum of its parts? etc. Starting in first grade–maybe with cartoons–what is the difference in the way Disney, Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera deal with the medium, and why?

    By second grade–maybe two reelers—Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, the Sttoges.

    Maybe documentaries could be introduced in the fourth grade, and so on. The goal would be quite different than what is currently taught in film schools. One would not teach how to make films–because not everyone will become a filmmaker; rather the effort would be aimed at educating an audience–because everyone is a member of the audience.

    JOHN’S REPLY: BOB, YOUR THOUGHT ON THE CONCEPT OF “EDUCATING AN AUDIENCE– BECAUSE EVERYONE IS A MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE” IS ONE OF THOSE PROFOUND YET SIMPLE AXIOMS. WE TEACH FILM HISTORY OF A SORT BUT NOTHING LIKE THE AESTHETICS AND PHILOSOPHY OF FILMMAKING AS SCHRADER DESCRIBES IN HIS ESSAY. AS LONG AS OUR FILM SCHOOLS CONTINUE TO PANDER TO THE STUDENTS AS BOOT CAMPS FOR THE COMMERCIAL INDUSTRY, IS THERE ANY WONDER THAT OUR MOVIES WILL GET DUMBER AND DUMBER.

  • thanks Mr Bailey!
    my top ten of movies i consider great and also love
    (big surprise not Tarkovsky nor Malick on any of your lists mr Bailey)

    “Dans la Ville du Sylvie” (2007 Jose Luis Guerin Francia-Espana)

    “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999 S. Kubrick)

    “Zerkalo” (1975 A Tarkovsky)

    “Badlands”(1973 T Malick)

    “Persona”(1966 I Bergman)

    “Simon del Desierto” (1965 L Bunuel)

    “Rashomon” (1950 A Kurosawa)

    “Germany Year One (1947 R Rosellini)

    “L Atalante”(1934 J Vigo)

    “Metropolis”(1927 F Lang)

  • This essay along with Paul Schrader’s Cannon Fodder gave me a lot to think about and was very entertaining, I’ve read over them twice. I start my short list with a television documentary and end it with a commercial. My thinking is any list should not be restricted to the feature film format. These films all have influenced my thinking politically, emotionally and artistically to varying degrees.

    Harvest of Shame, Documentary 1960
    Edward R Murrow
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJTVF_dya7E

    Dr. Strangelove
    Stanley Kubrick

    Blow Up
    Michelangelo Antonioni

    Manhattan
    Woody Allen

    Klute
    Alan J Pakula

    Diva
    Jean-Jacques Beineix

    The Hustler
    Robert Rossen

    Apple 1984 Big Brother Commercial

  • Your search of a cinema canon and revisiting Paul Schrader’s listing of 60 films made me think of a title “CINEMA THROUGH MY EYES.” It would seem more appropriate to discover cinema through someone’s eyes because that’s what movie lovers like do the world over. I’ve always been curious to know what films other people working in the movies admire and return to for reference and inspiration. After reading your thoughts I would love for other cinematographers to share the films that continue to inspire their work and perhaps even select a few favorite scenes from the selected films.

    The reason I love using the CINEMA THROUGH MY EYES banner is because we almost always come to the movies through someone. That connection between someone discovering a film for the first time and the person who recommended the film is immeasurable. Some of us grew up with the movies that our parents or elder siblings took us to, or we discovered photos and titles in books about the movies, and in my case I found out about the films that influenced Satyajit Ray and Michael Powell in their own published memoirs. Movies are undeniably bound up with our own life experiences.

    Thanks for suggesting the Balio’s book which I hadn’t heard about before and will be looking up soon. In countries around the world the availability of important and contemporary art films remains scarce and filmmakers have to help in making their local audiences aware of these films. In speaking about making films you’re not only right to focus on film grammar and style in your workshops but also doing the students an enormous service. Cinema is its own language and one of the most beautiful ever created. Your focus on what constitutes great filmmaking is what will remind aspiring filmmakers that cinema has its own beautiful and meaningful form.

    I wish that Film Studies programs would focus less on the explicating or academic aspects in their courses and dedicate time and screenings to draw on the creative nature of cinema. It would certainly help infuse their departments, curriculum and students with a greater enthusiasm to use film history and the aesthetics of cinema, draw inspiration, and create new works that say something about our lives. Students of film history and cinema aesthetics must know that they too can draw from lives and works that seem larger than life on the big screen.

    “We are in many ways our history, a record of our own brief moment in time. And we define and discover ourselves, perhaps more than in any other public medium, in the films we love that survive our own moment.”

    Your thought there sums it up beautifully for me and I wish festival’s would program series under the banner of CINEMA THROUGH MY EYES or that Criterion, Warner Brothers, Sony/Columbia would release box sets of DVDs that were specifically curated and recommended from their catalogue by prominent people in the arts including yourself. The person would have his or her own signature style box set of recommended films complete with essays they had written about the films, specially recorded commentary tracks by them, and anything else that would personalize the set of films for the public. There is no list strong or meaningful enough to compare with the movies that we experienced with our own eyes, have affected our lives and inspired us to create something in our lives.

    We use to have movie matinees at our school in Abu Dhabi and a terrific teacher by the name of Erik Torjesen would host selected films for students on a large projection screen. It was there that I discovered a great many American films. I discovered most of the foreign cinema during my years in Tulsa and in attending the city’s Circle Cinema which gave me one delightful film after another. These were the first films that shaped my thoughts and dreams:

    TAXI DRIVER
    Martin Scorsese

    THE MESSAGE
    Moustapha Akkad

    A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (AMOLAD)
    Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

    THE CIRCUS
    Charlie Chaplin

    NIGHTS OF CABIRIA
    Federico Fellini

    UNDERWORLD U.S.A.
    Sam Fuller

    THE RIVER
    Jean Renoir

    APU TRILOGY
    Satyajit Ray

    LOS OLVIDADOS
    Luis Bunuel

    NIGHT AND THE CITY
    Jules Dassin

    LAND OF SILENCE AND DARKNESS
    Werner Herzog

    JOHN’S REPLY: MOHAMMAD, YOUR IDEA OF PROGRAMMING SCREENINGS “CINEMA THROUGH MY EYES” IS TERRIFIC. IT IS SOMETHING I WISH THAT FILM SCHOOLS WOULD ADOPT. IT WOULD CERTAINLY BREAK THE RITUAL OF CHRONOLOGICAL FILM HISTORY; WE DON’T EXPERIENCE MOVIES AS A HISTORICAL STREAM. MY OWN BEST READING PROGRAM AS A LITERATURE MAJOR IN COLLEGE WAS NOT THE CURRICULUM, BUT THE SEEMING ERRATIC PATH I PURSUED WHEN LEFT TO MY OWN WHIMS. THE TRUTH IS, THAT IS THE WORK THAT HAS STUCK TO ME AS VITAL RATHER THAN HISTORY. I REALIZE NOW AS I AM WATCHING MANY MORE OLDER FILMS, JUST HOW SPOTTY MY SENSE OF FILM HISTORY IS. LIKE IT OR NOT, WE BECOME THE FILMMAKER WE ARE, VERY MUCH BY THE FILMS WE SEE, BY INTENTION OR ACCIDENT. THIS DOES NOT BODE WELL FOR A CINEMA CULTURE THAN IS INCREASINGLY OBSESSED WITH THE MOMENT, THE NOW, AND SEES OLDER MOVIES AS A KIND OF VISUAL MASH-UP TO BE EXPLOITED. THE SPECIFICITY IN TIME AND SPACE THAT ARE INHERENT IN MOVIES DOES THAT, RENDERING EVERY MOVIE A TIME CAPSULE. THE VISUAL DETAIL IN FICTION, REGARDLESS OF THE POWER OF THE WRITER, RESIDES IN THE MIND OF THE READER; IT IS EVER BEING CREATED.

  • Regarding the IN SEARCH OF A CINEMA CANON I agree with many that the use of “TOP TEN” lists is a specious rumination if for no other reason that odious attempt to summon up some quantitative formula by which to measure a film’s “greatness” which would elude quantifying an aesthetic of any art. For me the measure of a film’s lasting reasonance – a more universal and timeless barometer – is it’s ability to continue to engage me in my own evolving emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth throughout my life just as one reimagines life through the presences of children, which is in itself a cinematic wonder which we are the editors. – LOL – Rare indeed is the film that has been able to do that for me though I can always appreciate master craftsmen of directing, lighting, editing, and of course it all starts with the story.
    In no particular order and with no dominant regard to the aesthetic I would give mention to films like “HUD,” (the reconciliation of self awareness and flawed character) “CITIZEN KANE” (Tour de Force of the tragedy of unbridled ambition)”JULES AND JIM” (wholly justifiable in its melancholic menage a trois) “SEVEN DAYS IN MAY” and “FAILSAFE” (timeless political reasonance if not foreboding of times yet to come). A terribly flawed list which ( many lives ago) as an overly serious film student I could deconstruct with the broadsword.
    In conclusion the films not the lists are what are important and if the dialogue of superaltives serves as engine to promote their preservation – as THE CRITERION COLLLECTION does (a national treasure indeed) I can easily indulge it if for no other reason that film, now more than ever, continually lives in the shadow of being totally eviscerated and most certainly marginalized by the dominant spectre of technology that would render it to the cinematic equivalent of where books are turned to “kindling.”

    JOHN’S REPLY: CHRISTIAN, YES, WE MAY NOT YET HAVE REACHED “THE CINEMATIC EQUIVALENT OF WHERE BOOKS ARE TURNED TO KINDLING,” BUT IT DOES SEEM TO ME THAT OUR MOVIES ARE BECOMING EVER MORE DISPOSABLE– BOTH IN AMBITION AND IN EXECUTION. SURE, YOU CAN SEE PLENTY OF EPHEMERAL PROGRAMMERS FROM THE GOLDEN AGE EVERY WEEK ON TCM, BUT EVEN THE MORE ROUTINE OF THEM SEEM TO SAY SOMETHING ABOUT “THE HUMAN CONDITION”. HOW MANY MOVIES THAT OPEN EVERY FRIDAY AT OUR MULTIPLEXES ASPIRE TO ANYTHING MORE THAN WEEKEND GROSS RECEIPTS?

  • The Pordenone festival (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto) started a review of the silent film canon a couple of years ago, and it should continue for many years. It will be interesting to see how views evolve. Dom na Trubnoi was a huge hit the first year.

    Bob Birchard makes a good point about audiences learning the language of cinema as the filmmakers invented it. I suspect that the abrupt transition to sound films forced an accelerated, fairly radical revision of what it means to be the audience, just as it forced the filmmakers to figure out how to play in the new medium. I think of silent film as a different art form than what eventually developed as sound film, and have my own list of films in both eras. Each list is a bit whimsical in terms of leaving out a lot of good films, but these are the ones that continue in memory.

    From the silent era:

    Laurel and Hardy comedies: Liberty; Angora Love
    Keaton: One Week; any of his features
    The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
    The Wedding March
    Pickford’s later version of Tess
    The Iron Mask
    The Ring (Hitchcock silent)
    The Mitchell Kenyon collection (as historical documentary)
    The Big Parade
    Three Songs of Lenin (historically fascinating)
    Ozu films
    Abel Gance’s The Wheel (recently restored) and others
    The Italian documentary Gloria (a propaganda film, but historically riveting)
    etc

    Sound films

    Yojimbo
    Modern Times
    Them
    South Pacific
    Branagh’s Henry V
    Stormy Weather (remarkable historical document — thanks Cinecon)
    Recent films by Sion Sono
    Signore e Signori
    Roman Holiday
    etc

    BOB,

    THANK YOU ESPECIALLY FOR THE SILENT LIST. TCM OFTEN FEATURES SILENT FILMS ON SUNDAY NIGHT AND I ALWAYS DVR THEM. RECENTLY, THEY ALSO SHOWED 24 HOURS OF LON CHANEY, INCLUDING HIS ONLY SOUND FILM. THE MORE THAT GREAT SILENT FILMS ARE DISCOVERED AND RESTORED, THE MORE EVIDENT IT BECOMES WHAT A HUGE LEGACY THEY ARE. I AM NOW WATCHING A TCM COMPILATION OF TWO HOURS OF MELIES, AND AMPAS JUST SCREENED A RESTORED TINTED PRINT OF VOYAGE TO THE MOON. ALSO, I RECENTLY WATCHED A MAGNIFICENT RESTORATION OF FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE. I HAVE NEVER BEEN TO THE PORDENONE FESTIVAL. IT’S HIGHEST ON THE WISH LIST. THE ARCHIVISTS AND SILENT FILM SCHOLARS WHO ARE DOING THE PAINSTAKING WORK TO SAVE THESE ALMOST LOST FILMS ARE TRUE MAGICIANS OF CINEMA.

  • Hi John.
    Thanks for letting us swim in your words week after week.

    Here is a pretty good collection of the most important and influential films in my life.
    (in no particular order)

    - “Stalker” by Andrei Tarkovsky
    (if I were to choose one favorite film, there is a good chance this would be it.)
    - “Mirror” by Andrei Tarkovsky

    - “Balthazar” by Robert Bresson
    - “Diary of a Country Priest” by Robert Bresson
    (Just two perfect films. Laser beams.)

    - “Come and See” by Elem Klimov
    (A monument of Cinema and all Art. A film that changed my life and understanding of what can be felt through Art.)

    - “Mother and Son” by Alexander Sokurov
    - “Second Circle” by Alexander Sokurov

    - “Spirit of the Beehive” by Victor Erice
    (This film posses such a beautiful feeling throughout it. Like ghosts living within a memory.)

    - “Signs of Life” by Werner Herzog
    - “Even Dwarves Started Small” by Werner Herzog
    (Herzog has always effortlessly expressed the sad and absurd and hilarious in the world, and his films always seem to show images that have never been seen before, but feel so familiar)

    - “Mishima” By Paul Schrader
    (One of the greatest examples of the power of Cinema. Image, voice, music, costumes, sets, movement, all in perfect harmony and traveling like a wave, in the same direction towards the final crescendo.)

    - “Buffalo ’66” By Vincent Gallo
    (I have a very close and deep appreciation for this film. Maybe because I’m from Cleveland, a city just as grey as Buffalo. Its such a gutsy film, made with hard nosed assuredness and faith, and in the sweet sweet end it leaves you feeling light as a feather.)

    John’s reply: Great selection, Joe. The Klimov is more than a film. Its refusal to descend into bathos in the most horrific scenes is unlike any film I can think of.

    • There is one more film for me that, for me, is “imposible to forget” but easy to “not remember” for lists and discussions because of it’s quiet nature. I’d like to add…

      “Why has Bodhi-darma left for the east?”

      … to my list of films.
      It’s an almost invisible film, in no hurry and in no way looking for an audience; just existing in it’s own time and space, understanding that someone may seek it out one day as if it is a hermit monk living on a mountain top, ready to share it’s time with everybody and nobody.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Why_Has_Bodhi-Dharma_Left_for_the_East%3F

      And here is a perfect 9 minute Youtube clip that shows you what you are possibly in for in case you the viewer are interested in walking up the mountain.

Leave a Reply