Monday, September 11, 2006

Schrader's Canon

So the latest issue of Film Comment has a long article by Paul Schrader on the question of film canons or "a" film canon. It's at once a narrative of Schrader's own fizzled book project on the topic, a history of the idea of canon formation and aesthetics, and a rant about all the standard culprits ("special interest" ideologues, New Historicists, postmodernists, Marxists, and so forth). My friends, I am not completely certain I am able to evaluate this article very well. I've had a frustrating day, I've realized. My own laziness led me to just this morning ordering NYFF tickets even though I am an FSLC member and could have sent in an order weeks ago (and was only able to send in an order for The Woman on the Beach and Our Daily Bread, which weren't sold out). Then I realized that my plan to see Ugetsu in 35mm in its current Film Forum run was a wash--tonight was a "Keaton Monday" and Ugetsu is not screening again until tomorrow. Keaton's great obviously, but I was psyched to see big screen Mizoguchi. To top it all off, I finally caught up with The Corporation on DVD, and feel like going out into the street and screaming. So maybe when I return to Schrader's article I'll be a bit more generous. Until then, a few observations:

- Why, especially when Schrader huffs and puffs about how a canon need be elitist and make no special concessions to those grubby-handed minorities (my snarky phrasing, of course), does Schrader simply reiterate the standard middlebrow canon, devoid of shorts, documentaries, and that biggest bogeyman of all, avant-garde film? Really, a canon of "the elite," meant to "raise the bar" (oh, how noble of him), that includes Criterion-type Greatest Hits (and yes, yes, some of the films he mentions are masterpieces, I know) ... yawn. And honestly, I dig The Big Lebowski like just millions of other people, but shouldn't everyone feel the urge to laugh in his face at his Harold Bloomian get-up when that film (or any Coen film) gets a mention in this gilded canon ... but no Eisenstein, Hou, Rivette, Vigo, Tati, et al. ad nauseum?

- For the record: Pauline Kael did not destroy walls between High and Low culture as Schrader (disapprovingly) asserts. She was a guardian of that divide and did everything she could--subtly--to try to keep it in place. She wanted to make other respectable citizens with middlebrow aesthetics feel less guilty about slumming in the fun trash heap known as 'the movies.' She hated the idea that people might take some moovee seriously as art, and disdained the possibility that true art existed outside of a few humanistic pockets in the medium (S. Ray, some Renoir, De Sica).

- A direct quote from Schrader: "The closest thing to a true auteur was Charles Chaplin--producer, director, writer, actor, editor, composer--but even The Tramp was influenced by the clowns who preceded him." Firstly, why is it that the people who have to bloviate about the scarcity of "true auteurs" in cinema never mention the avant-garde? It's as though these people think that authorship necessitates total and even tyrannical control of the product in every facet (in which case Rembrandt and Rubens weren't always the authors of many of their own great paintings...), and yet when the cinema provides examples of such things (like Stan Brakhage to state the most obvious example), they willfully ignore them. There is no good reason for Schrader to ignore non-narrative, non-feature films. He just does. And then has the audacity to complain about the kids today not knowing film history. Secondly, how in the world does "influence" (the influence preceding clowns on The Tramp) negate or dilute authorship? Is Balzac any less the author of his novels because Sir Walter Scott came before him to lay out some models for the early 19th century novel? Or is Braque any less the author of his paintings because he worked out some of his ideas in tandem with Picasso?

But what do I know? I am a mere film blogger, and do not know where this mysterious "Montgomery Cliff" is located ...


jmac said...

Thank you, Zach!

I only read the online version of the essay, but I really disagreed with Schrader's idea that cinema is in a decline. It seems to me that cinema has become more collective, and that this medium is breathing with poetic & technological invention (especially in the realm of experimental cinema). I don't know if I'm misunderstanding something, but Schrader seems to expect contemporary cinema to unfold in a 20th century way! So of course, he is missing the open door, as he watches the one that's closing. The idea of a tiny group of international auteurs is over. Millions of people create cinema now! If one individual was using FCP, for example, this artist would be celebrated for his/her genius. The individual against society is such a romantic idea in some ways, but if more people are expressing themselves through film/video, that's an example of the evolution of cinema! His essay seems to be an attack on youth . . .

I usually try to refrain from criticism . . . Thanks for listening. :)

Zach Campbell said...

Jen, thanks--I too don't like to focus on criticism, but Schrader's whole argument rubbed me the wrong way. When you consider that it gets such pride of place in Film Comment, this dubiously pessimistic ode to certain ... standards ... in film culture just made me more grateful for the proliferation of the Internet and the blogosphere, whose denizens will (hopefully) be better equipped at understanding what cinema continues to throw our way.

schrader said...

jmac: I agree. But that's the point of the article. The Twentieth Century notion of cinema is dead. Something new is aborning. Paul Schrader

Anonymous said...

"Millions of people create cinema now! If one individual was using FCP, for example, this artist would be celebrated for his/her genius. The individual against society is such a romantic idea in some ways, but if more people are expressing themselves through film/video, that's an example of the evolution of cinema! His essay seems to be an attack on youth . . ."

That's the opposite of what I thought Schrader was trying to say IMHO. He discussed in great length about how cultural studies and postmodernism has undermined the gatekeepers of the high art establishment.

Peer-to-peer technologies such as YouTube (however confined by the white male corporation) will nevertheless play a role in leveling the field a wee bit. More outsider voices will be recognized.

jmac said...

Paul & Zach,

Thank you both for this discussion! It may not be necessary for me to comment, although I do feel compelled to mention that I'm not over 20th century cinema, I'm not even over 19th century cinema! Cinema is always beginning!

Luv ya!

jmac said...


I appreciate your thoughtfulness in this discussion too! I feel very passionately about writing, I have almost impossible standards, especially about writing on cinema. A lot of information was expressed in Paul Schrader's essay, but it did not describe what I am personally searching for. What is the truth of cinema?

P.S. Some of the really hot writing on cinema is being generated from scholarly blogs like Elusive Lucidity, Strictly Film School, & Esoteric Rabbit. (I'm a skeptic too, just trust me!)