[11 June 2009]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
“Finding Nemo” is a cute flick. It’s well-made. And it’s fun to watch.
And, according to Time magazine, it’s one of the greatest films ever made.
But is Pixar’s 2003 animated confection about a dotty chick fish who helps a nervous Nelly of a papa fish look for his beloved son one of the 100 greatest films of all time?
Should it be part of the canon?
Should children be taught to enjoy its aesthetic and moral splendor just as they are supposed to adore the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and T.S. Eliot? (Visions of college lit courses on “The Royal Son: Hamlet & Nemo and the Dialectics of Being Lost.”)
Fifteen years after the culture-war skirmish around Harold Bloom’s controversial defense of “The Western Canon” in literature, there’s a parallel debate over film.
Is it possible to compile a universally recognized canon of the world’s greatest movies?
It won’t be easy, if the still-unresolved literary wars are any sign.
The debate has been precipitated by “Essential Art House,” a series of six-film DVD sets from the Criterion Collection, featuring titles from Janus Films. Janus is the theatrical distributor that introduced Americans to Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman and helped launch the art-house movie craze of the 1960s.
“Essential Art House” — two sets are available, and the third goes on sale June 16 — includes all the usual suspects: Jean Cocteau, Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, Andrzej Wajda, Francois Truffaut.
Even if many movie buffs know that these directors should belong on any canon list, many would be hard-pressed to explain why. Most of us have come to believe that film appreciation is entirely subjective.
Time magazine film critics Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel, who compiled the “Nemo”-friendly “All-Time 100 Movies” list in 2005, have no pretensions that their list is definitive.
“This is just one of what must be a hundred 100-best-films lists,” Corliss writes.
There’s the rub: Best-of lists, even those by respected critics, seem arbitrary.
Critic-turned-screenwriter and director Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver,” “Affliction”) has argued that, as a society, we have become so afraid of being branded elitists that we are loath to judge films according to artistic excellence.
In an essay modeled after Bloom’s book, Schrader says academics and journalists have abdicated their role as arbiters of taste. He argues that film profs are more obsessed with analyzing the political subtext of movies, while the media churn out best-of lists defined by money and celebrity, not aesthetics.
Schrader argues that the “great middle” of film criticism — serious yet accessible film discussion — has disappeared, pushed out on one side by jargon-filled academic studies, and on the other by mass-media film reviews that are little more than consumer guides.
The weekly box office report has become one of the public’s primary viewing guides.
We’re impressed that a washing machine, car, or shampoo is a best-seller, but aren’t artworks supposed to be qualitatively different?
Try telling that to the American Film Institute, which compiles the “100 Years ... 100 Movies” list of American films from a survey of critics.
AFI’s list, last updated in 2007, includes classics but is larded with pop fluff, including the ultimate celebration of American anti-intellectualism, “Forrest Gump” (1994), and it features five films by Steven Spielberg. (Five?) Worse, the list is part of the marketing campaign for an annual TV special.
Schrader blames our growing film illiteracy on his late mentor and friend critic Pauline Kael, charging her with ushering in the contemporary dumbing-down of film.
Kael, whose influence on American film criticism cannot be exaggerated, mocked the idea of film-as-art and accused Bergman and Fellini of being pretentious bores.
She celebrated movies as “trash” and taught that critics should judge films for their emotional effect, rather than their formal qualities or intellectual content.
The Criterion series represents the sort of qualitative canon that Kael rejected.
These films demand active engagement from viewers by challenging preconceptions about our social structure and self-identity.
Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” about witnesses to a crime who have totally different testimonies, shows how individual desires color how we see reality. Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” proves that film can embody poetry, not just talk about it. Roman Polanski’s “Knife in the Water” critiques how social-power relations can deform the most private acts between lovers.
Pop films encourage passive viewing (the suspension of disbelief) and incite our most primitive emotions. For all his brilliance as a filmmaker — and he is a master of his craft — Spielberg manipulates music, color, framing, and composition to elicit specific emotional responses. (You may dislike “E.T.” as a movie, but I’ll bet you can’t help but cry when the alien says goodbye to the children.)
So, how to decide what films are art?
Schrader offers five criteria, including a film’s beauty, its potential to become timeless, and how it elicits viewer engagement.
But if there’s one thing art resists, it’s being reduced to formulas. As Corliss says, “You can’t calibrate genius.”
Schrader’s criteria are helpful, but the real arbiter is what the late University of Pennsylvania sociologist Philip Rieff called “the feeling intellect,” or taste — an elitist term, if there ever was one — cultivated over time.
Corliss calls it experience.
One of the best ways to fine-tune one’s taste is to study Janus’ film catalog, which for decades has been taught in college film courses.
But the Janus-Criterion canon is less than definitive, since it mostly features the European films that inspired the first generation of art-film fans. (Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu were the only Asian directors then to make the cut.)
So, watch the “Essential Art House” series, then check out the new generation of great filmmakers, many of whom hail from Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, including Abbas Kiarostami, Bela Tarr, Carlos Diegues, Tsai Ming-liang, Gaspar Noe, Wong Kar-wai, Michael Haneke, Bruno Dumont, Lars von Trier and Hong Sang-soo.
As for the film canon, think of it more as an open question than as a Holy Grail waiting to be discovered.
CRITERION ESSENTIAL ART HOUSE
Titles included in the first four volumes of the Essential Art House DVD series released by the Criterion Collection in collaboration with Janus Films. Each boxed set costs $99.95. (Films also available for $19.95 each.)
For information about Criterion, visit www.criterion.com. For Janus Films, visit www.janusfilms.com.
EAH, Volume I
“Grand Illusion” 1937. Dir. Jean Renoir (1937)
“Beauty and the Beast” 1946. Dir. Jean Cocteau
“Lord of the Flies” 1963. Dir. Peter Brook
“Wild Strawberries” 1957. Dir. Ingmar Bergman
“Knife in the Water” 1962. Dir. Roman Polanski
“Rashomon” 1950. Dir. Akira Kurosawa
EAH, Volume II
“Black Orpheus” 1959. Dir. Marcel Camus
“The 400 Blows” 1959. Dir. Francois Truffaut
“Ikiru” 1952. Dir. Akira Kurosawa
“The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp” 1943. Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburge
“Pygmalion” 1938. Dir. Anthony Asquith
“La Strada” 1954. Dir. Federico Fellini
EAH, Volume III (due out June 16)
“Ashes and Diamonds” 1958. Dir. Andrzej Wajda
“Forbidden Games” 1952. Dir. Rene Clement
“The Hidden Fortress” 1958. Dir. Akira Kurosawa
“Last Holiday” 1950. Dir. Henry Cass
“Richard III” 1954. Dir. Laurence Olivier
“Variety Lights” 1950. Dir. Federico Fellini
EAH, Volume IV (due Sept. 22) Selection is subject to change.
“Gervaise” 1956. Dir. Rene Clement
“Le jour se leve (Daybreak)” 1939. Dir. Marcel Carne
“Mayerling” 1936. Dir. Anatole Litvakfix
“Tales of Hoffmann” 1951. Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
“The 39 Steps” 1935. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
“Throne of Blood” 1957. Dir. Akira Kurasawa