03 août 2012

Forgotten Obsolete English Word #7 : Canon

Literary Canon (Wikipedia English): "A group of literary works that are generally accepted as representing a field."
Aesthetic Canon : "a criterion or standard of judgment. a rule or especially body of rules or principles generally established as valid and fundamental in a field or art or philosophy."

Vitruvian Man (1487) Leonardo Da Vinci
Le Modulor (1945) par Le Corbusier
Do you look like Vitruvian Man? Is your height 1.829m like the Modulor? Likely not...
A canon is not representative of diversity, of particularities, of individualities, of radicality, of edginess, of you personally, of me as I see myself, but is a universal reference for an ideal standard, a perfect (abstract) model, a mathematical equation, a geometrical composition, a flawless silhouette, an identifiable pattern, a respected profile... 

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Cinema Canon 

The establishment of a filmic canon for all of cinema history is meant to represent the aesthetic values invented, developed and solidified by film artists, film technicians and film theorists. It consists of standardized shot scales, points of view, composition, blocking, camera movements, timing, lighting, contrasts, colorimetry, soundscape, sound design, dramaturgy, acting performance, diction, storytelling, character development, plot articulation, photo chemistry/digital recording, cinema technique, cinema aesthetic, cinema artistry... moreover the socio-political perspicacity, the philosophical aspiration, the original poetry.

These are objective criteria providing a point of reference for everyone working in the cinema industry, an ideal model to attain, to transcend or to transgress. This objective canon allows the existence of ANY POSSIBLE comparison between two given films, two given shots, two given actors, two given directors... Without a common reference, a golden standard, to measure the quality or failure of any cinematic achievement is baseless, arbitrary and unaccountable. A film canon is what helps any cinéphile (with the necessary film history education at their disposal) to engage in a constructive conversation with another interlocutor. Objective references give the framework that positions, qualifies and values each and everyone's subjective perceptions, opinions, tastes and hierarchies.

Like in literature, sculpture, painting, music or dance... the canons of cinema could be illustrated by a series of EXEMPLARY models (films or filmmakers). 

Some people believe they can publish a canon all by themselves with a self-centered list of 1000 titles. The other mistake is to confound a canon with a democratic poll... by expanding the number of voters to representational statistics! These two extremes interpretation, even though quite widespread, are both a misuse of the word canon, and contribute to undermine cinema culture by discrediting the idea of standard levels. 
A canon is necessarily a collective endeavour (precisely to negate any personal bias or conflict of interest) and the EDUCATED selection by a chosen few EXPERTS (to avoid great films faring poorly because too many voters didn't see them)! 

When you put together a list of THE BEST FILMS OF ALL TIME, voters are not just sharing their whimsical personal taste nor their daily random draw, but are expected to KNOW ALL the meaningful cinema history milestones, to be familiar with film theory and film technique, to be capable to distinguish their subjective taste from their understanding of an objective, universal cinema greatness. Voters who don't know some of the most prominent candidates for a top100 will alter and offset the final result!!! All the better if you know "better" films on the side, but to give value to your alternative canon contribution, you need to have seen the consensual canon first (as established earlier). 

A canon is not the space to promote your personal agenda... it is a collegiate contribution to cinema history, where you don't represent YOURSELF, but you put your knowledge of cinema history to the service of the society, as ONE OF MANY expert opinions on the subject. The goal of a canonical poll is understood to produce a meaningful compilation of votes that CAN add up to eachother because they rank films according to the same scale of greatness and the same definition of greatness.

Nick James (Sight & Sound editor, invitation memo to the Top10 list of Greatest Films) : "We realise that this is not the easiest of tasks, but we want you to know that this is a major worldwide endeavour that will help us all to remind people of film's rich history and to refine what we mean by the best of cinema.
Please draw up a list of ten films only, in order of preference or, if you'd rather, alphabetically. The order does not matter to the voting system - we will allot one vote only to each of your ten films. We also invite you to add a short commentary after the list explaining why you have chosen the films in your top ten.
As for what we mean by 'Greatest', we leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema."
Opening the poll to mediocre reviewers with a weak knowledge of film history, with an infamous bad/limited taste, leaving the definition of greatness up to the voter, showing a laid-back, lax attitude towards to content of everyone's contribution, is a sure way to end up with a bullshit ranking that is not worth tabulating, and sharing to the public eye. See : Critical Fallacy #13 : Inconsistent Standards / Double Standards (Film Comment) 4

A canon is not the place to impose quota limitations (by decades, by country, by gender, by genre, by filmmaker...) which would give a positive affirmation spotlight to "runner-ups" by disqualifying arbitrarily GREATER films/filmmakers just because they made TOO MANY great films. A canon ranks ALL GREAT FILMS regardless for who made them. If the council of experts all agree that one filmmaker hogs 4 spots in the top10, so be it. It only weakens the value of the final canon to give visibility to inferior films out of charity. A canon is not a platform to flatter as many artists's egos as possible. To reflect the true achievements reached by the art of cinema at a given point in history (to the best of the experts's objective estimation), it should feature all the prominent titles, and only those, considered to be representative of the highest achievements.

Now, if a canon is structurally educated and objective (ideally), it could be (and generally is) rather conservative, by definition, because experts are asked to judge by the current accepted standards of appreciation. This might be unfair to the most recent film form that escape or explode the current rules of cinema, or the most experimental, challenging the most commonly accepted criteria...
Thus, contrary to populist belief, a canon is not meant to SURPRISE or to IMPRESS by its boldness, broad taste and contrived representativity. A canon is not a user guide to DISCOVER new, underexposed titles... If the voters qualification, the voters's choices and the tabulation are done right, it should surprise no one (nobody who is familiar with cinema history, past canons and film literature). We do not expect a canon to change entirely from one poll to the next, even if they are 10 years apart. The fact that titles remain in the top10 many times in a row is proof that it was a good idea to elect them in the first place, because they stand the test of time, and compete head to head with the other masterpieces made after their time.

This said, a canon can be wrong, and take time to correct itself (partly for the limitations and conceits cited above)... We can question and challenge the establishment of a canon, but only for the good reasons, and not against features that a canon is NOT EXPECTED to perform in. Criticizing a canon for conservatism (at least as a principle), for poor diversity, for redundancy, for safeness, for predictibility is all wrong.

However we could interrogate why the council of experts (if their qualification is not suspect) fails to embrace a radical change in cinema history (like the transition to sound and colour, like the revolution of La Nouvelle Vague, like the emergence of Modernity, like the development of the Contemplative mode...). Sometimes a legit canon can be wrong, or outdated. But we expect a canon to reflect conservative values, conservative taste, and a certain inertia to sudden changes... this is the very nature of a canon.

The purpose of a canon is to protect a safe, stable, uncontroversial establishment. It should eventually update and adapt to the always evolving cinema history. It only takes more times than for early adopters. Even some reviewers, individually, some critics, some historians, some filmmakers and of course the audience, to embrace new standards right away... The process of a consensual film canon, its voting system, its slowness, its respect for the test of time for any new masterpiece will make the incorporation of the cutting edge of film form incremental and prudent. Inevitably. 

We can also notice the total hegemony of Hollywood-centric (50ies) and Europe-centric (60ies) taste, by American and European voters for a Western public. The fact is that cinema production has dominated in visibility, superiority and self-congratulation in this area of the world, to the detriment of the East and the South. Ditching the Western masterpieces (by pretending they are NOT masterpieces worthy of a canon) is obviously a fallacious way to deal with it, and it cheats the canon. One way to counterbalance this lopsided influence, is to get voters to WATCH, FAMILIARIZE, UNDERSTAND the underexposed, underestimated titles coming from the corners of the world too often overlooked by film literature, film distributors and movie reviewers... 

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