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.—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:—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.":—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. 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.

7. Rome Open City

Roberto Rossellini


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.

 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.

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.

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 . . .

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

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.



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