A discussion has started on our Facebook film group (still plenty of time to join, we’ve got 40+ movies to go, email me if you’d like in) that represents the best of what such a group can offer. I’ve tried for the most part to separate what we do over there from what I post here, but the discussion is too good for me not to bring it to the blog.
I put The Passion of Joan of Arc at #15 on my list, and claimed that it was “a justifiably great classic film … I don’t mean great like The Social Network but I mean great like Hamlet or The Great Gatsby or Born to Run.” Phil Dellio contested this … I’m hoping he doesn’t mind my quoting him … “To me, great is a very fluid, very subjective concept that can apply to anything, and I really don’t think of my favourite music and films and books as belonging to different categories of great.”
I love this comment, because I’ve long agreed with it. But a bit of self-analysis points out that I’m fooling myself to some extent. Here’s an edited version of some of my various replies:
In grad school, I was known as the "anti-canon" guy. But I realized two things. One was that, despite all my efforts, in my younger days I'd gotten a fairly traditional film education, and I've never escaped it (hence a lot of my choices on this list). The other was that I spent an entire chapter of my dissertation on Mickey Spillane. I just ignored any of my mentors who were dismissive of the idea that Spillane belonged in an English dissertation. But, finally, in a footnote, I confessed that working on that chapter had led me to an inescapable conclusion: Mickey Spillane was a crappy writer. Entertaining, canny about his understanding of his audience, worthy of serious examination ... yes to all of those things. But his writing wasn't any good "as writing." It did me no good to explicate this or that sentence (though I tried, I really tried). What was fruitful was looking at the worldview of the Mike Hammer books. …
I am not used to being the one defending the canon. It really does have something to do with watching six weeks of silent Ukrainian films when I was 19 ... I didn't know what a canon was, I just sucked it up (well, I didn't much like Ukrainian silent films, but that's for another chat). Once I hit grad school, I had to develop a feisty attitude because, with my years of auto-didactic learning as a steelworker, and my B.A. in American Studies, I was WAY behind everyone else on the canon of British literature. So I rebelled. In my first semester, after keeping my mouth shut for weeks, I finally asked, "why are we reading four books by John Bunyan?"
But then I took a film class, populated mostly with undergraduate film majors. They were the feisty ones, a great bunch of whippersnappers ... I loved that class. But, for all their brightness and energy, I soon realized I had something they didn't: a solid grounding in the canon. And I couldn't help understanding that maybe my background was actually useful.
I still never got around to reading Milton, and I rarely assign "classics" to my students now that I teach. But I'm not surprised my movie list is so stodgy. It's embarrassing, but what can I do?
Re-reading this, one thing stands out: I make it sound as if watching six weeks of silent Ukrainian movies was one of those key moments in a person’s life that affects us forever. And all this time I’ve been blaming my mom for my faults …