Saturday, August 25, 2018

Spiking the Canons

The Washington Post created a bit of a stir recently with Ann Hornaday's piece titled "The New Canon — The 23 best films of the 2000s". Reading the article — as well as others' opinions of its choices — has brought me circling back to the issue of how deeply problematic the notion of canons is.

The first question is one of scope: is it right or fair to lump everything into one list of what's best, most important, most groundbreaking, or most influential? If we just focus on film (to keep with the subject of Hornaday's list), is it fair to lump costume dramas in with comedies, or science fiction or fantasy or superhero movies? Yes, they're all using film to tell stories, but (genre-crossing pieces aside), they're telling different kinds of stories, sometimes using different tools, and often aimed at different audiences. Here, Hornaday has mashed together a generally humourless grab-bag that includes Children of Men and The Royal Tenenbaums (which, though it's supposed to be a comedy, I didn't find funny). These movies aren't even in the same universe! Not in terms of style, theme, or any other measure! How can they legitimately occupy a spot within the same canon? One should definitely cultivate tastes in different genres of film — it's okay to like both the Swiss science fiction drama Cargo and the raunchy little Hollywood comedy A Good Old Fashioned Orgy — but if we're going to try to define what is canon, that canon should be comprised of stories that are actually comparable in some way beyond the medium of their release. This is one of the major faults of lists like this, as well as awards. We need to compare apples to apples, rather than lump watermelons in with bone-in pork butts.

Then there's the problem of time: How long does a creation (whether a film, book, short story, comic, video game, whatever) have to be out in the world before we can legitimately claim that it has a place in a canon? Clearly, this century isn't over yet, so it's just a smidge premature to say the 23 films in the Post article constitute the canon — or even part of it — for the 2000s. Barring major man-made or natural catastrophe, there will doubtless be many, many good films in the long years ahead that will be equal to, or better than, those offered by Hornaday as the pinnacle of the art.

But even beyond the raw numbers game of how many movies of quality are released within a defined period, I think it takes time to digest a film to determine if it really is that good in the grand scheme of things. To be worthy of canon status, a movie has to be so good that audiences and critics and academics will still be talking about it decades, not merely years, down the line. It has to be a story that will maintain its strength over time as the culture around it changes. We also have to bear in mind that some films take a while to grow on people. 1982 was a good year for these kinds of flicks. John Carpenter's The Thing was panned for its gore, and critics didn't give Blade Runner the best reception either. Nor did they cash-in well at the box office — in fact, none of the other movies that we now consider to be classics of the speculative fiction genre, like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or Tron, did especially well financially because E.T. was rampaging across the box offices. It took a long time before these movies grew beyond their cult followings to gain the respect they deserved. For Hornaday to try to argue that films made in the years from 2000 up until today deserve a canonical spot is premature. They haven't proven they can withstand the test of time. In fact, some of the genre films on her list have decidedly not survived in the cultural consciousness: sticking with genre movies, as good as Children of Men was, I haven't heard anyone talk about it for a long time. But who knows? Maybe it will see a resurgence. I doubt it though. I would suggest that it's really not of any value to try to decide if something is worthy of canon status until at least 20 years has passed. We can talk about the films (whether within a specific genre or, more ambitiously — and I would argue that this is unwise — across culture as a whole) that constitute the canon of the 20th Century (yes, I know it's only been 18 years, not 20, since the end of that century, but it's been long enough to prove my point), but to try to make the argument that we're in any position right now to pronounce that which is best and most important of the 2000s is unwarranted.

Then there's the fact that canons placed upon pedestals by critics or academics are, ultimately, subjective declarations of what is best and most noteworthy. We might be able to say with some degree of comfort that a movie has probably reached a wider audience than any other. Or we might give a particular story credit for having broken new ground in terms of subject matter or casting or technical achievement. But even then, someone could take issue with these claims, saying this advancement was actually done before (or the groundwork was previously laid for it) in a certain film, or that another movie was released to an equally wide audience that the canonical critic wasn't aware of because of ignorance or ignored because of bias. And when we get into the question of what constitutes the "best" example of storytelling or acting or direction or technical craftsmanship — better than others of its era — or whether a film is the most influential, or more relevant (either for its time, or for the human condition as a while), I worry that we're getting into a truly perilous exercise of trying to make personal opinion into objective critical dogma. Putting aside Hornaday's mainstream choices, if we were to examine her genre picks, would it really be fair to say that Children of Men is more deserving of a place in a canon than Blade Runner 2049? Personally, I don't think so. Or can she legitimately say that Spirited Away is a better film or has greater cultural importance than Up? I would hesitate to argue either way — both stories are dear to me. So is it right or in any way intellectually valuable for one critic or academic to say "This is the canon"? I'm not sure.

Perhaps one can base one's canon selections on a survey of what many critics or audience polls (or now, in the 21st Century, the avalanches of online comments) have said about a movie's merits. But these are ultimately still a snapshot of a few opinions. There will be many who will disagree with the choices as flat-out wrong. Some might agree with a few, or even all, of the chosen films, but assert that equally well-done — or better — films have been left out, and so demand a revision of the list. And these dissenters may have entirely valid reasons for their positions. But when it comes down to it, their claims too are personal opinions rooted in their own preferences, or biases, or artistic or political agendas. Perhaps the anointing group, and maybe the dissenters, are right or wrong. Or neither.

There's a truly excellent discussion of this very question of determining what is the best, or what is most praise-worthy, over on the Coode Street Podcast, in a recent episode where Jo Walton joins hosts Jonathan Strahan and Gary K Wolfe. As they chat about Walton's new book, An Informal History of the Hugos, they grapple with the question of what makes a story worthy of a Hugo Award, or a place within the canon, and how authors are named Grand Masters and whether this needs to change. While it is a discussion about speculative fiction literature, the ideas can be transplanted directly into a consideration about what gets admitted into the canon of film for the 2000s (or any other era or specific genre). And they make a point that I agree with, which is: you like what you like.

I've always been deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a canon — for film or anything else, within the sf genre or in a broader mainstream context. Yes, we can often agree on that which is truly terrible, like Manos: The Hands of Fate (although I'll leave the door open for the possibility that there are a few poor, lost souls out there who legitimately love this steaming crapfest non-ironically). But putting the worst aside, what constitutes the best — the must-watches, the standards by which we judge all others — is just so subjective. I'm not completely opposed to the idea of canons: I think they have some educational benefit in terms of giving a newcomer a place to start when learning about the history of film (or whatever) of a certain genre or era. I also think they have some value in terms of sparking discussions — or, as the gang on Coode Street rightly said, canons give us something to argue about, and we enjoy this. But because they are, ultimately, founded on personal opinion, I've never liked the idea that canons are perceived as the last word on the subject of quality. Too often, this is used to marginalize people (either arbitrarily, or with a specific agenda in mind) based on their personal preferences or some aspect of their background. It's snobbery and prejudice, pure and simple. Science fiction, fantasy, comics, horror (everything under the umbrella of speculative fiction) were the victims of this for a long time (and are only just — slowly — starting to crawl out from under this scorn) as mainstream critics and academics (and the self-styled literati and culturally-minded members of the public who slavishly parroted their opinions) looked down their noses at genre films (and literature, etc) and performed all manner of terminological acrobatics to avoid giving credit to sf when one of its stories was begrudgingly admitted to be of quality. And here's the sad thing: we nerds do it to each other too. How often have people within the sf community declared what is canon, deliberately leaving out specific films (or stories, or authors, or whatever) or whole segments of the genre because they feel that certain niches aren't as important or of lasting value, when really, they just don't like that stuff — whatever that stuff is? How many times have others declared these canons invalid as being harmful in some way, or inadequate at (or failing completely in) including this group or that region, or ideology, or whatever, and then raised canons of their own, sparking counterattacks, and so on, and so on? It's all just your personal opinions, folks. Other people have their own opinions. With a few exceptions, I tend to get uncomfortable with notions of absolutism, and distrustful of those who advocate them, especially when it comes to art. And that's why the notion of a canon doesn't sit easy with me. You like what you like.

Maybe it's time to spike the canons. I've always taken it as implicit that when someone presents a list of "the best", that it's a list based on their own personal opinion. They may feel strongly about it. They may be able to present a carefully reasoned argument for it. It may be a conversation starter (or, in what could be the case of the Washington Post, a cynical, business-minded example of click bait to get people going to the site, thereby making advertisers happy when the sales team presents them with the tally of hits by unique viewers), or an educational tool to get a newby started. But it's just that person's opinion, and one that I (and you, and you, and even you over there... but maybe not you — you know who you are) don't have to share. But the word canon carries such critical weight, that maybe it's time to drop it as something that is wholly inadequate in the face of personal opinion, the near impossibility of seeing (or reading) everything that's released all across the world, and the question of specific scope. But most of all, forget about discussing canon until there's been enough time to see what actually proved to be a film that mattered. At least, in your opinion.


And since Hornaday only included 5 genre films in her canon (Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Minority Report, and Spirited Away), I thought I'd post the following list of some of my favourite films — so far — from the 2000s (not including made-for-TV-fare). But it's not a canon.

I'd include Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, and Spirited Away, but I'd also want to highlight (in no particular order:

Rogue One
Deadpool 2
The Lord of the Rings trilogy
The Hobbit — An Unexpected Journey
The Avengers
Spider-Man Homecoming
The LEGO Batman Movie
Beowulf (animated)
Blade Runner 2049
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
District 9
Monster House
Monsters vs Aliens
The Muppets
Pacific Rim
Hellboy 2 — The Golden Army
Scott Pilgrim vs The World
The Shape of Water
A Million Ways to Die in the West (Doc Brown and the Delorean make a cameo, so it's genre)
The Martian
The World's End
Iron Man
Guardians of the Galaxy
Mad Max — Fury Road
Terminator — Salvation
Midnight in Paris
Sausage Party
Super 8
This Is the End
I Am Legend
King Kong (2005)
Kong — Skull Island
10 Cloverfield Lane
The Host
Ex Machina
The Incredibles

What are some of your favourite movies from the last 18 years?

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