Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons
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In his astute and deeply informed film reviews and essays, Jonathan Rosenbaum regularly provides new and brilliant insights into the cinema as art, entertainment, and commerce. Guided by a personal canon of great films, Rosenbaum sees, in the ongoing hostility toward the idea of a canon shared by many within the field of film studies, a missed opportunity both to shape the discussion about cinema and to help inform and guide casual and serious filmgoers alike.
In Essential Cinema, Rosenbaum forcefully argues that canons of great films are more necessary than ever, given that film culture today is dominated by advertising executives, sixty-second film reviewers, and other players in the Hollywood publicity machine who champion mediocre films at the expense of genuinely imaginative and challenging works. He proposes specific definitions of excellence in film art through the creation a personal canon of both well-known and obscure movies from around the world and suggests ways in which other canons might be similarly constructed.
Essential Cinema offers in-depth assessments of an astonishing range of films: established classics such as Rear Window, M, and Greed; ambitious but flawed works like The Thin Red Line and Breaking the Waves; eccentric masterpieces from around the world, including Irma Vep and Archangel; and recent films that have bitterly divided critics and viewers, among them Eyes Wide Shut and A.I. He also explores the careers of such diverse filmmakers as Robert Altman, Raúl Ruiz, Frank Tashlin, Elaine May, Sam Fuller, Terrence Davies, Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Orson Welles. In conclusion, Rosenbaum offers his own film canon of 1,000 key works from the beginning of cinema to the present day. A cogent and provocative argument about the art of film, Essential Cinema is also a fiercely independent reference book of must-see movies for film lovers everywhere.
sequences, a case of unabashed product placement if there ever was one. When the movie was nominated for an Oscar—something that had never happened with any genuine New Wave pictures, only with corny pretenders like Black Orpheus, Sundays and Cybèle, and A Man and a Woman—I concluded that the nomination only proved my point. What a dunderhead I was. Moreover, my misunderstanding of Demy’s achievement was shared by many others. In this country people got the idea that Demy was 32 a minor
illusionist in more ways than one, Tarr told me in Toronto that all the rain in the ﬁlm comes from a rain machine; real rain, he noted, isn’t adequately photogenic.) Either way, the unbroken ﬂow of the storytelling and our moral implication in the events are both essential conseCLASSICS 49 quences of the camera style, and conversely the formal beauty of that style is never less than functional to the ﬁlm’s narrative and morality. Unlike the postmodernist Hollywood specials currently
to see (Welles is a prime example), and consequently the ones we wind up seeing are all ﬁnished—a fact that obviously affects our expectations. Or, to view the problem somewhat differently, some ﬁlms out of necessity only pretend to be ﬁnished while their real virtues are inextricably bound up with their unﬁnished states. Foremost among the latter is Bruno Dumont’s powerful second feature, L’humanité—another police procedural—playing this week at Facets Multimedia Center. I hasten to add that the
put it, ‘‘The movie makes you want to kill and robs you of the satisfaction’’—the latter trait undoubtedly deriving from its liberalism. Phil Karlson, the director, whom I knew nothing about in 1955, was a Chicago-born journeyman who directed Marilyn Monroe in her ﬁrst starring role, in the 1949 Ladies of the Chorus, and later became known as a specialist in paranoid crime thrillers. (Shadoian is probably right in singling out 99 River Street and The Phenix City Story as the two best examples of
‘‘out of respect for the dead’’ everything else in the ﬁlm is true. This being a Coen brothers movie, one’s likely to scoff or smirk at such a claim, but even if one doesn’t the last thing on the end credits—‘‘No similarity to actual persons living or dead is intended or should be inferred’’—surely deserves a smirk of its own. However, I don’t think anyone in the general audience who sees Fargo—and that includes me—cares in the slightest whether any of the events actually occurred, regardless of