Earlier this month Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright posted a list of his 1,000 favorite films on the film website MUBI. It was immediately appealing to me for both the things that I recognized (Domino!) and the things that I didn’t (Walter Hill made a movie about Army Reserves fighting their way out of the Louisiana swamps!?). So it’s an interesting list, sure. But although it was intended “strictly for my amusement & your pleasure” (as he tweeted at the time), and displayed the films chronologically to avoid unnecessary provocation, the Internet was still provoked. Because of course it was. No good deed goes unpunished online, as everyone’s favorite Grandmother will one day surely say.
There were two main points of contention: some people found the list lacking in diversity, while others lamented the lack of specific films (this latter is probably best described as the “WHAT?! NO PREDATOR!?” contingent). Wright gamely owned up to his own blind spots in the aftermath, and made clear once again that the list was intended as a subjective expression of his own cinematic tastes. But to dismiss it on the basis of its subjectivity is to miss out on its secret superpower. This makes sense, coming as it does from a guy who helped script Ant-Man.
Over here stands The Canon: its power stemming from an ancient yet abiding force, its resolve as unmovable as stone. (It is backed by a force of thousands, for use in case of emergency, or of better things to do.) Meanwhile, over here, is Edgar Wright’s whole deal. It wears no costume—it couldn’t fit into one if it tried—and it has no cool nickname or origin story. It’s just lumbering and weird and kind of fun. And yet….
Let’s take another look at that old canon—the film canon in specific. It’s hard to ever say what exactly the canon is (like Batman, it is an idea), but when it takes its costume off it probably looks a lot like the Sight and Sound critic’s poll. That poll has included Rules of the Game in its every iteration since its inception in 1952; it also had Citizen Kane at the top spot in every poll between 1962 and 2002. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. Canons are hard to move and that’s okay! In fact, the film canon’s inertia—combined with its reputation—is what makes things like The Criterion Collection, The NYRB Classics imprint, and Slate’s Black Film Canon so vital. They are not closed lists (at least, I hope not). They invite debate, encourage pleas for more, and only very rarely do they inspire indignation over what they have included, versus what they haven’t. Wright’s list does the same. It is a list of inclusion.
Wright’s list also exposes a divide between critics and directors that we may have lost sight of, owing to the much louder disagreement between critics and fans (specifically, fans of the DC Comics universe). Critics are paid not just to appraise specific films upon release, but also to take stock of the past. They are canon creators and makers of lists (exceptions prove the rule, Dana Stevens!). Whereas directors strive, in a sense, to tear those lists down. After all, no new entry can go in unless an old one goes out.
This is a simplification, but the relative fluidity of the Sight and Sound director’s poll offers some compelling evidence. The current number one film, Tokyo Story, did not even appear in the top ten in the previous two iterations. And other inclusions in the current top ten come from familiar directors, but with the names of the features swapping in and out. And this just doesn’t happen in the critics’ list. I, for one, have long benefitted from the many directors who use the list not just to crown the greatest of the great, but to expand our idea of what greatness looks like. When the last such poll released, Tarantino’s semi-expanded list contained Taxi Driver and His Girl Friday along with what amounted to write-in votes for Sorcerer and the soft-core Roger Vadim film Pretty Maids All in a Row.
Tarantino loses nothing by thumbing his nose at more traditional choices (it’s his brand, after all). But one can understand where the critics are coming from. It’s hard to include a lot of surprises in a list of ten or a list of twenty, especially if you’re trying to build a consensus. Even lists of 100 tend to feel fairly straightjacketed. Yesterday’s publication of the BBC’s critics’ poll of the top films of the 21st century, to take another example, was provocatively short on both women directors and comedy films. And so when Edgar Wright puts out a list of 1,000 favorite films, the predominant experience is one of relief rather than frustration. Here there is space to breathe.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote in The Black Swan about Umberto Eco’s notion of “The Antilibrary”—a very real place that should, according to him, include many more books than one could possibly read, and thus exist as a prod and a research tool as much as as a place of quiet thought.
“The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.”
Wright’s list operates like that. It is bigger than it should be but also more modest than it looks. In fact, it makes the grandeur of “The Canon” feel a bit ridiculous and overblown by comparison. Or perhaps, more properly, it just reduces it to scale. It’s a friendly invitation, and if it exposes a few cracks in the canon and the hordes come pouring through, so be it. I’ll just be sitting here, enjoying my Southern Comfort.
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Lead image of Southern Comfort, via Nerdist.