How do films achieve eminence? The question has troubled me ever since a friend admitted that he found Citizen Kane boring. My guilty secret was that I shared his feelings. This was sufficient reason for reappraising the film canon. Reputations once achieved are apt to be taken for granted even in academic circles. Who would admit that a work on every film student's curriculum is unworthy of study?
A related issue is how we look at films. Film-makers know instinctively that emotions come first. As Ingmar Bergman put it: 'Both film and music bypass the intellect and assail the emotions. Both film and music are rhythm, breathing—that is what I have learnt.' Film-makers seek to move audiences, eliciting tears, fear or laughter. Academics follow in their wake, assessing and justifying, with the emotional response relegated to being a shabby adjunct which does not easily fit within the critical apparatus. One consequence is a mismatch between what the public likes and what it should like. Horror films seem condemned to remain marginal despite their popularity. This phenomenon is not peculiar to film: crime novels and fantasy fiction have a reputation for failing to win major literary prizes. The arts are judged by status as much as quality.
This book seeks to reassess a selection of canonic films more subjectively than usual. Some proved popular with the public; others did not. The opening chapter looks at how greatness is assessed in the arts and the usefulness of concepts such as the sublime, myth, ambiguity and the collective unconscious in understanding the phenomenon. A more subjective approach is introduced which foregrounds the emotions. The second chapter examines the film canon and seeks to apply the subjective approach to film. Each of the following fourteen chapters focuses on a film which has garnered critical adulation and which disappoints me, the final two being speculative entrants to the canon. Accolades can drown out dissenting voices, but the number of heretics is surprising. It is reassuring not to be in a minority of one. The final chapter returns to the question of how some films achieve prestige at the expense of others and the implications this has for our culture.
Credits are transcribed from the films, supplemented by information from the International Movie Database (IMDb) (http://imdb.com), the British Film Institute's (BFI) Film and TV Database (http://www.bfi.org.uk/filmtvinfo/ftvdb), Film Reference (http://www.filmreference.com) and AGP (http://www.agpfilms.com/defaut.asp). Names become anglicized or shortened, so spellings may vary. Release dates are . . .