Whose Canon?

The history represented here is the illustration of a philosophical ideal, the meshing of moments to prove a theoretical connection. It is as though a line could be drawn between past and present and pieces of a person’s life and work pegged on it; no exceptions, no change – theory looks nice – the similarity of item to item reassuring – shirt to shirt – shoulder to shoulder – an inflexible chain, each part in place. The pattern is defined. Cut the line and chronology falls in a crumpled heap. I prefer a crumpled heap, history at my feet, not stretched above my head.”
(Lis Rhodes, Whose History?)

Lists are for laundry, not for film”
(Elena Gorfinkel, Against Lists)


At the end of 2019, film publications around the world compiled their usual best-of-lists; the sum of “best of the decade” and “best of the year” causing a particular litany of such recitals. Feminist journal Another Gaze responded by publishing Elena Gorfinkel’s “Against Lists,” seriously passionate and full of wit, a rebuke to the practice of list-making. “Lists of films will not save you,” Gorfinkel warns at the start of the text.[1] List of films will not even save films, she continues. “Lists are not neutral or innocent or purely subjective.”[2]

For filmmaker and theorist Peter Wollen – who taught a PhD seminar on “the canon”– “lists seem trivial, but in fact they are crucial symptomatic indices of underlying struggles over taste, evaluation and the construction of a canon.”[3]Studying lists such as those decried by Gorfinkel, the changes over a 30 year period – from the 1950s until the 1980s – enabled him to observe shifting canons. He cites for instance Citizen Kane and La règle du jeu – whose positions were cemented after they were championed by Cahiers du Cinéma and Sight and Sound, whilst previously celebrated silent films were progressively dropped.[4] Only Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin kept its hold – coming to represent the entirety of silent cinema in Top Ten lists that faced the increasingly difficult task of summarising a growing body of work (as 50 years of cinema became 100, then 125).

It is difficult to escape lists. It is even more difficult to escape the canon. Selection becomes unavoidable because of the vast quantity of films produced. They cannot all be studied, they cannot all be shown, written about, discussed in equal measure. But with selection comes a politics of inclusion and exclusion and, as Janet Staiger has described, “selection for efficiency and practicality can too easily slide into a politics of denigration and of exclusion that is based on the mistaken notion that those films regularly chosen are necessarily unique or superior.”[5]

Choices are not interest-free.  Canons support the interests of a group who fears for the loss of its hegemony – but what happens to those outside a particular hegemonic culture?


Avant-garde filmmakers have traditionally been “outside” the hegemonic cultures of cinema and art, but they too constituted their own lists – constructed their own canons – wrote their own funding myths. It was necessary – in order to stake a claim for a visibility that was otherwise denied. The most notorious of all is Anthology Film Archives’ “Essential Cinema” – a list of films assembled by a committee – James Broughton, Ken Kelman, Peter Kubelka, P. Adams Sitney, and Jonas Mekas[6] – as the basis for Anthology’s then new collection. Their selection continues to serve as a repertory programme, screening as an annual cycle in Anthology’s cinemas. 

The Essential Cinema collection was an “ambitious attempt to define the art of cinema.[7] It was never completed; the funding provided by Jerome Hill dried up after his death in 1973. And so it became a finite list, a frozen canon to which inclusion was no longer possible. Jonas Mekas writes: “The Essential Cinema Repertory, from its very inception, was strongly and sometimes wildly attacked by those who were not familiar with the history of the project for exclusion of many important films. They were not aware of the fact that the Essential Cinema Repertory was intended to serve as a permanent critical tool with new titles continuously added including possibly the titles that the critics of Anthology had in mind.[8]

Willingly or not, lists such as the Essential Cinema were the cause of exclusion – and for those excluded from the official history in an already marginalised field such as the avant-garde, their marginalisation was total. In his text “Missing the Boat,” Morgan Fisher reminisces – with characteristic dry humour – about the anguish that it caused him in the late 1960s and 1970s to not be recognised within that particular canon.

Powerful people had spent years building a monolith, and it was now finally complete. At such a moment, it was difficult for others to undertake its revision. So for lack of contestation, a history that ought to have been one of several histories became the history. But a history that precludes disputation isn’t interesting anymore. […] The official history of the avant-garde had in effect written itself to an end.”[9]

Writing with historical hindsight in the 1990s, he is ultimately grateful to have “missed the boat of the avant-garde” as this prevented him from becoming “historical” – trapped within dated denominations and groupings. This freedom allowed him to follow other paths, claim other allegiances. His film work finally gained the recognition that he sought decades earlier in the art world of the 2000s.

I take no issue with projects like the Essential Cinema as such – in spite of blatant disparities of gender and race, which have become increasingly problematic and unjustifiable. It is a product of a particular time, of the particular struggle by a specific group of filmmakers attempting to advance their vision of cinema. Problems arise when lists such as the Essential Cinema continue to be the point of reference – not only of a particular historical moment but also as a point of reference for film programmers today. The North-American canon, as theorized by P. Adams Sitney and romanticized by Jonas Mekas, continues to have a great appeal. It is such a powerful foundation story that it has almost come to represent the origin myth for experimental cinema everywhere, not only New York.

There were those who tried to promote alternative narratives and canons. At the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative, Malcolm Le Grice and Peter Gidal saw the New American Cinema as another manifestation of American Imperialism (those were the years of the Vietnam War and a growing anti-war/anti-American feeling amongst the youth and counter-culture). In response to Sitney’s Structural Film, Gidal proposed Structural-Materialism. Whereas Sitney’s romantic vision had seen the origins of the American avant-garde in the Emersonian tradition, Le Grice’s Abstract Film and Beyondclaims a different lineage for the London Co-op – that of the 1920s European avant-gardes, and even further back to the post-Impressionists. Unlike the American underground, British experimental film had been born out of art school and placed itself within the wider context of art history.

This was the thesis of the exhibition “Film as Film” at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1979 – which derived from an earlier exhibition “Film als Film,” curated by Birgit Hein and Wulf Herzogenrath in Cologne in 1977. The argument was that one could trace a continuous line in formal experimental with film from 1910 to 1975, from Viking Eggeling and Oskar Fischinger to Kurt Kren and William Raban. This “line” was challenged by the women filmmakers at the Co-op, who – in Lis Rhodes’s words – preferred “a crumpled heap.”[10] Rhodes had initially been the only woman asked to join the exhibition’s planning committee alongside David Curtis, Phillip Drummond, Deke Dusinberre, Simon Field, Al Rees, Malcolm Le Grice and Peter Gidal (Annabel Nicolson was subsequently invited to join at Rhodes’s insistence). Rather than trying to incorporate women in the formalist canon proposed by the exhibition, Rhodes, Felicity Sparrow and other women active at the Co-op, researched the history of women filmmakers such Alice Guy, Germaine Dulac and Maya Deren. They collected a series of articles in the exhibition catalogue as “Women and the Formal Film” – a section which also included a collective statement by the group and Rhodes’s “Whose History?” – a key text that challenges the writing of film history for and by men. Having chosen not to include their own work – nor their historical research – in the exhibition, Rhodes and Nicolson resigned from the organising committee, as did Peter Gidal in solidarity.


“Whose History?” begins with the author’s expression of unwillingness, alienation, apprehension, inability:

“Feeling unwilling to write – an inability to manipulate ideas into a theory and facts into a convincing argument, an apprehension at intervening in the hierarchy of film history; an alienation from its underlying thesis of development I began to reflect.”[11]

From the start, Rhodes is rejecting the established mode of action – a rejection emphasized by her choice of words. She does not want to intervene in the canon, nor does she want to propose a counter-one.

Rhodes does not use the word “canon” in her text – she writes of “hierarchy”, of “authority,” of “scholarship,” but her text is an incisive critique of canon formation, self-preservation and proliferation, laying bare the underlying politics of inclusion and exclusion -  “the problem of who makes history for whom,[12] as she writes.

What was blindingly apparent was the lack of women both represented in, and involved with, the selection and structuring of the exhibition.”[13] There is not only an issue of who is part of the canon and not, but rather more importantly who has a say in defining it (and why).

Like Virginia Woolf before her, Rhodes considers the socio-economical conditions constraining women writers and filmmakers.[14] Whilst Woolf argued that, in order to be able to write, a woman required a financial independence and stability – a room of one’s own and ideally 500 pounds a year – Rhodes provides a Marxist-feminist explanation for canon formation and gate-keeping: the preservation of a patriarchal class system in which women are further defined as secondary, their contributions to that society being “considered secondary. This difference in experience, difference in opportunities must produce difference in history; a history of secondary value and largely neglected and unwritten.”[15] At the opening of her solo exhibition “Dissident Lines” at Nottingham Contemporary in May 2019, Lis Rhodes read the following lines:

“To begin with – Light Music made in 1975 was motivated by the absence of women composers In European composition.

In 4 days of this week – BBC Radio 3 Essential Classics has played 7 works  by women – and 94 works by men”[16]

A few months earlier, Erika Balsom made a similar point in an article on women and film criticism: “there are only five films by women out of some 150 titles in the BFI Classics book series, but not because women have made no great films.”[17]

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or so it would seem. Refusing to proposer a counter-canon in “Whose History?,” Rhodes advocates for difference instead: “It is neither a question of defining a feminine mode of filmmaking, nor of persuading any woman to a feminist point of view, but simply of suggesting that seeing ‘difference’ is more important than accepting ‘sameness;’ realising our own histories and understanding their many, possibly divergent, forms.”[18]

A feminist counter-canon was as a contradiction in terms for many feminists in the 1980s who advocated instead for the resistance of canon formation, as if “based on evaluative criteria, canons can only repeat a system of exclusion and inclusion.”[19] And this is the point of “Whose History?” – not to replace one canon with another, but to question the validity of such thought systems or organizing principles.


40 years later, we still need to advocate for difference. It is painful to remark how “male, pale and stale” the avant-garde “canon” continues to be. In spite of the continued influence of the historical American avant-garde, the reality of the field in North America today is more diverse and heterogeneous than ever before – as demonstrated by recent programmes in the New York Film Festival’s “avant-garde” showcase[20] which have featured a new generation of moving image artists including Sky Hopinka, Ephraim Asili, Nazli Dinçel, Los Ingravidos, Miko Revereza and Basma Alsharif, amongst others.

The argument here is not for the works in the “the canon” to no longer be shown. Far from it. But when they are, they ought to be shown anew, seen with a critical eye. And other works and filmmakers, previously in the margins, need to be shifted to the centre – without replacing one canon with another, without replicating the same “auteurist” reverence. Devotion should give way to self-awareness and a skeptical stance. Girish Shambu writes in his manifesto for a “New Cinephilia”: “each cinephilic act of speaking, writing, citing and curating must also be an act that intervenes in an unequal world.”[21] As programmers, educators, writers we must be aware of the consequences of choosing, of showing, of seeing. Of the shifting politics, past and present. Of the factors contributing to canon formation and of our own complicit role.

María Palacios Cruz

[1] Elena Gorfinkel, “Against Lists”, Another Gaze, 2019.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Peter Wollen, “The Canon” in Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film, 2002.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Janet Staiger, “The Politics of Film Canons”, Cinema Journal, 1985.

[6] Stan Brakhage was initially in the committee but was replaced by James Broughton.

[7] Jonas Mekas writing on the Essential Cinema, Anthology Film Archives website.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Morgan Fisher, “Missing the Boat” in Morgan Fisher: Writings (edited by Sabine Folie & Susanne Titz), 2012. First published in 1994 in Scratching the Belly of the Beast: Cutting-Edge Media in Los Angeles, 1922-1994, ed. Holly Willis.

[10] Lis Rhodes, “Whose History?” in Telling Invents Told (ed. María Palacios Cruz), 2019. First published in the exhibition catalogue for “Film as Film: Formal Experiment in Film, 1910-75,” at the Hayward Gallery, London, 3 May to 17 June 1979.

[11] Lis Rhodes, op. cit.

[12] Lis Rhodes, op. cit.

[13] Lis Rhodes, op. cit.

[14] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929.

[15] Lis Rhodes, op. cit.

[16] Lis Rhodes, “Dissident Lines”, text read at the opening of the exhibition Dissident Lines at Nottingham Contemporary, May 2019.

[17] Erika Balsom, “The Critic Lady”, Film Quarterly, 2019.

[18] Lis Rhodes, “Whose History?”, op. cit.

[19] Janet Staiger, op. cit.

[20]  The old “Views of the Avant-Garde”, which became “Projections” in 2014 and has recently been renamed “Currents.”

[21] Girish Shambu, “For a New Cinephilia”, Film Quarterly, 2019.