To Free a Cinema: Canon-Making and Meshes of the Afternoon

Iris Barry, Curator, and her husband, John E. Abbott, Director, in the Film Library, c. 1930–39. Department of Public Information Records, II.C.17. MoMA Archives.


Aaron Cutler

Canons form based on availability. Film canons in particular—the canons of films that people can actually see—have come into being because committed people have asserted themselves to keep the films in circulation. At times this has been spurred by public demand, but in every case a small group of preservationists, archivists, theater managers, and programmers are responsible for the physical process of the movie unfolding onscreen. Individuals move historical movements—the French New Wave happened, for example, largely because Henri Langlois showed its filmmakers old movies at the Cinémathèque Française.

It follows that, if individuals form canons, the canons they form will be subject to their own personal judgments, biases, and tastes; it also follows that canons sometimes form in response to other canons, specifically to make homes for homeless and rejected films. New York alone has a long, proud tradition of canons forming from collections of discarded films: William K. Everson uplifting the horror film at the New School Friday nights with prints abandoned from studio vaults and scrounged out of the basements of private collectors; the Bleecker Street Cinema showcasing Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray films at critic Andrew Sarris’s behest; Anthology Film Archives founding the Essential Cinema collection as a way to bring attention to the American avant-garde.

At a time when it’s becoming more and more difficult for small films to play in theaters, it’s worth looking at a case of how one independent filmmaker created a canon by sheer force of will. Neither Anthology Film Archives, nor Cinema 16, nor many other screening rooms would have come into existence had the Museum of Modern Art not rejected Maya Deren’s film Meshes of the Afternoon for inclusion in its collection. Iris Barry’s dismissal of the film and Amos Vogel and Jonas Mekas’s subsequent championing of it exemplify how a film’s rejection from one canon can lead to the creation of another.

A truly accurate portrait of film history would canonize every film ever made. Even in 1935, though, when MoMA’s Film Library was founded, film history was too large for any one institution to contain. The institution thus, after contenting itself with offering only token representation of film art, had to establish the criteria by which it would select films. The Library staff devised a seven-point system for admitting films to the collection. Every film entered into the collection had to meet at least one of the seven criteria, whose ranks included prize-winners, films with outstanding performances and/or technical innovations, and “Films which, through art, represent some aspect of reality in a manner which the analyst finds peculiarly accurate.”[1] Which the analyst finds accurate—here not just beauty is placed in the eye of the beholder, but the very notion of aesthetic worth. None of the other six points referred explicitly to the viewer’s judgment, but the film watcher hid in plain sight within the language of all of them—it’s the viewer, after all, who decides whether a line reading or a light flickering is outstanding, and even prizes are awarded subjectively.

The very use of the word “analyst” rather than “viewer,” though, implies an attempt to suggest the spectator as clinical and detached, separate from the object—the word can’t help but connote a psychoanalyst examining a patient. The categories’ phrasing marked an effort to make the subjective seem objective, likely with good reason. The Library had ventured into risky territory to suggest that film should be taken seriously as an art, and it would thus have been in the Library’s interest to make its selection process appear as official as possible.

Yet the Film Library’s selections were not made by machines, but by people holding particular and idiosyncratic tastes. A brief look at some of the Museum’s early programs suggests what those tastes, which defined one of America’s first serious stabs at a film canon, were. The Library began its programming choices with survey programs—a Short Survey of the Film in America, with individual programs devoted to the Development of Narrative, the German Influence, D.W. Griffith, and others; or Some Memorable American Films, with individual programs on Westerns, comedies, and great screen stars; or the Film in Germany and in France.[2] One sees throughout these programs a strong emphasis on Hollywood, particularly on genre films and on Hollywood stars. Indeed, two of the most popular programs in the Library’s early screening history, so much so that they were repeated, were series on United Artists studio founders D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks. The 1940 Fairbanks series, coming a year after the actor’s death and nearly a decade after he had last appeared in a film, proved so popular that ushers actually had to stop screenings to instruct whooping, shoving audiences on proper behavior.[3]

Fairbanks’s films had fallen out of public circulation, so the Fairbanks show was an instance of public demand writing the canon; nevertheless, it was Iris Barry, MoMA’s Film Librarian, who had arranged the screenings and thus given the public the opportunity to do so. Barry herself was a Hollywoodphile who had published swooning reviews of Hollywood features in English newspapers before emigrating to the States and continued to do so via the Museum’s monthly bulletin (the Mae West film She Done Him Wrong in particular proved “The Hollywood product at its vital best”[4]). It was the Museum’s founder, Alfred Barr, who pushed strongest and hardest for non-American films to be included in the collection. Barr dreamed of a “filmotek” like in Moscow, where European and Soviet avant-garde films would be shown; by contrast, to him Hollywood films were “the usual commercial manipulation…of super-slap-stick and the too-eternal [love] triangle.”[5]

Though to claim so might seem overly reductive, the Film Library collection, among the first American institutional stabs at declaring a film canon, thus emerged out of two disparate sensibilities. The documentaries that MOMA collected could come from any country, but the non-documentary American films were generally of the mass-market, crowd-pleasing Hollywood variety, while the non-documentary European and Soviet films were considered art films. This distinction dropped Maya Deren’s film Meshes of the Afternoon into a nether space: The Russian émigré’s elliptical, nonlinear, highly symbolist short, in which a woman prepared simultaneously for sex and for death, announced itself with a title card locating the film in “HOLLYWOOD, 1943”; it fit neither category of Hollywood entertainment nor European art. When Barry rejected the film from inclusion in the Library, she did so stating that Meshes was too derivative of the European avant-garde. As Library employee Arthur Knight told an interviewer in 1977, “with Maya, I remember her [Barry] saying that it was just like what they were doing in France in the Twenties, and because she could find that kind of connection, she thought that it didn’t have to be recognized.”[6] If true, then Barry was essentially taking the position that because the European tradition of films like Entre’Acte and Un Chien Andalou had been established and included in the Film Library, future developments and iterations of the movement’s ideas need not be, regardless of how different they were. Never mind that Meshes was indeed quite different from its European forbearers, not just visually (a convincing argument has been made that, while the European avant-garde movement took much of its influence from painting, Deren’s work relied heavily on principles of dance) but socially (Deren’s figurative film contrasted with much non-figurative European avant-garde cinema, and so dealt more explicitly with an individual consciousness). A problem with allowing individual tastes to dictate what goes into canons is that those same tastes dictate what is subsequently left out.

For Deren, the problem of her rejection was compounded by the fact that she had nowhere else to take her films. Janet Staiger distinguishes between the politics of admission and the politics of redefinition.[7] The MoMA Film Library resoundingly fell into the first camp; at the time it emerged most film prints that had finished their theatrical runs were consigned to the dustbin of history or, even worse, MGM’s. Since the Museum led the major preservation effort, Barry and her staff, for all intents and purposes, dictated film history. Deren titled her ensuing one-woman program of films at the Provincetown Playhouse “Three Abandoned Films.” Meshes, along with the shorts At Land and A Study in Choreography for the Camera, had been abandoned by other theaters and screening rooms explicitly and by history implicitly, as this was an era when movies that weren’t being screened in theaters didn’t exist for viewers.

Deren presented three films in search of a canon. She found one with Amos Vogel, who attended one night and grew enraptured. Deren became one of the key figures for Cinema 16, Vogel’s burgeoning film society whose mission was to expand the canon of film art to the greatest extent possible. In the film society’s mission statement, Vogel invoked his own dustbin of history, claiming of the documentary filmmakers that MOMA could not provide screenings for that “their creations are gathering dust on film library shelves, where a vast potential audience—numbering in the millions—can never see them. Shall this audience continue unaware of these hundreds of thought-provoking, artistically satisfying and socially purposeful films?”[8] This was essentially Cinema 16’s definition of the films that constituted its canon, a set of criteria different from MoMA’s. Verisimilitude did not matter, nor did prizes, box-office grosses, outstanding performances, or technical innovations; Vogel’s chief requirements for a film were that it stimulate thought and make some kind of statement on society, a set of criteria almost terrifyingly large. Accordingly, Cinema 16’s canon grew much larger than MoMA’s—Vogel felt comfortable programming narrative films and films from the European avant-garde tradition out of which Deren had emerged, but also programmed many other kinds of movies, ranging from science films to nature films to birth films and movies about alcohol’s effects on cats.[9] It’s important, though, that while Cinema 16 programmed many more films and kinds of films than MoMA did, the permanent collection of films that the society owned was much smaller. Cinema 16 had nowhere near the money and space to buy and house films that MoMA had, so its efforts to rewrite the canon depended on audiences demanding to keep the films in circulation.

As with the Fairbanks shows, though, Cinema 16’s oft-sold-out crowds assured that a new, alternative canon would be created. As with MoMA’s canon, Cinema 16’s canon would leave many titles out for reasons that now seem almost entirely subjective, if not outright accidental. In his book Film as a Subversive Art, Vogel called Deren the “catalyst and pioneer of the American avant-garde movement,”[10] a statement that ignores several important earlier American avant-garde filmmakers like Melville, Watson, and Webber. Vogel, too, had his personal tastes that made him value some films over others, and reject other films still. Jonas Mekas, the eventual founder of the avant-garde hub Anthology Film Archives, used Vogel’s rejection of Stan Brakhage’s 1958 film Anticipation of the Night as a pretense to launch the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, where any filmmaker working with 16mm could come in and show his art. None of these facilities showcased lush European epics and newer classic Hollywood films, and the New Yorker Theater opened to service these needs.[11] The roundabout repertory practice continued, each screening room opening to show what the others would not, each defining its own canon with a selection of films that, ultimately, proved most important to its owners.

My own ideal cinematic canon consists of all copies of every film and video ever made—or, failing that, at least the ones extant. I recognize, though, that building such a canon isn’t possible, just as every programmer before me likely has. If I have chosen to note the history of how one film marked a split between two programmers’ canons, rather than argue for a canon of my own, it is because I believe that I would ultimately be rationalizing the reasons why I value particular films. I couldn’t do this in good conscience, knowing how many films I’d be slighting in the process. No single viable canon offers an elixir; each merely offers a small piece of a gigantic whole. Yet taken together, multiple canons offer a better sense of film history than any one canon would on its own. I will thus end on an entirely personal, entirely subjective note: The best and the most that a programmer can do is to show work that other programmers won’t.


[1] Reprinted in Decherney, Peter. Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005, p. 154.
[2] Reprinted in Wasson, Haidee. Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, p. 200.
[3] Wasson, p. 177.
[4] Wasson, p. 104.
[5] Wasson, p. 102.
[6] Neiman, Clark Hodson. The Legend of Maya Deren: Volume One, Part One.
[7] Staiger, Janet. “The Politics of Film Canons.” Cinema Journal 24, No. 3 (Spring 1985): 4-23. Print, p. 5.
[8] Reprinted in MacDonald, Scott. Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2002, p. 6.
[9] MacDonald, p. 243. It’s important, though, that while Cinema 16 programmed many more films and kinds of films than MOMA did, the permanent collection of films that the society owned was much smaller. Cinema 16 had nowhere near the money and space to buy and house films that MOMA had
[10] Vogel, Amos. Film as a Subversive Art. United States: D.A.P., 1974, p. 78.
[11] Recounted in Talbot, Toby. The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes From a Life at the Movies. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Aaron Cutler is a New York writer currently based in São Paulo. Cutler is a recent graduate from Non-Fiction Writing at Columbia University. He has contributed to Slant Magazine, The Believer and is the co-author of Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio (with Rory O’Connor).

Cutler’s piece was co-edited by Mila Zacharias.