2016 Film Essays

Why Criticism: Umberto Eco and ‘The Infinity of Lists’


Umberto Eco’s death earlier this year was a loss to the critical community. His writing was charged with imagination and insight as he expressed his curiosity about the nature of creative expression with warm simplicity. Among his last works, The Infinity of Lists explores the literary and artistic history of lists and their seemingly eternal appeal. Approaching list as a practical and poetic device, the author examines our obsession with lists and their aesthetic function within art.

Eco divides lists into two overarching categories, the “everything included” list and the “etcetera” list. We can think of the “everything included” list as practical and referring directly to the external world. “Everything included” lists can be a catalogue of the objects in your fridge or the list of guests at a party. These are lists that are finite and unalterable. We don’t normally think of these lists as a part of the critical discourse, though they are rooted in the cinephilic compulsion to collect viewings and experiences. The “everything included” race between festival goers to see as many films as possible is limited only by the length of the festival and the viewer’s personal threshold for sleeplessness.

Most lists, at least the ones we debate and argue over, fall into the second category. They are “etcetera” lists, not bound or reflected in the world around us. Confined only by the arbitrary limits we put on them, these kinds of lists are, in a way, infinite.

To think of a canon as an “etcetera” list changes its meaning. Rather than representing a finite example of great films, it suggests an infinite wealth of them. Eco, writing about the night’s sky says, “The artist who attempts only a partial list of all the stars in the universe, in some ways, wishes to make us think of this objective infinity.” Of course, cinema may not be as objectively infinite as the stars in our universe, but rather than being a closed off canon, it represents the endlessness bounty of great art. The cinematic canon represents our inability to encompass the totality of cinema, suggesting a completeness that would otherwise be impossible to evoke.

Eco goes a step further, though, as the art and literary historian suggests that lists can also be expressed through images rather than words. Using examples from art history, one may appreciate the different ways lists can be expressed through images. Understanding how the list can be expressed through the cinematic image can be an incredible tool in writing. Do the edges of the frame expand or limit the universe? As an audience, are we meant to perceive that what lies beyond the edge goes on indefinitely or has the cinematic universe been confined to only what we are shown?

Through either camera movements or lack thereof, a certain perception of scope emerges. Epic films use all sorts of tricks to suggest infinite armies or larger than life environments, depicting so many soldiers that we are presented with an insinuation of something larger than life, even when they bleed out of the frame. In Gone with the Wind, the most famous shot of the film (a seemingly infinite hospital of dying and wounded soldiers) suggests suffering that far exceeds the edges of the frame. In a way, these kinds of shots and films imply a presence beyond the human experience by showing or representing things beyond our mortal powers or even understanding.

Similarly, a claustrophobic drama may do the opposite and work to keep the filmmaking as finite as possible. Films like REC cut the audience off from the outside world using the aesthetics of the found footage genre. As an audience, we are guided by the finite nature of the human experience, and while the camera may be in near constant movement, it has been anchored to the perspective of whomever has it in hand. To understand it within the realm of lists, the practical concerns of movement and action make this a finite experience of narrative. `

Imagining even a canonical list in this sense, as a representational experience of the infinite or finite, can transform the writer’s interaction with it. The question of what cinema is can rarely be expressed merely through theory or even through a single film. In a sense, that’s why we gravitate towards list-making. Oftentimes, it can be the only way the completeness of our feelings about cinema can be expressed.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.