“Un grande ciclista”, that is how Gian Luca Farinelli announced Thierry Frémaux, artistic director of the Cannes Film Festival, at the beginning of yesterday’s session of the ‘Cinephilia Rediscovered’ series. By jokingly linking cinema and sportsmanship, the director of the Cineteca unintentionally echoed the events of Sunday night, when the cheering of Italian football fans, ecstatically celebrating La Squadra Azzurra’s victory over England, accompanied the screening of Jacques Demy’s Lola at the Piazza Maggiore – what would Serge Daney have thought about this peculiar blend? Frémaux swiftly moulded the debate into a frenetic, but contagious monologue (scheduling him without fellow debaters appeared to be a well-considered decision), crammed with associatively linked anecdotes and convincing reflections on the current state of affairs.
Apart from his activities at Cannes, Frémaux holds a position as director of the Insitut Lumière in Lyon, which concerns itself with the preservation of the Lumières’ contributions to filmmaking. It was there that, in march 1995, he joined forces with film historian and former editor-in-chief of Cahiers Antoine de Baecque, to organise the conference ‘The Invention of a Culture: A History of Cinephilia’. At that time, the idea of cinephilia had become contested, resulting in a series of pessimist reports on the demise of the love cinema inspired, most notoriously articulated in Susan Sontag’s 1996 article ‘The Decay of Cinema’. In response to this widespread discourse, Frémaux and de Baecque suggested to discuss the notion of cinephilia as a historical object of study. This journal wants to partly adopt their mission statement: if cinephilia paved the way for to the first film histories to emerge, then it is the responsibility of contemporary film researchers to concentrate on the history of cinephilia itself. Following the example of de Baecque and Frémaux, this project thus intends to construct a history of the history of cinema, thereby isolating some of the most individual practices of cinephiles, which all too often seem to escape conventional historiography. The revelatory encounter with a cinephiliac moment, as Christian Keathley has pointed out, is probably the smallest, most idiosyncratic of these cinephile rituals, and therefore an “appropriate starting place for one part of a history of cinephilia” (quoted in his, at least for me, eye opening book Cinephilia and History, orThe Wind in The Trees (Indiana University Press, 2006, p. 41)).
In a follow-up to the conference, de Baecque and Frémaux published a statement about their project, ‘La Cinéphilie ou L’Invention d’une Culture’, in which they defined cinephilia’s mission as the search for a non-evident intellectual coherence, proposing connections between different traditions. At the Cannes Film Festival, Frémaux still strives to fulfil this cinephile mission. In an interview with Indiewire a year ago, he stated:
“When I arrived, the selection was maybe… in Cannes, and also everywhere else, you had a certain kind of cinema that looked like it was made for festivals, for specialists. That’s what Cannes and Venice used to be. There was a difference between when you saw in festivals and theaters. As a movie buff, I’m still running the Lumière Bros. museum in Lyon, but I also like Sam Peckinpah and Samuel Fuller.”
During his monologue in the Sala Scorsese, Frémaux repeatedly referred to this type of cinephile-as-cultural omnivore, implicitly referring to the heyday of cinephilia, from the Impressionists who equally raved about Gance as they did about Borzage, to the politique des auteurs of Bazin’s disciples, building on the pluralist education they received in Langlois’ Cinémathèque. Frémaux reminisced how the Cannes Film Festival tries to continue this tradition, discussing the presence of films as Pulp Fiction, L.A. Confidential, and recently Drive in the official selection.
In this context, Frémaux repeatedly mentioned Tarantino as a prototypical cinephile filmmaker who self-consciously deals with an overload of influences from the past. This made me think of David Bordwell’s notion of belatedness, by which he indicated the frustration of contemporary filmmakers, who are confronted with countless film historical influences towards which they have to position themselves:
“Aware of the tradition, filmmakers could extend it, refine its premises, explore its underutilized resources, apply it to new subjects and themes, even pay homage to its outstanding achievements – all without abandoning its fundamental commitments. … The more you know, the more you understand the gap that separates you from the great tradition, and the more you fret about what you can contribute.”
(David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story And Style in Modern Movies, 2006, p. 16)
On our way to John Boorman’s Point Blank at the Piazza, this led to a fascinating discussion about the choice of contemporary auteurs between self-conscious filmmaking and reinventing traditional schemes. But more on this later…