The Constant Gardener
The second to last session of the Cinephilia Ritrovato series featured representatives from two honourable French institutions: Serge Toubiana of La Cinémathèque française and Jean Gili of Éditions Larousse’s Dictionnaire Mondial du Cinéma. They talked about the task and the relevance of traditional institutions in these turbulent times for cinephilia and its practitioners.
Toubiana talked about how cinephiles of his generation (he calls them post-war: those that were born shortly before and after WWII) had to assume a responsibility, had to take up leading roles in certain institutions: the cinémathèque, the journals, and the festivals. “If we don’t take up responsibility,” he said, “the job will be done by civil servants, cultivated or not, cinephiles or not, by caretakers.” Toubiana and his peers, former soixante-huitards, anti-establishment by default, had to “cross over” to the institutions and join the establishment. In doing so, the moral obligations they’ve always had – to be true to themselves and to the cinema – had to be reconciled to a collective responsibility. Toubiana believes his generation had to prove itself worthy of its inheritance, of what their illustrious predecessors (he mentioned Jean Douchet) had passed on, and the way to do this was to carry on their legacy, to lead the institutions without renouncing the passion for cinema – an eclectic, all encompassing passion – to keep an open mind, and most of all to pass this passion on to the next generation.
A task that seems to have grown more and more difficult over time, especially in the last 15 years or so, ever since cinema’s hundredth birthday – making it officially “historical”, one could argue, since there likely aren’t many oral sources on the early days of cinema left – and the technological sea-change it coincided with. This transformation of film to an increasingly digital medium presents film archives with immense opportunities and challenges, so often two sides of the same coin. New dominant technologies also imply a changing market, an interesting evolution for people like Toubiana who were, in his own words, “un peu Marxiste” (a bit Marxist) when they were young. Opposing the cult of the product, which the market values above all, the cinephile believes in aesthetical values, in history, in traditions, in people.
Backed by this cinephiliac faith in film and its lovers, Toubiana believes these evolutions to be opportunities, rather than challenges, at least for the time being. Archives have the resources to provide the history, the genealogy that he believes young cinephiles, confronted with the enormity of film history, cannot achieve on their own, viewing films out of context, on different formats, in a random order (“désordre total”). Rather then cultivating a detached knowledge of film history, archives have the opportunity to (re)construct a living memory of cinema (as Godard has done with Histoire(s) du cinéma), a bond with cinema Toubiana’s peers took for granted when their 15 year old selves saw Prima della rivoluzione, Pierrot le fou, I pugni in tasca, La peau douce etc. on their first run. These screenings are part and parcel of their childhood memories; Toubiana’s generation has lived that part of film history. According to him, subsequent generations of cinephiles, who saw the classics on television, or – in the case of today’s budding cinephiles – on their computer, might not have had the same opportunities to build this direct bond with film history. It’s the Cinémathèque’s job to show the proper respect to the cycles and processes that link us to the past, and to guide younger generations in experiencing film history, or rather, in creating a cinephiliac memory of their own, but one that is firmly rooted in the heritage of their predecessors.
This position can and must be debated, of course. It suggests a sacrosanct and unfalsifiable hierarchy in the quality of film experiences, which might be perceived as somewhat patronising (Toubiana and Gili agree that young cinephiles are “specialists” who lack a general overview of cinema) and counter-productively nostalgic. A nostalgia for the days in which cinema really mattered, in which films were an important cultural and political force. But was this ever the case, outside of the circles of cinephilia? Cinema has lost the fight, according to Toubiana, it has been replaced by television, an inferior medium. He casts cinéphile and cinéaste alike as the constant gardener, the eponymous anti-hero of John le Carré’s novel: Limited to tending to his or her garden, unaware of or unable to have an impact on the state of things in society at large.