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The Attractions of Cinema: Movie Love after the Sixties

The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)


The End

By all accounts, it was Susan Sontag’s lament in the February 25, 1996, issue of the New York Times, “The Decay of Cinema” (1996), that started it all. The essay was a revised version of a similar argument Sontag had made in the Frankfurter Rundschaua year earlier at the occasion of cinema’s centenary, “A Century of Cinema”. Basically the argument runs like this: movies have become a decadent art; that is to say, although there are still exciting new films being made, their number has dwindled in comparison to the defining periods in the medium’s history, especially the vanguard that started in the mid-1950s. Then the argument takes an unexpected direction: perhaps it’s not the movies that have failed us of late but their most passionate supporters, the cinephiles. They have failed us, they have failed movies, not through any fault of their own or a decline in passion, but simply because ‘cinephilia has no role in the era of hyperindustrial films. For cinephilia cannot help, by the very range and eclecticism of its passions, from sponsoring the idea of the film as, first of all, a poetic object.’ Coming full syllogistic circle at the end of her essay, Sontag concludes that, ‘If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too . . . no matter how many movies, even very good ones, go on being made. If cinema can be resurrected, it will only be through the birth of a new kind of cine-love.’

Ever since that critical moment, cinephiles have heeded her call; and when I say cinephiles, I mean primarily critics, both those working and writing in the tradition of Cahiers du Cinéma and their successors in Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Sweden, the United States and Canada, and academics with an interest in cinephilia as both a cultural and historical phenomenon and a possible alternative heuristic framework. There have been essays and studies about the impact of new technologies of reproduction and communication on the waning/strengthening of cinephilia, about the changing of viewing habits and new dislocated circumstances, about old and new forms of accessibility. Most compelling in my view have been those that have tried to reignite the ‘spark,’ the creative-generative energy that characterized first-generation cinephile writing, both the ‘photogénie’ generation of Epstein and Delluc and Bazin’s ciné-fils at Cahiers (for an overview of the different perspectives on Cinephila 2.0 see the ‘In Focus’ section of Cinema Journal).

New Beginnings

Representative of the latter approach is the work of Christian Keathley who, in his book Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (2006), takes off from Antoine de Baecque’s mapping of the history of cinephilia in France from 1944 to 1968 in his book La Cinéphilie: Invention d’un Regard, Histoire d’une Culture (2003), to propose what he calls a cinephiliac history, a history of the movies based on a specific way of looking at them grounded in sensuous and necessarily fragmentary experience. Keathley’s larger historiographical project finds inspiration both in Walter Benjamin’s conception of a non-teleological materialist historiography and in the New Historicism inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, who opposed historicism by pointing out that the raw material of history is mostly to be found outside the confines of Grand Narratives. What I find most exciting about his book is its potential for pedagogy. Through what he calls ‘cinephiliac anecdotes’, investigations into the forgotten histories of cinema that start from privileged details picked up or remembered by the cinephile who possesses the ability of ‘panoramic perception’ (the talent to scan the frame for what is hidden or remains unrevealed in the margins), Keathley manages to give back to the study of cinema, to the hermeneutic inquiry into its aesthetic appeal, its qualities of pleasure and presence, or pleasure through the experience presence, that had been abstracted ever since the campaign of de-enchantment by what Thomas Elsaesser calls ‘psycho-semiotics’ started dominating the academic study of film, causing a deepening rift between film criticism and academic film studies that is at least part of the reason why cinephilia is currently seen to be in decline (on this problematic see David Bordwell’s essay in Film Comment, “Academics versus Critics”).

Keathley’s book stimulated further inquiry into new ways of teaching film (through video essays that, even more than the verbal anecdote, manage to reproduce the frisson that triggered the critic’s interest – see here) and also inspired many followers. Among them Rashna Wadia Richards, whose recent book, Cinematic Flashes: Cinephilia and Classical Hollywood (2013) comes endorsed by her (and Keathley’s) teacher Robert B. Ray of the University of Florida (who will show up again later), and by George Toles and Adrian Martin, two academics whose work has been heavily influenced by post-War French film culture and who have pronounced views on current conceptions of cinephila. In the introduction to her book, Wadia Richards clearly identifies her project with Keathley’s: she intends to use ‘moments of intense yet inscrutable audiovisual pleasure’ for an alternative way of writing film history.

Inevitably, she sounds the same theoretical idols as Keathley, mainly Benjamin and Barthes, and lays out the same historical overview, from Cahiers to Serge Daney through Sontag to Noel King and Paul Willemen to Adrian Martin and Jonathan Rosenbaum to Marijke De Valck and Malte Hagener. Although that pocket history is by now fairly well-known to the audience of academic specialists the book clearly targets, this is a fault of the editors at Indiana University Press who seem to have forgotten that they’ve published an almost identical overview in Cinephilia and History a mere six years ago. Since I’ll be touching upon some of these same founding texts in my own argument, her lack of coming up with new historical sources is not the reason why I find her book problematic and perhaps even indicative of a certain fatigue – I won’t say ‘decadence’ – that is already setting into the discursive realization of the new cine-love. It’s the cinephiliac moments she offers as alternative points of entry into the historiography of classical Hollywood that make me think again about the relationship between cinephilia and innovative critical practice.

Take, for example, the chapter called  “Sonic Booms,” that starts from a silent shot that startles and (through her reaction) indicts Greta Garbo in Feyder’s early sound film, The Kiss (1929), to produce an account of the largely ignored somatic reaction to the chaotic introduction of sound. The alternative history produced by the silent gunshot as cinephiliac moment checks off a lot of the critical discourse surrounding the cinema of attractions and its non-narrative aesthetic of astonishment, and zeroes in on Walter Benjamin’s idea of gambling as a visceral experience, as an encounter with the shocks produced by modernity. “Sonic Booms” succeeds as counter-history of the chaotic transition to sound, as an alternative to the usual economic and cultural history, and even meets the challenge posed by Ray and Keathley (and Benjamin) to simulate in criticism the logic of its aesthetic object, in this case taking a gamble on reconfiguring the history of the great gamble on sound on the basis of a single evocative moment. En route she manages to squeeze in informative thumbnail sketches of largely forgotten products of the transitional era, like Roy Del Ruth’s The First Auto (1927).  Again, it’s not the overfamiliar connection between modernity, shock, movies and Walter Benjamin, that I find less than satisfying, but the starting point of her historiographical revision. I want to ask: does that silent gunshot qualify as a cinephiliac moment and, more importantly, how does one arrive at one? Before I will attempt to answer that question, I have a lot of historicizing to do myself that will keep us busy throughout two blogs, no doubt much of it familiar, some of it perhaps less so.

Meaning and World

If the desire for/love of cinema is what was lost and must now be regained, then the section entitled, “Loving the Cinema,” from The Imaginary Signifier (1982), Christian Metz’s goodbye to cinephilia – a move required for him to become what, at that point, he sees as something other than a cinephile, a theoretician – can be taken as emblematic of the shift in film criticism from the breathless hedonism and romanticism of Cahiers to the clear-eyed analysis of the semiotic/psychoanalytic/ideological theoretical project. The latter is a typical product of what Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht calls ‘meaning culture,’ which he brings back to the moment when ‘the Cartesian cogito made the ontology of human existence depend exclusively on the movements of the human mind.’ In his book, The Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (2004), Gumbrecht challenges the dominance of interpretation, the attribution of meaning, as the exclusive core practice of the humanities by exploring concepts like materiality, presence and the non-hermeneutic. Although he is arguably the first to come to a full theoretization of what he means by ‘presence’ culture – and we will return to his work in our conclusion – Gumbrecht was not first to take issue with the dominance of meaning culture within art criticism. Long before Metz’s trendsetting politicization and theoretization of film criticism, Susan Sontag, in “Against Interpretation” (1964), reacted against the hegemony of the idea that a work of art is primarily its content, which logically entails the idea of interpretation, ‘a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules”.’ The modern style of interpretation, for Sontag, is hermeneutics, the ‘excavation’ of what is behind the text, the subtext or, in Freudian terms, ‘latent content.’ Against this dictatorship of the intellect, she posits the ‘pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy’ of the image, an anti-symbolic quality exploited by Truffaut, Godard, Antonioni and Olmi, but just as much by the films of Cukor, Hawks and Walsh. The cinema, she writes in 1964, has been relatively unaffected by the mania for interpretation given its newness as an art that was for a long time was understood to be a merely popular mass phenomenon, and because there is a ‘vocabulary of forms’ to grab hold off for analysis. What she offers as an alternative for interpretative (film) criticism is an analysis of form but also ‘acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art,’ which, by means of its transparency, allows us to experience ‘the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.’ Against interpretation she posits what Metz would say goodbye to: love – ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.’

In the part about the luminousness of the thing in itself Sontag sounds like a phenomenologist (it is likely that Sontag acquired her vocabulary from her teacher at the University of Chicago, Leo Strauss, who was a specialist in Husserl and Heidegger). Phenomenology, with its focus on materiality and embodiment, was seen in French intellectual culture of the fifties and early sixties as the main alternative (the ‘other-side’) to structuralism and (later) semiotics, but in academe-oriented film studies, as Dudley Andrew suggests, there was no trace of this dialectic. Important books like Edgar Morin’s Le Cinéma ou l’homme imaginaire (1956), Amedée Ayfre’s Cinéma et mystère,and Contre l’image (1963) by Heidegger’s French translator Roger Munier, with their strong theological and mystical leanings and their focus on existential understanding, were never translated and did not register much of an impact on the academization of film studies. In his essay on “The Neglected Tradition of Phenomenology in Film Theory” (1978), Andrew differentiates between a hermeneutic phenomenology that is still, in part, semiotic, attempting to describe as adequately as possible the experience of signification, and a phenomenology ‘which seeks to be adequate that that experience which lies on the hither side of signification, somewhere beyond the text.’ This ‘beyond,’ this pointing to an elsewhere, comes down to the revelation of a ‘world.’ Andrew’s text was written in response to the reception of André Bazin’s ontology of cinema as merely catholic revelationism, whereas his connection to the phenomenologist tradition – particularly Heidegger’s idea that art is the revelation of truth and a new understanding of being, and Sartre’s idea that aesthetic value is always tied to subjective intention – is very strong. You could also argue that Bazin’s notion of photographic revelation is indebted to the Surrealist tradition of playing upon the inherent contingency of the photographic image, an idea explored by Walter Benjamin in his coining of an ‘optical unconscious.’


We’ll develop this in a minute, but let’s cut first to the salad days of psycho-semiotics and a round table organized for the July-August 1978 issue of Film Comment: three film critics, two Americans, Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Ehrenstein, and one Brit teaching in the States, Raymond Durgnat, are clearly unsatisfied with the current trend of semiotic film studies exemplified by Stephen Heath’s analysis of Touch of Evil. What they want, echoing Sontag, is a move away from content (here presented in the guise of ‘narrative’) and interpretation towards form and ‘other elements’ that cannot be brought back to the level of story. Ehrenstein praises a passage in one of Gilbert Adair’s ‘Paris Journals’, monthly dispatches for Film Comment on Parisian cinephilia by another British expatriate, in which the flamboyant writer testifies to his being fascinated by the color of Cary Grant’s socks in the crop-dusting sequence of North by Northwest, a moment in the film when the narrative engine is working at full throttle. What Adair is responding to instead of narrative drive is the ‘world’ of the film, something ‘beyond’ signification.

In his book The World Viewed (1971), a work highly influenced by Bazin and phenomenological hermeneutics, Stanley Cavell suggests a philosophical framework for Adair’s response, arguing that while the cinema, through its techniques, can call attention to persona and parts of persons and objects, it is equally a possibility of the medium not to call attention to them but, rather, to let the world happen, to let its parts draw attention to themselves. Some of the more interesting passages in Cavell’s book – especially in light of Adair’s fetishistic attention – concern the presence of the actor. Cavell suggests that the screen performer is really not an actor at all but a human being who becomes the subject of a study by the camera (a study inquiring into voice, physiognomy, gesture…).

In his Cahiers piece, “The Death of Humphrey Bogart” (1957), Bazin credits the inspiration for his phenomenal description of Bogart’s presence to Robert Lachenay (aka François Truffaut), who wrote the following about the star’s characteristic gait and gestures:

Walk and talk, talk and walk; that was his new job. As he went along the street, he put his hand on anything it could reach. A fire hydrant, a railing, a kid’s head became so many markers along his route…Having shaved that morning but always in need of a shave, his brows angling toward his temples, eyelids half closed, one hand thrust forward, ready to justify or to confound, from film to film Bogart surveys the length and breadth of life’s tribunal, his gait punctuated by Max Steiner’s chords. He comes to a stop, spreads his legs a bit, unbuttons his jacket, sticks his thumbs inside his belt, and begins to talk. His jerky pronunciation is partial to the vowel and the consonant K; we know how important the word “racket” sounds when he pronounces it. His clenched jaw indubitably reminds us of the grin of a cheerful corpse, the last expression of a man who is about to die laughing.

That last part in particular was picked up by Bazin to formulate the suggestion that in Bogart death is revealed to be both immanent and imminent (more about the necrophiliac aspects of cinephiliac moments later).

The bit about Bogart putting his hand on a fire hydrant is, of course, a reference to a moment in The Big Sleep thatbecame forever associated with the critic Manny Farber who, with his partner Patricia Patterson had been invited to the Film Comment round table but had to drop out at the last moment. In the introduction to his collected criticism, Negative Space (expanded edition 1998), he called it ‘one of the fine moments in 1940s film…no longer than a blink: Bogart, as he crosses the street from one bookstore to another, looks up at a sign.’ In his recent series of bog entries on 1940s American film critics, David Bordwell points out that ‘Farber’s rhetorical maneuvers are often aimed at sharpening the sort of detail we find in his art criticism of the same time. In a short review, the critic must fasten on moments…seeking in the privileged moments a glimpse of transporting beauty’. Farber found such moments even – or perhaps especially – in the lowest genre movies, movies he celebrated in his canonical piece, “Underground Films,” from 1957. It’s interesting to note that the moment Farber remembered from The Big Sleep in that piece was ‘the shamus sweating in a greenhouse’ and, metonymically, ‘the slightly gaseous, subsurface, Baghdadish background.’ From the moment the English translation of Truffaut’s piece became available his focus shifted from the greenhouse to the bookshop: in “The Decline of the Actor” from 1966 he remembers, ‘Bogart’s prissy sign language to a bespectacled glamour girl through the bookstore window.’ David Thomson, no stranger to the pleasures to be derived from Bogart simply walking across rooms, became obsessed with that bookstore (and its bespectacled glamour girl), an obsession that produced a detailed scene analysis for Sight and Sound, “At the Acme Book Shop” (1981).

Drive and Driver

Part of what Thomson finds so striking about this scene is its total disregard for narrative progression. Adrian Martin has noticed that narrative drive and continuity is what Farber puts under the rubric of ‘white elephant’ art – ‘masterpiece art’ that’s overly designed and worked-over. ‘White elephant art,’ the kind that lends itself to easy plot synopsis, is exactly what the Film Comment jam session was reacting against. ‘Termite films,’ on the other hand, ‘are looser, more given to digression and the minimalistic study of a given situation, more interested in expandable ‘descriptive worlds’ than exhaustible plots.’ In Farber’s own words, termite art aims at ‘buglike immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, over all, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed.’ Oftentimes these moments are related to specific gestures. Martin points to the particular attention in Farber’s essay, “Hard-Sell Cinema” (1957), to the motif of walking (again, see Truffaut on Bogart), natural, direct and truthful in the case of termite art like Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (‘they are not walks much as anatomical probings of densely detailed backgrounds’), contrived and unreal in the case of white elephant films like Sweet Smell of Success.The examples of walking in Hawks and Walsh are so apt because, as Raymond Durgnat points out in the Film Comment session, ‘time and time again people imply that movement entails narrative, making film a mainly narrative act. Yet movement often isn’t even action. All the leaves moving around on a tree don’t constitute as many narratives as there are leaves.’

Farber’s concentration on the mood and surface detail of a movie raises the question of who is engendering the immersion, who is doing the world-building, the concentrating or presenting. For Thomson, the delight in surface texture, details and non-narrative moments in The Big Sleep becomes ‘a revelation of Hawks.’ Martin argues that ‘although Farber is very alive to the quirks and layers that individual filmmakers bring to their craft, for the most part his writing goes against the grain of auteurism as a totalizing principle: a stylistic sensibility is, finally, not personal but social; it sums up the complex, felt viewpoint of a class or a political attitude or a specific time and place in history… one will never understand or re-animate what situations, gestures and objects mean in a movie if one cannot understand the gestalt of its “social text”, the web of desires, envies, frustrations and power-plays embedded in its liveliest, microcosmic moments.’ This is similar to the position held by Paul Willemen concerning the way the ‘Third Cinema’ of Solanas, Senbene, dos Santos et al ‘mobilizes’ the ontological dimension of cinema by allowing concrete local historical detail to ‘shine through’ the otherwise deliberately structured analytical narrative. This happens through different levels of composition, creating a dense image in which architecture and landscape are never just background. Essentially this is a politicization of the same ontological sense of a phenomenological world revealed by the film. As Bordwell notes, Farber was highly attuned to spatial geometrics, favoring a naturalistic array, which he opposes to the white-elephant love of pictorial embellishment through rigid deep-space composition (as in Welles and Huston). Bordwell cites Farber’s review of Howard Hawks’s Air Force in which the shots photographed by James Wong Howe reveal a space ‘uncentered in the old sense taken from painting, so that it seems to spread out in all directions past the boundaries of the screen,’ a ‘dispersed look’ that invites the viewer to search for peripheral detail in the inconspicuous and unostentatious corners of the frame.

Ambivalence about creative agency is a common deduction from Bazin’s ontology of cinema, although it does not occasion the contradiction that many critics want to find in it. As Philip Rosen points out, Bazin’s conception of realism does not claim straightforward transparency but ‘entails a special sensitivity to the objective gap between film and reality, the consequence of which is that any realism demands aesthetic decisions.’ Philip Watts suggests, helpfully, that Bazin’s realism was never about doing away with cinema, about the elimination of art, about the simplifying and purifying of cinematic style in order to allow the viewer to encounter the world more directly. The simplicity of style without ornamentation, celebrated by Farber, is the expression of what Bazin, in his essay on Umberto D. (1952), refers to as ‘ontological equality’, ‘the succession of concrete instants of life, no one of which can be said to be more important than another.’ (Martin’s suggestion that, ‘walking is one of those indices of the humble, banal everyday – like working or drinking a cup of coffee or picking up a telephone – which matter a lot to Farber,’ illustrates the same concept). Ontological equality is what ‘destroys drama at its very basis.’ In this light, the Film Comment session distinguishes between an American school that’s all drama (based on story), and a European style – represented primarily by Renoir – that’s more discursive and atmospheric, allowing particular scenes and moments to function in a lyrical way (Bazin’s book on Renoir is full of such moments, as is David Thomson’s evocation of the same director in his latest book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did To Us).


In terms of classical narrative economy, these lyrical moments can be considered to be ‘excess’ or ‘surplus’ of meaning. The idea of ‘excess’ is central to Paul Willemen’s argument about the nature and historical construction of cinephilia in his much-cited dialogue with Noel King, “Through the Glass Darkly: Cinephilia Reconsidered” (1992). Counter to Ehrenstein, Rosenbaum and Durgnat, Willemen feels that moments of revelation operate particularly strongly in relation to a form of cinema that is perceived as highly coded, highly commercial, formalized and ritualized, in other words, the classical Hollywood cinema. For Willemen, the cinephiliac moment reveals an aspect or a dimension that was not programmed in terms of aesthetic strategies, that was not choreographed for the viewer to see, enabling a glimpse of something ‘beyond’ the representation. In terms of creative agency, Willemen leaves open the possibility the certain actors or directors possess the skill to actively produce this room for contingency, this excess of representation. In order for the excess to be noticeable at all, it is necessary that it should occur in a highly coded environment. When Willemen says that the cinephiliac claim is that the film can allow ‘to think or to fantasize a “beyond” of cinema, a world beyond representation which only shimmers through in certain moments of the film, he explicitly ties Stanley Cavell’s claim about the double capabilities of the cinema to the cinephile wager. The term ‘excess’ can also be associated with another philosopher who started out as a phenomenologist, Paul Ricoeur, and who was close to Bazin during his period at Esprit. For Ricoeur, excess is what cannot be controlled by the text or the auteur. Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion, inviting the reader to confront the text head-on through analytic tools inherited from Marx, Freud and de Saussure, would inspire the symptomatic ideological readings of a classical film like Young Mr. Lincoln by the editors of the seventies semiotic version of Cahiers. But, as Dudley Andrew makes clear, Ricoeur’s notion of surplus does not end with ideological analysis and also refers to what escapes meaning. In Dudley Andrew’s estimation, ‘ultimately Ricoeur wants to clear enough space for us to be able to experience and re-experience artworks in a way which allows us to be adequate to them, to learn from them, to change our lives in relation to the meaning they suggest, rather than to protect ourselves from them through a structural analysis which can only discuss their possibility, not their actuality.’

To be continued….