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The Best of Times and the Worst of Times: Notes on ‘Cinephilia Rediscovered’

Nuovo cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988)


Given the current ubiquitous attention for the notion of cinephilia, it did not come as a surprise that Il Cinema Ritrovato, the Bologna Film Festival that is unequivocally acclaimed among film buffs and professionals as one of the most cinephile events on the calendar, explicitly included the love for cinema in this year’s programme. By dedicating a series of panel discussions to cinephilia, its manifestations, transformations and contemporary relevance, Il Cinema Ritrovato echoed similar projects at other film festivals. With Project New Cinephilia, the 2011 Edinburgh International Film Festival probably developed the most elaborate programme so far, including a day-long symposium, the (online) publication of a series of essays and debates, and forum discussions hosted by MUBI. However, many of today’s film festivals incorporate at least a debate on the status of cinephilia, often analysing the concept in relation to the precarious state of film criticism. On its website Project New Cinephilia has listed some of the most noteworthy discussions at other festivals.

But these symposia are not the only reflections of the on-going interest in cinephilia. Over the last decade, numerous publications have been devoted to different manifestations of cine-love. Most of them are part of a wide-ranging revaluation of the concept, emerging in the late 90s in response to a series of articles on the presumed death of cinephilia. The most notorious of these was, of course, Susan Sontag’s 1996 article ‘The Decay of Cinema’. The cinema’s centenary stirred Sontag to muse about the end of its life cycle: “an inevitable birth, the steady accumulation of glories and the onset in the last decade of an ignominious, irreversible decline.” But her polemic piece did not so much read as an obituary for the medium itself, than as the epitaph for cinephilia, “the very specific kind of love the cinema inspired”. In the age of hyper-industrial filmmaking, Sontag claimed, several economical, sociological and technological developments had impoverished the medium’s potential. She deplored, for instance, that new methods of home viewing were emptying the theatres. Instead of “being kidnapped”, or “overwhelmed by the physical presence of the image”, modern spectators thus adopted new strategies of (passive) viewing.

By emphasising the downsides of these altered cinema experiences, Sontag’s lament in fact was echoed by some of the reservations Jim Hoberman and Miguel Marías expressed in Bologna about alternative viewing methods. Moreover, Sontag pointed out how this evolution encouraged production companies to tailor films to the smaller screen, resulting in a visual style characterised by what David Bordwell has labelled intensified continuity. This manipulation of the image, as Bazin would call it, implied a fundamental alteration of the cinema’s ontology, for it was precisely the medium’s specific ability to render the captured reality in an immediate (some refer to it as physical) manner that evoked a revelatory sense of wonder among its early spectators (referring to the epiphanous effect the Lumières’ L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat evoked). Generating not only a close involvement, but also a strong urge to talk and write about it, this unrepeatable experience formed the original basis for cinephilia.

Although Sontag claimed that this specific kind of cinephilia first manifested itself in the 1950s on the pages of the illustrious Cahiers du cinéma, the cinephile continuum had in fact begun a few decades earlier. In the 1920s, artists and intellectuals gathered in modernistic Paris, and described the cinema as the most urgent of all arts. Ciné-clubs thrived, and led to the start-up of the first film journals (essays from this period, written by Delluc, Epstein and their contemporaries have been collected, translated and extensively contextualised in Richard Abel’s volumes French Film Theory and Criticism). The lyrical discourse of the impressionist critics was epitomised by a very idiosyncratic, almost obsessive relationship with the cinema, at its best resulting in publications that exhibited a combination between subjective astonishment and objective connoisseurship. Their discourse did indeed live on in the writings of André Bazin, and his disciples at Cahiers. The politique des auteurs, in which the young Turks lyrically described films as the individualistic expression of its director, provided the supreme application of the cinephile approach.

An attempt to rationalise cinephile pleasure, auteurism indirectly stimulated the institutionalisation of film studies. In the aftermath of May ’68, critics and academics discarded the cinephile’s apolitical focus on mise-en-scène aesthetics, encouraging questions about film’s relationship to power and ideology. Comolli and Narboni’s essay ‘Cinéma/idéologie/critique’, an attempt to apply the new political standards on the auteurs formerly championed by Cahiers, caused a breaking point within film criticism. Despite Grand Theory exhausting itself in the late 1980s, the cinephile spirit seemed left behind. Sontag’s article was only the first in an extensive series of fatalistic reports on the state of film reception (often cited are Stanley Kauffmann’s ‘A Lost Love’ published in 1997 in The New Republic and David Denby’s ‘The Moviegoers’, from The New Yorker, 1998). Many of them lamented the critic’s conversion into a popular reviewer, who only operates as a guide to the consumer’s economy, employing the thumbs up-thumbs down approach. Moreover, the Internet triggered an explosion of critical opinions, blurring the boundaries between informal user comments and intellectual reflection. In ‘Canon Fodder’, his famous essay for Film Comment (2006), Paul Schrader stated that most of today’s writing about film fits into two polar categories: the populist, often informal, review and the scholarly, often hermetic, article.

These reports on the precarious conditions of cinephilia and film writing seem to have provoked a counter-discourse over the last years. Critics and academics have published extensively on the idea of cinephilia. Although they usually acknowledge the problems cinephilia is currently struggling with, their diagnoses are often significantly less negative. Some even believe that Sontag and her followers mixed the death of cinephilia up with the passing of the conditions that enabled its first manifestations to emerge. “Sontag was mourning a lost world,” Manohla Dargis wrote in her 2004 article ‘The 21st-Century Cinephile’, “but she didn’t realise a new world of cinephilia was coming into being.” Exclusively focusing on the downsides of various mutations within film reception, Sontag & co. overlooked that cinema’s first century had shown that there is no better method for arousing cinephilia than the introduction of new mechanisms and technologies into the film experience. Despite current difficulties, the opportunities for cinephilia have in fact only increased. The augmented availability of films on DVD, the further proliferation of academic film departments, and the greater accessibility of film analyses through online sources (the elitist ciné-club, that granted the first wave of cinephilia its distinctive character, has been transformed into a virtual and global community) have made it easier for cinephilia to flourish, but all the more complex to distinguish its products.

In addition, many scholars have examined these transformed manifestations of cinephilia. Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener (in Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory), but also Scott Balcerzak and Jason Sperb (Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction) have suggested that cinephilia has not vanished from today’s discourse, but argue that it appears in transformed (often virtual) forms. Cinephile researchers such as Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin (Movie Mutations and Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia) have studied how socio-economic trends have inspired cinephiles to alter their strategy. They have recognised the establishment of a new global cinephile community, constructed around international festivals. Moreover, Robert B. Ray (must-reads are, among others, How a Film Theory Got Lost and The ABCs of Classic Hollywood) and his disciples Christian Keathley (Cinephilia and History) and Rashna Richards (the upcoming Lightning Flashes: Cinephiliac Historiography and Classical Hollywood) have not only traced the notion of cinephilia in relation to the general conditions of modernity, but they have also proposed alternative ways of critical writing based on individual cinephile activities and the avant-garde arts.

But as mentioned earlier, the current interest in cinephilia goes further than these publications. Many film festivals and academic symposia tend to focus on the state of cinephilia, often by means of often intriguing panel discussions. The approach of these debates is usually very similar. On the one hand these debates feature nostalgic, sometimes even pessimist critics, who heavily regret the fading of a bygone era of cinephilia. They complain that people do not go to the right films any more, and that transformed ways of viewing (it seems they can’t get over the disappearance of nitrate) and distribution have impoverished the medium. Furthermore they predict the extinction of film criticism (at least in print media) and reject the gutless and predictable selections of programmers and curators. On the other hand, a number of (often younger) cinephiles welcome the effects of new technologies. The blogosphere provides new platforms for intellectual and cinephile reflection, which therefore become more easily assessable for inquisitive film lovers. Girish Shambu is perhaps the cinephile who proves more than anyone else that on the web a sincere passion for film and an intense urge to write about it, can fuel high-quality analyses and form the basis for a consistent discourse: he maintains a much-read blog and co-edits (with Adrian Martin) the superb online journal LOLA. Furthermore, these young enthusiasts realise that films on celluloid will inevitably vanish, but on the other hand dare to raise urgent questions about the lifespan of new formats (as, for example, Gabe Klinger did, provokingly defining DCP as Doomsday Cinema Package).

Roy Menarini, film historian at the University of Udine, and curator (and for some of the debates also moderator) of the Cinephilia Rediscovered series at Il Cinema Ritrovato seems to fit into this category of optimist cinephiles. In his foreword to the series of panel debates, he writes: “The problematic aspect of cinephilia over the past two decades was that it gave the impression of being stuck in nostalgia, both conservative and authoritarian, even when this was not the case at all.” Moreover, he enthusiastically welcomes the new possibilities the Internet and the blog culture provide, claiming that they have infused cinephilia with a new energy: “the spread of blogs and online platforms has eliminated perceived amateurism replacing it with an information culture, passionate encyclopedism, and remarkably high quality discussion.” While this is of course the case for a number of blogs, the Internet does not only produce high quality discourse. As mentioned, there is definitely an augmented availability of film writing online, but this broader field has made it also more difficult to select what’s worth reading. The Internet has, after all, also paved the way for an explosion of negligible user comments and popular reviews (everybody has become an expert, knowing everything about everything). It therefore seems that, in addition to the much-debated urgency of alternative film canons, we are currently in need of a canon of (online) film criticism – a function that the blogrolls of the most reliable online writers might informally fulfil (via Girish, I, for instance, discovered Zach Campbell’s Elusive Lucidity).

Menarini rightly underlines that online formats can provide platforms for film criticism that traditional print media no longer offer. However, his optimism about the revitalisation of film writing seems a bit too comprehensive to me:

“Take film critics, for example. Their profession was seriously threatened by the spread of free reviews and other related resources on the web. Many, however, found new avenues online and are able to provide more in depth reviews than was previously possible. More generally, after years of persistent marginalization, the entire ‘film discussion’ sector, especially critics, have demonstrated that there is a large global public that wants to not only watch films, but also to listen to commentary and analysis of them. This flies in the face of claims by some over the ‘death of critics’.”

While acknowledging the merits of new discursive practices on the Internet, Menarini overlooks that the ‘death of critics’ may just as well refer to the ever-growing list of leading film critics that have been discharged from their jobs over the last months. Jim Hoberman still maintains a much-read blog after having been sacked as senior film critic at The Village Voice, but although this allows him to share his writings with a reasonably large group of cinephile readers, the blog form doesn’t yet provide a full-fledged equivalent for print criticism. As Chris Fujiwara noted in his response to David Bordwell’s piece on critics versus academics: “If academia represents the professionalization of film culture, the Internet has become the site of the deprofessionalisation of film culture, as writers on film proliferate who are working for free, or at any rate with no visible means of support.” It is oversimplified to propose online forms of writing as a counter argument against the presumed death of film criticism (at least on the part of the critics), since most of the best bloggers rely on other sources of income, often situated in an academic context. Or as Fujiwara put it: “What are the prospects of film criticism? Um … if you haven’t got that PhD. yet, brother, better put on the steam.”

Moreover, critics themselves have provided some of the most convincing arguments for the hypothesis on the death of the critic. Even when they don’t get fired, they eagerly change jobs, implicitly confirming the medium’s negative prospects. Apart from combining criticism with academic careers, we have recently witnessed the rise of the critic-becoming-programmer. David Ansen accepted a buyout from Newsweek, and became artistic director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, while Scott Foundas quit his job as a critic for LA Weekly and The Village Voice, in order to become associate programmer of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. However, the global proliferation of film festivals isn’t an unambiguous reflection of thriving cinephilia either. Menarini writes: “Festivals, an integral part of the revival of the cinephilia experience, are premised on the search for and selection of films in a global context where titles proliferate and grow every year.” But does he mistake quantity with quality? In times characterised by an increased availability of films, but at the same time by film historical amnesia among younger generations, many of the debaters in Bologna emphasised the important responsibility of curators and programmers. They have to find a balance between promoting canonical films, and highlighting films that are neglected by traditional circuits. But, as Dave Kehr argued in the last panel discussion, many programmers ignore these concerns, degrading festivals into red carpet shows, where big studios can launch their Oscar campaigns.

The animated discussion with Scott Foundas that followed Kehr’s reproaches towards film festivals (he mentioned the New York Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival) was in fact one of the few highlights of the Cinephilia Rediscovered series. Although this kind of debates possesses an undeniable relevance, the conversations between the leading critics and academics Il Cinema Ritrovato had invited were often too polite. Furthermore, many urgent topics were cautiously omitted. The most intriguing discussions aroused when questions posed by fellow debaters or professionals in the audience lured them out of their comfort zone (to cite the title of a similar debate at the International Film Festival Rotterdam). Next to the vibrant but important discussion on the role of contemporary festivals between Kehr and Foundas, another intriguing debate was provoked by Jonathan Rosenbaum, who, as an audience member, asked Kehr and Jenkins about the significance of alternative canons, linking it with the tense relation between criticism and academia (an indispensable topic when debating the state of cinephilia, according to me, but unfortunately only briefly touched upon in Bologna). Another memorable moment took place when the Ferroni Brigade changed roles, and started to interrogate moderator Menarini, for instance on the remarkable absence of female cinephiles on stage. Or when Shambu took over the role of moderator from Alex Stellino, and pitched some thought-provoking questions at his fellow debaters.

That, for the greater part of the sessions, everybody could remain in his comfort zone, was undoubtedly a direct result of the cautious juxtaposition of debaters within the panels. Of course, one has to take the language barrier into account (cinephilia is certainly a different notion in France than it is in the Anglo-Saxon world; I understood as much when Jean Douchet told me he had never heard of Manny Farber), but instead of a fierce debate on the ideological differences between Cahiers and Positif, the session with Douchet and Michel Ciment often sank into a cosy conversation between two nostalgic nitrate-lovers, musing about a bygone era. I was certainly swept along by the interesting subjects Thierry Frémaux broached during his frenetic monologue, but couldn’t help regretting that he wasn’t paired with Dave Kehr, who definitely had a lot to say about the responsibilities of film festivals. And how could putting the like-minded members of the Ferroni Brigade all at the same table result in a truly polemic debate? They obviously came prepared for verbal swordplay, but given the lack of real opponents, decided to challenge Menarini.

At the festival, I heard that Il Cinema Ritrovato intends to host a similar series of cinephile debates during next year’s edition. I genuinely hope they do so, since there still remain a lot of burning topics to be tackled. With the same high level of cinephile guests, but perhaps a more strategic juxtaposition of debaters, and some more audacious questions that lure debaters out of their comfort zone, it must be possible to further instigate the vibrant, urgent debate on the problems cinephile film reception currently struggles with. Maybe some of the objections I raised above sound a little harsh, but this is only because Il Cinema Ritrovato has set such a high and cinephile standard for itself over the last years. I therefore expect that, with a little polishing, next year’s panel series will equal the high quality the rest of this outstanding and truly cinephile film festival exhibits.