How We Got Here
by Damon Smith and Kate Taylor
Project: New Cinephilia
Cinephilia has a marbled history, of course. During the silent-film era, ciné-clubs popped up all over France, Germany, Sweden, the U.K.; major archives were later established in Paris and New York, London and Milan, and the first wave of theorists attempted to grapple with the question of what, if cinema was to be labeled an art, its effects and constituent parts might be. Then came the classic phase of cinephilia, when a clutch of self-taught young critics in France championed favourite directors and neglected Hollywood films, obsessing over the finer points of style and mise-en-scéne and arguing pointedly the case for auteurism in Cahiers du cinéma, the journal founded by cinephile critic and educator André Bazin, before becoming filmmakers themselves. “Cinephilia was a form of cultism, an art of seeing in movies what others didn’t see—the beauty of form in Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn, say, or the tenderness under the surface of some of Buñuel’s seemingly cruelest films, the diffuse elegance of Stan Brakhage, the wayward intellect of Otto Preminger,” writes James Morrison. “It embraced moments of intensity even in the most banal films…and made of those intensities a private, shared mythology.” In the wake of the events of May 1968, Rashna Wadia Richards reminds us, “ideological critique discredited cinephiliac discourse as capricious and irrelevant,” and much of the fervor and energy of the French New Wave, though it reverberated in the writings of American critic Andrew Sarris, soon dissipated.
Not that cinephilia in its broadest sense—a passion for cinema in all its forms—ever disappeared. The advent of home-viewing technologies (Beta, VHS) and cable television in the late seventies, for instance, brought foreign cinema and hard-to-see independent films into living rooms, making non-experts exhibitors and programmers in their own right, even if (as so many argued) movies arrived in degraded formats that cheated viewers of the full cinematic experience. These arguments are still made today, such as in a piece by Cinematheque Ontario programmer James Quandt, who writes: “ ‘Movie love’ may still be possible, but what if its object of desire is literally obscure—endlessly transferable (an acceleration of Benjamin’s reproducibility) but inferior, a phantom of the original?” Many writers and film scholars cite Susan Sontag’s 1995 essay “The Decay of Cinema” as a pivotal point in this debate. It was a lament about the ubiquity of screens in the digital age, the erosion of standards for how we watch and appreciate and make movies, and a nostalgia for the “vanished rituals” of the darkened theater: “If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead, too … no matter how many good ones go on being made.”
This line of argument, written on the occasion of cinema’s centenary, resonated in film-studies circles, and initiated a wave of interest in historicizing cinephilia that continues today in the writings of Christian Keathley, Adrian Martin, and Marijke de Valck, among others. But Sontag’s essay ended with a slightly more optimistic thought, dangling at the end of her jeremiad like a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked: “If cinema can be resurrected, it will only be through the birth of a new kind of cine-love.” Four years later, the Australian journal Senses of Cinema published a dossier on “cinephilia in the age of the Internet and video” in which five writers examined the circumstances and possibilities for such a novel expression of movie love. Books began to appear on the subject of cinephilia with more frequency, most notably Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin. Ever since, Rosenbaum and other proponents of the “new cinephilia” have made the case that film-viewing choices have greatly expanded in the age of DVDs, streaming video, and P2P swapping, giving us access to previously unavailable movies from around the world and transforming film culture mostly for the better.
To Read the Rest of the Introductory Essay