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All That Heaven Allows: What is, or was, cinephilia? (Part One)

By Nico Baumbach on March 12, 2012

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The Decay of Cinema” was the title of Susan Sontag’s notorious 1996 New York Times Magazine think piece, but she made clear that she was concerned less with a decline in the quality of films themselves than in their audience: “Perhaps it is not cinema that has ended but only cinephilia—the name of the very specific kind of love that cinema inspired.”

When something is said to be dead or dying, we are bound to hear more about it than ever. The past decade has seen six English-language books and a number of journal and magazine issues devoted to cinephilia. Two relatively distinct trajectories have emerged: one that takes 20th-century cinephilia to be a historical phenomenon, a “specific kind of love” that emerged in postwar France and spread throughout Europe and the Americas in the Fifties and Sixties; and a second that asserts the ongoing validity of cinephilia and seeks to demonstrate the health of cinephile culture in the 21st century. The occasion for these reflections, “Project: New Cinephilia” (hereafter, “PNC”)—a website hosted by mubi, curated by Damon Smith and Kate Taylor, and conceived in conjunction with a day-long symposium at the 2011 Edinburgh International Film Festival—falls into the second category. In addition to original essays, media projects, and roundtable and forum discussions that bring together a range of critical voices, a generous selection of primary texts under the category of “Resources” provides a useful primer on current debates about the state of film culture that form the background to the New Cinephilia.

Cinephilia is an affirmation of cinema. But what does it mean to affirm cinephilia? The answer, I suspect, can be found in the PNC curators’ interest in getting beyond the rhetoric of crisis or the “death” of cinema and film criticism, and the conservative, nostalgic undertones to the kind of lament of which Sontag’s piece is a prime example. As Bertolt Brecht once said: “Let’s not talk about the good old days, but the bad new ones.” The New Cinephilia functions as an affirmative term that might serve as a common cause for filmmakers, programmers, bloggers, print critics, academics, and film lovers adjusting to transformations wrought by new technologies that might otherwise get displaced into internecine squabbling. I intend to follow the curators’ call to shift discussion away from “the agitations of profession” toward “what film writing actually accomplishes, and for whom.” It was clear that Sontag was mourning not merely the love of movies for their own sake but cinephilia as an emblem of group affiliation—the decline not of individual film lovers so much as a film culture with which she identified. If the New Cinephilia is an attempt to provide a banner for film culture today, how does it differ from its predecessors? And how do these changes manifest themselves in new writing and thinking about cinema?

I. Theory

In “Academics vs. Critics,” published in Film Comment’s May/June 2011 issue, David Bordwell focused squarely on the perceived rift between two different kinds of film writing: the kind Bordwell encounters in academic film studies, and one presumably more familiar to the intended audience of his piece, journalistic criticism. A native informant, Bordwell concedes that the rift is largely the fault of academics, and he confirms what many readers of the magazine may have already suspected: that the academic culture of film studies is often contemptuous of auteurism and popular cinema, and “insists on opaque prose, ponderous plays with theoretical catchwords, and distance from the creative process of filmmaking.” A longtime student of Hollywood narrative form, Bordwell knows that in a satisfying plot, obstacles are introduced only to be overcome. The “reveal” of his article is that there are academics (such as himself) who admire and learn from “intelligent cinephile critics”—who in turn have much to gain from reading the academics doing “careful research” and analysis which “stays close to the contours of film history and filmmaking practice.” Through a strict division of labor, the good critic and good academic will develop a symbiotic relationship of mutual respect and learning: “Perceptive appreciation and analytical explanation can enhance one another.”

The antagonist is what Bordwell calls “Grand Theory,” which “drove a wedge between scholars and cinephiliac intellectuals.” He is not against “theory” tout court, but he advocates for the more modest, grounded practice of what he calls “mid-level research” in opposition to “Grand Theory,” a term he does not explicitly define. Despite the antagonism, he acknowledges that scholars and cinephile critics often share something in common—namely, the assumption “that a film can reflect the moods or anxieties of the society it comes from.” Unfortunately, Bordwell informs us, “this idea usually leads to rather vague and vacuous explanations.”

Bordwell’s argument is framed as an attempt by an academic to reach out to film critics not simply to heal a rift but to mutually enrich both practices. Yet more interesting, and problematic, he outlines what writing about film can successfully accomplish and what it cannot. He implies that the opposition between academics and critics obscures a more fundamental opposition between two different ideas of what the primary object of writing on cinema should be—its relation to culture and society or to the more localized specifiable effects that films produce. He believes that by ignoring the latter in favor of the former, film criticism and theory have lost sight of their object.

With this in mind, it is worth revisiting two touchstones from the moment that now tends to get historicized as “Seventies film theory,” where it seems that the trouble began. The writings of French film scholar Christian Metz in the late Sixties and early Seventies were instrumental in laying the foundations for the use of structural linguistics and psychoanalysis for film analysis and in turn for establishing the project of film studies as it would develop as an academic discipline in the United States, as one centrally concerned with “theory.” Here is Metz on the relation between theory and cinephilia: “To be a theoretician of the cinema, one should ideally no longer love the cinema and yet still love it . . . Not have forgotten what the cinephile one used to be was like, in all the details of his affective inflections, in the three dimensions of his living being, and yet no longer be invaded by him: not have lost sight of him, but be keeping an eye on him.” George Toles, in a fine recent essay on cinephilia, uses Metz as an example of the way that film studies was “eager to purge itself of the allegiances of childhood in order to don the lab coats of an earnest, disengaged maturity.” But what Metz is proposing is something more ambivalent, a double consciousness that acknowledges that while cinephilia may resist theoretical knowledge, it was at the same time a precondition for theory. For Metz, theories of cinema shouldn’t be beholden to the affective attachments of cinephilia, yet at the same time, they are useless if they do not grasp the “specific kind of love” that cinema inspired in its devotees.

My second example comes from Laura Mulvey’s famous 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which remains one of the primary targets for attacks on “Screen theory,” as it is sometimes called, after the influential British journal that first published the essay as well as early translations of Metz. Influenced by Metz’s work, Mulvey undertook a bold feminist intervention by applying a Freudian reading to the conventions of classical narrative film. For now I am not interested in rehearsing either Mulvey’s central argument or the debates that circulated around this essay but merely emphasizing the function she ascribes to theory in relation to cinephilia. Perhaps the most infamous statement in her essay is the following: “It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article.”

Mulvey bluntly states what might be taken as an axiom of much Seventies film theory. Theory was to be a “weapon” against the pleasure derived from classical Hollywood films, which is to say the privileged object of cinephilia. No wonder then that there was an antagonism between academics and cinephiles. But it is important to remember that Mulvey had never attended graduate school and was not an academic, nor was she anti-cinema or criticism; she was writing as a critic and filmmaker who was demanding a new kind of cinema and correspondingly a “new language of desire.” She explicitly rejects “intellectualized unpleasure” as a false alternative to classical Hollywood narrative—which hasn’t stopped that position from being attributed to her with stunning regularity—but she believes the negation of a certain unexamined pleasure was necessary for the invention of new forms of critical filmmaking and spectatorship that in turn would produce new kinds of pleasures.

Film theory as it developed in the Seventies was rooted in a cinephilic culture that had been irrevocably transformed by the political movements of the late Sixties. As Mulvey stated in a recent interview: “Had it not been for the background of cinephilia, the ‘Visual Pleasure’ critique would not have been possible. It was a critique that was enabled by cinephilia and a deep love of Hollywood.” One of the founding gestures of Seventies film theory was the renunciation of cinephilia on behalf of a new kind of political cinema. Or as Thomas Elsaesser suggests more pointedly: “This theological proof that heaven, or cinephilia, does not exist, is what I now tend to think Screen theory was partly about.” But as ruthless toward cinephilic pleasures as Mulvey may have been, her statement came from a conviction that theory about cinema mattered not just in relation to gaining specialized knowledge about a particular popular art form, but to how we live and experience the world. This was not a claim cooked up by some ivory tower academics scornful of mass entertainment or art-film culture; it was an activist position consonant with new forms of political filmmaking at the time. As Serge Daney put it, for Jean-Luc Godard after ’68, the cinema became a “bad place” and it had to become a school that taught how to leave the cinema. In 1959, “tracking shots,” according to Godard, were “moral questions,” but after ’68 they became political ones.

Despite this reversal, film theory was actually in continuity with its cinephilic origins. It is often pointed out that “the auteur theory,” as advanced by Andrew Sarris, was not strictly a theory at all but, as the Cahiers du cinéma critics had called it before him, une politique—a policy or politics. But in that sense the same is true for the Seventies academic film studies that advocated for theory against what Sarris, calling himself a “professional voyeur,” had celebrated as “the voluptuous passivity of moviegoing.” Mulvey’s essay, read carefully, is not a moral indictment of people like Sarris. She implicates herself as one of those people, but proposes film theory as a way of countering the pleasures that have shaped her generation and the dominant culture more generally. Screen theory like auteurism was united not by a single theory but a conviction or policy that, in this case, believed that film needed to be theorized to counter its spell. “Theory” was an umbrella term for a range of claims and positions that were constantly being debated and revised, but as a single concept it signified a political commitment to a rigorous critical engagement that sought to reframe dominant modes of thought and seemingly natural ways of perceiving the world, in order to undermine the deleterious effects of a culture in which social life was increasingly experienced through a relation to mass media.

What Kent Jones in PNC calls the “heroic strain of cinephilia” that emerged in the postwar period gave way to the heroic phase of theory. It was believed that theory was needed for a more sophisticated understanding of the relation between aesthetics and politics. Committed to a critique of an under-theorized idea of realism as the ideological enemy, this era of film theory too often tended to equate a broad conception of modernist reflexivity (or Brechtian distancing) with political emancipation. The goal of criticism like political cinema was to “show up the film work”—which is to say, reveal the repressed elements that made a film’s reception possible. Bordwell, on the other hand, just wants to show how films work.

The political modernist line of Seventies film theory was very much of its time and while some of its lessons were absorbed or revised and persist in various forms today, its dominance in American academia was short-lived. In the Eighties it came into direct conflict with a more populist form of cultural studies that tended to oppose the so-called “hermeneutics of suspicion” to a belief in mass culture’s inherent subversiveness. For Bordwell, these two traditions are more similar than different, and he has written a number of pointed rebukes to the use of a mishmash of concepts from fashionable thinkers as a reified grid that can be applied to any cultural object with the unsurprising results that the favored theory is invariably confirmed.

Academic disciplines derive legitimacy from the reproduction and transmission of knowledge. One predictable irony has been that many thinkers who were concerned with undermining what Jacques Lacan called “the discourse of the university” (its motto: “everything must be counted”) have ended up being used to reproduce it. Theory can then be taught as a unified field that functions like the sunglasses in John Carpenter’s They Live: equipped with some French or German proper names and fashionable buzzwords, graduate students are given the power to see through cultural objects for the concealed messages beneath. The power to see through theory itself, on the other hand, is granted to anyone who can apply common sense to a dialectical claim to show that it’s meaningless. How can Metz love cinema and not love it at the same time? Reject it as a “category mistake” or, worse, “bad writing.”

I share Genevieve Yue’s perspective in PNC that these days, “on the side of academia, ‘Grand Theory,’ as [Bordwell] calls it, is treated with as much suspicion as it supposedly harbors.” But who wouldn’t be suspicious of “Grand Theory”? The deck is stacked from the outset with the misleadingly applied pejorative term. The anti–Grand Theory position might better be called Grand anti-Theory, because it reenacts the very move it criticizes by lumping a wide range of material into a single rubric that it then dismisses (or, to use Bordwell’s word, “smothers”) from above. On the other hand, the interest in, and value of, an anti-positivist conception of “theory”—which has its origins in Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, and can be found in a range of thinkers who have been influential in Anglo-American film studies such as Adorno, Althusser, Foucault, Barthes, and Hall—will long outlast this diagnosis of certain tendencies in American academic film studies of the late 20th century. The confusion and lack of nuance in many attacks on “academic film theory” are further illustrated by the fact that the thinkers lumped together as proponents of Grand Theory are more frequently labeled “postmodernists.” The most famous definition of postmodernism is the one supplied by Jean-François Lyotard: “an incredulity toward metanarratives” or, in other words, a distrust of Grand Theories.

One reason for the continued value of what would better be termed “critical theory” can be illuminated by considering it in contrast to Grand Theory as the term was initially understood. “Grand Theory” was sociologist C. Wright Mills’s label for the abstract system of Talcott Parsons, which, according to Mills, validated rather than questioned the status quo (as Marxism did). Unlike much of the theory and cultural studies that was once so central to Anglo-American film studies, Grand Theory in Mills’s sense is in fact not a form of criticism.

Come back Wednesday for part two: criticism. —ed.

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