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

By Nico Baumbach on March 16, 2012

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Read the first and second parts of this article.

Cinephilia today might mean one of two things: a response to scarcity or a response to abundance. On the one hand, it can be a way of loving a disappearing object—celluloid film (whether 16, 35, or 70mm) projected in a large dark theaters—and therefore takes the form of nostalgia for the conditions that produced the first great wave of cinephilia (which could be extended to roughly a quarter century from the late Forties up through the early Seventies), the period of the economic boom, the self-conscious discovery of the American cinema as an art, and the emerging waves of postwar European cinema from Italian neorealism up to New Hollywood. On the other hand, it can mean a response to the sense of a new kind of digital utopia either emergent or already at our fingertips, in which virtually everything is virtually available—an inclusive cinephilia that incorporates everything and everyone.

This latter seems to be the position taken by Damon Smith, co-curator of PNC, and shared by many of the participants. Smith’s introduction ends by declaring that “Cinephilia, however defined, belongs to everyone.” Surely no one would disagree, except, I suspect, a cinephile. If theory sought to show that heaven doesn’t exist, the cinephile believers of an earlier generation reserved confirmation of their faith for rare encounters. Or as Douglas Sirk stated by way of explaining the often misunderstood title of his film All That Heaven Allows: “Heaven is stingy.”

The ecumenicism of New Cinephilia may be a reaction to the tradition of cinephilic discourse criticized by Jones, which requires the policing of its own borders so that the true love of cinema would not be confused with its counterfeit forms. On the other hand, the elitism of Old Cinephilia must at least in part be understood within the broader context of a culture that had tended to reject cinema as an art. Some of the pleasure for an earlier generation of cinephiles came from championing a cultural form that was often viewed as being of dubious artistic or cultural value, especially by their parents’ generation. Cinephilia was born of the desire to claim that pleasures that could be written off as childish fantasies actually had lasting value. But to make that case, it had to define itself against what it was not, which included not only the bourgeois museumification of art but also more indiscriminate forms of mass media consumption. The genealogy of cinephilic discourse might be extended back to cinema’s origins and the reverent awe in the encounter with a new medium, but it is not an accident that the concept was given a name and took on a new kind of cultural significance at the moment that television began challenging film for cultural dominance. The New Cinephilia, on the other hand, is a cinephilia for the age of iPhones, blogs, and YouTube.

Cinephilia, like film studies and film criticism, has tended to be torn between two opposing goals: breaking down the barriers between disciplines and traditional conceptions of art, and shoring up its own legitimacy by appealing to those very categories it sought to undermine. This conflict of motives tended to be allegorized in the privileged objects of cinephilia. In the Fifties and Sixties, cinephiliac tastes tended to be both aristocratic and proletarian, affirming efficacy and excess, or the transcendence of a gesture wrested from the modest accomplishment of a job well done. The archetypal auteurs were not those filmmakers who controlled everything and produced works readily legible as Art but rather the unpretentious craftsmen working quickly within commercial constraints whose distinctive sensibilities nevertheless emerge against all odds as a kind of vernacular poetry. Think Nick Ray, Raoul Walsh, or Anthony Mann, and generally the attraction to classical Hollywood cinema particularly after the seams started to show with the breakdown of the studio system.

Just as cinephilia made Seventies film theory possible, the studios and consumer culture made the auteur theory possible. What couldn’t be tolerated was the type of cinema that appealed to the instincts of a middlebrow culture—large themes, artfully pretty cinematography, “the tradition of quality” in Truffaut’s terms, “strained seriousness” in Sarris’s, “white elephant art” in Farber’s—the type of films that sought to make cinema respectable, won Academy Awards, and appealed to the cultured sensibilities of literary types who otherwise looked down on the vulgar medium. If cinephiles sought beauty, it was the “functional beauty” that Rivette saw in Hawks or else a more seductive lure of artifice—found in Ophuls’s camera movements or Sternberg’s “play of light and shade”—which could be celebrated because it was embedded within the ostensibly debased form of the melodrama and came from, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, taking surfaces seriously. Cinephilia at its core is less about cultivating esoteric tastes or seeking out the willfully obscure (though this is sometimes a secondary effect) than it is about affirming an affective experience resistant to official forms of recognition.

This is why, as Paul Willemen has suggested, cinephiles so often latch onto moments or details in which they have “the realization or the illusion of the realization that what is being seen is in excess of what is being shown.” In the early Nineties, Willemen, influenced by Daney, attempted to think through what it would mean to take cinephilia as a worthy object of study in its own right. Examining cinephilia was a way to approach the old question of cinema’s “ontology” by other means—not in terms of the static essence that could be deduced from the specific capabilities of a machine but through the history of libidinal investments in cinema found in discourses that profess a faith in a platonic conception of the medium that could not be defined but only gestured toward.

The rituals and language of old cinephilia born before the advent of home video (let alone BitTorrent) were an attempt to name and fix a medium that was made up of ephemeral, spectral images—collective dreams which, Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart notwithstanding, were unquotable and unrepeatable, lost to memory. The French terms adopted by British and American critics—auteur, mise en scène, montage—were called upon to evoke cinematographic truth and as such had to be “wonderful certainties” that nonetheless needed to remain imprecise to carry the implied weight of what no critic could say. The sin of the theorist was to demand precision from these words that they were never meant to have. Eisenstein’s attempt to define an intellectual montage or Godard’s eventual realization that “mise en scène does not exist” could be forgiven if they remained artists. Indeed, all the better if their theories or politics betrayed their art, because the auteurist could then redeem them just as he had redeemed the directors of Hollywood studio films from their presumed identity as skillful entertainers or modest craftsmen.

I don’t think it casts a shadow on the word “cinephilia” to suggest that it has tended to imply a movie love that is somehow cultish—a degree of projection, faith, even perversion that shouldn’t have to be disavowed. “Yes, Virginia, there is an Edgar G. Ulmer,” wrote Sarris suggesting that the auteur fills the void left not by the death of God but by Santa Claus—restoring the dream of a world in which toys come without price tags. Cinephilia is necessarily allied with some idea of medium specificity even if it tends to define the essence of the medium as undefinable. Even if we reject essentialism and recognize that cinema, as Bazin claimed, is “impure,” one still needs to account for the specificity of its impurity that allowed for such devotion among its followers. Impurity might be understood not only in Bazin’s sense—which was that cinema can incorporate and serve the other arts—but also in a more anthropological sense: that cinema is somehow a space open to contamination, a peculiar mixture of private and public, art and non-art, in which bodies in the dark are transported to other worlds.

In a recent talk in honor of Lincoln Center’s new film venues, Fredric Jameson proposed that the biggest problem for film culture today might be that movie theaters are no longer disreputable places. It has been a triumph of auteurist criticism and film studies that movies today are not seen as a shameful passion, but is something lost by acceptance and normalization? Film Comment’s long-running guest column “Guilty Pleasures” more often than not begins with the writer rejecting the very idea that one should feel guilty about taking pleasure in film. But while it is true that the time has long past that an intellectual needs to feel guilty about loving Hitchcock, it is worth being reminded, as Mulvey stressed, that the specific pleasures of Hitchcock’s films are allied with the way he touches on the imbrication of guilt and the voyeuristic and fetishistic fantasies aroused by cinema.

Today, the negative stereotype of the cinephile is no longer someone trying to escape adulthood, but rather the elitist snob. Witness a recent piece by Dan Kois in The New York Times Magazine renouncing what he calls “aspirational viewing”—trying to like a film one feels obliged to like, in his case cinephile favorites he experiences as boring art films. “Aspirational” is a telling term favored by consumer and self-help jargon, but what Kois is also giving up, or perhaps has never known, is the normal condition of viewing for cinephiles: desiring something from cinema that goes beyond what was promised by the advertisement for the film, putting one’s sense of self at risk in the viewing experience. Appearing 15 years later in the very same publication, the article might appear to serve as explicit confirmation of Sontag’s diagnosis of cinephilia’s demise. Kois’s piece rankled cinephiles not only because it implied a possible bad faith for those who (claim to?!) love Tarkovsky or Hou Hsiao-hsien but because it seemed to misrecognize its target. Cinephilia had never been about restricting oneself to recognizable works of artistic seriousness but rather, to borrow a word from Agnès Varda, “gleaning”—salvaging obscure objects of desire that may go otherwise unrecognized in what respectable people call trash.

As cinephiles have become part of the cultural elite, a once even more unseemly creature, the fanboy (or, albeit less frequently, fangirl)—who never sought the excuse of Art for his or her particular obsessions—has been recuperated as the model for contemporary knowledge production, most famously by media professor Henry Jenkins. Jenkins calls himself an aca/fan—academic + fan—a double identity shorn of the conflictual nature of Metz’s theorist as lapsed cinephile. Meanwhile, theory (often quite “Grand” in Mills’s sense) is alive and well today in the academy, but the trend—whether in theories of affect, revived forms of phenomenology, or in a different vein, cognitivism, evolutionary psychology, or neuroscience—is toward focusing on bodies, sensations, genes, or neurons, and not broader social forces. In this climate, the critical distance advocated by Seventies film theory, as well as other forms of political interpretation, are increasingly seen as suspect.

Critical distance rings false when everyone is thought to be hypercritical and linked in. Gone is the model of the cinephile, or cultural consumer more generally, as “passive.” Sarris relished a sense of passivity, Sontag longed to be “kidnapped,” Pauline Kael “lost it at the movies.” Again Kois serves as a telling representative of the current moment when he tells us that his “default mode of interaction with images [is] intense, rapid-fire decoding of text, subtext, metatext and hypertext.” In his mind, the problem with what he calls “slow, meditative films” is not that they are too much work but that he feels left without something to do while watching them.

The New Cinephilia makes a point of taking up the cause of the kinds of films that Kois cannot assimilate, but it too is a cinephilia of—to use the current jargon—the active spectator (or “user”) in a participatory culture. It is also accordingly a meta-cinephilia. Whatever one thinks of the state of cinephilia today, discourses about it have become ubiquitous. Cinephilia has always been connected to the production of discourses about cinema, as blogger Girish Shambu proposes in PNC, but only today does it produce discourses about itself. If the medium is the message, the medium in this case may not be cinema, but the Internet. The question becomes whether the Web enables not so much a new film culture centered on an affirmation of cinema as a new Internet culture centered on the affirmation of cinephilia.

On the other hand, the advantage of leaving the object of love undefined allows for rethinking its past in a way open to its future mutations (to take a word used in the title of a collection edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin that has been influential for the New Cinephilia). Today, what Raymond Bellour once called the “unattainable text” of the moving image is newly attainable, but as the projected feature film is no longer the dominant form of our moving image experience, it becomes less clear what the “text” is that we might wish to attain. Here it is worth noting PNC’s linking of New Cinephilia to the essay film, a concept with a long history that has tended to point to an experimental, marginal type of film that merges criticism and filmmaking and is about exploring the possibilities of new means of cinematic expression. Once considered a rare beast, the film or video essay, as both an object of and means for study, is becoming increasingly integral to thinking about the future of moving images, as new technologies make the repurposing of moving images a ready option for anyone with access to the Internet and iMovie.

If I may have recourse to a contemporary French philosopher (a former, albeit heretical, student of Althusser no less) the New Cinephilia might take as its motto what Jacques Rancière calls in a new book la politique de l’amateur. La politique de l’amateur means challenging the assumptions contained in hierarchies of taste or what counts as legitimate knowledge. It means breaking down the strict divisions that separate filmmakers, critics, theorists, and cinephiles. It embraces what is made possible by the Internet at its best: when the anonymous capacity of anyone to have her say leads to creative encounters with words and images disengaged from their association with recognized authority. It does not imply an indifference to history or theoretical knowledge, but rather recognizing that theory and criticism are ordinary, and, being part of the history of how cinema has been understood, they are part of what cinema is. Willemen pointed out that cinephilia is, in its own way, necessarily critical and theoretical: “The moment of revelation experienced in an encounter between you and cinema . . . may be different than the person sitting next to you, in which case you have to dig her or him in the ribs with your elbow to alert them to the fact that you’ve just has a cinephiliac moment. This is a mode of ordinary consumption containing a critical dimension which is quite valid in its own terms and which is actually being relayed in more rationalized film critical discourses. There is a theory of cinema implicit in the dig of the elbow to the ribs just as much as there is in Metz’s work.”

Cinema is not only the information contained on film strips (or DVDs or AVI files), or the specifiable work of filmmakers to achieve identifiable results, it is also what Alexander Kluge calls “the film in the spectator’s head,” as well as histories and theories of what cinema is or can be. As many of the best critics have stressed, film criticism’s function is to resist becoming part of the machine for promoting films at either the mass market or indie/art film level, repeating the press notes and feeding the hype. The flip side—the meme-generating contrarian takedown of a critical or popular favorite, however cleverly executed—is just as reactionary if couched in moral terms that reassure readers that certain types of films are for certain types of people. To remind us once again that certain films are commercial dreck appealing to the lowest common denominator, whereas others are within a genre of festival films designed to purvey a sense of cultural distinction, is finally to give all the power to the institutional and class divisions that one presumably wishes to challenge. The promise of cinephilia is found in the potential of images to have an effect that does not conform to our preconceived ideas or expectations. Therefore, it will be equally grim for film culture if, on the side of academia, what counts as acceptable writing is restricted to probable causes and measurable effects, cutting film off from speculative thought and political realities. According to Rancière, knowledge of the world we call cinema is always changing and always contested and belongs to anyone who takes it as a site to forge her own path.

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