Editorial: How We Got Here

Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders) 1975 Germany 175 min

Welcome to “Project: New Cinephilia,” a cross-platform initiative of the Edinburgh International Film Festival open to critics, students, curators, archivists, filmmakers, film-industry professionals, publishers, educators, movie lovers, and the film-curious public. In the weeks ahead, we will publish original essays, roundtable discussions, and film-related artworks by a roster of international contributors. Today, we are proud to debut the official P:NC website, co-published and powered by our friends at MUBI, who will host P:NC-related discussion in their Forums.

When festival director James Mullighan phoned in late December and asked if we would co-curate a symposium on film criticism for the upcoming Edinburgh International Film Festival, we were honoured to accept. He then suggested that we rethink the ossified formats of such symposia—keynote speeches and panel talks—and imagine what could be done differently. How could we create something people would want to be part of, something that would draw the interest of critics and filmmakers and have an educational component as well? We welcomed that idea, and talked through some possibilities. “I want you to reinvent the whole idea of such a conference,” he told us, invoking the iconoclastic spirit that has historically defined the Edinburgh Festival. “Break all the rules.” It was in this hugely ambitious context that the seeds of “Project: New Cinephilia” were sown. Whether we succeed or not depends largely on you—our audience—whom we hope to thoroughly engage throughout the coming weeks.

As we’ve noted in our Curatorial Statement, the festival-sponsored conversation about film criticism has in recent years focused mainly on the perennial “future of criticism” question and print-versus-blogger debates. While these welcome bursts of dialogue shall not soon be exhausted, we felt it was important to get past the hand-wringing diatribes and open the discussion to include those who, more generally, have a genuine passion for movies, regardless of professional affiliation. How have new digital technologies changed the way we watch, make, consume, discuss, and write about cinema? What new forms of filmmaking are taking shape? Who’s educating us about film culture in innovative ways? How do social media like Twitter and Facebook contribute to the life of “interpretive communities” (to use Benedict Anderson’s term) forming online or in the comments sections of blogs and Web publications? How are critics adjusting to the new realities? And how are audiences responding to the availability of global arthouse and pop cinema on screens of all sizes? What does it mean to be a cinephile today, exactly one century after Ricciotto Canudo hailed the birth of a new artform in his famous 1911 essay, calling cinema “a plastic art in motion”? In posing these questions, we thought it best to frame our symposium in terms of cinephilia, a word that denotes an enthusiasm for cinema that, presumably, we all share.

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.

Although there is certainly room for debate (Morrison claims it was the “unattainability” of movies that gave them their “mystic allure,” something now lost on the commodity fetishists of the new digital cinephile era), there’s little question that movie lovers are still making discoveries thanks largely to the efforts of curators, archives, DVD distributors, and film-restoration projects like those underway at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the World Cinema Foundation. Cinephiles have taken to the Internet to share their mission in cine-blogs and on Twitter, to argue and proselytize alongside (and often in dialogue with) professional critics. In researching “Project: New Cinephilia,” we found traces of the old eroticised cultural politics and idiosyncratic obsessions amid the current forms of cinephile discourse, surely. But we also found an emergent critical language slowly taking shape in the visual medium itself, comprising video essays and interactive media. What we have attempted here is to filter and organise our research to make it accessible and contextual for online readers. After months of work, we’ve unveiled the fruits of our endeavors in the hopes that sharing these resources will open new opportunities for discussion, and lay the groundwork for the sessions we’ve organized at EIFF on June 16.

So dive in, explore, engage, argue, and discover. Cinephilia, however defined, belongs to everyone.

Damon Smith, New York City, USA

Kate Taylor, Manchester, U.K.

May 23, 2011

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