Taken Up by Waves: The Experience of New Cinephilia

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz) 2010 Portugal 272 min

By Girish Shambu

This essay draws from two previously published pieces: “The 21st Century Cinephile” (which appeared in the Dutch film magazine De Filmkrant in February 2011) and “Mediators” (published on the blog, girish).

Cinephilia is enjoying a wonderful, global resurgence. Not that it ever disappeared: cinephilia has been around almost since the birth of the medium. When we in the West trace its history, we tend to locate its first distinct and unified incarnation in France in the ‘20s. Louis Delluc and Jean Epstein are the key figures we associate with this historical moment. The next great flowering of cinephilia occurs during the ‘50s, also in France, in the decade preceding the Nouvelle Vague.

But before we continue with this story, it is important to ask: Who is a “cinephile”? What sets a cinephile apart from any other person who loves films? Yes, both likely enjoy watching films in good numbers. But beyond that, I would draw a line and assert: cinephilia involves an active interest in the discourse surrounding films. Not just watching but also thinking, reading, talking, and writing about films in some form, no matter how non-standard: these activities are important to the cinephile.

Fièvre (Louis Delluc) 1921 France 43 min

In his recent and essential book, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, Jonathan Rosenbaum links up both the high periods of French cinephilia with a strong affinity for writing and literary discourse. He cites the example of Godard, for whom making films was also an act of film criticism.

Despite this close connection between cinephilia and writing, what the two periods of French cinephilia had in common was this: the number of cinephiles writing about cinema far outnumbered those who were reading them. Further, these cinephile-critics were almost sure to be located in one of a handful of large cities with thriving film cultures. This remained true through the century.

But with the arrival of the new century, the Internet and the digital revolution recast the rules of the game by making at least three things possible: large numbers of cinephiles, no matter where they lived, could quickly set up blogs to post words, images and sounds; they suddenly found access to a broad range of films on DVD from around the world that could be sent and received by mail; valuable resources like link aggregators (e.g. David Hudson’s invaluable thedailyMUBI Twitter page), Facebook, and RSS readers helped make the reading life of the cinephile more manageable and efficient.

The “new cinephilia” that is supported by Internet and digital media is not only different from old cinephilias in quantitative terms, i.e. volume of material generated and placed within the cinephile’s reach. It is also qualitatively different.

So, what is the experience of Internet cinephilia? How is it distinct and new? What are its joys? And what are its risks and dangers?

300 (Zach Snyder) 2006 USA 117 min

I. MEDIATORS

Gilles Deleuze’s “Mediators,” published in 1985, is one of my favorite essays. I feel a deep personal affinity for it because I think it captures the way Internet cinephilia works, even though the piece itself makes no reference to cinema, cinephilia or the Internet. Let me share some of my thoughts on the piece here with you.

In his essay, Deleuze talks about movement in sports. Traditionally, our conception of movement and motion has been one in which we, as individuals, are the source, the origin of movement. Examples might be running, shot put, javelin, etc. Thus, the individual is the starting point, the source of energy and effort, and creates the leverage and momentum on her/his own.

But more and more, Deleuze notes, we see the popularity of certain recent sports — like surfing, hang-gliding or wind-surfing — which make us think of movement in a new and different way. These sports take the form of individuals entering into an existing wave. Thus, we as individuals are no longer the sole source, the origin of all movement. In fact, there’s no longer even a particular starting point that’s of importance. Instead, what we have happening in these sports is a sort of putting into orbit.

The key action now is to get taken up in the motion of a big wave, a column of rising air, to get into something, join something larger, more powerful than ourselves. These big waves that Deleuze is urging us to join, to ride, to be taken up by, he calls mediators.

Deleuze is saying: It is up to us to enter these waves around us, to place ourselves in the path of these mediators, these waves of thought and creation and reflection that are swirling all around us every day. For him, the more we think, work and live in isolation, the more difficult it is for us to move forward simply of our own accord. But with the help of mediators, we can get caught up in forces much bigger, stronger than ourselves, and they can help us do and think things we could never have done or thought on our own.

This, to me, is a great model for the way the Internet functions at its best. As a cinephile, the Internet is where I find my big waves — my mediators — every single day: on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, magazines, journals, and other sites. Several times a day they carry me from one idea to another, one film to another, one spark of curiosity to another.

Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger) 1959 USA 160 mins

II. HOW MEDIATORS WORK

It’s been my experience that often, Internet cinephilic mediators (a) appear in small, brief encounters and (b) act as stimulants. A discussion on Facebook or a stray tweet on Twitter might spur me to add a film to my DVD queue; a reference in a blog post might impel me to request an article via interlibrary loan; a passing allusion in an email conversation might have me cracking open a book I’ve long owned to read an essay I didn’t know was there; and an observation in a movie review might find me jotting down a fresh and interesting way of looking at a familiar filmmaker.

On any given day, I might experience a dozen or more such encounters that act as little stimulants, opening doors to films or writings or ideas new to me; they keep me learning and growing in tiny ways as a cinephile and critic. The Internet has suddenly made possible a new and large community for mutual teaching and learning, a community that includes both people we might know well (e.g. on Facebook) and those we don’t know at all (e.g on YouTube). In pre-Internet film culture, there were relatively few critics writing for large numbers of cinephile readers. But the number of readers and writers (fellow teachers and fellow learners) has exploded on the Web. Combine this with the dizzying, accelerated frequency of our encounters with these mediators — every day, all day — and we find rich possibilities whose only drawback is their super-plenitude.

Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray) 1957 France/USA 103 mins

III. SOME EXAMPLES

I’ve been speaking in the abstract so far, so let me provide some examples by recording here a handful of such “mediator encounters” I’ve had recently. Every single one has awoken my curiosity, or brought me an insight, or expanded my consciousness in some way, however small:

(1) Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s fascinating account of the ups and downs in his interactions with François Truffaut, and their consequent impact on Welles criticism.

(2) Adrian Martin in a review of Raúl Ruiz’s new, epic Mysteries of Lisbon: “In many countries right now, we are hearing the already tiresome and suspect rehearsal of a certain very bourgeois logic: that the wonderful gift of long-form narrative television is that it has returned us, in a single blow, to the Golden Age of the Nineteenth Century Novel!”

(3) Christian Keathley’s elegant 7-minute video essay “Pass the Salt,” which pays close attention to a moment from Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959). It’s wonderful example of film criticism that employs the very resources (like image and sound, cutting, close-ups) of cinema itself.

(4) David Bordwell in his stimulating article “Academics vs. Critics”: “The prototypical cinephile piece in effect answers a question like this: “What distinctive qualities of this film can I detect, and how do they enhance our sense of its value?” The prototypical academic interpretation would be answering something like: “What aspects of the film are illuminated by my theoretical frame of reference?””

(5) Ignatiy Vishnevetsky‘s piece on Tony Stone’s Severed Ways (2007), a filmmaker and film I’d never heard of (“[a] cross between Los Muertos, the last reel of Last of the Mohicans, Rossellinian film-teaching, Denisian sensation and Straub’s “nature has ten million times the imagination of the most imaginative artists” maxim”).

(6) Zach Campbell‘s coinages of “reversible films” (The Matrix, 300 or V for Vendetta, that all too cleverly accommodate contradictory ideologies in a streamlined fashion) and “diffuse films” (that are political but messily and knowingly so, like Splice or District 9).

(7) Dave Kehr‘s DVD review of Samuel Fuller’s Verboten (“In Fuller’s hands, what can at first seem an error of taste often turns out to be a vision of the world.”)

(8) Chris Fujiwara‘s review of a Nicholas Ray retrospective that recalls Godard’s comparison of Bitter Victory to a trick drawing (“One is no longer interested in objects, but in what lies between the objects and becomes an object in its turn”), to which Fujiwara adds: “Each Ray film forms patterns that are hidden in plain sight.”

(9) Mubarak Ali‘s remarkable collage-post on Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani’s films, with text by the filmmakers, Jacques Rancière, Laleen Jayamanne, and Geeta Kapur — and audio clips, besides!

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, (Chantal Akerman) 1975 Belgium/France 201 mins

IV. THE 21ST CENTURY CINEPHILE

The last two decades have witnessed a transformative change in the relationship between a cinephile and her two key objects of interest: the films themselves, and the cloud of discourse that builds around them. Let’s look at these one at a time.

Fifty years ago, during the heyday of Nouvelle Vague cinephilia, seeing films almost always meant a viewing experience in a theatre. The terms of this screening, or what the French might call dispositif — the place, time, and spatial set-up of the viewing experience — were determined not by the viewer but by someone else (e.g. the exhibitor or curator). This viewing contract entailed a certain surrender by the cinephile, a submission to the terms of the viewing experience. What’s more, a group of cinephiles — the audience for the screening — entered into this contract simultaneously, socially. These conditions produced a high level of likelihood for sustained engagement with a film. A viewer was likely to pay full attention in the darkened theatre and stay for the duration, her attention rewarded by the scale of the big-screen image and sound — and the immersion in detail these conditions made possible.

Today we find that the terms in place for a viewing experience have changed markedly. Nearly all present-day cinephiles — even those who live in large cities with access to a multitude of film screening options — likely watch a sizable number of films on TVs or computer screens. Furthermore, the new dispositif is one that surrenders a great degree of control to the viewer’s whims, moods and preferences. (Jean-Luc Godard prophetically had this in mind when he made his evocative comparison: “When you go to the cinema you look up, when you watch television you look down.”) What results, with these new terms of viewing, is a weakening of the likelihood that a film will be watched with full attention from beginning to end without a break — in other words, that a film will be engaged in a full and sustained manner. When technology allows us to watch Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) or Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975) on a laptop, in bits and pieces, while we eat, drink, take breaks and try to accommodate the film to our convenience, aren’t we fatally compromising our ability to do it full justice as cinephiles or critics?

This fragmentation of attention applies with even greater force, multiplied many times over, to the second object of cinephile interest: cinema discourse. Social media — historically beginning with blogs, then proceeding to Facebook and Twitter — breaks up criticism and discussion into a dizzying stream of ever-smaller bites pouring in ceaselessly from dozens of sources. Especially with Facebook and Twitter, ephemerality and transience are not just risks; they are built into the very software design. Unlike at a blog, Facebook and Twitter don’t allow you to conveniently search through an archive to recover past posts, tweets or conversations easily. On these sites, the present is all-important — and the past evaporates almost instantaneously. What a dramatic contrast this fragmentation makes with the sustained engagement of sitting down for hours or days with a single book or essay, for decades the only mode of film-critical writing.

Let me hasten to add: I’m not polemically constructing a binary opposition between old and new, conservatively calling for a return to the lost unities of a vanished cinephilic golden age. On the contrary, I think of myself specifically as an Internet cinephile, one whose love of film simply would not have blossomed without DVD, blogs, Facebook or Twitter.

I cherish the plentiful opportunities for learning and discovery, for the proliferation and growth of film discourse, made possible by the Internet and the countless mediators it makes available to us each day.

Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America (Tony Stone) 2007 USA 107 Min

V. A DIALECTICAL ENGAGEMENT

What it comes down to is not choosing one approach over the other. Instead, we need a dialectical engagement with cinema discourse that values both the sustained attention devoted to long-form scholarship and criticism in books and essays and the fragmented attention we bring to modes of reading and writing in the age of social media.

But as in the case of film viewing, the terms of engagement with cinema reading and writing on the Internet make it so much easier — so much more powerfully alluring — to jump on the Web than to commit oneself for long periods of time to a book or a long, demanding essay. From one moment to another, the battle for our attentions tips in the direction of the Internet. All I want to do is acknowledge this, be aware of it, and take steps to correct for it as I go about my own cinema-filled days.

Finally, let me say that the stark polarity I’ve proposed above doesn’t quite hold. Some of the best film criticism sites on the Internet — the websites of Jonathan Rosenbaum or Catherine Grant or David Bordwell, journals like Rouge or Screening the Past, a resource such as Moving Image Source — don’t operate by the rules of social media. They more resemble traditional artifacts like essays and books. In other words, the Internet provides rich access to both long-form criticism and short-form ruminations and exchanges about cinema. The trick is to balance both — and apportion our daily hours in a way that profits from both while allowing the two to enrich each other.

Girish Shambu is an Associate Professor of Management at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. He is also a cinephile and film critic who runs the community-oriented film-culture blog, girish. His writings have appeared in Framework, Artforum, and Senses of Cinema. He co-edited and contributed to a section on film blogging, “The Digital Cine-Club,” in the collection Cinephilia in the Age of Digitial Reproduction (Wallflower Press, 2008).

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