Céci n’est pas un cinéphile

verpool (Lisandro Alonso) 2008 Argentina/France/Netherlands/Germany/Spain 84 min

Postcard from Sunderland, by Neil Young

Dear Frances (Mike, Matt and Andrew),

Of all the people to kick off a debate on New Cinephilia, they somehow picked me. I turned 40 in March, and there’s so much of current and recent and classic cinema with which I’m unfamiliar – if I reeled off the list of prominent directors of whom I have never seen a single movie, you’d be understandably shocked and startled (details of how I’ve managed to miss out on these guys’ work can perhaps be saved for later in these exchanges, though my preference for, if possible, seeing films on the big-screen is one factor, my 15 years as a horse-racing official another). So, by most cinephile’s standards, I am most likely not eligible to achieve proper “cinephile status”.

Or am I? As cinephilia – and New Cinephilia – evidently demands an engagement with current trends in cinema, is it necessary to (a) know who’s in the New Cinephile Canon at any given time, and (b) have seen at least one movie by those directors generally accepted as lurking within the pantheon? (just to reassure anyone who reckons I’m little more than a multiplex-haunting cine-philistine, I am up to speed on the likes of Albert Serra, Lisandro Alonso, Apichatpong Weerasethakul Claire Denis, Jia Zhang-Ke and James Benning, though that isn’t to say I’m a cheerleading fan for all of their films.)

My
version of cinephilia is, I’d like to think (in my self-justifying, self-excusing way), a bit more wayward and maverick – I try to see at least a fair sampling of mainstream releases, and in my capacity as a film-festival programmer/consultant, my modus operandi normally involves checking out unknown movies by unknown directors, when I should be catching up with “canonised” pictures that have premiered at A-list events some months before.

My hope is that 21st-century cinephilia is a broad type of “church”, one where you don’t have to be a regular contributor to websites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, where you don’t have to be au fait with the latest analytical and critical trends, and where a genuine diversity of perspectives and voices isn’t just tolerated but encouraged (i.e., one shouldn’t feel like some kind of heretic for pointing out that, say, Meek’s Cutoff is a waste of everyone’s time, effort and money.)

Personally speaking, I’m interested in how modern cinephilia overlaps with the business of making a living from film – making them, writing about them, programming them. As we know, not everyone involved in the film-business – and this is true at all levels – is a cinephile; and the majority of cinephiles don’t make a penny out of what they’d consider their private passion. The further I get into film as a source of income – and since January, it’s been pretty much my only one – I wonder if I’m going to become more of a cinephile, or less.

If, that is, I’m any kind of one right now. To return to my opening paragraph, I don’t regard myself as that much of a cinephile – compared with most of my friends, who go to the cinema once or twice a month and seldom pick up a film-related book or magazine, seldom visit a film-criticism website, of course I am a cinephile, and an extreme one. But compared with many people I meet on the film-festival circuit, I’m little more than a glorified film buff, my ignorance increasing with each passing year as dozens of movies are added to the “canon” and I’m lucky if I catch half of them.

As a British person, meanwhile, “cinephile” is a word that always feels like an uncomfortable fit. Googling “French cinephilia” and “French cinephile” yields 1530 and 622 references; “American cinephilia” and “American cinephile” 763 and 261; “British cinephilia” and “British cinephile” a meagre 5 and 81 – and of those five, three direct the reader to the same article (on Three Crowns of the Sailor by Raoul Ruiz, yet another of my embarrassing blind-spots), and one is a garbled, almost cut-up-technique reference to Movie Mutations – The Changing Face of World Cinephilia by Adrian Martin, published by the British Film Institute. Is “British cinephilia”, to paraphrase Truffaut, a contradiction in terms?

I wonder if the “Frenchness” of the cinephilia concept is problematic – is it possible to come up with an alternative that isn’t quite so high-faluting, not quite so off-putting to the general moviegoer? I can’t recall ever having identified myself as a cinephile – is it one of those labels which others tend to use about us, but which we don’t choose to deploy ourselves?

Damn, I’m already far over word-length. And if this was an actual postcard, my handwriting would have to be of a Herzogian microscopicness. Still, one of the benefits of chairing this project is that all I really need to do is start the ball rolling and/or plant a few semi-random seeds, in the hope that some of them may profitably sprout in my colleagues’ gardens. Frances, the trowel is yours.

Amitiés,

Neil

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