Of cinephilia(s) and fandom

Postcard from London, by Frances Morgan

Hi Mike (Neil, Mathieu, Andrew),

I’m going to dive into the middle of Neil’s great opening statement before I have a nibble at the edges. ‘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’, he says, and I agree. Perhaps one of the reasons the notion of cinephilia is being debated is to do with this particular question, but it’s hard to talk about business and making livings in relation to this art form that we love, and easier, perhaps, to talk about why and how we love it.

My background is in music criticism and publishing, but I’ve seen similar questions arise in those fields too. We’re excited by, and we benefit from, the opening up of publishing, distribution and new modes of criticism afforded by the Internet, but niggling at us is this question of how, within this increasingly plural landscape, do we value what we do? For someone making something – a recording, a film, a print magazine – the question is practical and urgent, because what they do costs money, however low-budget it might be. For a critic, even if we’re trying to pay the rent via our words, the question is slightly more abstract. So we talk about it a lot, debating the differences between cinephile, film buff, fan, record collector, nerd; between mainstream and underground, canon and canons. We talk about acting as a ‘filter’, a trusted guide through the morass of stuff out there, acting as archaeologists excavating ‘lost’ material: as Sight and Sound stated this month, alongside a list of overlooked ‘mainstream’ films, by “rescuing the movies that culture forgot, the cinephile is also challenging the canon or rather presenting an idiosyncratic one of his or her own”.

I enjoyed S&S’s list very much, although the term ‘mainstream’ is always problematic for me – perhaps a symptom of too many music writer debates about ‘are guitars dead?’ and blazing rows about Lady Gaga, which always seem to suggest that ‘mainstream’ means hugely different things to different people and is thus a wobbly starting point for any debate. It is certainly an enormously loaded term.

What’s interesting about the S&S feature is that it celebrates the existence of alternative canons and cinephilias plural – perhaps in a similar spirit to Neil’s hope that ‘21st Century Cinephilia is a broad type of “church”’. I wonder if it is broad enough to encompass fan culture, which is what alternative canon-making seems to have its roots in, as it’s, well, alternative, but also interactive, creative and about personal passions rather than received wisdom.

As a relative newbie to the hierarchies and definitions of film criticism, I’m interested in how critics and cinephiles view film fan culture. Is it a great example of the ‘convergent culture’ view that fandom’s creativity, self-sufficiency and marginal nature means that rather than needing to mold itself to this new network of production and debate, it seems to have always been ready for it? Could it be a model for a new cinephilia(s)? Certainly its diversity of voices is to be welcomed, as Neil also points out. Established film criticism (and music criticism) is not diverse enough, in my opinion. Within fan communities, more minority voices are to be found, and with that, divergent and interesting readings of film.

The obsession that drives fandom is not so different from that which drives cinephilia – to commit to either requires passion, amassed knowledge, long hours spent in an alternate world; increasingly it also inspires production: debate, DIY theory, formulation of ideas fresh from viewing, instant connections with others’ opinions. (And here I’d like to thank Girish Shambu on this site for pointing me in the direction of Zach Campbell’s superb blog post on Diffuse Cinema, a great example of what Girish terms an ‘Internet cinephilic mediator’). The ideas that spring from these communities and debates, and the way these feed more established criticism and are then translated into the wider culture, and the feedback loops between all these different worlds of talking about and writing about film are, I think, as interesting to me as what we call the people who participate in them.

(I’d be interested to hear more from filmmakers and programmers on the panel about how these trends in film criticism and debate affect their work, if at all.)

All best,


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