Owning the movies

From Michael Koresky

To: Kent Jones, Melissa Anderson, Daniel Cockburn, Genevieve Yue

Since this cinephilic world we’re about to talk about is always plagued (from our own ranks and externally) by nattering questions about its own relevance, let me start by saying that the four of you who have agreed to participate in this roundtable discussion represent the types of people—thinkers—that keep this form we love relevant. What’s most gratifying is that you come from a cross-section of cinephilic worlds: while you are all writers, you approach writing about film from different angles: variously you have been or continue to be filmmakers, programmers, academics, and, of course, critics. You have worked at nonprofits dedicated to film preservation, or to film presentation; you have been employed at weekly newspapers, written for print magazines and blogs; you have made films that have been shown at international festivals or broadcast on public television; you have covered the contemporary avant-garde scene, the festival circuit, the art house, the films of Hollywood past. Most importantly, it would be impossible to compartmentalize any of you into any one professional category, regardless of your specialty or particular talents. Because above all, you are what I would proudly (and others might derisively) call cinephiles, a mercifully nonprofessional term that allows all of these worlds to swoop and dovetail with ease.

In preparing for this roundtable, I was reminded of something Andrew Sarris wrote in his 1969 book Confessions of a Cine-Cultist. At this point, he was a Village Voice lead critic, and one of the most influential film voices in the country (the idea of a single influential critic makes his recollections seem like transmissions from a lost continent, no?), but here he was looking back to a time when he was not an established writer, simply a cinephile, or “cultist,” as he called it, looking for outlets. Thinking back on that time, when all he had was his passion, he wrote: “The cultural rationale for our worthier predecessors—Agee, Ferguson, Levin, Murphy, Sherwood, et al.—was that they were too good to be reviewing movies. We, on the contrary, were not considered much good for anything else. Like one-eyed lemmings, we plunged headlong into the murky depths of specialization.” Oh, the dreaded word “specialization,” as though it were preferable to be cultural dilettantes. What’s most remarkable about Sarris’s self-effacing insight is how this recalled cinematic moment (the fifties) mirrors today’s situation, despite the hand-wringing of the past few years that we’ve irreversibly turned corners in the profession of criticism, and in methods of film watching. Sarris could be talking about today’s multitudes of film writers—call them critics or essayists or bloggers or whatever you want—who don’t earn a cent from the words they put forth online. The one-eyed lemmings have taken over.

What this suggests to me is that cinephilia itself hasn’t really changed—not one frame. The infatuation remains intact. But what and how we watch it has transformed considerably. So we must ask how we apply this cobwebby passion to our changed landscape, even as the same basic preoccupations and tensions remain: we’re still in awe of the genius of the Hollywood system even as we position ourselves against it; we constantly feel as if we must have some implicit unifying Bordwellian definition of what constitutes an “art film” (gleaned from Antonioni/Godard/Fellini and carried through to Denis/Hou/Kiarostami) even as we do our best to prove how each is a singular work.

So if we’re thinking about movies generally the same way—as entities that either a) fit into preconceived notions, or b) bust them open—why aren’t we talking about them the same way? More and more it seems to me movies are being discussed by cinephiles as found objects rather than complete constructed experiences, unearthed (downloaded, streamed, torrented) for the sake of completists rather than wrestled with and discussed as living, breathing works of art. It’s a strange byproduct of accessibility, and clearly it’s a boon to film history that there’s so much available to us—but do movies exist to be merely catalogued? Is this the moment we cinephiles, with our obsessive list-making habits, have been heading toward all along?

If ownership of film (delight in being able to view Agnès Varda’s entire output online or in putting a Jean Vigo Blu-ray edition on our shelf) trumps all else, then it’s not just the “big-screen experience” that we’re missing but rather the odd power of cinema watching as collective endeavor—in other words, its ownership of us. Is it better to see less but feel more? Or is it blasphemously non-cinephilic to disavow completism?

So I wonder for you preservationists and you filmmakers: which breed of obsessive cinephile do you see as your intended audience now? The collector or the moviegoer? And does it matter? The question of audience has always bugged writers and critics as well—whether we see our articles as missives to like-minded lovers of the art form or as entreaties to the unconverted. Surely, Sarris was wondering the same thing in the sixties. So even if the passion of the cinephile hasn’t aged much over the years, the question of audience is ever more complicated for all of us who aren’t just in love with film but are trying to communicate something about it. Kent, let’s start with you: as a cinephile who has written numerous essays, overseen the preservation of important “lost” films, and also directed documentaries about film history, do you see your relationship to your respective audiences having changed at all? Or more generally, what are the differences you notice in how this cinephile community, well, communicates?

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You will find all related posts under the Online Roundtable 2 heading.