Cinephilia, love and being caught off-guard

Wind From The East (Groupe Dziga Vertov) 1970 Italy/France/West Germany 100 min

From: Genevieve Yue

To pick up on Daniel’s question, what is the birdie that we cinephiles swat around? Or as André Bazin put it more bluntly, what is cinema? It’s interesting to me how this question continually crops up long after the medium’s many deaths, from the various proclamations of critics and filmmakers throughout the twentieth century to the now-undisputed technological end of celluloid (first heralded by television, video, and finally, the digital turn). If anything, the end of the cinematic century has only opened new questions as to what cinema was, or continues to be in augmented forms. For historians of early cinema, these lines of inquiry have been particularly fertile: in an era of multiple viewing platforms, for example, how might we reconsider the history of cinema as that of a screen practice, as Anne Friedberg and Charles Musser have done? And when we look at the long history of the medium, what might we anticipate for its future?

The issue of cinema’s definition, or its delimitation, has posed no small question within the academy. Far from the death knell that the institutionalization of cinema has signaled for many, the university has become a place where cinema is often at its most dynamic, its most contested, even most polemic. At my institution, the University of Southern California, I’ve seen both the renaming of the country’s oldest film school—now called the School of Cinematic Arts—and the formation of a robust interdisciplinary graduate program in visual studies. For the past decade, these kinds of developments have been endemic in higher education, as nearly every department, it seems, can and has laid claim to cinema. All this speaks to the enormous complexity and insolubility of cinema within the university, and, I would argue, in culture at large. The most thoughtful criticism, too, grapples with the multiplicity of cinematic form: Is cinema a text? A language? A repository of psychological effects, or the cause of deleterious ones? Is it a political tool, a business, a nexus of industrial forces? A means of erasing cultural specificity through globalization (or generic banalization), or an invitation to form distinct, discreet identities and communities? Is it a medium? Is it an art?

I think this instability of what cinema is, or what it means, is closely tied to anxieties around what effects (or affects) it produces, as Michael rightly points out. But I’m less convinced the concern is over who gets to speak about film as it is about a general underdetermined quality of the medium itself. Cinema is and can be many different, contradictory things, all of which produce varying effects. It is undeniably powerful in certain manifestations, but the forces it unleashes can also be unpredictable, excessive, and chaotic. As I pondered Michael’s comments, I couldn’t help but think of the question posed in Godard’s Wind from the East: “What’s the use of these images?” For all his inflated radical Marxist rhetoric, his self-designation as an “ex-great (bourgeois) filmmaker,” and the incendiary ciné-tracts he produced as part of his short-lived Dziga Vertov collective, the Godard leading up to and floundering in the aftermath of 1968 was probably most haunted by this question of film’s utility. Nowhere is his frustration and stark despair more evident than in “Caméra-Oeil,” a short film he made as part of Chris Marker’s 1967 omnibus, Far from Vietnam. Sitting behind a camera, and looking uncharacteristically diminutive, he confesses his fears that his films haven’t resulted in the political change he intended, and worse, that they had been co-opted and reabsorbed by the very capitalist system he’d attempted to combat.

For James Morrison, whose excellent essay, “After the Revolution: on the Fate of Cinephilia,” appears among the resources gathered for this symposium, the concerns that troubled Godard in 1968 brought about the general end of a certain heady, and indeed heroic (as Kent notes) era of cinephilia. Movies, of course, continued to be made, and people kept flocking to see them, whether Morrison’s “adult” critics, Melissa’s film gluttons (I’m thinking of the 2002 documentary, Cinemania, which is really more a study in pathology than anything having to do with the movies), Twihards, or one-eyed lemmings. Cinephilia persists. Against the gloomy predictions of its end, the misty-eyed nostalgia for a heyday those of my generation have only read about, and those pesky pronouncements of cinema’s (deathless) death, it endures. And I think this is because cinema, at heart, is an activity. Sometimes it’s social, whether joining a smattering of gray-haired retirees at a matinee revival or arguing the merits of a long take—stupefying or sublime?—on the ride home. Sometimes it’s entirely private, an experience that keeps us in our seats after the theater empties out or a memory forgotten until a scene crops up in a dream. Sometimes it’s meant to drive people into the streets, as it was for Godard, Eisenstein, Solanas and Getino, and the left-wing filmmakers of 1930s Shanghai, or, in the case of Goebbels or Mussolini, it was designed to keep them in line. Going to a movie, watching a movie, making sense of a movie, is an activity, and it’s a risky one at that—but, and I hope I don’t sound too romantic here, doesn’t love, or at least desire, always plunge us into the unknown depths of the other?

And why should I hesitate to use the word romantic? Why does my training as a scholar, a teacher, and a critic steer me toward critical reserve? Kent makes a wonderful case for the beneficial convergence of critics and cinephiles, and yet from where I stand, it has seemed more often the case that critics and scholars value detachment, not devotion. Cinephilia is a form of love; it’s passionate and personal, it elicits the anecdotal, and, God forbid, that dreaded first person voice. Yet I wonder why we shrink from our cherished stories of film’s first bite. In 1998, Film Quarterly ran a series of reminiscences of filmmakers’ and critics’ first encounters with cinema. That’s not quite right: the memories they elicited from George Kuchar, Amos Vogel, Chick Strand, and others weren’t the first films each had seen, but the moments when they realized they’d been awakened somehow by the images onscreen. And in this sense, I think the best criticism and academic writing happens when we’re caught off-guard, pushed beyond the comforting edifices of taste or aesthetic judgment. Correspondingly, the best films are often those that confront us in some way, the ones that stick around like burrs and nag us for weeks. What amazing things can happen when you don’t know what to do with a film, much less how to talk about it. Whole worlds can spring from those little seeds.

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