Features and Columns · Movies

Culture Warrior: What is Cinephilia?

By  · Published on January 26th, 2010

The answer to this question, taken literally, is “the love of cinema.” But, of course, nothing (at least, nothing in this column) is ever so simple. The nature and practice of cinephilia has changed greatly over the years, as have the requirements to achieve the status of cinephile. Last September I posted a CW article on the three different cities in the US I’ve lived in and compared their distinct and wildly different cultures of cinephilia, which can be evidenced by their famous movie theaters. The epicenter of Austin’s cinema culture is, of course, the famous Alamo Drafthouse, which I believe reflects and emboldens not only the city’s tenable love for genre cinema, but the desire of its movie-viewing public (or, at least, those that frequent the theater most) to expose themselves to films far outside the accepted canon.

A friend of mine took me to task on this assertion, eloquently questioning the cinephilic value of a theater that contains the potential distractions of meal and beverage and the promotion of regular events that (albeit in a controlled and calculated manner) encourage audience participation. My friend was not questioning the overall legitimacy and worth of such an experience (he and I both consider the Drafthouse one of the best movie theaters in the nation, and I think the Alamo’s programming is unparalleled), his argument instead involved the idea that, if the moving image on screen does not take on a central, almost sacred authority amongst its surroundings, can it really permit a local culture of cinephilia?

On one hand, the local movie theater may have little to with cinephilia. To be a cinephile can be seen as a personal choice – a choice that can be determined or influenced by one’s environment, but never dictated by it. So what the individual seeks is what makes them a cinephile or not. And while cinephile literally means a love for cinema, the suffix –phile in American English has developed a connotation with obsessive practice to a potentially unhealthy degree. Basically, a cinephile can now be seen as one who fetishizes cinema rather than simply possessing an affection for it, one who has an unquenchable compulsion to see as many movies as possible in their lifetime. Taken to the extreme, you have the subjects like those featured in the documentary Cinemania (2002), people for whom a preoccupation with cinema has become an addiction that wipes all other notional aspects of a “normal life” away. For the more common definition of the cinephile, the distinction can be made with this example: the casual spectator who appreciates cinema will make sure they have seen Vertigo and Rear Window, yet the cinephile will make sure they have viewed, out of necessity, Hitchcock’s entire filmography including the less notable works like Topaz or Torn Curtain.

But in terms of the history of cinephilia, the movie theater has played an essential role in the cultivation of serious interest in moviegoing. The cinema culture of post-WWII Paris is often cited as the birthplace of organized cinephilia. An influx of previously withheld films from other countries and a new importance placed upon archiving (probably due to the number of films lost during the war) at locations like the Cinémathèque Française allowed for a fresh passion for movies to develop within young French intellectual culture. Parisians were probably the first to have such access to so many films from so many countries and historical eras. This factor combined with the numerous critical and academic publications on the subject of cinema made through these organizations allowed the classical, accepted conception of early-mid twentieth century cinema history to be formed and laid the ground for auteur theory (which elevated classical Hollywood to an art form and the director as the primary artist) as well as steps toward made toward modern practices in film theory like Marxist readings of film as an industry. This time in Parisian history changed how we view movies in a way that still resonates today, and even added to the canon itself as the film critics in turn became the filmmakers (Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer), which necessitated a new term for a special type of cinephile: the cineaste, or the cinephile who makes films.

Though there is certainly a documented history of movies being taken seriously before organized cinephilia in France, it makes sense that such a profound culture of cinephilia had not developed in America at this time as a result of the nature of the theatrical spectatorship experience. Early cinema was marked by numerous distractions within the typical movie theater, from the projector running loudly in the middle of the room to fellow patrons throwing popcorn and socializing loudly. In classical moviegoing (even in the more elite movie theaters), the movies themselves were hardly ever viewed as a homogenous object of authority as the feature in question was always accompanied with cartoons, news reels, and shorts. Audiences were allowed to come and go as they pleased, sometimes arriving the middle of the film and sitting through other programming until the movie started over and got back to their original point-of-entry. This tune-in tune-out multiprogramming approach to filmgoing (which could be seen as analogous to how most people watch television today) lasted until Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) cemented a regular practice of attending a film from its very beginning. But by 1960, the French had already made this a normal practice. Our first generation of cineastes, by contrast, didn’t arrive until the mid-late 1960s.

Giving weight to my friend’s argument, there is indeed an evidential relationship between cinephilia and the practices of movie theaters in history. But these circumstances, of course, existed before the rise of home video technology. Mid-century cinephilia fostered, in part, because of the exclusivity and rareness of seeing an old film, simply because of limits in technology and distribution. Thus, seeing an older film or a foreign film in a movie theater was an event so rare and special that its fetishization by the cinephile was warranted if not inevitable. Now, with the availability of multi-region DVD players and online distribution, the cinephile’s exposure to film knowledge is no longer subject to the devices of the cinematheque programmer, but the particular interests of the individual.

Amongst all the postmodern distractions of online moving image media, these democratically accessible distribution outlets have made possible an unprecedented exposure to films of all types available for every type of cinephile. From art and foreign cinema obtainable in its entirety on everything from YouTube to The Auteurs to UBUWeb, one no longer needs to live in a metropolis or be part of a collective to become a cinephile. Perhaps more importantly, digital technology gives the cinephile the ability to manipulate and change the work of art they venerate, allowing multiple personal interpretations of the moving image and removing the authority from the artist and assigning it to the consumer.

In the past 50 years, the process of pursuing cinephilia has been removed from the intents of the organized group to the desires and pursuits of the individual. In this new landscape of cinephilia, the classic, holy veneration of the filmic text which characterized 1950s French cinephilia no longer stands – not because it isn’t relevant, but because there can no longer be one authoritative definition of cinephilia. With the rise of the individual cinephile, cinephilia has now become what we make of it.

So to revisit my first paragraph, to say that a theater which offers food, drink, and participatory programming is anti-cinephilic ascribes to an outdated definition of cinephilia. The classic conception of cinephilia isn’t irrelevant, but it is met with convincing competition. There is no doubt that a theater like this – with its strict age and talking policies, even in participatory programming – gives a great amount of authority to the moving image. But the difference and the importance here is that the movie theater, in order to differentiate itself from the individual cinephilic pursuit, can no longer serve one ideal function, but must enable a unique and separate form of obsessive cinemagoing that reflects the current variety of the moviegoing experience.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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