Cinephilia as War Machine

Cinephilia, as we all know, is the love of cinema. But what a banal definition! What film fan, of any kind or level, doesn’t regard themselves as loving cinema? French critic Serge Daney’s militant sense of his own cinephilia was directed precisely against this widespread, sickeningly populist vibe, as captured in an advertising slogan of the ’70s that also elicited the ire of Guy Debord: “People who love life go to the cinema!”1

So, everybody loves the cinema. As N. Paul Todd would reply on the greatest television reality show of the decade, My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss (Fox, US, 2004-5): “Why, so what, and who cares?” The cinephile, however, wants to be identified as someone different from the mere film fan or film nerd who, in their dreary, uninspired ways, love the cinema. Cinephiles are a band of outsiders, a band apart – or they are nothing. And that is what is galling in the contemporary climate, when every second website is calling itself cinephile-this and cinephile-that, when the books and conferences on cinephilia as a scholarly topic are multiplying: when, in short, the institutionalisation, and thus the taming, of cinephilia looms. Cinephilia has become a kind of brand name or mark, a sexy surplus value that livens up the academy and the Ain’t it Cool News Internet empire alike. This empty cinephilemania reaches its height in the out-of-control ‘best film’ lists swamping the Internet. And to suggest that the cinephile passion can now be conveniently placed as pre-TV variant of fandom does not improve this situation.

The agenda of cinephilia is not always terribly clear or explicit. Paul Willemen described it as something murky, a smokescreen for some other psychic complex to which we cannot quite put a name.2 Thomas Elsaesser emphasises that cinephilia is always a drama of displaced time, of deferral: the cinema that is lost, the lost object; the cinema associated with some exotic elsewhere; the cinema of a previous generation, but the kind your parents never watched and could never have understood.3 Alain Bergala, in his fascinating The Cinema Hypothesis, gives a positive, even feverish spin to this generational game: for him, the cinephile objects par excellence are those films – from Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955) and Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986) to Abbas Kiarostami’s Khane-ye doust kodjast? [Where Is the Friend’s Home?] (1987) – which mirror the tender, secretive transmission of knowledge, of aesthetic passion, from teacher to student, parent to child.4

But there is no characterisation of cinephilia, such as have been offered in the burgeoning literature on this subject, that I can accept as definitive. I do not believe, for instance, that cinephilia is essentially a solitary activity, a melancholic activity, a Christian activity, or a surrealist activity. I don’t believe that it necessarily equates with either left or right politics, or a total lack of politics either. I don’t believe cinephilia proceeds in tidy generational waves. I don’t believe there is a discernible canon of cinephile films. I don’t believe that cinephilia is dependent on any particular type of technology, whether the old-fashioned movie theatre or the new-fangled DVD player. I don’t believe that cinephiles only truly care about fragments (or Benjaminian ruins) of films in a modernist or postmodernist flux. I don’t believe that cinephilia is essentially a matter of nutty, obsessive viewing rituals (however much fun these might be), or what Noel King calls ‘discursive regularities’ in the way that cinephiles write or speak or teach about what they love.5 For there is no such regularity.

I propose a way out of this deadlock, with reference to the premise of Antoine de Baecque’s canny historical account, the title of which translates as Cinephilia. The Invention of a Gaze, the History of a Culture. 1944-1968.6 According to de Baecque, cinephilia may start with a kind of unutterable ecstasy or brute desire (you as the big cinephile baby before the vast cinema screen) but, straight away, that desiring engagement leads to acts – particularly of writing, speaking, programming, or curating (and also, of course, filmmaking – but that’s another story). Acts that happen in public, that are broadcast, directed at the world – and that involve the forming of a community, even if that community is only a gang of friends, an editorial collective, a classroom of students, or an Internet chat group. Cinephilia is a motivating, and mobilising, passion. Cinephilia is always about thought, always about theory, always about criticism. If it’s not about those things, it’s just a load of nonsense about devising best-film lists and seeing six thousand movies.

There is no essential form or content to cinephilia, but maybe there is something like an essential cinephile process or gesture. Let me put it this way: cinephilia is a war machine; a tactical, cultural war machine. Always a different war, and always a different machine, depending on where and when you are, who you’re fighting with, and what you’re fighting against. In this sense, everything that people have said about cinephilia – that it’s melancholic or surrealist or whatever – can be true, if it fits the particular piece of cinephile history, and if you can tell that story well, if you can give it a mobilising energy.

I don’t mean to suggest by this that the war machines of cinephilia are actually effective, that they actually have succeeded in changing the world, or its culture. Cinephilia is the history of a hundred failed revolutions. Sometimes the Great War is almost wholly imaginary; it’s happening in the columns of a little magazine somewhere, or in the program of an obscure film club. Maybe the heat-seeking missile launched by cinephilia mostly hits nothing. But the stories, the histories of cinephilia as motivating passion are there for good, if they have been somehow written or documented or caught, if the testament is there, and we can catch them in another time or place. If the telling of that history is inspired enough, it can connect with some part of the scenario of our own war machine.

The fact is, we know almost nothing about the worldwide history of cinephilia. Accounts that keep locating the origin and primary home of the cinephile passion in Paris, France, in the 1950s and the offices of Cahiers du Cinéma are plain wrong. Every country which has had cinema may have a history of cinephilia. Probably not a continuous history; maybe something which came and went, flowered and died, several times over. Even in France, to take that most mythified home of cinephilia, the story of cinephilia that began in Lyon, the story of Positif magazine, is very different to the story that began in Paris with Cahiers, or the story that began, only about a decade and half ago, in Aix-en-Provence, under the decisive influence of Nicole Brenez. And it’s likely to be the same spread everywhere.

Let’s consider an example of a particular kind of cinephilic thinking or argumentation. There is a truly warlike cultural ferment going in Spain at the moment around the highly contested terrain of cinephilia – and on the frontline of this war we find the Spanish edition, running since early 2007, of Cahiers du Cinéma, far superior (in my view) to the French version (from which it is entirely editorially independent). The vast work done on cinema, at all levels, in the Spanish language is virtually unknown in Anglo countries, as well as in some European countries. One of the key critics and educators in the current climate is Carlos Losilla. In his summing up of the Spanish film production of 2005 for the journal Archivos de la Filmoteca,7 we can observe a very intriguing dimension of cinephile thought: namely, the usually feisty way it negotiates a fraught relation with the cinephile’s own national cinema. Indeed, I sometimes think I can spot a cinephile by the intensity of their hatred for their national cinema. Of course, a cinephile such as Losilla will always like something in their local cinema: usually something unsung or marginal. And what he or she will hate is the official cinema of their own country, the boring mainstream – that’s the war machine in action.

In this particular text, Losilla’s target is Alejandro Amenábar, who made Abre los ojos [Open Your Eyes] (1997) with Penélope Cruz, The Others (2001) with Nicole Kidman, and Mar adentro [The Sea Inside] (2004) with Javier Bardem. Amenábar’s sin, for Losilla, is not that he lets his films be remade by Tom Cruise, that he decamps to Hollywood, or that his Spanish stuff is prime Oscar material. No, it is a subtle cinephilic argument, threading back to André Bazin for ideas to cherish, and across to the dreaded Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) for something really worth hating and denouncing. What Losilla says is: look at these three wildly popular, critically acclaimed films by Amenábar. Nowhere in them is there a real physical presence, a concrete body with tangible experiences palpably conveyed or projected. In Abre los ojos – as in its sorry remake, Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe, 2001) – everyone and everything turns out to be the figment of a virtual reality. In The Others, most characters turn out to be ghosts. And, most egregiously for Losilla, in Mar adentro, we are presented with an idealised version of sickness, paralysis, and finally death: it’s almost fun to be a vegetable in this movie. For Losilla, this means that Amenábar, like Jeunet, is a filmmaker who has turned himself against cinema, against the vocation and essence of cinema such as cinephiles prize this ideal essence in Rossellini, Erice, the Dardennes, or even Clint Eastwood. Amenábar, for Losilla, has embraced the morbid soullessness of a certain kind of slick, inhuman artifice.

Now, you can disagree with every point, every assumption of Losilla’s argument. But, whatever you think of it, it’s an argument with soul – in the sense that it animates, in a lively way, a whole tradition or shared network of assumptions and feelings about cinema. That’s the kind of soul we can call, non-mystically, cinephilia.

It is sometimes said that cinephilia is elitist. Why, so what, and who cares? Actually, the thought or the charge of this elitism sometimes gets through to cinephiles; they start imagining they are, instead, absolutely of the people, more like the people than the people themselves, conveyers of the very spirit of popular/populist art. That’s part of what phased Daney when George Cukor, back in 1964, scoffed at his admiration for Nicholas Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades (“He broke out in a peal of laughter where all the contempt he had for this little film could be read”)8 : some horrifying rift, stretching to infinity, was opening up between Daney and the average moviegoer in that moment.

But remember how Daney gathered himself in and stood firm: “We were very wounded, but we have never changed our minds.” Daney knew that the war machine of cinephilia was sometimes about, precisely, taste: not good taste, not cultivation or sophistication, not a canon of films – but a war over what is to be seen, what must be seen, and even more, what we can get to say in public about what we have seen. And that war is never over.

  • 1Serge Daney, Postcards from the Cinema, trans. Paul Grant (London: Berg, 2007); Guy Debord, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, trans. Lucy Forsyth (London: Pelagian, 1991).
  • 2Paul Willemen, Looks and Frictions. Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory (London: British Film Institute, 1994), 226.
  • 3Thomas Elsaesser, “Cinephilia or the Uses of Disenchantment”, in Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory, ed. Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), 27-43.
  • 4Alain Bergala, L’hypothèse cinéma. Petit traité de transmission du cinéma à l’école et ailleurs (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 2006).
  • 5Noel King in Willemen, Looks and Frictions, 247.
  • 6Antoine de Baecque, La cinéphilie. Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture. 1944-1968 (Paris: Fayard, 2003).
  • 7Carlos Losilla, “Contra el cine español. Panorama general al inicio de un nuevo milenio”, Archivos de la Filmoteca, no. 49 (2005), 125-145.
  • 8Serge Daney, “Les Cahiers du Cinéma 1968-1977”, interview by Bill Krohn, in The Thousand Eyes, no. 2 (1977).

This text originally appeared in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 50, nr. 1, 2009.

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.