The New Cinephilia
In a letter I wrote to Girish Shambu about my qualms with 21st century cinephilia last year, I had said: “Part of the reason I am so ardently looking forward to your book is to understand how to give a form to an activity as variegated, vehemently personal and solitary as cinephilia.” Here it is now. Girish’s erudite new book seeks to etch a picture of cinephilia as it exists in the internet age. Bookended by references to Susan Sontag’s 1996 essay on ‘the decay of cinema’, it is a forward-looking, optimistic work that responds to Sontag’s lamentation about the death of cinema and of cine-love. Girish starts off by defining what he means by cinephilia:
“Cinephilia, as we know, is not simply an interest in cinema or the propensity to watch a great number of movies. These are necessary but not sufficient conditions for cinephilia. Not only watching, but thinking, reading, talking and writing about cinema in some form, no matter how unconventional: these activities are important to the cinephile. In other words, cinephilia involves an active interest in the discourse surrounding films.”
The definition above is interesting – and crucial for the remainder of the book – both in terms of the individuals whom it characterizes as “internet cinephiles” and those it excludes through such a specific formulation. For one, it ascribes the cinephile label to those who are involved in the production, dissemination or consumption of ‘texts’ about films online – a cross-section that, whether we like to think of it that way or not, wields the privilege of language. On the other hand, the coinage leaves out not only the vast demographic obsessive film-watchers not involved in film-critical discourse (including film tribes and sub-cultures such as anime fandom), but also those who might be labeled the “cinephilic working class” – people and groups involved in alternate forms of distribution of films: hosts and seeders of torrent trackers, unorganized bootleggers, uploaders of rare VHS and TV rips and voluntary subtitlers, who are, in fact, the players responsible for the reincarnation of New Cinephilia as a global phenomenon. This underclass, as it were, is almost single-handedly responsible for the geographic and intellectual expansion of cinephilia in not only multiplying the breadth of material available to movie-lovers but also providing access to such material to cultures and regions without alternate distributors, arthouses, film societies, festivals or film discourse. Personal experience convinces me that the torrent is the most prominent birthmark of the internet cinephile.
With this definition in place, Girish goes on to touch lucidly on various aspects of this cinephilic upper class, especially those involved in production of film discourse: the internet’s transformation of the subjective after-experience of a film, the shift in style of film reviewing from generally descriptive to particularly analytical, the continuing centrality of conversation in cinephilic practice, the everyday experience of a cinephile on social networking websites and the importance of writing to cinephilia through the ages. Despite numerous commentators bemoaning a number of these changes, detailing the narcissism, knee-jerk reactions and philistinism they foster, Girish sees them in a positive light, viewing them as being organically liked to the continuous, necessary mutation of cinephilia. From his view of New Cinephilia changing foundational ideas about cinema to his affirmative response to the question of whether social change can be brought about by a cinephile qua cinephile, Girish’s indefatigable optimism is, in fact, daunting to a full-time cynic like me who, although he understands how cinephilia performs a useful social function by giving young folk something to construct their identities around, can only see the underbelly of cinephilic explosion in the new millennium. I quote here from my letter to Girish two reasons for my disillusionment with internet cinephilia:
One, that cinephilia in the 21st century, I think, has become a glorified form of consumerism. Not just in the way it facilitates the circulation of material commodities like DVDs, but in its very ratification of the desire to watch as many films as possible, in its insistence on the investment, in terms of time, energy or money, in practicing cinephilia. There was a time that I used to naively think that my cinephilia set me apart from more direct materialist pursuits around me because (a) I don’t collect films as objects and that they are an ‘experience’ (b) it is art appreciation and not consumerism. But it dawned on me, as it dawns sooner or later on anyone willing to think critically, that investing in experiences is the most rampant form of consumerism today. (I am thinking particularly of the valorization of tourism, extreme sports and social networking). I realized that I approached cinema more or less the way people around me were approaching electronic gadgets. I hear people talking about the history of a particular mobile phone, comparing it with its predecessors, appreciating its ergonomics and locating it within a historical trend and I see in it a equivalent to the commodified form of auteurism that the internet cinephiles have bought into en masse. Auteurs are brand names and wanting to consume their films seems to me to be little different from wanting to try out the next hot gadget. Commodity fetish, that was once a domain of material objects, is now displaced on to experiences, art experience in particular. Given that any film now is just minutes away from access, having missed out on a good film, new or classic, is considered an embarrassment and a reason for not being able to get into discussion circles. Obsessive shopping is denigrated while binge-watching is considered a reflection of one’s passion.
And two, that 21st century cinephilia is a direct descendent of the rise of nerd culture. I have been in programming circles, quizzing circles and cinephile circles – the major planets in the geek galaxy – and they are all united by their near-total absence of women. The new cinephilia (the only one I have experienced), not just the mainstream version of it, in its rapacious movie-watching, choleric debates and obsession of canonizing and classification feels to me to be characterized by a typically straight, young, male aggressiveness. This cinephilia, unlike the other honest, self-styled nerd groups, has the advantage of seeming to transcend geek culture under the garb of being a higher, more mature pursuit. The stereotype of the New Cinephile being an unkempt omega male in his early twenties, intelligent, atheist, left-leaning, piracy-supporting, career-agnostic, philosophy-loving social misfit derives from a general taxonomy of geeks, but is not without a modicum of truth. Reading many perceptive commentaries about what is now called the “millennial generation”, of which I am most certainly a part, I realize that cinephilia is the direct offspring of this tectonic geek-oriented generational/cultural shift.
But the most thought-provoking part – by which I mean the part I most vehemently reacted to – is the book’s centerpiece titled “Building a large conversation” in which Girish examines the reasons for the large gap between film studies and film criticism and reflects on the possibility of bridging it. To illustrate the reluctance of film critics to keep themselves abreast of the developments in film scholarship, he cites an Artforum roundtable where Annette Michelson puts down late-period Pauline Kael:
To have continued to write into the ’90s with no account taken of the advances made in our ways of thinking about spectatorship, perception, and reception meant that [Kael] ceased to renew her intellectual capital, to acknowledge and profit by the achievements of a huge collective effort. And so her writing, unrefreshed, grew thinner, coarser, stale.
Now, I have neither read the roundtable in its entirety, nor Kael extensively. But the excerpt above seems to suggest that film criticism has an intellectual obligation to learn from film studies. At the risk of antagonizing readers from academic background, I venture to suggest that film criticism has as much obligation to learn from film academia as experimental filmmaking has to learn from genre cinema. To be clear, I am not saying that film criticism has nothing to gather from film studies. Achievements of film theory can clear much rudimentary ground for film criticism by avoiding the need to reinvent the wheel. But the finest film criticism works in a territory that academia has not yet explored. In my mind, film criticism is the avant-garde to the arrière-garde of film studies, the punctum to the studium of scholarship. It must work on aspects of film that have not yet been theorized and institutionalized, that are untheorizable even. While most scholarship treats films as fodder for validating and perpetuating sacred theoretical frameworks, much like Thomas Kuhn’s scientific paradigms, film criticism takes each film primarily as an autonomous art object and derives from the object the analytical tools necessary for discussing it, which may or may not be found in film theory toolkit. I cannot imagine any consistent ‘method’ or ‘system’ of film criticism that will not undermine its essential openness to being surprised and rendered speechless by the art object. Every act of film criticism is like a surgery – always haunted by the risk of failure, always at the risk of discovering something ineffable. No matter how well you institutionalize it, there is always a good possibility that the best critical work comes from outside the establishment. What’s most exciting about film criticism in the internet age is that it is truly democratic: the best criticism can come from the most unexpected quarters, from personalities without any history or credentials in film criticism or studies. It is in this quality of perennially being a level playing field for film criticism that 21st century cinephilia is most promising, rejects as it does both the intellectual priesthood of the academia and the oligarchic taste-making of print criticism.
It’s hard for me to imagine how the dominant, non-formalist form of film studies, with its systemic handicap of abstaining from value judgment and not being able to treat the film as an independent aesthetic object capable of producing an infinite variety of affects, can be terribly instructive for the enterprise of film criticism, which necessarily calls for a hierarchy of values on the part of the practitioner and his/her acknowledgement being a sentient, unique subject capable of being transformed by the film. (Presumably to show that this is indeed possible, Girish, taking the example of Tom Gunning’s study of Fritz Lang’s films. tells us how theoretical research and film scholarship has demystified the romantic conception of the artist as an endowed being and challenged auteur theory’s far-flung claims. But then, it speaks only of an awkward state of film criticism if it requires film studies to disabuse it of artistic mythmaking.) These disagreements, rather than being drawbacks, are precisely what make the book so interesting to read because, to me, the book is a logical extension of Girish’s work at his blog, where such disagreements and conversations take place all the time. I can imagine making the same comments at his blog had the material of the book unfolded as a series of blog posts. And true to the spirit of his style of posting, the book is an ideal déclencheur, a trigger to get conversation going. That’s more than a good reason to get to it.