In developing his psychoanalytic-semiotic film theory, Metz began by thinking about his own relationship to the cinema, as a theorist and as a spectator. He argued that the person who loves the cinema, but also writes about it, is like a child who breaks his or her toy. The cinephile, for Metz, is precariously balanced between the "imaginary" pleasure of losing oneself in the image and the "symbolic" knowledge of its machinery and its codes. Writing about cinema is a sadistic practice, he argues, because it can only be grasped "against the grain," like the analysis of a dream or a countercurrent. ( Imaginary , p. 15). And yet, insofar as the machinery—the mechanics, the form, the appreciation of the "well-made film"—becomes part of the cinephile's pleasure in filmgoing, the cinephile is also, quite clearly, a fetishist. "The fetish is the cinema in its physical state," says Metz, adding that when the love for the cinema is extended from a fascination with technique to a critical study of its codes and processes of signification, the disavowal attached to the fetish becomes a form of knowledge (ibid., p. 75). Cinephilia, in other words, enables the semiotician to love the cinema while gaining a critical distance from its lure.

The limitations of Metz's film theory, such as its universalizing thrust and restriction to a certain kind of "classical" narrative cinema, are extensive and well-known. However, his theorization of cinephilia as a complex form of desire is a useful definition to retain. Metz's reference to the French New Wave locates his understanding of cinephilia within film-historical terms and contextualizes his psychoanalytic-semiotic paradigm. The filmmaker-critics associated with Cahiers du cinéma in the late 1950s and early 1960s embodied the notion of cinephilia and may even be said to have turned from writing film criticism to filmmaking precisely to overcome the kind of contradictions that Metz identifies at the heart of the fascination and obsession with cinema.

The love of cinema to which the Cahiers critics were dedicated can in fact be traced even further back to their shared mentor, André Bazin. "The cinema," said Bazin, "is an idealistic phenomenon" ( What , p. 17). In his seminal essay, "The Myth of Total Cinema," he argued that film history is guided by the passions of men for an "integral realism, a recreation of the world in its own image," and he proceeded to develop a style of film criticism that privileged those filmmakers who, he felt, came closest to realizing the ideal of a "total cinema"—Jean Renoir (1894–1979), Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977), Orson Welles (1915–1985), and Kenji Mizoguchi (1898–1956) (ibid., p. 21). He loved their long takes and deep focus strategies by which the world seemed to offer itself up to the viewer. Moreover, he wrote about films with an unmitigated enthusiasm for stylistic achievements alongside an appreciation for the emotional weight of a film's effect on its viewer. Bazin may not have been the first cinephile, but his essays on cinema initiated a critical discourse on cinema that was stimulated by an acknowledged desire for the seduction of the image and at the same time was tempered by a rigorous understanding of film style, language, technique, and form.

In the pages of Cahiers du cinéma during the 1950s, Bazin's realist aesthetics were embraced by François Truffaut (1932–1984), Eric Rohmer (b. 1920), Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), Jacques Rivette (b. 1928), Claude Chabrol (b. 1930), and others as a discourse of film authorship, mise-en-scène, and Hollywood. They invested themselves in the cinema by means of a highly personalized style of writing, praising films and directors that, as Metz puts it, were designated as "good objects." Other films, such as those of the French cinema, were derided as poor excuses for filmmaking. The real auteurs were those who expressed themselves in terms of images.

The Cahiers critics articulated their excessive cinephilia in phrases such as "tracking shots are a question of morality" to refer to both Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) and the cinema of Sam Fuller (1912–1997) (Hillier, ed. Cahiers , p. 62). Rossellini's cinema constituted "a state of mind" (ibid., p. 203); Nicholas Ray (1911–1979), according to Godard, "is morally a director, first and foremost," "one cannot but feel that here is something which exists only in the cinema" (ibid., p. 116). Rivette claimed that "what justifies CinemaScope in the first place is our desire for it" (ibid., p. 276).

The cinephilia of the Cahiers critics set in motion some of the key paradigms of film studies scholarship, including, most crucially, auteurist criticism and the canon of masterpieces on which the discipline was founded. While their project was, on one level, to supply the cinema with a critical vocabulary and pantheon that would align it with the other arts, it was a project that also recognized the specificity of the cinema as a commercial medium. Their embrace of the American cinema, through the key figures of Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann (1907–1967), Sam Fuller, and Fritz Lang (1890–1976)—alongside Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980)—entailed a reading of Hollywood as a modernist enterprise. The Cahiers critics were, in many instances, writing about cinema "against the grain" of its studio-based generic formulas.

While there is little agreement or consensus within the film-critical community about what "cinephilia" really means, a recurring theme is the idea of excess. More specifically, cinephilia may be a kind of excess that resides on the level of detail, which is "caught" by a viewer for whom it opens up a subjective relation to the text. In fact, this notion of cinematic experience can be linked to a variety of critical discourses and theoretical frameworks, including some of the theories developed by Roland Barthes (1915–1980) (the punctum and the "third meaning") and Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) ("unconscious optics" and flânerie). The cinephile in this sense is the viewer who is slightly distracted from the filmic text and yet entranced by moments that exceed the text and take him or her elsewhere.

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