Since the 1970s cinephilia has come to be associated with a depoliticized, purely aesthetic understanding of the cinema as an artform. An approach to the medium that privileges auteurs and canons of great works tends to be opposed to an approach shaped by political and cultural concerns, including feminism, Marxism, and postcolonial theory. And yet, as this brief history of the term should suggest, the love of cinema can, and has, included its own critique all along. Film theory and criticism that is motivated by the concerns of critical theory does not necessarily abandon the love of cinema or the subjective investment of the cinephile. Even Laura Mulvey's famous essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975), one of the foundational texts of feminist film theory, advocates a critical detachment that is nonetheless "passionate."
With the centenary of cinema in 1995 came a lament for the "death of cinephilia." Susan Sontag (1933–2004) argued that "the sheer ubiquity of moving images has steadily undermined the standards people once had both for cinema as art and for cinema as popular entertainment." She pointed to the faster and faster cutting that has produced a cinema that "doesn't demand anyone's full attention" ("The Decay"). Alongside Sontag's complaint about the quantity and quality of film production is the slow but inevitable slide of cinema into new electronic media. The rituals of moviegoing are threatened by home viewing, and the film image is itself threatened by digital technologies of shooting, editing, and projection.
However, we need to ask whether cinephilia is dead or is being reinvented. Sontag's lament came precisely at the moment when the cinemas of western and eastern Asia were gaining international recognition. The films of directors such as Abbas Kiarostami (b. 1940), Hou Hsiao-hsien (b. 1946), and Wong Kar Wai (b. 1958) are nothing if not films for cinephiles, their realist aesthetics in many ways recalling the critical priorities favored by Bazin. One could also argue that with video distribution, cinephilia has become a more democratic pastime. No longer enthralled by the definitions of the "good film" promoted by custodial curators, the cinephile is free to collect and view multitudes of titles according to his or her own taste.
One of the key figures in the debates around the fate of cinephilia is Quentin Tarantino (b. 1963), who famously had his formative education as a video store clerk. His own filmmaking is very much indebted to the Blaxploitation genre of American cinema, which by revisiting, he has helped to redeem from the dustbin of history. Is this videophilia? Or is it the cinephilia of the collector, whose obsessive and passionate movie watching is yet another foray into the politics of good taste? At the other end of the taste spectrum one can point to visual artists such as Bill Viola (b. 1951), Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), Stan Douglas (b. 1960), and Jeff Wall (b. 1946), who are unambiguously driven by cinephilia, even if they do not make movies or write about them. Their photographic and video works engage directly with the fullness of the cinematic experience and explore its seductive properties in important and innovative ways.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of twenty-first-century cinephilia is the release of restored film titles on DVD. Not only is the wealth of film history—once hidden away in dusty archives—becoming widely available, but in addition, digital technologies have in many instances improved the image quality, thus bringing us even closer to the myth of total cinema. The digital image is supposedly free of scratches and blemishes, taking us into a new dimension of transparency and awe-inspiring, trance-inspiring film viewing. The enhancement of the soundtrack through new technologies likewise extends the power of the film to absorb its viewer. Meanwhile, the stylishly packaged DVD is yet another version of the cinephiliac fetish, collectible, like the video before it, by the obsessive cinephile. If cinephilia refers to the "knowledge" of cinema alongside a "loving" relationship, then digital technologies are also responsible for a renewed intellectual engagement with movies in the various forms of online journals, voice-over commentaries, fan Web sites, and interactive DVD features.
Thomas Elsaesser makes a distinction between two phases of cinephilia: where "take one" involved the total immersion in the image, "take two" refers to the "fan cult" cinephilia of the collector aided by new technologies. Both forms, though, involve a "crisis of memory" for Elsaesser, for whom the love affair with cinema is always an anxious love (p. 40). Cinephilia in this formulation refers to the way that modern memory is mediated by technologies of recording, storage, and retrieval. In trying to get closer to the cinema, it inevitably becomes more distant, more mediated, and more fractured; if this was the lesson of Screen theory in the 1970s, inspired in no small part by Christian Metz, the cinephile's anxiety has been revived through the infinite archive of cinema history (p. 41).
Cinephilia is in many ways alive and well, continuing to flourish in the hundreds of film festivals that take place every year around the world. There may no longer be a consensus about the category of the "good film," but film culture continues to thrive nonetheless. Celluloid is a material medium, subject to decay, but the love of movies is not likely to disappear any time soon. Nor are the debates around cinephilia and its significance. As a critical enterprise, it will always entail a cultural politics of taste, but as an affliction, it signifies the desire for the cinematic "good object," a desire that stimulates the study of film alongside its production.
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