The first filmgoers who referred to themselves as cinephiles were the French artists and intellectuals in the 1920s associated with the avant-garde: Louis Delluc (1890–1924), Jean Epstein (1897–1953), Germain Dulac (1882–1942), and Ève Francis (1886–1980). For these filmmaker-critics, photogénie referred to a very specific experience produced by cinema. Moments of revelation, or recognition, constituted a "viewer's aesthetic" for those most sensitive to the affective, emotional intensity of the medium (Willemen, Looks and Frictions , p. 126). While Willemen is critical of the elitism implied in this version of the concept, he himself has defined cinephilia as a term that "doesn't do anything other than designate something which resists [or] escapes existing networks of critical discourse and theoretical frameworks" (ibid., p. 231).

The love of cinema that inspired French intellectuals from the 1920s, brought about the establishment of the Cinémathèque Française in 1935, and motivated the Cahiers du cinéma film critics in the 1950s was referred to informally, but enthusiastically, as "cinephilia." In 1977 the film theorist Christian Metz defined and theorized the term in his book, The Imaginary Signifier , formally introducing it into film studies discourse. Since that time "cinephilia" has taken on a range of meanings and associations above and beyond the psychoanalytic definition that Metz gave it as "love of cinema." In a more colloquial sense, "cinephilia" refers to the passion with which people go to, and write about, movies. As a passion, or a desire, it embraces the subjective aspect of film studies as a discipline and filmgoing as a (pre)occupation. At the same time, it indicates the excesses of the medium and its champions. With the ongoing emergence of new electronic technologies—video, DVD, multimedia, and the Internet—cinephilia has become subject to intense debate. Is it a term of nostalgia for a lost medium, or can it be applied to new forms of film viewing? There may be little consensus as to the scope of the term, but there is also little doubt that cinephilia endures as a particular attachment to movies and film culture. A term riddled with contradictions and ambiguity, "cinephilia" points to some key questions associated with the study of film. When expertise is conflated with subjective pleasures, can there be an objective knowledge of the cinema?

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