Having staged that generational distinction, I asked him where he stood with regard to the "new cinephilia" and he admitted he was conflicted and that his Framework essay was purposely poised as a polemic. He said: "I think we're all lying to ourselves that—when we analyze a film on DVD—that we act as if we've seen it and we haven't. I'm convinced of that. I give all kinds of examples in this article. Critics and film professors fool themselves when they say they can make believe watching a DVD is the same as watching a film and that the differences can be translated sufficiently. I don't think they can. It goes from subtle, embarrassing things such as the color coding of a certain film where—when I came to see the film again on screen—what I thought was white on DVD, was actually pale rose. I've had this discussion with people at work where one person said, 'That's inconsequential'; but, I'm sorry, it isn't to me. You wouldn't have an art historian do a visual analysis of a Renaissance painting from a reproduction. They would be laughed out of their profession. There are so many things they could get wrong because of the differences in reproduction. It's the same thing with cinema, as far as I'm concerned."
That comment hit a nerve with me because of the increasing tendency to offer screeners to press covering film festivals rather than arranging screenings. Though I can understand the practicality and cost-effectiveness of such a policy, I have become increasingly concerned that what I'm seeing on screener and writing about is not what audiences actually see projected. I've mollified myself by rationalizing that watching a film on screener allows me the luxury of finessing the narrative; however, at the same time, I worry that my writing has become conflated with festival promotion. Again, practically, these days that's sometimes the only way a festival publicist and a journalist can coordinate an advance preview piece on an upcoming festival. But I can feel the difference between my first year of writing on film when press screenings were still in practice and these last few years when policy has shifted to screener libraries.
Of course, no one forces a journalist to watch screeners and some even prefer doing so in the privacy of their own homes; but—as Quandt expressed (and I agree)—the "in cinema experience" is far superior and, somehow, more genuine. By way of example, when the San Francisco Film Society asked me to cover their Sundance Kabuki Screen series—which I had some interest in doing—they then advised that this would have to be done by way of screeners. Again, I understood the practicalities of that policy; but, for the first time, my enthusiasm was completely doused. It was no longer about having access to the films; it was about being denied the full experience of the films. Something felt ingenuine to me about promoting a film I had not actually seen and experienced fully in the cinema with an audience (or as Quandt puts it: "I am inclined to think we are lying or telling half-truths when we describe a film we have seen only in this way."). For that matter, I also have issues with the so-called "audience" at press screenings. Consequently, I became more attracted to cinematheques like the Pacific Film Archive and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts where I could write about a film I had watched with a "true" audience in house. Quandt's comment confirmed my decision to shift away from promotional pieces of writing to experiential pieces of writing.
Granted, that isn't always possible due to time constraints or one of a hundred other rationalizations. I still watch some films on screener; but—if I write about them—I've decided it's important to disclose the medium. That's the only way I can reconcile the tension. I also believe written experiences of films can be layered. I appreciate how Acquarello distinguishes between festival drafts—her first experience of a film—and her more burnished responses based on a second viewing. Each journalist has to find the practice that feels authentic for them.
While waiting for my ordered copy of the Frameworks issue on the new cinephilia, Girish Shambu generously forwarded me three of the essays from the volume, one being Quandt's. Much of what we discussed in our conversation is reflected in the essay and it felt good to see his polemic committed to script. There were a few additional ideas in Quandt's essay that I wanted to address.
First, is an early definition of cinephilia "in terms of personal history." That speaks to me, not only in the generational distinctions that characterize cinephilia, but in the vision that informs writing about film. Myself, I journalized about film long before I became a film journalist. I clearly recall when that practice began. I was in my late teens in Twin Falls, Idaho, reading the diaries of Anaïs Nin, which seemed to me a window into an avidly desired life of experience. She had gone to see Teinosuke Kinugasa's Jigokuman (Gate of Hell, 1953)—which was all the rage in Paris at the time—and she rushed home to her diary to describe her experience of the film; not a critique, her experience. That's when I realized that seeing a film had the potential of being life experience—not just entertainment; not just diversion; not just information—but, life experience. As a writer, going to the movies was never the same again. Writing became intimately tied to my experience of film. It has been an alternating current ever since—watching film, writing about film, reading what others have written about film. That alternating current charges my cinephilia.
Pursuing his concern that film cannot be legitimately analyzed from an easily-accessed DVD or video—"nevertheless legible (that is, consumable)"—on a computer screen, Quandt asserts eloquently: "Is the 'new cinephilia', this Netflix, YouTube grande bouffe of images in which Costa, Straub, and Baillie can be seen in Nunavut or Cappadocia and immediately discussed online with philes from afar, a miracle of 'open museum' cultural democracy or a spurious celebration of the omnivorous and inauthentic?"
I enjoyed his further elucidation of the "in cinema experience": "The phrase 'in cinema experience' has recently entered the discourse of film curation—to differentiate traditional filmgoing from gallery and installation presentation of 'moving image' works, videotheques, etc.—a marker of the rapid move of cinema's realm from the social and ceremonial to the insular and domestic, the analogue to the digital, the hard-won to the easily accessible." Quandt observes that some archivists argue that the very phrase "in cinema experience" provides "the last hope … of restoring an 'aura' around film, and thereby fostering a traditional kind of cinephilia."
That phrase "aura around film" is particularly intriguing. Quandt situates it as a "venerable Benjaminian notion", along with "authenticity", which—once approached—leads to "the realm of the ineffable" where "weight, solidity, grain, clarity, the there-ness of images are all difficult qualities to describe."
Finally, Quandt writes: "Suggesting that technology and aesthetics increasingly exist in inverse proportion, the advance of one diminishing the urgency of the other, Tsai [Ming-liang] recently said: 'I am not happy about the whole DVD medium, in fact. The quality of film experience is crashing. People are now satisfied just watching a film to find out what the story is. The experience is almost being reduced to a kind of information gathering. What is going on? Who is it? My films are really for the big screen only.' "
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In Adrian Martin's essay "Cinephilia As War Machine", he defines cinephiles as "a band of outsiders, a band apart—or they are nothing." He stresses: "Cinephilia is a motivating, and mobilizing, 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."
With "Best of the Decade" lists swamping the Internet, I have to take Girish's argument that the most valuable and productive purpose of end-of-the-year and end-of-the-decade list making is "to spark conversation and debate" with a necessary grain of salt, even as I trust his affirmation that "such a list isn't merely a casual inventory of movies, a trivial exercise: it's a public and visible move in the political/cultural wars around exactly what cinema is worth taking seriously and why. For anyone seriously interested in cinema, this is an important subject." I guess it depends on which list you choose, which in turn might necessitate a List of Lists? At The Auteurs Daily, David Hudson has been tackling that one quite competently. He's up to his eighth entry on the subject. Admittedly, I admire his competency more than the lists. Fortunately, I avoided a Best of the Decade list because I have only been officially writing about film for five years. I've refused several requests to participate in others' lists, but must be honest and say that I miss my list of the 10 best drawings by Girish Shambu because—in this last year—he's had other things on his mind than doodling. Sigh. Now I'm feeling inclined to draft a list of the 10 things I regret most about lists. Enough.
Returning to Martin's essay, I was particularly intrigued by his notion that cinephilia should contain a certain soulfulness or—more accurately—is soulfulness. Though the seat of the soul has been in debate for millennia, I'm willing to accept that soulfulness "in the sense that it animates, in a lively way, a whole tradition or shared network of assumptions and feelings about cinema" can be a working equation for cinephilia. Echoing some of Girish's sentiments about the value of lists, Martin references Serge Daney who, he says, "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."
Which leads me to wonder about the politics of taste, since wars always seem to revolve around politics. The Evening Class was encouraged by an argument in the Movies Conference on The WELL with a woman who complained about my queer readings of film. She didn't want to read what I had to say. Of course, she never had to read what I had to say; but, that wasn't the point. The point was she was trying to stifle my perspective. It was a point as sharp as a tack and convinced me of how important it was to—as Adrian puts it—say in public what I have seen; i.e., my subjective specularity, which is about as political as it gets. So I've gone public with The Evening Class and—over time—have become grateful to her inspirational irritation.
As time goes along, I find my taste compelled towards films from the Global South, independent filmmakers who are self-distributing, or—in essence—any film that isn't being pumped out and promoted through the studio system. Why write about a film that five thousand other bloggers are writing about? As Mark Peranson has opined in the current issue of Cinema Scope: "A film that most people have heard of is by its very nature less interesting than a film that only a few programmers or critics have seen." I've decided that if I have to watch screeners, they'd best be of obscure films that I might otherwise never have the opportunity to see.
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Finally, Girish Shambu's essay "What Is Being Fought For by Today's Cinephilia(s)" borders on the controversial for being so affirmative of the "new cinephilia". He admits that from its beginnings, his cinephilia "always existed in a context, a landscape, that included two key technologies: Internet and DVD/video, both of which play a central role in my cinephilic practice." Without question his site has been on the cutting edge of the new cinephilia for years. Blogathons started there and much much discourse over the years. His is an appropriate counter-argument to Quandt's.
The succinct and beautiful definition of cinephilia that Girish prefers comes from Antoine de Baecque and Thierry Frémaux: cinephilia is "life organized around films." Anaïs helped me intuit the life within films and—since my retirement—my life has certainly been organized around film, more than I ever imagined possible. Like myself, Girish's cinephilia is charged by the alternating current of watching film and the written record of film. He writes: "So, what is today's Internet cinephilia fighting for? I would propose: it is fighting to build bridges between zones previously kept apart—thus, for example, a given social network of cinephile blogs that values both commercial and avant-garde cinema; Hollywood and world cinema; older and newer films; and so on."
Girish continues: "What should today's Internet cinephilia be fighting for? I would propose: aiming not only to concurrently embrace and engage every kind of cinema, but finding a place for, valuing, and encouraging multiple modes of discourse. By this I mean three distinct groups—professional critics, academics, and 'amateur' cinephiles—that are part of the same blog network, forming a 'learning community,' each group bringing something unique and essential to the conversation."
Nowhere is that more apparent than on his own site.