There is a scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) when the three main characters race through the Louvre in Paris, attempting to break a world record. A direct reference to Bande à Part (1964), the scene quotes a fragment from Jean-Luc Godard’s film. The Dreamers is a cinephilic undertaking not only because it is set in the heyday of cinephilia in France during the 1960s, but also because it celebrates moments of film history that made a lasting impression on director Bertolucci. These moments may be entirely subjective and ephemeral, yet they embody a cinephile’s somewhat obsessive relationship to film. In The Dreamers, the list of these homages to often tiny moments in cinema history is fairly long, including a “We accept you! One of us!” proclamation à la Freaks (1932) and Eva Green’s nod to Jean Seberg selling the “New York Herald Tribune, New York Herald Tribune!” in Á bout de souffle (1960).
Definitions of cinephilia are as varied as film itself. Generally the term describes a passionate love of cinema, often emphasising different expressions of it, such as film criticism or film clubs. James Morrison sees it as “a particular way of loving movies, […] an art of seeing in movies what others didn’t see.” The term “love” seems slightly deceiving. I define cinephilia more along the lines of taking it seriously enough to debate it as passionately as politics, literature, philosophy or sports. Few people would use the term “love” to describe their relationship to politics – nevertheless they feel strongly about the subject, have a desire to reflect on it and learn about people’s opinions on it.
In 1996 Susan Sontag announced “The Decay of Cinema” in The New York Times. Despite the fact that the essay is nearly twenty years old, it seems to have lost little of its power and is quoted in virtually every piece on the state of cinephilia in today’s digital world. The bold title statement is misleading. Sontag is not so concerned with the quality of recent films and acknowledges that good films continue being released (if less frequently than they used to be in the 1960s and early 1970s). What she sees as the problem is the audience’s dwindling appreciation of films due to home viewing technologies. In other words, her claim is not that the cinema has decayed, but rather cinephilia.
But has it? The very fact that I am sitting here at my desk writing this article for a film blog contests that, as does the fact that there are readers who choose to spend their time reading it. It has never been easier to track down and instantly watch even rare films, thanks to Amazon and eBay, online streaming websites and video-on-demand services such as iTunes or Netflix. It is no longer necessary to live in large cities to view non-mainstream films. People who live in small towns and villages now have access to a whole world of movies. The sheer number of film blogs, fan lists and discussions happening on message boards also suggests that film appreciation continues to exist. So why is the gist of Sontag’s eulogy still so present in the discussions about the future of film? Perhaps because it sums up what lies at the bottom of the conflict for many people: the cinema experience.
Prior to the advent of home viewing technologies in the late 1970s and early 1980s audiences had to abide by the screening schedules of cinemas, as this often represented their only opportunity to see certain movies. Films were considered events, not in a commercial sense, but rather in that watching a film was an experience. With the rise of home cinema, cable and pay TV this perception of movies as events changed dramatically.
If you want to watch a film you no longer have to go out and perhaps even travel a considerable distance to attend a screening. You can do it in the comfort of your own home whenever you choose, and virtually every film is only a few clicks away. Whereas the audience used to be subject to the cinema, this hierarchy has been reversed. The movies are now subject to us. We choose when we watch a film; we choose the size of the screen; we choose to pause it when we wish; we choose to rewind and rewatch a scene.
In the past two decades the different ways to watch films virtually exploded: DVDs, BluRays, (pay) TV, tablets, phones, the Internet, plus the cinema. Not only is there hardly any effort involved in obtaining a certain film but the choices of films to watch are endless. Which film we see does not depend on the selection of cinemas anymore. It is, in a way, the absolute democratisation of film viewing. Yet how does this total availability of films affect the element of appreciation? Basic economics teaches us that the ratio of supply and demand has to be carefully balanced in order to sustain a market. Films are a cinephile’s objects of desire. What happens when the elements of desire and anticipation are reduced to their bare minimum?
It is important to understand that Sontag mourns not only the love for the cinema but also a particular dedication to the cause – the rituals, the communities, the film clubs, the times when an article in the influential French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma had the power to cause a riot. Yet one has to ask the question if the problem at hand may be not so much the state of cinephilia but rather the highly conservative definitions of it that prevail to this day. Younger audiences are often dismissed as being less appreciative of the cinema than their classical 1960s counterparts. This argument implies a certain level of complicity on the younger audience’s part. Nobody ever chose not to be born in post-war France and share the third-row centre seats at the Cinémathèque Française next to Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.
The world today’s cinephiles were born into included VHS, TV and, more recently, iPhones and streaming sites. Dismissing newer forms of cinephilia as ‘not as good as in the old days’ misses the point. The ‘golden age of cinephilia’ was over by 1968. Why, in 2014, do so many people still hang on to the ideal of the classic cinephile archetype? A closer look at cinephilia now and the purist form of cinephilia many film lovers like Sontag demand reveals that what is necessary is not a change in cinephilia, but a revision of people’s definitions of it.