When people ask Quentin Tarantino if he went to film school, he tells them ‘no, I went to films.’ With ways to express the love for the cinema as diverse as film itself, actually creating the art one loves is an important part of today’s cinephile culture. Just like bloggers and critics reflect on film by writing about it, filmmakers are often practising cinephiles who contemplate film history and their place in it by using the rapidly changing medium itself. Some of the world’s most renowned film directors are self-proclaimed film buffs who have spent a lifetime obsessing about the cinema. Francois Truffaut started his career as a full-time cinephile who not only attended screenings at the Cinémathèque Française on a daily basis, but also documented his experiences through regular contributions to the legendary film magazine Cahiers du cinéma. (Truffaut even published a book on Alfred Hitchcock.)
While working on There Will Be Blood (2007) Paul Thomas Anderson claims to have watched John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) nearly every day. When off set, he keeps American TV channel Turner Classic Movies on all day, so even if he’s not watching, it “seeps into my veins.” Martin Scorsese used his encyclopaedic knowledge of the cinema to produce two three-hour long documentaries chronicling the history of American and Italian cinema, respectively. And then there’s Quentin Tarantino, whose entire public persona is based on the ideal of the kooky film buff who learned everything he knows about movies while working as a clerk in a video store. Perhaps the most direct way to express that one loves the cinema is making it. Through the decades, how has film talked about itself? And what does it reveal about the way filmmakers see their ever-changing medium?
Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)
In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard the loss of her acting career drives former silent film diva Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) into madness. As sound film emerged the once successful movie star descended into oblivion and solitude. Disgusted by the inferior material Hollywood has produced since the transition to sound, she seeks to revive her career with the help of the young opportunistic screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden). Norma’s delusion climaxes in one of the most chilling portrayals of madness in film history. Looking directly into the camera, Norma explains: “This is my life. It always will be. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark.” Wilder’s noir satire refuses to condemn either silent or sound film as artistically inferior. Instead it poses the fixation of the past as the true threat, suggesting that if you deny the future, the only plausible outcome is death.
Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
Set across the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Boogie Nights tells the story about the Californian porn industry in the midst of its transition from a celluloid- to a video-based medium with surprising innocence and melancholia. It is a film about a particular moment in time when the porn industry saw itself at the beginning of a new era, not realising that it ended as quickly as it had begun. Only a few years earlier millions of respectable Americans had stormed to the theatres to see Deep Throat (1972). Pornographers saw a real chance to legitimise their work and create narrative features that happened to contain explicit sex. Patriarch Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) is one of those pornographers with high artistic ambitions. Meeting him presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to aspiring actor Eddie (Mark Wahlberg). He soon reinvents himself as Dirk Diggler and rapidly acquires both fame and a more than comfortable lifestyle. But the drug-fuelled, happy blur of the late ‘70s soon comes to an end. Horner’s artistic ambitions give way to pure greed. The business has changed. What matters now is money. With the advent of video, movies have become commodities. The viewer has been given the remote control and art has become obsolete. Dirk Diggler’s clunky dialogue and cheesy porn versions of Starsky and Hutch can simply be forwarded until the audience gets to see what it signed up for.
Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998)
A cursed videotape kills everyone who watches it within one week – unless one is able to solve its mystery. A divorced journalist takes on the task with the help of her ex-husband. Things become complicated when her son watches the tape. Hideo Nakata’s cult horror makes video the object of fear. A haunted, death-bringing spirit climbs out of the TV and into the viewer’s life, breaking the formerly safe barrier between the two spheres. The equation video = death reveals a thoughtful meditation on the future of the medium. Video enables us to influence a film’s running time by forwarding, pausing or rewinding. By definition a motion picture creates the illusion of life by displaying a succession of still images at 24 frames a second. In other words, it makes the inanimate live. Video reverses this logic. The illusion of life can now be broken by simply pressing a button. In Ringu the solution ultimately lies in considering what is specific about both media.
Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2010)
In 1931 twelve year old orphan Hugo Cabret tries to survive in the harsh reality of Parisian railway station Gare Montparnasse. When he is not maintaining the station’s clocks he steals the missing pieces he needs to repair a broken automaton. His father had been working on it at the time of his death and Hugo is convinced it contains a message for him. He receives help from Isabelle, who is raised by the grumpy owner of the station’s toy shop. “Papa Georges”, as she calls him, is revealed to be none other than legendary film pioneer Georges Méliès. After his bankruptcy, Méliès began to make a living as a toymaker before his work was rediscovered and he was awarded the Legion of Honour for his achievements. Hugo is Martin Scorsese’s love letter to the cinema in a time it has been declared a lost cause. Ironically, he tells a story about film history and the early days of cinema using the latest digital technology (which allegedly contributed to its demise). Despite having failed commercially, Hugo is a rich film about the medium and the question of what makes it so extraordinary.
Despite being a relatively young art form (in comparison to music or painting), the cinema appears to be accompanied by the constant threat of its extinction. First it was sound film, then TV and home-video and finally the internet, mobile phones and piracy – all of these technological developments came with serious concerns and dogmatic proclamations that this will bring about the end of cinema. Yet, it is 2014, and the cinema still exists. Many people may be rather unhappy with the state it is in, but it is undeniably still here. Whether one likes the films that are shown is part of a different debate. This discussion, too, is likely to reveal that film has probably not gotten much worse. What is more likely is that our memory of movies we saw, say, twenty years ago has filtered out the countless horrendously bad films we have seen. From 1996, for example, people are more likely to remember Fargo and Breaking the Waves than Happy Gilmore. That does not mean that films of a similar artistic calibre as Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie (2014) did not exist and all releases at the time were artistic gems.
The cinema is as alive as ever, as is cinephilia. It is not what it used to be, that’s true. But why exactly does that have to be a bad thing? It is necessary to recognise the cinema (and therefore cinephilia) as being in a constant state of becoming. It is precisely this refusal to stand still that makes it alive. As Norma Desmond’s case has shown in Sunset Boulevard, technological changes do not cause death, but a refusal to acknowledge the future does. Those who argue that cinephilia has died with the advent of home video actually give the power of cinema a lot less credit than they claim. For what is implicit in their argument is that the cinema is fragile and not capable of surviving certain technological changes. The fact that we are even having this discussion, though, proves that film is very much alive and much more resilient than its critics believe.