Cinephilia, Conditions Apply*

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In 1996, Susan Sontag wrote an article in the New York Times, stating that cinema has lived its life, and is dying. 1996, we must remember, is the centenary year of the first modern film. It is also the time when digital formats were on the rise, and film viewership was rapidly shifting from the public space of movie theatres to the private space of living rooms. Sontag’s love for cinema, which she saw decaying and dying at the turn of the millennium, had two very specific conditions. The first was that it had to be a certain kind of film, which was the experimental and avant-garde films which the French and Italian auteurs, among others, indulged in. Sontag had a pronounced distaste for the mainstream Hollywood style of mercantile films, with its fast cuts and genre-specific narrative tropes. She thought such films were “astonishingly witless; the vast majority fail resoundingly to appeal to their cynically targeted audiences.” Secondly, Sontag thought the love for cinema is fulfilled only through the fidelity to viewing films in movie theatres, a space she deemed the only ideal for watching films. Other modes of viewing films, be it on a TV screen or on a computer are, to put it indelicately – sacrilege.

Love for cinema, and the discipline that has developed around it in the last two decades, has a specific term which is used in the academic circles – cinephilia. Girish Shambu, a prominent blogger and author, says that cinephilia is not only the habit or credit of watching hundreds of films, “but also thinking, reading, talking and writing about cinema in some form, no matter how unconventional…. in other words, cinephilia involves an active interest in the discourse surrounding films”. And herein lies the question; what are the margins of the discourse? Even though it is a discipline about the love for cinema, does it include the voice of someone who does not love the movies? Could such a person have something important to say?

Thus, this post is in essence a continuation of our last post in the sense that it addresses certain aspects of our author’s scepticism about films, and to see whether this cinephobia, if it could be called so, can be placed within a more academic-minded discourse. Could personal idiosyncratic accounts of likes, and dislikes have important insights about how academic writing handles a particular topic? Does accommodating these voices give us a certain inward look, some self-reflexivity? Let’s take, for example, where the author writes about her comparative ease with watching films on a DVD rather than in a theatre where she has no control. The tangential approach to film viewing which the DVD facilitates (and I use DVD as an umbrella term for all digital media), where we can pause the film, slow it down, hasten it, rewind and fast forward, has been one of the primary concerns of film theoreticians in the digital age. In a sense, as she writes, it affords us an access to films similar to our access to a book, where we can start at any point, go back, skip a few pages, read very quickly through the book or take our time with it, being introspective, pensive. Theoreticians have linked this idea of stopping the film in its track with death, which as it affects our idea of how a film should be watched also opens up avenues to look back into the past in a new manner. This marriage of digital technology and the mass dissemination of film material has traditionally been viewed with some scepticism. Serge Daney talked about zappers, who would listlessly surf the channels on television. Laura Mulvey on the other hand, talks about two kinds of spectators – the possessive and the pensive, viewers who avoid the cinema hall experience and prefer their private viewing space and constantly meddle with the intended flow of the film to pore over images, frames and other details. But both ideas maintain that the newer practices are disruptive, and problematic.

Personal accounts too, despite the criticism it has faced in academic circles, are an important part of the discipline of cinephilia. When Stanley Cavell wrote about his experience with various films, he misremembered many of the details he talks about. Academic writing is generally conditioned with the idea of reliability on objectivity and the capacity to get closer and closer to the object of study without contaminating it with traces of the author’s self. Therefore, quite unsurprisingly, the criticism that has been generally awarded to personal accounts of film experience is that of its unreliability. But this has its own importance as well; as Victor Burgin talks about his memory of films, he expands on the idea of associative memories which fuse disparate film sequences to create a hybrid object, creating new meanings. Every voice and every mode of viewership—be it the nostalgic and romantic, or the ponderous and detached—has opened up newer paths within the discourse of cinema. Probably, merely as an intellectual exercise, the discourse of cinephilia could shed its conditions applied tag and accommodate into its ambit the voices which have a fundamental apathy towards the medium, if only to see whether that in any way enriches the discourse or takes us towards a more nuanced understanding of what cinema is.

– Souraj Dutta

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