The Moviegoer

March 4, 2009

Whatever happened to cinephilia? Does it still exist? I mean, in particular, the devotion of otherwise bookish souls to the screen. (The big screen, that is, not kind you are looking at now.) Do they still go to movies the way they once did? With anything like the passion, that is – the connoisseurship, the sheer appetite for seeing and comparing and discussing films?

I don’t think so. At least very few people that I know do. And certainly not in the way documented in Reborn (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) the recently published edition of Susan Sontag’s journals, which includes a few pages from a notebook listing the dozens of films the author attended over just three weeks in early 1961. An editorial comment provides more detail about Sontag’s record of her moviegoing that year: “On no occasion is there a break of more than four days between films seen; most often, SS notes having seen at least one, and not infrequently two or three per day.”

This was not just one writer’s personal quirk. It was clearly a generational phenomenon. In a memoir of his days as a student of philosophy at the Sorbonne in the late fifties and early sixties, the French political theorist Regis Debray describes how he and his friends would go from seminars to the cinema as often as their stipends allowed.

“We could afford to enjoy it several times a week,” he writes. “And that is not counting those crisis days when our satisfied and yet insatiable desire made us spend whole afternoons in its darkness. No sooner had we come out, scarcely had we left its embrace, our eyes still half-blind, than we would sit round a café table going over every detail.... Determinedly we discussed the montage, tracking shots, lighting, rhythms. There were directors, unknown to the wider public, whose names I have now forgotten, who let slip these passwords to the in-group of film enthusiasts. Are they still remembered, these names we went such distances to see? .... It may well be the case that our best and most sincere moments were those spent in front of the screen.”

Debray wrote this account of cinemania in the late sprint of 1967, while imprisoned in Bolivia following his capture by the military. He had gone there on a mission to see Che Guevara. An actor bearing a striking resemblance to the young Debray appears in the second part of Stephen Soderberg’s Che, now in theaters.

That passage from his Prison Writings (published by Random House in the early 1970s and long out of print; some university press might want to look into this) came to mind on a recent weekday afternoon.

After a marathon course of reading for several days, I was sick of print, let alone of writing, and had snuck off to see Soderberg’s film while it was still in the theater, on the assumption that it would lose something on the video screen. There was mild guilt: a feeling that, after all, I really ought to be doing some work. Debray ended up feeling a bit of guilt as well. Between trips to the cinema and arguing over concepts in Louis Althusser’s classroom, he found himself craving a more immediate sense of life – which was, in part, how he ended in the jungles of Bolivia, and then in its prisons.

Be that as it may, there was something appealing about this recollection of his younger self, which he composed at the ripe old age of 26. The same spirit comes through in the early pages of Richard Brody's Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (Metropolitan Books) and now a finalist for one of the National Book Critics Circle awards. Brody evokes the world of cinema clubs in Paris that Godard fell into after dropping out of school – from which there emerged a clique of Left Bank intellectuals (including Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Eric Rohmer) who first wrote critical essays on film for small magazines and then began directing their own.

They got their education by way of mania – which was communicable: Debray and Sontag were examples of writers who caught it from the New Wave directors. Another would be the novelist, poet, and linguist Pier Paolo Pasolini, who also started making films in the early sixties.

It’s not clear who the contemporary equivalents would be. In the mid-1990s you heard a lot about how Quentin Tarantino had worked in a video store and immersed himself in the history of film in much the same way that the French directors had. But the resemblance is limited at best. Godard engaged in a sustained (if oblique) dialogue with literature and philosophy in his films -- while Tarantino seems to have acquired a formidable command of cinematic technique without ever having anything resembling a thought in his head. Apart, of course, from “violence is cool,” which doesn’t really count.

These stray musings come via my own reading and limited experience. They are impressions, nothing more – and I put them down in full awareness that others may know better.My own sense of cinephilia's decline may reflect the fact that all of the movie theaters in my neighborhood (there used to be six within about a 15 minute walk) have gone out of business over the past ten years.

But over the same period cable television, Netflix, and the Internet have made it easier to see films than ever before. It is not that hard to get access to even fairly obscure work now. Coming across descriptions of Godard’s pre-Breathless short films, I found that they were readily available via YouTube. And while Godard ended up committing a good deal of petty crime to fund those early exercises, few aspiring directors would need to do so now: the tools for moviemaking are readily available.

So have I just gotten trapped (imprisoned, like Debray in Bolivia) by secondhand nostalgia? It wouldn't be the first time. Is cinephilia actually alive and well? Is there an underground renaissance, an alternative scene of digital cine clubs that I’m just not hearing about? Are you framing shots to take your mind off grad school or the job market? It would be good to think so -- to imagine a new New Wave, about to break.

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