As I mentioned in my roundup of the Cinephilia Rediscovered Series at Il Cinema Ritrovato last summer in Bologna, most of the debates about transformed cinephilia that film festivals set up today produce two polar categories of cinephiles. While nostalgic nitrate-lovers muse about a past age of filmmaking and film reception, a new generation of young Turks recognises that there is no better method for arousing cinephilia than the introduction of new mechanisms and technologies into the film experience. Girish Shambu is without a doubt one of the most representative of these new cinephiles, so his answer to the question I tend to propose the cinephiles I meet, did not come as a surprise.
As what type of cinephile would you describe yourself? Where would you situate yourself between two polar categories of cinephiles: the nostalgic cinephile, who deplores the fading of a bygone era, or the cinephile 2.0, who eagerly embraces modern methods of viewing, distribution and writing.
Definitely the latter. But let me try to address each word in your question – viewing, distribution, writing – separately.
I don’t think there is a full and true substitute for an ideal big-screen viewing experience. But even in the city where I live, I’m torn between seeing a film in the art-house movie theatre (where the focus is often soft, the projector bulb seems to be in its death throes, and the screen is scattered with small tears, rips and blotches) and watching a Blu-ray or DVD on a large screen TV at home. This is in spite of the fact that I enjoy submitting to the regime of viewing conditions in a movie theatre. I like it that I can’t pause the film, get up and take care of something mid-film, or wait until later to finish it. I’m sometimes a bit prone to this kind of discontinuous viewing at home, and I miss the ritualistic viewing circumstances in a theatre that impose an authority on me that I welcome. Finally, scale of the image definitely matters to me; it’s hard for me to appreciate a film on YouTube. I saw a terrific transfer of Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers on YouTube recently. It’s a great, complex, nuanced film, but I’ve already forgotten most of its images. I doubt that would have happened if I’d seen it in a theatre or on a large TV.
On distribution: It’s especially great to see imaginative tie-ups between distributors and online exhibitors, like Criterion’s partnership with Hulu Plus, which streams hundreds of its films on HD (when many of these films do not and likely will not find hard-media distribution in Blu-ray form because of cost reasons). It’s amazing to find that a dozen Oshima films are available to stream to your TV on HD, when almost none of them are available on Blu-ray. So, the Internet, by providing creative exhibition possibilities, is also helping revivify the distribution segment of the industry.
Finally: writing. The Internet is such a large, powerful and flexible super-tool that it has had two completely opposed mega-effects on film culture. On the one hand, unlike in a previous era, it has become tragically difficult to make a living as a film critic. And this is a shame. It’s a sign of the way late capitalism and the Internet have come together to collude in a brutal manner to make it nearly impossible for most film critics to do what they truly love for a living. Instead, they must perform some kind of “alienating” labour at a day job (or be independently well-off) to be able to carve out some time during the day or (more frequently) at night to do what they really love.
But for those who want to write about cinema today, the barriers have never been lower. The Internet offers the possibility of spaces that are (nearly) free of capitalist constraints – and how many spaces can we say that about it in today’s world?
Do you detect a shift in the activities of contemporary cinephiles, compared to the era in which you developed a passion for cinema?
I became a film buff in my mid teens at the dawn of the VHS era in the late ‘70s, but I didn’t become a “cinephile” until the start of another technological era, that of DVD and the Internet, in the late ‘90s. I tend to think of a cinephile as being different from a “buff” or a “fan” in the following way: a cinephile is deeply interested both in movies and the writing, reading, and conversation that surrounds movies, i.e. the discourse of movies. So, alas, what I know of cinephilia in the pre-Internet/DVD era is only second-hand, learned from talking to other critics and scholars or reading their accounts.
Which characteristics define a piece of good (cinephile) film criticism?
There are a few qualities I find myself looking for in any piece of film criticism: it should be about ideas in some way, however broadly defined; it should be attentive to writing style, however invisible and plain or performative and overt; and it should teach me a little something—about cinema or art or writing or the world.
What is your opinion on the often-problematic relationship between film criticism and academic writing?
I’d like to make two points here. First, we sometimes mistakenly think of “film criticism” as something that is performed exclusively in the journalistic/cinephile domain of film culture, while academics devote themselves to “theory” or “history”. This isn’t quite true: In reality, there is a lot of good, in-depth film criticism written by scholars. To take just a handful of examples, think of Tom Gunning on Lang; Joe McElhaney on Minnelli and Hitchcock; Dan Morgan on Godard; Steve Shaviro on ‘pop cinema’; David Bordwell on Ozu; or James Naremore on Welles and Kubrick. These folks are (or were) all full-time academic scholars.
Second, I think the potential for mutual learning and cross-fertilization of work between the academic and journalistic domains is immense. But there are barriers to entry on both sides. For journalists, it is knowledge of academic specialized language and of the traditions (and the histories of those traditions) of various schools of thought that have animated writing about movies. For scholars, it’s sometimes a tendency to read and cite other scholars almost exclusively, rather than looking to journalistic outlets or the fertile, fast-transforming landscape of Internet film criticism.
Similarly, when I read journalistic film critics in newspapers, magazines or on the web, I often find myself wishing that they would cultivate, even if modestly, an ongoing familiarity with scholarly work. There is one indispensable website that makes this activity much easier than it once used to be: scholar Catherine Grant’s Film Studies for Free, which posts vast amounts of scholarly (and other) work available in open-access form on the web.
Bottom line: I think that today, journalists and academics have less reason to not be acquainted with and inspired by each other’s activities and writing than ever before.
Which pieces of cinephile writing have influenced you?
The two film critics who have marked me most are Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin. I admire them both for the qualities they share in common and for the ways in which they are different.
In common: they are truly internationalist in their viewing, reading, and film-cultural interests; their interests span all kinds of cinema, from all periods; they have produced both journalistic and scholarly work (and often writing that is both), and have tried, over decades and hundreds of pieces, to bridge the gap between the two worlds; and they have readily and imaginatively embraced new possibilities and new technologies.
In terms of their differences: Jonathan’s deep and long-held interest in literary fiction and in jazz open up and inform his horizon of criticism in fascinating ways. And Adrian’s passion for ‘pop cinema’ (like teen cinema and B-movie erotic thrillers) was incredibly enabling for me personally because it legitimated powerful affinities I had long harboured (for teen films, especially) that I thought were ‘improper’ or ‘frivolous’ for a ‘serious’ cinephile…
I should also add: I believe that a cinephile should cultivate as broad a range of influences as she possibly can. I believe that reading widely and regularly is almost as important to a cinephile as watching films.
What is your personal cinephiliac moment?
Ah, I’m not sure if I’m able to answer this question.
There was a time in my cinephilic life, some years ago, when I seized and prized certain moments from certain films and elevated them above the rest, creating a small and rarefied personal trove of “most treasured moments”.
But today I find myself looking at films somewhat differently. Every film that I like or love offers me numerous qualities and intensities – singularities – that can’t often be captured (for me) within the construct of a single “moment”. This is not to say that each moment in a film is equally good as any other (it’s not), but that the special qualities and intensities of a good film often occur in a dispersed manner, developing or repeating or varying or reversing temporally through the course of a scene or a section or an entire film. It’s this ensemble of dispersal that I find myself being drawn to in any film. To wrench a single moment from these temporal structures of cinephilic pleasure in a film – and self-consciously lift this moment above all others in a way that isolates it from the rest of the film – seems more and more difficult for me to do these days. Even in a radically fragmented modernist or avant-garde film, the single moment’s relation to the rest of the work, to the flow of time – no matter whether it’s a harmonious or a jarring relation – has become something I value more and more as a cinephile.