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The first filmgoers who referred to themselves as cinephiles were the French artists and intellectuals in the 1920s associated with the avant-garde: Louis Delluc (1890–1924), Jean Epstein (1897–1953), Germain Dulac (1882–1942), and Ève Francis (1886–1980). For these filmmaker-critics, photogénie referred to a very specific experience produced by cinema. Moments of revelation, or recognition, constituted a "viewer's aesthetic" for those most sensitive to the affective, emotional intensity of the medium (Willemen, Looks and Frictions, p. 126). While Willemen is critical of the elitism implied in this version of the concept, he himself has defined cinephilia as a term that "doesn't do anything other than designate something which resists [or] escapes existing networks of critical discourse and theoretical frameworks" (ibid., p. 231).

The love of cinema that inspired French intellectuals from the 1920s, brought about the establishment of the Cinémathèque Française in 1935, and motivated the Cahiers du cinéma film critics in the 1950s was referred to informally, but enthusiastically, as "cinephilia." In 1977 the film theorist Christian Metz defined and theorized the term in his book, The Imaginary Signifier, formally introducing it into film studies discourse. Since that time "cinephilia" has taken on a range of meanings and associations above and beyond the psychoanalytic definition that Metz gave it as "love of cinema." In a more colloquial sense, "cinephilia" refers to the passion with which people go to, and write about, movies. As a passion, or a desire, it embraces the subjective aspect of film studies as a discipline and filmgoing as a (pre)occupation. At the same time, it indicates the excesses of the medium and its champions. With the ongoing emergence of new electronic technologies—video, DVD, multimedia, and the Internet—cinephilia has become subject to intense debate. Is it a term of nostalgia for a lost medium, or can it be applied to new forms of film viewing? There may be little consensus as to the scope of the term, but there is also little doubt that cinephilia endures as a particular attachment to movies and film culture. A term riddled with contradictions and ambiguity, "cinephilia" points to some key questions associated with the study of film. When expertise is conflated with subjective pleasures, can there be an objective knowledge of the cinema?


In developing his psychoanalytic-semiotic film theory, Metz began by thinking about his own relationship to the cinema, as a theorist and as a spectator. He argued that the person who loves the cinema, but also writes about it, is like a child who breaks his or her toy. The cinephile, for Metz, is precariously balanced between the "imaginary" pleasure of losing oneself in the image and the "symbolic" knowledge of its machinery and its codes. Writing about cinema is a sadistic practice, he argues, because it can only be grasped "against the grain," like the analysis of a dream or a countercurrent. (Imaginary, p. 15). And yet, insofar as the machinery—the mechanics, the form, the appreciation of the "well-made film"—becomes part of the cinephile's pleasure in filmgoing, the cinephile is also, quite clearly, a fetishist. "The fetish is the cinema in its physical state," says Metz, adding that when the love for the cinema is extended from a fascination with technique to a critical study of its codes and processes of signification, the disavowal attached to the fetish becomes a form of knowledge (ibid., p. 75). Cinephilia, in other words, enables the semiotician to love the cinema while gaining a critical distance from its lure.

The limitations of Metz's film theory, such as its universalizing thrust and restriction to a certain kind of "classical" narrative cinema, are extensive and well-known. However, his theorization of cinephilia as a complex form of desire is a useful definition to retain. Metz's reference to the French New Wave locates his understanding of cinephilia within film-historical terms and contextualizes his psychoanalytic-semiotic paradigm. The filmmaker-critics associated with Cahiers du cinéma in the late 1950s and early 1960s embodied the notion of cinephilia and may even be said to have turned from writing film criticism to filmmaking precisely to overcome the kind of contradictions that Metz identifies at the heart of the fascination and obsession with cinema.

The love of cinema to which the Cahiers critics were dedicated can in fact be traced even further back to their shared mentor, André Bazin. "The cinema," said Bazin, "is an idealistic phenomenon" (What, p. 17). In his seminal essay, "The Myth of Total Cinema," he argued that film history is guided by the passions of men for an "integral realism, a recreation of the world in its own image," and he proceeded to develop a style of film criticism that privileged those filmmakers who, he felt, came closest to realizing the ideal of a "total cinema"—Jean Renoir (1894–1979), Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977), Orson Welles (1915–1985), and Kenji Mizoguchi (1898–1956) (ibid., p. 21). He loved their long takes and deep focus strategies by which the world seemed to offer itself up to the viewer. Moreover, he wrote about films with an unmitigated enthusiasm for stylistic achievements alongside an appreciation for the emotional weight of a film's effect on its viewer. Bazin may not have been the first cinephile, but his essays on cinema initiated a critical discourse on cinema that was stimulated by an acknowledged desire for the seduction of the image and at the same time was tempered by a rigorous understanding of film style, language, technique, and form.

In the pages of Cahiers du cinéma during the 1950s, Bazin's realist aesthetics were embraced by François Truffaut (1932–1984), Eric Rohmer (b. 1920), Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), Jacques Rivette (b. 1928), Claude Chabrol (b. 1930), and others as a discourse of film authorship, mise-en-scène, and Hollywood. They invested themselves in the cinema by means of a highly personalized style of writing, praising films and directors that, as Metz puts it, were designated as "good objects." Other films, such as those of the French cinema, were derided as poor excuses for filmmaking. The real auteurs were those who expressed themselves in terms of images.

The Cahiers critics articulated their excessive cinephilia in phrases such as "tracking shots are a question of morality" to refer to both Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) and the cinema of Sam Fuller (1912–1997) (Hillier, ed. Cahiers, p. 62). Rossellini's cinema constituted "a state of mind" (ibid., p. 203); Nicholas Ray (1911–1979), according to Godard, "is morally a director, first and foremost," "one cannot but feel that here is something which exists only in the cinema" (ibid., p. 116). Rivette claimed that "what justifies CinemaScope in the first place is our desire for it" (ibid., p. 276).

The cinephilia of the Cahiers critics set in motion some of the key paradigms of film studies scholarship, including, most crucially, auteurist criticism and the canon of masterpieces on which the discipline was founded. While their project was, on one level, to supply the cinema with a critical vocabulary and pantheon that would align it with the other arts, it was a project that also recognized the specificity of the cinema as a commercial medium. Their embrace of the American cinema, through the key figures of Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann (1907–1967), Sam Fuller, and Fritz Lang (1890–1976)—alongside Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980)—entailed a reading of Hollywood as a modernist enterprise. The Cahiers critics were, in many instances, writing about cinema "against the grain" of its studio-based generic formulas.

While there is little agreement or consensus within the film-critical community about what "cinephilia" really means, a recurring theme is the idea of excess. More specifically, cinephilia may be a kind of excess that resides on the level of detail, which is "caught" by a viewer for whom it opens up a subjective relation to the text. In fact, this notion of cinematic experience can be linked to a variety of critical discourses and theoretical frameworks, including some of the theories developed by Roland Barthes (1915–1980) (the punctum and the "third meaning") and Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) ("unconscious optics" and flânerie). The cinephile in this sense is the viewer who is slightly distracted from the filmic text and yet entranced by moments that exceed the text and take him or her elsewhere.


While the terminology and aesthetics of cinephilia may be most closely associated with French film criticism, a similar critical passion for cinema developed in North America during the same period. In the 1940s critics such as James Agee (1909–1955) and Robert Warshow (1917–1955) were writing about cinema with a passionate investment akin to that of the French critics. In their case, they were engaging even more directly in the culture wars of high and low categories of taste, a mantle taken up by critics such as Pauline Kael (1919–2001) and Andrew Sarris (b. 1928) in the 1960s. These critics may not have espoused a consistent aesthetic theory, yet their writing did begin from the premise that good film-making had merit not only from an aesthetic point of view, but also as a politics of taste. Allowing the cinema into the canons of "art" entailed a challenge to traditional cultural institutions and authorities for whom cinema was a "mass medium." In this sense, cinephilia was closely linked to anti-establishment, leftist—or at least liberal—politics, although the affinities between cinephilia and cultural politics have always been difficult to sustain.

In the late 1960s Godard may have been pushing his cinephilia into an activist, politicized cinema, but in the United States another kind of avant-garde had formed around a quite different manifestation of cinephilia. The New American Cinema investigated the specific properties of film, stripping it of its industrial components such as (in its most extreme forms) actors, stories, and scripts, to produce a purified experience of watching movies in the dark. The Invisible Cinema constructed in New York City at Anthology Film Archives in 1970 was designed to block out the viewer's peripheral vision that might detract from the pure and completely fixed gaze at the screen. The "perverse cinephilia" of the New American Cinema was no less fetishistic than the cinephilia described by Metz in its fascination with the image, projection, and darkness, coupled with the knowledge of the mechanics behind the experience of watching articulated as aesthetic form. The proponents of this alternative cinema—Stan Brakhage (1933–2003), Michael Snow (b. 1929), Andy Warhol (1927–1987), Hollis Frampton (1936–1984), and many others—espoused a love for cinema so intense that they attempted to redeem it from the corrupted entertainment culture that had come to dominate the medium.

Linking these very different cinephiles is a shared passion for the rituals of moviegoing, of entering the darkness and giving oneself over to the power of the image. Before the Invisible Cinema, experimental films were screened alongside Hollywood films and the international art cinema at film societies such as Cinema 16. This New York–based institution, under the direction of Amos Vogel (b. 1921), programmed an eclectic mix of films, including documentaries and silent cinema from 1947 to 1963. Vogel's mantra was that film viewing was in itself a subversive act, and for him the "good film" is one that fascinates the viewer, liberating him or her from the repressive tendencies of everyday life. Henri Langlois's (1914–1977) Cinémathèque Française in Paris incarnated a similar cultural politics during roughly the same period. Established in 1935, the Cinémathèque provided the formative education of the Cahiers critics and New Wave filmmakers. Cinephilia is very much responsible for the archival activities of the international association of cinematheques that remain dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of the wealth of film history.


Since the 1970s cinephilia has come to be associated with a depoliticized, purely aesthetic understanding of the cinema as an artform. An approach to the medium that privileges auteurs and canons of great works tends to be opposed to an approach shaped by political and cultural concerns, including feminism, Marxism, and postcolonial theory. And yet, as this brief history of the term should suggest, the love of cinema can, and has, included its own critique all along. Film theory and criticism that is motivated by the concerns of critical theory does not necessarily abandon the love of cinema or the subjective investment of the cinephile. Even Laura Mulvey's famous essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975), one of the foundational texts of feminist film theory, advocates a critical detachment that is nonetheless "passionate."

With the centenary of cinema in 1995 came a lament for the "death of cinephilia." Susan Sontag (1933–2004) argued that "the sheer ubiquity of moving images has steadily undermined the standards people once had both for cinema as art and for cinema as popular entertainment." She pointed to the faster and faster cutting that has produced a cinema that "doesn't demand anyone's full attention" ("The Decay"). Alongside Sontag's complaint about the quantity and quality of film production is the slow but inevitable slide of cinema into new electronic media. The rituals of moviegoing are threatened by home viewing, and the film image is itself threatened by digital technologies of shooting, editing, and projection.

However, we need to ask whether cinephilia is dead or is being reinvented. Sontag's lament came precisely at the moment when the cinemas of western and eastern Asia were gaining international recognition. The films of directors such as Abbas Kiarostami (b. 1940), Hou Hsiao-hsien (b. 1946), and Wong Kar Wai (b. 1958) are nothing if not films for cinephiles, their realist aesthetics in many ways recalling the critical priorities favored by Bazin. One could also argue that with video distribution, cinephilia has become a more democratic pastime. No longer enthralled by the definitions of the "good film" promoted by custodial curators, the cinephile is free to collect and view multitudes of titles according to his or her own taste.

One of the key figures in the debates around the fate of cinephilia is Quentin Tarantino (b. 1963), who famously had his formative education as a video store clerk. His own filmmaking is very much indebted to the Blaxploitation genre of American cinema, which by revisiting, he has helped to redeem from the dustbin of history. Is this videophilia? Or is it the cinephilia of the collector, whose obsessive and passionate movie watching is yet another foray into the politics of good taste? At the other end of the taste spectrum one can point to visual artists such as Bill Viola (b. 1951), Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), Stan Douglas (b. 1960), and Jeff Wall (b. 1946), who are unambiguously driven by cinephilia, even if they do not make movies or write about them. Their photographic and video works engage directly with the fullness of the cinematic experience and explore its seductive properties in important and innovative ways.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of twenty-first-century cinephilia is the release of restored film titles on DVD. Not only is the wealth of film history—once hidden away in dusty archives—becoming widely available, but in addition, digital technologies have in many instances improved the image quality, thus bringing us even closer to the myth of total cinema. The digital image is supposedly free of scratches and blemishes, taking us into a new dimension of transparency and awe-inspiring, trance-inspiring film viewing. The enhancement of the soundtrack through new technologies likewise extends the power of the film to absorb its viewer. Meanwhile, the stylishly packaged DVD is yet another version of the cinephiliac fetish, collectible, like the video before it, by the obsessive cinephile. If cinephilia refers to the "knowledge" of cinema alongside a "loving" relationship, then digital technologies are also responsible for a renewed intellectual engagement with movies in the various forms of online journals, voice-over commentaries, fan Web sites, and interactive DVD features.

Thomas Elsaesser makes a distinction between two phases of cinephilia: where "take one" involved the total immersion in the image, "take two" refers to the "fan cult" cinephilia of the collector aided by new technologies. Both forms, though, involve a "crisis of memory" for Elsaesser, for whom the love affair with cinema is always an anxious love (p. 40). Cinephilia in this formulation refers to the way that modern memory is mediated by technologies of recording, storage, and retrieval. In trying to get closer to the cinema, it inevitably becomes more distant, more mediated, and more fractured; if this was the lesson of Screen theory in the 1970s, inspired in no small part by Christian Metz, the cinephile's anxiety has been revived through the infinite archive of cinema history (p. 41).

Cinephilia is in many ways alive and well, continuing to flourish in the hundreds of film festivals that take place every year around the world. There may no longer be a consensus about the category of the "good film," but film culture continues to thrive nonetheless. Celluloid is a material medium, subject to decay, but the love of movies is not likely to disappear any time soon. Nor are the debates around cinephilia and its significance. As a critical enterprise, it will always entail a cultural politics of taste, but as an affliction, it signifies the desire for the cinematic "good object," a desire that stimulates the study of film alongside its production.

SEE ALSO Archives;Art Cinema;Criticism;Journals and Magazines;Technology


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Catherine Russell