Some Reflections on the Cinephilia Question
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Some Reflections on the Cinephilia Question


This question has taken me toward the cinema as site of time and history, to cinephilia's mythic history and to the cinema's own unique relation to time. The object of love is at a crossroad in its history, between technologies, eras, and so on that bring its multiple temporalities into sharp relief. The cinema not only carries history within it (as in the Histoire(s) du cinema) but also materializes time in instants and duration, in reality and fiction. If cinephilia now has an immediate and useful purpose, it might well be to turn to the cinema as a "lesson" in time, its visualisation and its passing that, on the one hand, leads to history and the cinema's referentiality and, on the other, leads to the marvelous and the ineffable in the cinema's temporality. As Jean Epstein pointed out, the cinema's fusion of the static and the mobile, the discontinuous and the continuous, seems to fly in the face of nature, "a transformation as amazing as the generation of life from inanimate things." But, in the present context, alongside these temporalities are those of cinephilia itself. As its original conditions of being have receded (along with the cigarette smoke that had fueled them) into the past, the idea of loving the cinema becomes a conscious stance that stretches back into the twentieth century so that the contemporary cinephile lives the problem of the continuities and discontinuities of time. Perhaps, however, this would be less so if it were not for the specific and identifiable nature of cinephilia's origins . . . part history, part myth . . . infused with a legendary glamour, accumulating rather than losing its hold over later generations of cinephiles as it still continues to reverberate down the decades. [End Page 190]


I was recently reading Pierre Nora's Lieux de mémoire (or rather I was reading the concluding essay and looking casually at some of the specific studies) when it struck me that the heroic period of Henri Langlois's Cinématèque and its contemporary Cahiers du cinéma would have fitted very appropriately into the collection. While existing on one level as concrete cultural institutions, both were the stuff and sites of myth. Contemporaneously, they organized and systematized the history of the cinema so unsystematically and anti-institutionally that the movies emerged into cultural "discourse" with their magic untarnished, fueling the marvelous but amorphous cinephilia of 1950s Paris. While cinema was idealized in this cinephile culture, it also acquired a symbolic status as "idea." In retrospect, the Cahiers/Cinemateque synchronicity revitalized and reinvented 1920s cinephilia, and also launched something completely new, a St. John the Baptist to the explosion of film cultures that was to come. These myth-generating institutions have, of course, themselves become mythic: a perpetual point of historic reference for future cinephiles (as they rather sadly watched "the movies" mature into "film studies") and for the increasingly diverse, ever younger, global spread of cinephiles (precisely produced by "film studies"). Although the Cinemateque and the Cahiers as "lieu" share the particular Frenchness that essentially characterizes the Nora "lieux," the specific national and historical nature of that cinephile moment has been overtaken by a collective, international nostalgia. This sense of loss, a simple product of the inevitable passing of time, always an element in cinephilia, is also accentuated by changes in the loved object itself.


Nora comments on the way that a passion for memory overtook France in the 1990s in the form of a collective holding on to the past as it seemed to slip away under combined pressures of social, political, and economic change. Although these particular shifts are not immediately relevant, a sense of loss and associated upsurges of memory have parallels in the recent history of cinema. As the cinema underwent those transformations of the 1990s that brought so many pronouncements of its death, so cinephiles began to reflect (perfectly rationally) on the passing of the special, ritualistic conditions of watching films, obsessive habits of moviegoing and the love of moments and fragments that had characterized their preferred form of spectatorship. There are two levels...