Essays (book reviews)

Letter to Comrade Girish Shambu
(on his The New Cinephilia, first edition)

The New Cinephilia
by Girish Shambu
(Montreal: Caboose, 2015)


12 June 2015


Dear Comrade Girish 


Your book stirs many thoughts – in all of its readers, I am sure. I admire it very much: for its intellectual generosity, its breadth of reference, its elegance and economy as a piece of writing. You cover a lot in a short space! And here I recall Jean Louis Schefer’s attractive statement in an interview, somewhere in the late 1990s: he proposed that a writer’s task is not necessarily to study anything ‘in depth’ (as the cliché goes), but to cover or map or trace a surface, a series of connections hitherto unseen … and this is exactly what you have done so well.


Here are some of the things your book prompts me to think about. First of all, ‘new’ cinephilia. Whenever something is given the tag of the new, I immediately wonder: what was the old version of it? And when did that ‘pass away’, exactly? This is not to dispute that there is, in fact, something new (I hate those snap ‘nothing new under the sun’ dismissive arguments so rife in academia) in what you name as the New Cinephilia; but it is to historicise the gesture somewhat, and see if that can teach us anything.


Now, talk of ‘new cinephilia’ goes back at least to Louis Skorecki in 1978 (his sadly untranslated ‘Against the New Cinephilia’, reprinted in his 2001 book Raoul Walsh et moi) – and perhaps even far earlier, to Jean-Louis Comolli’s ‘Notes on the New Spectator’ of 1966 (that one is translated). What was at stake in those debates? Actually, it’s the earlier manifestation of exactly the sort of phenomenon of change you diagnose: bugging the ‘old cinephiles’ of the mid 1960s (but exciting to the young Comolli) was the growing fact that the teenage crowd was no longer always watching the cinematic classics projected in a theatre, but on television! By the moment of Skorecki’s fascinating (and quite ambivalent) tirade, video (as in VHS distribution of movies) looms in the scene to stir it up a bit more … Always this distancing, progressively installed, between the supposed ‘pristine innocence’ of the ‘true’ cinema experience, and its possibly alienated mediations into electronic transmissions, small screens, and eventually digital streaming and downloading …


Like you (I suspect), I have never found this argument (or this sensibility, as much as I can understand and respect it) especially convincing. This is simply because, as a teenager already set well into the ‘generations raised on TV’, I myself owe a great deal of my personal exposure to and discovery of ‘the classics’ (of art cinema, of Hollywood, of genre) to this medium; I could hardly have easily seen Ugetsu or Rocco and His Brothers or Alphaville or They Live by Night  any other way in suburban Melbourne when I was 14 or 15! And still today, glancing over my own ‘favourites’ list, I note that I have encountered By the Bluest of Seas, Behindert or some Garrel only ever on VHS, DVD or through my computer screen.


Yet there are many overlaps and continuities between the old and new cinephilias, however we might choose to periodise and characterise them as distinct. Both (as commentators including Jean Douchet and the late Paul Willemen have remarked) are defined by their rituals, by their ‘fetishism’ (to use the less kind descriptor). Sorting though old papers recently, I was brought face to face with the decidedly ‘outmoded’ cinephile passion – definitively killed off by the Internet – for collecting film production stills, lobby cards, flyers, etc (most of them looking a little bizarre and useless today in black-and-white, to facilitate their reproduction in print back then). Of course, such image-scavenging has its rightful (and I believe superior) digital equivalent today: in the gathering of screenshots, and especially their artful arrangement in Tumblr pages. Both manifestations seem to stem from the same, ritualistic desire – to hold a ‘piece’ (however displaced) of a film, to fix a token of it in our memories, as you discuss so well in your book – with the difference (in general) that Tumblr is (potentially) a much more public display than the ‘private cinephile shrines’ (such as Truffaut allegorised and embodied in his chambre verte) or the collector-swap-meets of yesteryear would allow.


It seems to me that a lot of your book, Girish, is about the remembering of films, about ‘processing’ them in the mind. You make great use of the distinction (via Victor Burgin, Catherine Fowler and others) of the cinema ‘here’ (that can be watched, directly experienced) and the cinema ‘elsewhere’, the cinema that is memorialised in, for instance, the ‘fondling’ (in whatever fashion!) of the stilled traces described above … And, in a way, you oppose the endless debates about the ‘dulling’ of our brains in the digital age (that argument, too, has its long history, for as long as sensitive plants have complained about the proliferation of ‘too many images’ in the modern, industrialised world!) with a redemptive ‘saving grace’ concerning the possible extension and ‘networking’ of minds in a more collective way, and by harnessing our hard drives (or related mnemonic devices) as our outsourced memory banks …


This brings me to a particular philosophical and cultural figure: the monad (as immortalised by Leibniz). I detect a tension in your book, Girish, between individual and collective experience. The collective experience is what you eventually come around to craving: especially, the dialogue or encounter with the ‘non-cinephile’ public. And yet much of the digital revolution you trace, certainly in the way you outline its procedures, is steadfastly individual and monadic: you scan your lists and alerts, save and store snippets, engage in social media banter (sometimes of a high intellectual level!), and so on. The modern reverie of the monad is, however, not solitary or alienated (or, at least, it likes to think itself not to be these things); it is more on the order of the type of strange, virtual community wonderfully described by Thierry Jousse (in a piece I translated for Rouge) as ‘fish in the aquarium’: not quite sharing a kumba-yah campfire experience, but swimming in the same imaginary pond, more or less, mediated by screen reflections, and crossing each others’ paths occasionally …


Is there a bridging experience of some kinds of community, of collectivity, between the modern monad at her or his laptop, and that big, wide world of Oliveira-uncomprehending masses out there, who we may hope to one day touch and convert in a public hall, a classroom, or a decently-selling printed book? This, to me, is the central question raised by your book. One way, of course, is through the kind of small, intense group-activity constituted by the editing and publishing of magazines – another, more elaborate, outer-directed, ‘publicly discursive’ kind of cinephile ritual, which we hear raised to an almost religious level in Manuel Mozos’ recent moving essay-film tribute to João Bénard da Costa, tellingly titled João Bénard da Costa – Others Will Love the Things I Loved (capturing that ‘ancient cinephile dream’ of transmission – transmission of both knowledge and passion).


To remember Paul Willemen (who himself embodied an intriguing overlap between classic and VHS-era cinephilias) again: I was struck, in the early years of the 21st century, by his lack of enthusiasm for the on-line publications I was involved in, such as Senses of Cinema or Rouge: he duly contributed to them and could well see their potential for ‘outreach’ but, for him, they were placeless, without cultural context: as pedagogical history has proven, students often come upon individual pieces via Google Search without always grasping that they are part of some larger site, magazine or ‘identity’. And for Paul, the project of people making a magazine together within their own, little social ‘scene’ was paramount: individual critics and their specific texts mattered less to him than the ‘group vibe’ of a certain politics of taste (different for each magazine) raised as a kind of fighting banner. Pretty much all that was lost with the Internet, he believed. And, these days, I half-agree with him: you and I enjoy creating LOLA together, and publishing texts that we admire and (in some sense) ‘identify’ with, but that’s nothing really like (if I can trust my own projective imagination!), say, the weekend get-togethers (across over half a century!) of all Positif’s editorial staff to collectively decide on a cover image, the month’s key films, who will get the new books that have dribbled in for review, and so on.


Fickleness is always something to reckon with in the digital age – fickleness in its many mutations from month to month. We have seen, on this very blog, conversation ebb away and migrate somewhere else (mainly to Facebook), as some (including myself) have noted or complained. I am all too aware, in my own daily digital habits, of an ever-growing tendency to bookmark or download texts rather than actually read them – a constant ‘deferral’ which didn’t happen, by and large, when I actually bought the darn things to have and to hold. Digital fickleness is a complex phenomenon linked to many too-easily-evoked-but-less-well-understood things: distraction, novelty, spectacle, and the kinds of long-range and short-span mental ‘retentions’ that Bernard Stiegler discusses (sometimes in a rather old/high culture fashion) in his work. I was recently introduced (thanks to Catherine Grant and Chiara Grizzaffi in a conference at University of East Anglia) to the ideas of Kenneth Goldsmith, guru of ‘uncreative writing’, who joyfully argues for the benefits of media-age distraction, on the basis of roughly Surrealist reasons: being suspended between multiple ‘inputs’, navigating between them, is something akin (for him) to the Surrealist practice of the willed, waking dream-state, open to the drifts and sparks of the creative unconscious. But fickleness in action has, naturally, its callous, oblivious, indifferent side, too – and that can infect our efforts at creating a film culture when we least expect it.


For some readers (me included), the Smiley Face moment is the best in your book. I won’t repeat it and thus spoil it for any Anna Faris/Gregg Araki fans yet to find it near the conclusion of your argument. But I can say that its purpose is this: to pull back from total ‘digital native’ positivity, and then regroup your thoughts for another balance of optimism and pessimism. As I’ve mentioned, part of what you shoot for at the end is a meeting with ‘the people’, the non-cinephile public; and the way you envisage this is through the open discussion of a certain kind of political drama or documentary that has become increasingly popular over the past decade (Citizenfour being a recent example).


In a way, you are wishing here for a return of a once-cherished notion: the ‘public sphere’, in which ideas are shared and discussed, with (in the best cases) a strong tie between personal experience and collective politics. But the public sphere is another thing that has vastly mutated in the digital age – and I say this as someone who was strongly immersed in ‘journalistic’ practice as a film critic for the better part of fifteen years (between the end of the 1980s and the mid 2000s), in a national Australian newspaper, and on radio and TV. I happen to hold no illusions about the public sphere of yesterday: when people long for it, what they wish for (knowingly or not) is essentially a middle class (and middlebrow) horizon of ‘cultural conversation’, from which the ‘opinionators’ can then survey and mediate every other form of aesthetic and social experience.


But the Internet places us, with a jolt, right in the middle of a messy space that was always casually overlooked or ruthlessly suppressed by this public sphere: a tangle of subcultures, many of them constituted by monads or fish in the aquarium, that fight it out for any attention they can get. This is the point where I agree with my friend Philip Brophy and his motto from the 1980s that ‘all cultures are founded on abrasion’ and mutual dissonance. And many contemporary theorists (Rancière, Bifo, Nancy, Papastergiadis, Wark) are busily trying to gauge the measurements of this new space, as it rapidly shifts around us all.


I myself come to a different conclusion on these matters, partly on the basis of my own temperament (which is different to yours, of course!). I think I gave up, some not-so-long time ago, on trying to convince people of the rightness of cinephilia. It comes down to one of those ‘evidence’ arguments that Bill Routt has analysed so well: if someone can’t ‘get’ cinephilia immediately, well, they likely never will. I can never really convince any over-cultivated, middlebrow consumer of ‘official culture’ that a ‘history of forms’ in a cinema of artifice (and all cinema is artifice) is more important than the realism of character and themes and places and ‘social issues’. There are people I will never be able to ‘find a level’ with and, at this point, I would rather not aggravate myself further by trying to talk with them.


The Internet, in short, is made for me: I can broadcast my voice (in whatever multimedia form or combination I please) and it will be heard or not, by whomever wishes to tune into that particular vibe on their personal waveband. Come to think of it, that was how I instinctively characterised the cinephile passion – and its expression in criticism – over twenty years ago, in the introduction (“S.O.S.”) to the Continuum issue “Film – Matters of Style”: as a message in a bottle, floating on the high seas. Then, it was a somewhat melancholic image, with the dusty, forlorn, abandoned shelves of physical libraries and archives in mind; now, online, it can be something, potentially at least, ever-present and alive and dynamic. The clarion call changes from ‘save our souls’ to ‘look here!’. And there, indeed, is where I join you fully in rejoicing in the New Cinephilia.


Warmest regards, Comrade Adrian


© Adrian Martin June 2015

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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