In his augural post for the second P:NC Online Roundtable, Michael Koresky parses the meaning of cinephilia today and then writes:
“More and more it seems to me movies are being discussed by cinephiles as found objects rather than complete constructed experiences, unearthed (downloaded, streamed, torrented) for the sake of completists rather than wrestled with and discussed as living, breathing works of art. It’s a strange byproduct of accessibility, and clearly it’s a boon to film history that there’s so much available to us—but do movies exist to be merely catalogued? Is this the moment we cinephiles, with our obsessive list-making habits, have been heading toward all along?”
Before ceding the floor to Kent Jones, he wonders, Is it better to see less but feel more? Or is it blasphemously non-cinephilic to disavow completism?
Jones responds with a meaty dissection of cinephilia himself, distinguishing the “heroic” age of film love as an “extremely curious mixture of romanticism, essentialism, and a dogmatism so harsh and punitive as to make Jonathan Edwards shudder.”
Following up on this idea, he claims that cinephilia is stuck in the 50s, and argues that film criticism needs to move beyond polemical campaigns and final judgments into the work of writing itself and a greater engagement with the world, citing non-cinephile cultural critic Edmund Wilson as a model.
Which, of course, raises another question: Is evaluation beside the point for the actual work of criticism?
I think the point being made is that many film lovers always feel the need to discover something new every second of the day and show it off. They can’t appreciate what’s sitting right in front of them. And I agree. It only adds unnecessary stress. One could make a commitment towards only watching films available in the netflix catalog and still not see nearly everything there is. I guess the message is, “Don’t rush. Take one thing at a time, and appreciate what you have.”
Over here I have so little access to movies that I don’t watch very many, and those I do are typically re-watches. It reminds me of when I had a conversation in class about the purpose of re-watching and the more you can learn about the techniques and structure of a film, the closer you can look at characters, the more dialog you understand, etc.
I rewatched Brick just now. Gets better with each subsequent viewing. I do not mind re-discovering Brick every time I watch it. I also can’t wait for Rian Johnson’s NEXT movie, Looper, where a time-traveling hitman has to hit himself (but I’m corny for time travel so there ya go). “Discoveries” can be made off of what you already know sometimes too.
So one of the most significant threads in this forum receives hardly any responses.
@ThisLife So one of the most significant threads…
The significance of whining about whining is ?
I bet I could find a paragraph by Thucydides that reads just like this: … are declared “hateful” or “immoral” or “loathsome” at the drop of a hat, moral condemnations of ….. convicted of insufficient love for their characters is rampant, and the cheapest rhetorical ploy imaginable, accusing the people who like something that you don’t like or who love something that you hate of being deluded or morally compromised, is enacted with impunity.
The only thing I wondered about was this: cinephilia is stuck in the 50s
Did-not-know there was cinephilia in the 50’s.
“I think the point being made is that many film lovers always feel the need to discover something new every second of the day and show it off.”
Yes, and it’s also that there’s a felt need to polemicize—“nothing can be celebrated without a countervailing condemnation of its supposedly opposite number, and visa versa.” It’s felt that a negative assertion of value must accompany any positive assertion of value that is made. There’s a shift from the “appreciative criticism” emphasized by Bazin to the more polemical model practiced by Truffaut and some of the other Cahiers critics.
Would you please stop b****ing about every last post in the forum you disagree with/disapprove of. It’s getting annoying. Can’t people just keep their mouths shut. I need to keep my mouth shut sometimes to, but if people are going to complain about my mouth, they should do the same themselves.
I think the trend toward ‘Cataloging’ is just a mathematical effect.
Say, you have 200 cinephiles, and 100 of them watch 10 films a year, and the other 100 watch 100 films a year.
Pick any given film, especially a rare one, and the ones who watched 100 films a year are 10 times more likely to see it, so 10/11 of the people who’ve seen it are the ‘Catalog’ people even though they represent only 1/2 the viewers.
I also think there’s an age element. Polarisdib and RWP, you strike me as people who’ve been watching films for years and years, and you’ve already figured out what your tastes are and how to spot a film you like. Others, such as myself, have not fully established their tastes and are still in the exploration phase. I try to find and ‘Catalog’ more films because I simply don’t know what’s out there. I agree that re-watching makes you understand films a lot better. I’m a lot better at talking about films I’ve seen more than once, and a few years from now I will probably do a lot more re-watching than ‘Discovering’.
“It’s felt that a negative assertion of value must accompany any positive assertion of value that is made.”
And since these “Project Cinephilia” topics seem interested in cinephilia on the Internet as its specific subject, it’s worth noting that Matt Parks’ mentioned polemicizing is especially so on the web. There are a variety of reasons behind this, I will elaborate only a few that come to mind without trying to be too exhaustive:
-Anonymity affords confrontation without responsibility.
-Anonymity requires sticking out to make a name and attract attention.
-Much noise requires sticking out to make a name and attract attention.
-Polemicizing becomes noise.
-Western values: the individual. You can’t be unique if you agree with everyone else.
-First come first serve. I want to be the first to have “discovered” this “gem.” I want to be the first “off the bandwagon” once they’ve “sold out.” I don’t know how long this has been going on but I think it started with music, since that’s its strongest locus.
-The more you know about, the more you can later know. Critical positioning.
Self-recognition. Everyone expects the quirky, unknown, weird from you-who are you to disagree, even though you “don’t care what anyone thinks”?
-Within agreement there is still disagreement, and vice-versa. Two people with almost pitch-perfect mirroring philosophies will argue the one blemish of disagreement against each other to the bitter end.
-You can’t be wrong. So when you’ve lost an argument, you must find further facts to support your side. Easier to deny and obfuscate than admit you’re wrong.
Placement of Otherness enhances activity of Otherness, as a general self-fulfilling rule. Being “defined” as a cinephile puts forth various presumptions, which you find yourself living up to-one of which is the constant unearthing of stuff previously unheard of by others.
And so on.
“Did-not-know there was cinephilia in the 50’s”
Do we need to do a “history of cinephilia” thread?
I don’t think all of those are fair. You’re supplying a lot of people with a lot of insidious/insincere motives. Even if there’s a grain of truth in many of them, you’ve phrased them as broad personal labels and made it a general critique of ‘Western’ individualism.
I would replace a lot of yours with “The line is blurred between a debate about a topic and a contest of intellectual worth. To be wrong is to be stupid, and to give an inch is to give a mile.”
There could be ten people having a respectful debate about a topic. Then an eleventh person comes in and isn’t respectful, the other ten go into personal defense mode, and the eleventh person alone gets to set the tone of the debate.
“There could be ten people having a respectful debate about a topic.”
But even so, what Jones is saying is not necessarily even a matter of opinion vs. opinion mano-a-mano, but look at the neverending stream of “overrated” “underrated” and "I hate . . . " threads—these are a kind of polemic, too—and of course, the lists, my god, the lists:
" there are the endless lists and catalogues and rankings and revisions of the canon. When a friend of mine read my 2002 Sight and Sound list, he remarked to me that he found it “conservative.” Only in film culture is the act of list-making freighted with such urgency."
I see what he’s saying, but I think he’s overreacting. He’s making the leap between style of discussion and style of appreciation, and I don’t think it’s there.
When people discover new things, and enjoy them as much as they did the old things or more, they look back on the critics who only talk about the old things and notice an uneven playing field. You say “You shouldn’t watch something just to be the first to discover it”, I respond “But you also shouldn’t accept something as great just because it’s been classified as such.” We should be taking somebody’s opinion as their own opinion instead of psychoanalyzing it.
Of course in depth discussions are preferable to lists, but time is limited in today’s culture, and lists are a lot faster. That may be a problem in and of itself, but if you’re trying to get other people to watch a film you love, you’ll have more success by showing them you equate it with the films they already know and love than by writing a long analysis of it.
Yes, who were these people and what were they kvetching about?
I would bet it wasn’t Criterion, DVD region specific players, or aspect ratios.
Btw, doesn’t our new definition exclude critics and academics?
_"I see what he’s saying, but I think he’s overreacting. He’s making the leap between style of discussion and style of appreciation, and I don’t think it’s there."
Well, Jones is talking specifically about criticism. What you’re saying goes back more to Koresky’s point regarding appreciation of films “found objects” vs. appreciation of films as “complete constructed experiences.” It’s not so much about appreciation vs. discussion, it’s more about valuing the experience of finding and consuming of a film over the experience of dealing with them as works of art (now, obviously, for most viewers, there are elements of both experiences with any work to varying degrees).
“We should be taking somebody’s opinion as their own opinion instead of psychoanalyzing it.”
Yeah, sure, but I do think that some of the things Polaris noted as potentially furthering the tendency toward polemics on the internet are valid.
“critics who only talk about the old things”
My sense is that Koresky’s argument would go something like this: if more cinephiles engaged the work as more than “found objects,” the result would be more worthwhile discussion of the “new things” that are worthwhile beyond mere novelty. Jones is just saying that if critics could convince themselves to disengage from polemics and taxonomy, their would be a lot more time for what he calls “the actual work of criticism.”
Now, of course, there will always been some people who just have a complete collection of Criterion DVDs or see the complete filmography of Im Kwon-Taek or whatever . . . and that’s fine, too.
“Btw, doesn’t our new definition exclude critics and academics?”
I’m sure if we worked the subject enough we could get it down to the point where it pretty much excludes everybody.
I think one should maintain a balance. If you come across a film by happenstance that’s as widely acclaimed as you think it deserves to be, then great! I don’t think it’s healthy, however, to constantly go out of your way to prove and divulge the canon’s “limitations.” Obviously there are going to be hidden gems out there in any medium, and someone will come across them at the right time, but why stress your self out trying to locate that hidden gem before everyone else. The supposed canon is so expansive itself one could spend a lifetime exploring that alone without needing to look elsewhere. If you find a film that interests you that doesn’t seem to be included in the canon, then watch it and see if you like it. Discoveries are great. At the same time, however, enjoy the canon while you have it and stop trying to outdo others by showing off your newest discovery. That’s not what love of an art form is about.
Also, I think they’re raising a point that film lovers tend to be less submissive towards canons than are lovers of other artistic mediums, and this can be both a good and a bad thing.
One of the problems I’m having with the roundtable “discussion” is that it isn’t really clear much of the time whether the participants are responding to each other or simply posting somewhat random riffs on some notions of cinephilia. The articles are raising some issues without addressing them directly, and occasionally seem to border on a sort of self-contradiction or perhaps an intentional irony that isn’t really unpacked.
Is Jones replying to Koresky with his piece? It seems he could be since there is something of an implicit jab at the type of critic Koresky chose to quote as the centerpiece of his article. Sarris seems as good a choice as any to represent the list-making, judgmental critic that Jones is judging. Sarris often seemed to treat criticism as a strategy as much as anything else, deciding who is or isn’t worthy of consideration and finding developing ways to justify those judgments. There are a few issues with both articles, by my way of thinking, that need to be looked at, but first I want someone to make sense of the latter part of the Sarris quote Koresky chose.
The cultural rationale for our worthier predecessors—Agee, Ferguson, Levin, Murphy, Sherwood, et al.—was that they were too good to be reviewing movies. We, on the contrary, were not considered much good for anything else. Like one-eyed lemmings, we plunged headlong into the murky depths of specialization.
Is Sarris saying that specialization is suicidal? That’s what lemmings are metaphorically noted for, their suicidal impulse. Or is he trying to suggest that critics are “killing” themselves intellectually by not broadening their interests? Given that having one eye leads to no depth perception, is he suggesting that specialization is somehow denies depth? Isn’t specialization an attempt to know a smaller variety of things more deeply than the broader view of the non-specialist? Since lemmings are noted for their conformity of behavior and “pack” mentality, is he saying specialization is a pack behavior? Isn’t the desire to stake out a singular niche sort of the opposite of that? Or is he saying that specialists lead to more specialists, that specialization comes from a desire to do what all the other critics are doing? Is murky depths intended to be ironic given the one-eyed nature of said lemming? Is it a suggestion that specialization can actually prevent you from finding depth due to both an already handicapped position as well as the murkiness which would further obscure one’s view? If he thinks this is problematic why didn’t he change? At some point isn’t the whole quote a sort of shrugging acceptance of what he seems to state as limits? If so, isn’t that then the whole point, to focus on the word “considered” which would then render Koresky’s use of the quote somewhat ironic?
While I am not a completist myself, I have to wonder if there isn’t too much hand-wringing over those who are, over those who do seek to know one thing really well, the hedgehogs instead of the foxes. Doesn’t specialization aid the generalists in providing a more solid foundation for their speculation? If I watch some films by Ozu and find someone like Donald Ritchie has captured much of what I think about the films, then can I not make some basic assumptions about the rest of what Ritchie says in regards to what Ozu done and use that to further my thinking on other films indirectly? One must also ask whether there are many who consider themselves specialists at all anyway. I don’t recall reading too many critics who didn’t believe they had a pretty good grasp of movies as a whole even if they didn’t know something about a specific film or filmmaker, so the tension lies more between those who specialize in one area versus another and the claims made for each than between the specialists and the generalists I’d think.
This is why cataloging becomes so important to some I suspect. They are attempting to stake out the importance of their turf, to show it as being as important as that of the next specialist’s ground. In this way, it is an implicit argument of value as well as a warning to keep away since those unfamiliar with the catalog can’t effectively question claims that arise from having listed it. This strikes me as not being an entirely bad thing as it expands the ground and keeps our understanding open as one can’t impose artificial limits to our way of thinking about film history or its value. List making and cataloging can stand against the desire to canonize or finalize a judgment as much as they can be used to impose one. One just need look at the many lists Kenji has made here to see the varieties of information that can be gained by lists, as well as one’s own limits of knowledge. This kind of list making should warn anyone against being to certain over what they know and whether that knowledge can be applied to some totality of film.
With Jones piece, I have to question the notion that evaluation and judgment are the same, which he seems to imply. It raises the question of whether one can separate evaluation from criticism or if one is just hiding it as well as the question of whether it is desirable to do so in any case since to ignore evaluation is to accept claims you may believe a film is making without comment regardless of what those claims are, which can itself be a moral choice. If I see a film that I believe espouses a racist or sexist viewpoint and I fail to lay out the argument for that belief I am implicitly accepting it as valid. We are always limited in our perspectives, so pretending there is some neutral semi-objective stance one can take to simply look at a film without consideration for what one feels about it is not a particularly helpful one.
It isn’t as if Wilson or Farber were above this anyway. Farber explicitly and implicitly stated his viewpoints on the worth of certain types of films even as he celebrated some less well regarded ones. Wilson did the same in literature, notably laying in to detective fiction and its fans. They were both fine critics, Wilson is a particular favorite of mine, but they did have points of view that served to create judgments even if they didn’t explicitly state them. Farber’s celebration of the sort of raw and manly films was posed in opposition to some of the bigger and more polished studio ones. His celebration was also a form of denigration of an other. One can approach films like Bordwell and simply try to lay out how they do what they do, but this denies the ideological elements of the film as well as some of the emotional or intellectual ones which are every bit as important to the viewer as the construction. Bordwell’s great in what he does, but he isn’t what I would think of as a great critic for that very reason. Evaluation isn’t the problem, snap judgments and a failure to fully engage with the film are much more troubling. For most viewers, the evaluative process is the primary interest in a film, they watch movies for themselves or perhaps to discuss with a few friends, it’s only critics that need concern themselves with any broader concerns.
For a critic, the exploration of the film happens in print and is presumed to be for someone other than themselves, at least in theory. I tend to agree with much of what Polaris wrote above, particularly now that the internet has become the primary way criticism is being shared. With the lessening of job certainty for those who seek to write about film there has come an increase in the need for self-promotion, to make one’s voice heard over the din. This leads to all sorts of consequences, many of them positive, as in the increased amount of voices, and many of them less so as the manner in which writing about film has shifted has led to some unfortunate issues like not having a central location to go for information as everyone wants their own page views. This discussion is going on here, on Girish’s page, on Harry Tuttle’s page and god knows where else. Each site is engaged in a slightly different version of the discussion, isolated from each other and therefore less able to build on what others have said. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, but it certainly could be more positive an experience or lead to more interesting thoughts if the circles would intersect more.
But, hey, this is just the opinion of someone who watches a lot of movies but is more than a little uncomfortable with the term cinephile. For me the quasi-religious or semi-sexual connotation of the term hinted at by many of the articles does not suit my feelings or thinking about film very well. I don’t really want to see my film watching attached to some sort of secret society or cult. I don’t think of it like Pauline Kael seemed to do, as some sort of sexual relationship, (which given her feelings on movies as trash and celebration of certain filmmakers seems to suggest she preferred rough trade) the peril of thinking in that way is that it makes the critic simultaneously a pimp, a prostitute, and a john. It’s an ugly conception that I want no part of. My interest in films is more based on curiosity, to find new ways of seeing and thinking about the world, it isn’t as much about the films themselves as it is the desire to see something new. To be sure, there are films that have had a great effect on me, and I’m always hoping to see more of those, but it is the process of thinking about film that interests me more than the film itself much of the time. This is where I agree with Jones and the people he refers to, art is a mirror to a wider world and good criticism can give me ways to interact with what I see.
I agree with you that people shouldn’t be excited just to find something ‘Before anyone else’, but I think most of them aren’t doing that. People are excited to find a new, unique film that gives them something different than any other movie. They don’t care whether they’re the first or thousandth to find it. I admit, it’s a little more exciting to find a ‘Hidden gem’, but I don’t think that affects their final opinion of the film, especially on repeated viewings.
And you’re right, there are lots of great films in the ‘Canon’, and they have been canonized for a reason. And, one could get a lifetime of enjoyment of film just from the canon. But, the canon does play favorites. It favors films by already established directors, films with a wider distribution, films from countries more known for their film (At the risk of sounding like Dimitris), films that are less intellectually difficult, films that are more narrative-driven, etc. If you want to get a true cross-section of great film, you need to watch the canon films, but also watch the great films the canon passed over.
If I were to make a list of my favorite films, probably 70% of them would be from the ‘Canon’, but if you asked me for recommendations for what to watch, I would start with the more obscure ones, because you’re likely to come across the canon ones by yourself.
I also think that polls create a false image of consensus. If you look at the Sight & Sound style poll we did on this forum, 2001 got the most votes, but it only appeared on a sixth of the ballots. That means, five out of six people did not think it was one of the greatest ten films of all time. The average ballot cast for that poll maybe contained 1-2 of the final top ten. But, if you look at the list out of context, you might think “Wow, everyone thinks these are the greatest films of all time!” It’s the same with lists like TSPDT.
Last I heard, Godard, Antonioni, Ozu, and Rivette were all intellectually challenging, and they’re all canonized, so I don’t think whether or not a film is intellectually demanding has anything to do with whether or not a film is canonized. The same goes for whether or not a film is narrative-driven. I do agree the canon favors established filmmakers and films from certain countries, but there are plenty of intellectually challenging and demanding films in the canon, and I’m sure there are plenty of great films you and others like that are not canonized that are more accessible than some films that are in what’s considered the canon.
I didn’t say intellectually challenging films couldn’t become canonized, I said they were at a disadvantage. They have to reach a higher standard before being considered.
Out of everything I said you picked a very minor point to nitpick.
“People are excited to find a new, unique film that gives them something different than any other movie.”
Right, “discovery” is relative to the viewer.
“Is Sarris saying that specialization is suicidal?”
My sense of it, Greg, is that it’s not that exactly, he’s saying that the “we” in that sentence came from cinephile culture, and the writing came from this, rather than their being writers who chose to write about film, so they had only one option open to them, and followed it over the cliff for better for for worse (unlike Agee, who went on to be a journalist/novelist/poet/ screenwriter, and Ferguson, who was a great jazz critic, Farber who was obviously a gifted painter, etc.) . . . not necessarily that they ended up smashing down on the rocks beneath.
What Jones wrote actually brought to my mind music criticism—where you have someone like Greil Marcus who started out writing about rock music and eventually started using music and musicians to get at larger issues and has wound up really doing cultural criticism. Or someone like Nick Tosches who did something somewhat similar. Even Cameron Crowe.
_"But, hey, this is just the opinion of someone who watches a lot of movies but is more than a little uncomfortable with the term cinephile. For me the quasi-religious or semi-sexual connotation of the term hinted at by many of the articles does not suit my feelings or thinking about film very well."
Naw, this is just because the the Greek concept of philia has been used poorly in English. Aristotle says that philia involves “wanting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one’s own, and being inclined, so far as one can, to do such things for him,” which is obviously very different from the Kaelian state of arousal, so I choose the less eroticized version.
Thanks Matt, that helps a little. It may be that I am either a little dense or don’t quite get to whom the quote is addressed, but I am still having a hard time getting anything very usefull out of it beyond, perhaps, Sarris romanticizing his particular circumstance, being ready to “die” for his love of film.
I can’t decide if he is suggesting whether those critics who had broader interests were at an advantage when it came to criticism meaning that they could see through the murk better than someone like Sarris, or if the advantage was more simply professional in that they had options someone like Sarris did not have meaning they were pushed over the edge rather than running head long over it, or whether they lacked the heedless passion of Sarris so their writing somehow had some greater utility because of that.
Were the critics from Sarris’ era really that different than our own? I mean so many critics seem to initially come from fields not associated with film, or have other interests in addition to movies even though film reviewing might be their primary profession. The most famous of critics from his era certainly seemed to have other interests or types of knowledge beyond movies, or that is what their reviews suggested anyway.
There was, of course, a change from the earlier days of film history as film reviewing grew and more people were able to make a career writing about film, but a career doesn’t mean a limit on interests necessarily as the later comparison to internet culture would show in the inverse. Most of those who write about or discuss film on the internet are doing it as something like a hobby, that is to say they do it in addition to their profession and other interests, which is a different thing than a writer getting paid to do it. If Sarris was instead likening himself to cinephiles, then I’m not sure what the comparison to other professionals brings to the picture is he saying that the obsessive nature of his love for film makes him less able to think clearly about it? That film critics who have more diverse interests are somehow more able to write about film? That seems to make some sense from the quote, but it doesn’t seem to follow from the way he wrote about films aside from it or how he argued against other critics of the time.
The larger context of Koresky’s article suggests that he is wondering about that sort of limited specialization, which is why I brought up specializing within the field as a sort of comparative to just focusing on films instead of it being simply a part of a broader range of knowledge. I have to wonder if there really are many cinephiles that believe that knowing a great deal about film makes them less able to understand it compared to those who know less but have a broader set of interests. I don’t often get the feeling this is the case, except, perhaps, in exceptional circumstances. I guess the key there would be the idea of “understanding” as one can know more about film, but less about what films are dealing with or ‘about". Is this a function of a broader range of knowledge, an education issue basically, or is it more connected with being a better writer or a more sensitive viewer? Personally, I suspect it is more the latter, but that is just my feeling as I simply don’t know many people who are so entirely devoted to film that they are unaware of larger frames of reference.
There isn’t any critic or cinephile or whatever that can know about everything that any given film may deal with as a subject or theme, so it is more of a question of research and a sort of openess and intuition about how to “read” those things that seems to be important in good critiques. Good critics seem to find ways to both understand and explain via analogy, which I obviously am missing, and through a sort of sympathetic intellectualism where the themes and feelings a film seems to hold are translated through the critic into a form that opens up the totality of the film. The best critiques are the ones that hold the most “truth” of the experience, the ones that seem to capture the entirety of the movie and hold off opposing points of view through the solidity of their effort. I’m not sure whether there is a better pathway to being the kind of critic who can do this as those that are able to do so seem so few and far between that trying to divine how they got to be like that seems somewhat beside the point as it isn’t something that can be duplicated.
My focus was entirely on how the Internet tends to create critical stances of those types, so I felt that the vagueness behind that concept required broad strokes. I apologize for coming across as essentializing.
“Polarisdib and RWP, you strike me as people who’ve been watching films for years and years, and you’ve already figured out what your tastes are and how to spot a film you like.”
Yes, though what happened for me was that I felt I started getting into cinema late and had to catch up with everyone else, so I gorged myself for a few years. Turned out a lot of that was just wasting my time. A further discussion of this is in the new Project Cinephilia thread.
" if the advantage was more simply professional in that they had options someone like Sarris did not have meaning they were pushed over the edge rather than running head long over it"
Probably closer to this . . . that their other talents and interests enabled them to peel of from the herd before they had (for lack of a better term) the Wile E. Coyote moment:
It reads to my more as self-deprecation that a serious critical statement.
(by the way, for some reason, a young Sarris running of a cliff lemming style amidst a herd of cinephiles is one of the funniest mental images discussion on this site has conjured for me in quite a while, not quite as funny as a teenage Jerry Johnson punching out his drunken dad . . . but close).
Jones, by the way, has a more comprehensive attempt at grappling with Sarris and his critical oeuvre in “Hail the Conquering Hero,” which has been reprinted in Jones’ book Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism.