The small and the fast screen render fundamentally different modes of cinephilic viewing and discourse. We should acknowledge that, says Girish Shambu.
What sets a “cinephile” apart from any other person who loves films? Yes, both likely enjoy watching films in good numbers. But beyond that, let me draw a line and assert: cinephilia involves an active interest in the discourse surrounding films. Not just watching but also thinking, reading, talking, and writing about films in some form, no matter how non-standard: these activities are important to the cinephile.
The last two decades have witnessed a transformative change in the relationship between a cinephile and her two key objects of interest: the films themselves, and the cloud of discourse that builds around them. Let’s look at these one at a time.
Fifty years ago, during the heyday of Nouvelle Vague cinephilia, seeing films almost always meant a viewing experience in a theater. The terms of this screening, or what the French might call dispositif — the place, time, and spatial set-up of the viewing experience — were determined not by the viewer but by someone else (e.g. the exhibitor or curator). This viewing contract entailed a certain surrender by the cinephile, a submission to the terms of the viewing experience. What’s more, a group of cinephiles — the audience for the screening — entered into this contract simultaneously, socially. These conditions produced a high level of likelihood for sustained engagement with a film. A viewer was likely to pay full attention in the darkened theater and stay for the duration, her attention rewarded by the scale of the big-screen image and sound — and the immersion in detail these conditions made possible.
Today we find that the terms in place for a viewing experience have changed markedly. Nearly all present-day cinephiles — even those who live in large cities with access to a multitude of film screening options — likely watch a sizable number of films on TVs or computer screens. Furthermore, the new dispositif is one that surrenders a great degree of control to the viewer’s whims, moods and preferences. (Jean-Luc Godard prophetically had this in mind when he made his evocative comparison: “When you go to the cinema you look up, when you watch television you look down.”) What results, with these new terms of viewing, is a weakening of the likelihood that a film will be watched with full attention from beginning to end without a break — in other words, that a film will be engaged in a full and sustained manner. When technology allows us to watch Antonioni’s red desert, Jacques Tati’s playtime or Chantal Akerman’s jeanne dielman on a laptop, in bits and pieces, while we eat, drink, take breaks and try to accommodate the film to our convenience, aren’t we fatally compromising our ability to do it full justice as cinephiles or critics?
Spark of curiosity
This fragmentation of attention applies with even greater force, multiplied many times over, to the second object of cinephile interest: cinema discourse. Social media — historically beginning with blogs, then proceeding to Facebook and Twitter — break up criticism and discussion into a dizzying stream of ever-smaller bites pouring in ceaselessly from dozens of sources. Especially with Facebook and Twitter, ephemerality and transience are not just risks; they are built into the very software design. Unlike at a blog, Facebook and Twitter don’t allow you to conveniently search through an archive to recover past posts, tweets or conversations easily. On these sites, the present is all-important — and the past evaporates almost instantaneously. What a dramatic contrast this fragmentation makes with the sustained engagement of sitting down for hours or days with a single book or essay, for decades the only mode of film-critical writing.
Let me hasten to add: I’m not polemically constructing a binary opposition between old and new, conservatively calling for a return to the lost unities of a vanished cinephilic golden age. On the contrary, I think of myself specifically as an Internet cinephile, one whose love of film simply would not have blossomed without dvd, blogs, Facebook or Twitter. In a blog essay, irishshambu.blogspot.com, I’ve described my day-to-day existence and experience of Internet cinephilia, drawing a parallel with Gilles Deleuze’s idea of “mediators”, in which, as in modern sports like surfing or hang gliding, the cinephile enters into and gets taken up by waves larger than herself, waves that transport her rapidly from one film to another, one thought to another, one spark of curiosity to another as she moves through cyberspace. I cherish the plentiful opportunities for learning and discovery, for the proliferation and growth of film discourse, made possible by the Internet.
Battle for attention
What it comes down to is not choosing one approach over the other. Instead, we need a dialectical engagement with cinema discourse that values both the sustained attention devoted to long-form scholarship and criticism in books and essays and the fragmented attention we bring to modes of reading and writing in the age of social media.
But as in the case of film viewing, the terms of engagement with cinema reading and writing on the Internet make it so much easier — so much more powerfully alluring — to jump on the Web than to commit oneself for long periods of time to a book or a long, demanding essay. From one moment to another, the battle for our attentions tips in the direction of the Internet. All I want to do is acknowledge this, be aware of it, and take steps to correct for it as I go about my own cinema-filled days.
Finally, let me say that the stark polarity I’ve proposed above doesn’t quite hold. Some of the best film criticism sites on the Internet — Jonathan Rosenbaum’s (jonathanrosenbaum.com) or Catherine Grant’s websites (filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.com), journals like Rouge (rouge.com.au) or Screening the Past (latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast), a resource such as Moving Image Source (movingimagesource.us) — don’t operate by the rules of social media. They more resemble traditional artifacts like essays and books. In other words, the Internet provides rich access to both long-form criticism and short-form ruminations and exchanges about cinema. The trick is to balance both — and apportion our daily hours in a way that profits from both while allowing the two to enrich each other.
Girish Shambu teaches at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York and runs an eponymous film-culture blog at girishshambu.blogspot.com/.