Readers Write In #100: Vindication of Cinephilia

Posted on October 1, 2019


(by Joydeep Bose)

In her 1996 essay ‘The Decay of Cinema’, film theorist Susan Sontag mapped the birth and death of cinephilia — right from its heady days of the fervent film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s France (and, subsequently, among the magazines elsewhere in Europe and North America), to its “ignominious, irreversible decline” after a few decades. One of the reasons behind this ‘mournful decay of cinema’, she says, was the increasing norms and practices that now governed movie-making everywhere in the capitalist world. “Cinema, once heralded as the art of the 20th century,” wrote the American film theorist, “seems now, as the century closes numerically, to be a decadent art.” Sontag then glossed over the more sedimented cultural basis behind such a decay – the tendency of the audience and the filmmakers to distance themselves from the idea of the film as, first of all, a poetic object: quintessentially modern, distinctively accessible, mysterious and erotic and moral – all at the same time. Instead, she said, cinema today is set in motion largely by an open neoliberal market where everything is for sale, which leads to preferring profits over property.

22 years since her essay, ‘cinephilia’ has evolved in its length, breadth, and essence — especially with the emergence of social media and an influx of varied opinions now being generated in the public domain. Whether it is that “birth of a new kind of cine-love” that Sontag had hoped for, remains up for debate and is not the centerpiece of this composition. Let us, however, discuss film festivals, one of the last prized refuges for the individual traditionally concerned about cinema. There is little doubt that film festivals have always represented the sanguine redemption of the love for the art and its craft, ever since the golden days of the ciné-clubs and cinémathèques of the bygone era. When Bertolucci’s “Before the Revolution” (1964) declared “One can’t live without Rossellini”, people believed in and lived that reality. It is important to note that festival circuits had always provided patronage to the serious cinema enthusiast or filmmaker residing outside of a metropolis with a thriving film culture. Today, in an age of declining single-screen cinema halls and burgeoning multiplexes more interested in selling popcorn than incorporating good films, this role of a patron guardian that the festival circuit traditionally played comes off as even more sacred. To provide patronage to infant ambitions, critics curating these festivals need to be brave enough in introducing and defending content that they hold to the best of their beliefs as having potential. Like a certain rat-infested Pixar film had once, with a striking monologue, noted — being a critic is not as much about dumping on unwelcome content as it is about championing unsung artistry, often bubbling with potential but lost as a result of lack of patronage.

To quote a few lines from Brad Bird’s script — “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

Perhaps all notions of safe spaces are forever under threat. With a decline in acceptance of cinema that is unheard of, also came the need to appropriate festivals along the same lines. In other words, festivals started getting conscious of their glamour and their organisers focused on only a few names popular among cinephiles. If this argument sounds too puritan, consider what is at stake here – the hardwork, ambition, and artistic vision of those not yet touched by the limelight and depend on the festival’s curation for a showcase. But increasingly, festivals are perceived as not facilitating connoisseurship, but rather the consumption of stars and celebrity culture. More and more columns in the bulletins are devoted to “red-carpet reporting” at the expense of serious film criticism. For example, a few days before the launch of an edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the cover of the entertainment section of the local newspaper, the Toronto Star, was inscribed with the headline “Hollywood Is Coming”. This caption was superimposed over dozens of tiny photos of the celebrities who were due to make their way north for the festival.

Hollywood, it seemed, was literally invading the city.

Festivals, both North American (Sundance, TIFF) and European (Cannes, Berlin, Rotterdam, and Venice), have almost always stressed their cinephilic image, highlighting the serious nature of the films screened. Yet, over the past decade, all of them also have, without fail, seen an increase in both the participation of stars at the festivals and the ensuing media coverage devoted to the same, which has provoked criticism that such film festivals are becoming too star-driven and media-focused. There is growing criticism within both TIFF and Sundance that Hollywood is having too much influence over the selection process and that both film festivals have become “too big”, some say, “too slick, too commercial, and even too mainstream”, as when in an earlier Time article “How Toronto Attracts the Stars,” film critic Richard Corliss playfully suggested that TIFF adopt MGM’s motto: “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven.”

And yet, time and again we witness a diligent compulsion on part of these very festivals to focus their real value in the curation – in their cinematically literate selection of good films, trusting the audience in seeking them out. Great care is taken in shifting the focus from the luminosity of the media to an audience curious and potently diverse in their tastes. An audience, who, at the end of the day, has come to the festival with an appetite beyond the usual to indulge in films and not pat themselves on their backs gawking at celebrities. This, in fact, is core to a festival’s identity and is still precariously maintained by the leading festivals in their carefully cultivated image of a special viewing public.

It is to my belief that this is what is at threat back home in India, especially as I have seen in the public disposition surrounding the Kolkata International Film Festival. The shifting focus from curating good films to masturbating in the name of films hurts what is already at stake – the eye. Having worked for the festival bulletin a year prior, the constant prioritizing of the commercial bits of the day on part of the editorial policy is now an unfortunate reality, if the numerous database mistakes and technical snags during the screenings are to be ignored. A key element in the continued success of TIFF, Venice, Sundance or Cannes, and a significant selling point now (since ‘selling’ is indeed a point that demands to be considered), is that they deliver film-literate spectators and organisers to filmmakers, producers, distributors, and sponsors (also generously made apparent in their bulletins and PR stints) and as such, provide a true and accurate ground for films to be showcased safely. Even though Toronto sells this audience as its biggest commodity and Cannes has turned to making the festival into what they call “film tourism” for the city and France; what Cannes, and other film festivals, make abundantly clear is that the focus always remains on creating the conditions ideal for a cinephilic experience. It is definitely not their only consideration today, because these are, after all, film “festivals”, and the extra-cinematic or para-cinematic events such as parties, press conferences, and red-carpet entries make or break a festival. However, there is never quite any dispute regarding the image that these festivals, as brands, project. Successful marketing shows that media luminosity can co-exist with cinephilia without necessarily hurting each other.

The issue with most film festivals in India, therefore, is cinephilia’s visibility. Not the ‘archetypical’ encounters where tears are shed over a few classic names, but a largely cinema-literate consciousness. Yet again, it lies on part of the festival organizers to work extra hard in providing a diverse line-up of curation beyond the usual names and expectations, along with the audience to fatten up a diverse appetite to consume unheard-of titles and have a discussion about them. All of these factors together constitute the ‘film literate’ spectators and organisers that the festival can later go on to sell as a brand, which is still largely missing. The inability of the festival organisers in answering bare minimum inquiries regarding films in schedule adds on to the problem of unsatisfactory curation and organisation. Though last year’s edition of the KIFF brought with it a comparatively better selection than its previous year, with the International section faring some excellent titles, the domestic selections leave a lot to be desired (Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s “Jonaki” barely managed to screen), several films hit with technical snags and/or cantankerous rows raised by an audience largely dispassionate about cinema. I am reminded, in this context, of a remark once made by the acclaimed Malayali filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan. As the then newly appointed chairman of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) organising committee, he had suggested that instead of “expectations of hot scenes” that are often borne by a large part of the festival audiences, a certain level of education, familiarity, and discipline regarding films would do them good.

Even though a debate on puritanism was raised over the veteran filmmaker’s comment – the scenario in festivals across the country show that the truth is not afar. I have several such memories of the times when I witnessed cinema voyeurs lining up at KIFF because they had heard European arthouse films star pretty white girls and a whole lot of sex. That oomph was a sight to behold. The same report that carried Gopalakrishnan’s comment also mentioned another happenstance. A Bengali cinéaste had once narrated an incident where he overheard one cine goer asking, “Whose film are we going to watch?” to which another replied, “Sunny Leone”. The festival, however, was showcasing the films of Tsai Ming Liang (celebrated director of Taiwanese films). Poor guy had no idea. Although hilarious and in all probability a hyperbole, the affair does bring to light a notable precis — the mood of one section of the festival audience to pick what to watch based on the buzz of ‘uncut action’.

The puritanism debates will continue, as they should, but film festivals in India cannot progress without sustained year-long efforts of cinema connoisseurship (like the Mumbai Academy of Moving Images ‘MAMI’ has successfully started doing) and direct engagement with media studies and literature departments of academic institutions. As long as eyebrows are raised at this cinema connoisseurship and cinephilia is diluted to those few classic names that have already been profusely discussed, the art and pleasure of viewing cinema as a deeply personal and spiritual exercise cannot, in any case, evolve. In the end, it is perhaps all the more sensible to drift back to Sontag’s conclusion, written more than two decades earlier:

“If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too . . . no matter how many movies, even very good ones, go on being made. If cinema can be resurrected, it will only be through the birth of a new kind of cine-love.”