The Evanescent Moment: A Conversation with Girish Shambu about “The New Cinephilia”




JUST AS THE CREATION and consumption of cinema has changed drastically in the new millennium, so too has cinephilia: an intimate, passionate relationship with film, its history, and its application in one’s everyday life. The internet and, in particular, social media have altered not only how we talk about movies, but with whom and in what capacity we choose to do so. Girish Shambu, Associate Professor of Management at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, and co-editor of the film journal LOLA, has taken these evolving practices as the subject of his monograph, The New Cinephilia. Facebook, Twitter, Letterboxd, and Tumblr have each contributed to the changing face of contemporary cinephilia — so much so that the manner in which Girish and I chose to conduct this conversation (via email) could almost be considered passé by comparison. The New Cinephilia advocates for a holistic idea of cinephilia, one informed by tradition yet adaptable to an exciting array of tools that have ushered in a new era of engaging with movies.

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JORDAN CRONK: What first struck me about The New Cinephilia is how it’s so uniquely situated in the present tense. It’s fascinating to read a book on cinema in which the issues discussed are evolving at the same time as a cinephile’s everyday interaction with film and forms of online criticism. But I experienced a weird sort of cognitive dissonance as you began to dive into the ways of engaging with film that I — and likely a majority of your readers — partake in on a daily basis, sometimes unconsciously. What drew you to modern cinephilic discourse? What is it about cinephilia today that you felt warranted a lengthy examination?

GIRISH SHAMBU: I think the answer might involve a deep personal element. As a teenage cinephile in India, cutting my movie teeth on the Hindi popular cinema of Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, and Amitabh Bachchan in the 1970s, I found myself drawn not just to cinema, but equally to discourse about cinema. As much as image and sound, my initiation into movie-love was through words — whether these words were written (reviews, essays, or books), spoken (conversations about films with friends) or simply just “thought” in solitude. This was in an era when India strictly limited its imports of foreign goods (like movies and records), before it threw open its doors to the world and to economic globalization in 1993.

So, often, it was much easier to read about movies than to actually see them. I remember devouring James Monaco’s book The New Wave in the library at my university (where I was studying to be a chemical engineer), but not being able to see any of the films discussed in the book until many years later, when I moved to the USA to go to grad school. In all those intervening years, all I had — in the absence of the experience of all those great movies by Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, and Truffaut — were Monaco’s words about them. They became a kind of “substitute cinema” for me. Once I moved to the West and was able to catch up on the all the viewing I had been craving for years, those “words about cinema” — that cinema discourse — didn’t become obsolete for me; it became integral to the cinema experience.

But in those days — by which I mean before the internet — there was a particular “economy” of film writing and reading that was in effect: You had a few professional or semi-professional writers who wrote for a large number of readers. Most cinephiles were “silent” in that their voices were not heard or read widely. But once the internet made it possible for these cinephiles to get online, the sheer volume of “movie discourse” exploded. It made me realize that even though traditional forms of movie writing were proven and great, they weren’t the only useful ones out there. Insights about movies could come from unlikely places and in unlikely forms (like they do on social media), and I have found this to be a great spur to cinephilic desire in my daily life as a lover of cinema.

I wanted to look at the life of the “new cinephile” up close because I felt that my experience as a typical, “amateur” cinephile (who does not make his living from cinema) is probably widely shared by hundreds if not thousands of others around the globe. And this large shared existence (of which I’m reminded each day on Facebook, Twitter, Letterboxd, etc.) suggested to me that a close examination of “new cinephilia” might be worthwhile.

But I’m also curious to know: What sort of “cognitive dissonance” did you experience when you were reading the book? And what do you think might have been its source?

I think the effect was a result of something you touch on later in the book: how do we define the modern critic and how/where should they properly ply their trade? Though I use all the same social media channels you mention, I still find myself at times resisting certain characteristics of this new form of criticism. Can a Tweet or a Facebook post be a legitimate form of criticism? In the truest sense of the term, that’s exactly what it is, even if it’s not being done in a professional setting or for monetary considerations, and yet I often pause when considering the opinions of certain friends and followers. At one point early on you identify the “continuity between the new cinephilia and the classical cinephilia that blossomed in France in the 1940s and 1950s,” specifically the similarities with regard to certain social and journalistic communities, which today have essentially formed into a single online entity. What is it about cinema that encourages discussion in forums such as this, whether amongst friends at a café, or amongst strangers at their keyboards? 

I’ve always loved Christian Metz’s line about films being so difficult to explain because they are so easy to understand. And I think it’s exactly this gap between understanding and explanation that keeps us continually coming back to films to try to make sense of and articulate our experience of them — a process that is immeasurably helped by dialogue with others, in written or verbal form.

Underlying this perpetual desire for discourse is, I think, the fact that cinema is one big, seductive constellation of opposites. It contains within it so many qualities that pull powerfully (but alluringly) in opposite directions. For example, cinema — especially when it is based in photography rather than animation — has a powerful documentary dimension. Every film, in its own way, is a documentary of people, places, and things. And yet, this documentary quality exists side by side with the capacity for enormous stylization and artifice. This makes for strong tensions between the two poles of documentary and fiction that we find ourselves having to navigate and negotiate freshly, anew, with each film.

It’s a challenge that also makes for a richness of experience with films (the good ones, at least), rendering them impossible to assimilate and process quickly and completely. And so our experience of countless films in our viewing history remains forever a bit “unsettled.” We may confidently slap films on lists like “best of the year” or “all-time favorites” but there is also a voice deep down inside that is beckoning us back to those films to more fully account for their strong impact on us. This is what I mean when I say that our experience with films we have seen is forever “unsettled.”

André Bazin famously wrote an essay called “For an Impure Cinema” in which he defended the practice of adapting works from other art forms (such as theater or literature) into films. But if we think about it, all cinema is fundamentally impure. We might say that cinema is the ultimate synthetic form, borrowing promiscuously from literature, theater, painting, music, dance, or poetry. And yet a common critical putdown is to call a film “uncinematic” — a vague and slippery criticism that nevertheless signals that we want our films to be somehow singular in expression, their effects not completely familiar from those other, older art forms. We want films to both draw from the rich legacy of those older art forms, but also do things that only cinema can do, things that can’t be done in quite the same way by literature, theater, etc.

Given the deeply “impure” identity of cinema and its heterogeneous origins, it is no surprise that cinema — whether it’s a single film, an auteur’s body of work, a genre, a national cinema — is forever eluding our reach. And so, speaking for myself, I find dialogue and discussion with fellow cinephiles to be a valuable way to help me deal with the “unsettledness” and “elusiveness” of my own viewing experiences.

Finally, reading and talking about films is also a way for cinephiles to shore up the memory of the films they have seen — and to keep the material details of those films alive. Sometimes it scares me how quickly I begin to forget the details — not just narrative or characters but even more so shots, cuts, and structure — of the movies I see. Films are constantly fading away and then returning to light, reawakening, inside my head: a process that is often enabled by talking or reading about those films.

You touch on this notion in one of the book’s most intriguing sections, “There and Elsewhere,” when you describe how “transactive memory,” the act of mentally distributing information through different channels, is changing in the digital age. There are obvious advantages to bridging the gap between the “there” (the experienced image) and the “elsewhere” (the memory of the experience) in our movie watching routines. And we can do so via the internet and its capacity for immediate recall and, thus, reengagement. But is there also a downside to this privilege? Are we “liking” more and appreciating less?

I think the answer to this question might depend on the specific social media circles we choose to inhabit. I am glad you brought up Pierre Huyghe’s notion (as developed by Catherine Fowler) of the “there” and “elsewhere” of cinema. While the former (as you point out) refers to the cinema we experience in a theater or at home, the latter is about the “after-experience”: the way a film lives on in us. But the memory of a film, I would argue, is only the most basic level of the “elsewhere.” If we were to restrict all our discussion of movies to this level alone (“Hey, remember the scene where …?”), I think we would definitely be guilty of simply “liking” — and what’s more, doing so in a reactionary, nostalgic manner.

But the “elsewhere” of our movie experience also consists of other, deeper levels that build upon our cine-memories. These levels have to do not just with remembering but also engaging critically with films we have seen. When we recall a film, we are remembering not just its brute “facts” — its story, actors, compositions, musical soundtrack, and so on. We are also recalling things that have been said or written about the film — things that have resonated with us enough to have stayed with us. This “commentary” on the film unavoidably inflects our memories of it.

So, when I encounter, in my daily cinephilic life, good observations or insightful analyses of a film, they have the capacity to end up changing, complicating, and enriching my views, my impressions, and even my memory of the film. These observations and analyses can be long-form (essays in online magazines and journals, for example), image-driven (Tumblr posts), or even “micro-critical” (Facebook posts of images accompanied by brief critical commentary on some aspect of the film in question). I guess what I’m saying is that I think of my memories of a film as always being in flux — and always in give-and-take with thought about the film, whether sophisticated (as in an ambitious essay) or humble (as in a tweet).

I started out by saying that the specific social media circles we choose to dwell in will influence the way we end up engaging with movies. What I meant was that the internet (even just the Film Internet) is such a vast and variegated place that it’s very easy to get lost in it — and get the feeling that it’s all a waste of time. Which is why it’s important to choose a few people (cinephiles, critics, scholars) with whose sensibilities you happen to resonate — and then expand your circle from there, using their networks to identify others you might find valuable. To give you an idea of the social media figures I find most useful, here are some of the people I follow daily and closely: David Hudson, Catherine Grant, Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin, Corey Creekmur, Miriam Bale, Michael Sicinski, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Matthew Flanagan, Farran Smith Nehme, Steven Shaviro, Dennis Lim, Kiva Reardon, Peter Labuza, and Joe McElhaney (among several others). IMHO (as they say), even if a cinephile were to follow only these dozen or so people on social media, it would be well worth the modest investment of time in doing so.

To circle back to the question of cine-memory, I think one of the reasons why I’m obsessed with it more perhaps than the average cinephile is that the vast majority of films I see are not on the big screen; they are at home on a TV screen. I live in Buffalo, which has seen a new and exciting efflorescence of public cinema screenings this year — but is still not New York, Toronto, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Seeing films on the big screen is an absolutely, qualitatively different experience (as I am reminded on my annual pilgrimage to the Toronto International Film Festival each September), and I almost always end up remembering those films much more vividly. Perhaps my seeking out dialogue and discussion of film on social media also has something to do with this: I’m looking for “supplements” to my viewing experience precisely because it is typically a tiny bit “weaker” — and doesn’t burn as brightly in my mind as it might have if I had seen the film on the big screen.

In the book you elucidate a key aspect of micro-criticism: that although these thoughts are circumscribed — in some cases by design, as on Twitter — they can offer seeds for more carefully considered reflections on the part of both the writer and the reader. Do you think we’re far off from considering these various forms of micro-criticism in the same manner as an essay or a book or any other established form of scholarship?

It’s interesting you should bring up micro-criticism. Just this week, the online journal NECSUS (European Journal of Media Studies) put up a piece by the scholar Adam O’Brien in which he discusses academic film study that makes use of “cinephilic matter” — such as the “micro-details” of performance or camera movement or the documentary capture of the world. He wonders if such study shouldn’t be broadening its modes of scholarship beyond conventional essays and books to micro-criticism, the latter being especially suited to capturing such details — and the insight sparked by them.

On Facebook, in response to this piece, my friend and LOLA co-editor Adrian Martin posted a quote from a 1989 essay in Art & Text by the scholar Dana Polan: “Big books of film theory come to us as imposing monuments that we rarely set out to test … It may not be an accident that so much of the interesting work on cinema today takes place as occasional articles in little journals, as site-specific interventions and fleeting investigations. Perhaps the theory of film has to take this evanescent form to catch our historical moment.”

So, well before the internet, Polan was already intuiting both the form and the potential of micro-criticism and other “small-scale” work. There is in fact a distinguished history in film criticism of “small-scale” writing. For example, take “little books,” the small, pocket-sized books and monographs devoted (for example) to individual filmmakers that were produced in great numbers, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of these diminutive but invaluable books — for example, the Cinema One or Praeger series — are now out of print but used copies can be found easily and cheaply on the internet. Mark Betz’s essay “Little Books” provides a detailed and useful history of this great and influential form of criticism.

A couple of years ago, William Germano wrote a critical piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Do We Dare Write for Readers?” that was widely circulated on academic and humanities social media. In it he makes a distinction between two kinds of scholarly works: “snowglobes” and “machines.” Snowglobes are writings that are intended to impress, that wear their extensive knowledge on their sleeve, and that are meant to be (as Polan might say) “imposing monuments.” On the other hand, “machines” are works that are more “experimental,” that try new ideas, that are willfully unruly or incomplete. Micro-criticism belongs to this latter category. And Germano’s piece advocates precisely for more “machines” and fewer “snow globes” in order to bring scholarship to greater engagement with the reading public.

Admittedly, the micro-criticism we see on social media is much smaller in scale than the “little books” of 1960s film criticism or Germano’s “machines.” But even on social media, one sees a range of such work. For example, Facebook posts (for me) provide significantly greater room to float micro-critical ideas, while Tweets, limited by their size, do so less easily. Which is why I end up using Twitter largely for links to film-cultural news and cinema writing (for which it’s invaluable).

You spend a portion of the book comparing classic and academic modes of criticism and how each might operate today. For example, figural analysis — an academic form of visual inquiry which dissects the position, potential, and progression of onscreen elements — lends itself surprisingly well to micro-criticism. It’s not uncommon nowadays to see blog entries, Facebook posts, or Tweets comprised solely of still images from a film (or films), arranged as a visual study in composition, movement, or mise-en-scène. Consciously or not, the authors of these posts are essentially breaking figural analysis down to its most elemental state. Are purely visual modes of analysis such as these a key bridge between academic and more casually cinephilic forms of scrutiny?

Figural analysis is an exciting (but complex) method of approaching movies that I’m still trying to understand and wrap my head around. To give you a quick thumbnail sketch: it is an approach that was developed mostly in Europe, and its key innovator is the French scholar/curator/super-cinephile Nicole Brenez. I first learned of it through Adrian Martin, who tells a fascinating story about spending three years translating her book on Abel Ferrara into English — and at the end of the project, he was still not quite sure of the multiple meanings and implications of the term, “figure.”

In its most basic sense, a “figure” is a shape or form, something that is (in a broad sense) “drawn” or rendered. Figures can be human, but they can also be living non-humans (like animals), or non-living objects, or landscapes, or even animated, non-photographed shapes. Figures (there are potentially an infinite number of them in the history of cinema) also have histories: of change, mutation, or transformation over time. Think of the way art historians might track the manner in which a certain figure — for example, that of the gleaner, a popular subject of 19th-century French painting — has been rendered in painting over time. And then witness how Agnès Varda multiplies the meanings of this figure of the gleaner in her classic documentary The Gleaners and I. But this is just one — and the most literal — sense in which we might analyze this figure.

Alternatively, one might position Varda’s documentary in a different history of films: for instance, all movies that feature “bent or stooping human figures” — whether they are characters who are elderly, or in prison, or physically disabled, etc. Now, this is just one of scores of potential forms or shapes that appear in her film — so, just imagine the possibilities here. Beyond such a literal figure that I have just invoked, figural analysis is also capable of seizing and conjuring abstract or symbolic figures, so we are just scratching the surface here of what this approach can do. Adrian calls figuralism “part of a visionary tradition in criticism, in the sense of re-seeing and renewing films we thought we knew (in conventional terms), through new eyes and ears, in new terms, a critical re-invention.”

Now, as you point out, the internet makes it easy for cinephiles to post still images that highlight mise-en-scène or movement, thus making them objects of visual study. What such clusters of images can do, in the realm of figural analysis, is to draw attention to change, development, and transformation of figures. In fact, these images need no longer simply be still; we are witnessing today a great flowering of an exciting form of contemporary film criticism, the audiovisual essay. Some of the best film criticism of today is found on what would have been unlikely places for it five years ago: Vimeo and YouTube.

But figural analysis also includes another important element (that I’ve not yet mentioned), one that makes it particularly useful for bridging the gap between cinephile interest and academic study: the interpretation of figures, about making meaning from them. And, as we know, it is impossible to perform any interpretation without a paradigm standing behind it to guide it. And this is where academic tools rooted in theory come in handy.

So, in a crude, simplistic way, one might put it thus: What cinephiles can bring to the table is both a sensitivity to film form and an extensive knowledge of films (well-known and obscure) from decades of prolific viewing; and what scholars can provide is (among other things) a theoretically informed approach to film analysis and an array of interpretative lenses through which to look at movies. In other words, figural analysis, with its profoundly fine-grained formal and interpretive attack, is a rich resource that just might be able to help cross-pollinate the work of cinephiles and scholars.

You offer a few examples in the text of other writers, critics, and academics who are helping to bridge the gap between “cinephilia and the world.” I’m particularly taken, as you seem to be, with Richard Porton, Robert Stam, and Leo Goldsmith’s pursuit of an “aesthetic of the commons” — a kind of meeting ground between high and low cultures, amateur and professional disciplines, traditional and unconventional forms of moving image art, etc. With the breadth of cinephilia expanding outward and across uncharted technological terrain, are the responsibilities of the cinephile also changing with regard to the everyday moviegoer?

I like the way you put it: What indeed are “the responsibilities of the cinephile” toward the non-cinephile, “the everyday moviegoer”?

For a long time, I treated cinephilia almost as if it were a religion. Cinema was one of the great miracles of the last one-hundred-plus years, and so I adopted it as my personal mission to try and bring an awareness and appreciation of this fact to anyone who showed even the slightest interest in movies. (How hugely annoying!) I have long since renounced such an evangelism. The cinephile sensibility is very particular, very specific — and most people are simply not very interested in becoming cinephiles (in the committed, intense, and sustained way in which you and I likely view the daily practice of cinephilia).

But I do think cinephiles have something of value to bring to interested non-cinephiles: A breadth of taste (that we customarily associate with cinephilia) spanning the entire history of cinema, rather than disproportionately favoring contemporary cinema (as I think most non-cinephiles might tend to do); and a sensitivity to film form and style at the expense of an “over-investment” in narrative, character, and “quality of acting” (as many cinephiles might characterize the everyday moviegoer’s cinematic sensibility).

Does a democratized film-cultural landscape “dilute the authority of individual thought”? It might seem like a danger in the heterogeneous, horizontal world of the internet — but ultimately I don’t believe so. Because, in the end, we know that internet film culture has good mechanisms in place to draw attention to and amplify certain voices over others. So, even if everyone has an equal opportunity to speak on the internet, we don’t necessarily find all voices equally compelling or useful. We don’t listen to, pay attention to, and highlight (with “re-tweets” or “shares” or “likes”) all voices equally. But any time good film writing appears on the internet, chances are “the truth will out.” No matter how obscure or well-hidden its place of origination, I like to believe that it will likely, eventually, find readers and admirers.

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Jordan Cronk is a freelance film critic based in Los Angeles.


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