What is Cinephilosophy? A Bazinian Paradigm, Part 1

A Philosophical Preamble, for the love of truth

by Prakash Younger Volume 13, Issue 2 / February 2009 35 minutes (8552 words)

Love needs reality. What is more terrible than the discovery that through a bodily appearance we have been loving an imaginary being. It is much more terrible than death, for death does not prevent the beloved from having lived.

Simone Weil [1]

“I say –whatever you’re looking at over there seems bloody interesting.”

Octave to Christine, as she looks through a pair of binoculars and discovers her husband Robert embracing his mistress Geneviève in La Règle du jeu.

What is cinephilosophy? However novel the term may seem, this essay does not aim to promote a new or specialized brand of philosophy. Instead, it proposes to recover an old and inclusive conception: if philosophy encompasses any exercise of the human capacity for fundamental reflection, then cinephilosophy is simply one set of such exercises, one portion of a vast and largely-anonymous archipelago of human activity. As the Oxford cinephilosopher Stephen Mulhall puts it: “…there is no essential break between the natural, inherent reflectiveness of human life-forms and the inveterate reflectiveness of philosophy; what distinguishes the philosopher is the persistence and single-mindedness with which he [sic] employs the capacity of self-questioning that informs every aspect of our ordinary existence.” [2] Though all human discourse involves some reflection, cinephilosophy is marked, like philosophy-in-general, by its extreme openness, the fact that it proceeds along all possible axes, disturbing and re-articulating an indeterminate whole. At the same time, it distinguishes itself from philosophy-in-general by consistently exerting the full pressure of its radical expectations on the cinema itself. Condensing these two features, one could say that cinephilosophy occurs whenever films are treated as the key to everything else. It always originates in a loss of balance, a vertigo or misstep, a disorienting moment of cinephilia. [3]

But what assumptions make a concept of fundamental reflection conceivable? And how can reflection on the cinema itself be a form of fundamental reflection? Since my model of cinephilosophy is based on the premise that the philosophic potentials of the cinema are inherently connected to the experience of cinephilia, presenting it is mainly a matter of clarifying what exactly I mean by philosophy and cinephilia. If the phenomena of cinephilia are a set of facts that need explaining, I believe the metadiscursive analysis that follows offers a coherent explanation for those facts which at the same time recognizes their philosophic powers. My ultimate goal is to present a universal or generic paradigm of treating film philosophically, one capable of illuminating what the various existing traditions and approachs have in common. I will argue that André Bazin’s often-misunderstood theses concerning photographic ontology provide a theoretical support for such a paradigm and that his critical writings exemplify how it works in practice.

I. Philosophy as Reflection on Historical Experience

To begin: what exactly do I mean by philosophy? [4] First and foremost, it is crucial to recall the radical independence of philosophy in relation to all existing bodies of knowledge, including those that go by the name of philosophy; as was once well-known, the etymology of the term clearly distinguishes it from the secure possession of facts, their relations and meanings, from existing narratives, theories and interpretations: philosophy is the love of wisdom or truth, a force which disturbs the settlements of knowledge and reveals their imperfection in the light of an emerging but unknown whole. [5] Philosophy is only true to itself by always being truly different; though the root cause of philosophy –human desire and ethical responsibility– is old and common, its effects always register as fresh, impertinent and beautiful, as a magnificent disorientation of knowledge and ideology. [6] To illustrate how this model of philosophy operates I offer a passage from Simone Weil as a thought-experiment; in it, she attempts to recover a concept of truth which she claims has been lost to the specialized practices that characterize modern disciplines:
bq. A little boy learns his geography lesson so as to have good marks, or in obedience to orders received, or to please his parents, or because he feels that far-off places and their names have a poetry about them. If none of these motives exist, he just doesn’t learn his lesson. Supposing at a given moment he doesn’t know the name of the capital of Brazil, and the next moment he learns what it is, he has acquired an additional item of knowledge. But he is no whit nearer to truth than he was before. There are certain cases in which the acquisition of knowledge causes one to approach truth, there are other cases in which it doesn’t. How to distinguish between the two sets of cases?

If a man surprises his wife whom he loves and in whom he has perfect confidence being flagrantly unfaithful to him, he is suddenly brought into brutal contact with a piece of truth. If he happens to hear that some woman whom he doesn’t know, whose name he hears mentioned for the first time, in a town he doesn’t know either, has deceived her husband, that fact doesn’t alter his relationship to truth in the slightest. The latter example furnishes the key. The acquisition of knowledge causes us to approach truth when it is a question of knowledge about something we love, and not in any other case. [7]

Though the results of this experiment will of course vary with the reader, I would tentatively unpack my own as follows. If the husband in Weil’s example is capable of philosophy, that is, if he still loves his wife and reflects honestly upon the brutal truth that chance has revealed to him, it should be manifest that his understanding of his wife, himself and the world will inevitably develop or grow; his understanding will be better because it will be truer to the whole which his consistent love for his wife helps make him open to. He prefers to contemplate the whole truth about her, however contradictory or bitter, because her existence is real to him and he senses, however dimly, that denying any part of that truth entails denying the truth about himself and the world in which they are situated. More than any specific view he may have of her, he loves and accepts the fact that she exists “in three dimensions,” i.e. that she enshrines a unique perspective on the universe, mortal and free, and that therefore “one side” of her actions and thoughts will always be hidden from view (even to herself). The encounter illuminates aspects of his life that he had, in retrospect, lived without understanding, and reflecting on it serves to improve his understanding. In the midst of the bitterness there is a stark beauty that he treats as an index of reality, as the very articulation of lived relations within a complex and living whole.

If, on the other hand, he stops loving his wife and/or is incapable of honestly reflecting on the encounter, an opportunity for philosophy will be lost. If he feels indifferent towards her, he will not even care to properly reflect on the possible explanations for the scene; if he hates his wife passionately, he will be inclined to accept the flat, simplistic re-interpretations of the past proffered by his hatred; and if his craven dependence on her is stronger than his love for her, he might well accept any explanation that will repair, however imperfectly, his pre-encounter state of blissful ignorance. In either of the last two cases, whatever new understanding he accepts might well be based on an impressive and cogent marshaling of facts, narratives, theories and interpretations, and may therefore be legitimately credited as a gain in knowledge. His new view of the matter may seem comprehensive and without contradiction. But when seen by the light of the truth opened up in the decisive encounter, his acquiescence in such knowledge can also be assessed to be a lie, a retreat into ideology, and a loss for philosophy.

If this experiment has been successful, and perhaps even if it hasn’t, the reader may appreciate why it is impossible to secure philosophy, so-defined, as knowledge. The independence and strength of philosophy, its radical and disturbing skepticism, originate in the vulnerability of desire, and its commonness derives from ethical commitments that are unique and inscrutable. [8] These paradoxical conditions determine both its moment of possibility and its extension into philosophic dialogue. Thus Weil’s example is designed to function for us in the same way the surprise encounter functions for the philosophic husband. Using a concrete and suggestive example, she prompts us to register the difference between “truth” and “knowledge” by drawing an inference as to the principle (“love”) that accounts for that difference; though we may never have faced such a situation, she gambles that it will nonetheless resemble and draw on our experiences (our own inscrutable networks of love and indifference) and produce a specific quality –a shimmer of beauty– capable of retroactively giving her terms freshness and definition. Since the production of this quality logically depends on our initial understanding of those terms, it seems as if we remember something about them, something which we nonetheless cannot recall having known before. Philosophical discourse thus provokes us to remember something new by creating a circuit of undecidability between the provocations of language and the facts of historical experience, an obscure but undeniable co-implication that infuses it with conviction. [9] Though we can never be objectively certain that we share an understanding of the distinction between “truth” and “knowledge” (any attempt to do so would only shift our uncertainty onto other terms), the provocations of this experiment hopefully “ring true” and ground her argument in our common experience of love, language, and reality. [10]

Everything thus hinges on “a shimmer of beauty” or “a ring of truth”. Even if these phrases stink and the entire experiment has been an abject failure, I would still point to that stink and failure as evidence of what I am trying to demonstrate, that we all take our bearings by the capillaries of erotic attraction, conviction and beauty that inform every aspect of human life. In this model, the aesthetic dimension of human existence lays out its defining possibilities; it is the source of all definition or difference and therefore cannot itself be defined: it is, inherently, avant la lettre. Driven by its loyalty to the singular accidents of aesthetic experience, philosophy always puts existing categories and terms into question (including the categories and terms used to construct this or any model of it) and forces them to undergo a radical metamorphosis. Viewed as a whole, it is simply the on-going collective attempt to secure the possibility of such metamorphoses through systematic reflection on the shared or shareable contexts which produce them.

But while the very fact of human discourse seems to presuppose the possibility of philosophy as a collective endeavour, it is nonetheless hard to assign it a definitive location. As its effective realization always depends on chance conjunctions of aesthetic form and living human desire, philosophy has a tendency to operate incognito, appearing and disappearing according to an unpredictable timetable throughout the domains of human experience. Those who create or study aesthetic forms are simply trying to make this timetable more predictable, to illuminate the world and thus better the odds for humanity, while more or less aware that they cannot overcome the fundamental limitations imposed by chance and desire. The assumptions presented by this model, which seem to me to be necessary to account for the radical disturbance of philosophy –both the fact of ideological illusions and the possibility of escaping them, progress in the most basic sense– also account for the enduring concern with philosophy’s mis-recognition. However rational an argument may be, its purchase on a given situation always depends on the uncertain effects of its particular aesthetic charms. Gambling that it can bridge distinct bodies of historical experience and thus mitigate human isolation and conflict, philosophy always risks being misunderstood: without anyone noticing, the bulb flickers out, good magic turns bad, truth turns to muddle, a shimmer of beauty congeals into a tired or dangerous cliché. Among other things, Octave’s remark in La Règle du jeu on the “terrible” fact that “everyone has their own reasons” indicates an anguished awareness that we can never fathom the quality of our own intentions or judge the extent to which they illuminate or darken our reasoning. [11] As in the case of the unphilosophic husband described above, we may imagine ourselves to be lucid and free while plunging ever deeper into personal or collective self-deception. In a 1966 interview, Octave’s creator Jean Renoir explicitly affirmed his own understanding of these principles:

Renoir: People are not convinced by arguments. They are convinced by the sound of a voice. For example, I’m sure the people who followed Hitler weren’t convinced by what he told them. I’m sure it was the little man’s strange personality.

Cahiers: The magical side?

Renoir: The magical side! I think that convincing people is magic. People think that one convinces with arguments, with logical reasons. It’s not true. Logic never convinced anyone. Absolute truth is absolutely invisible.

Cahiers: And Socrates’ dialogues?

Renoir: Ah! I’m sure it’s the same thing. There was a magical side. Because Socrates’ reasons are excellent, but the truth is that if one cares to, one can respond to them, one can oppose them. But I’m sure that the element that convinces us, in what we have of Socrates’s dialogues, is probably a kind of magic in the writing. It’s in every writer in fact. It’s by means of the magical side that one can reach the reasonable, or the reasoning side. Of course it’s a paradox, but paradoxes are true. In any case, they have as much chance of being true as logical truths do. [12]

Given this paradox and these equivocal conditions, on what basis does philosophy proceed? One cannot objectively prove why the good magic of Socrates is better than the bad magic of Hitler, or why it is worth spending time reflecting on La Règle du jeu. But for a true Renoir-lover the difference the film makes is more than a matter of taste, it is a truth that has given definition to historical experience, that is itself an irreducible fact of that experience. The world revealed by the film is more real than the indifferent or ideological worlds it displaces because its enigmatic beauty offers purchase for a collective exploration; in the long run, good magic sustains the scrutiny of dialogue and reflection in a way that bad magic can’t. [13] True love is not satisfied by anything less than the whole truth and it is this dissatisfaction that gives philosophy its radical motion and dialogical orientation. In betting against its misrecognition philosophy assumes that our desire for truth is always turning bad magic good, widening our horizons while honing in on a singular reality. As bitter as it might sometimes seem, philosophy is driven by the faith that human life is a happy accident or gift: however rarely or reluctantly we reflect on our encounters with truth, they never cease to testify that the world is “different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.” [14]

II. Cinephilia as Motive for Reflection on Historical Experience

There is the sense of a repetition, of a persistence within a discourse which we point to with the term cinephilia. Cinephilia doesn’t do anything other than designate something which resists, which escapes existing networks of critical discourse and theoretical frameworks. What is this thing that keeps cropping up in all these different forms and keeps being called cinephilia? What is the discourseof cinephilia hovering around? It has never been a coherent discourse.

Paul Willemen [15]

The attitude of looking and waiting is the attitude which corresponds with the beautiful. As long as one can go on conceiving, wishing, longing, the beautiful does not appear. That is why in all beauty we find contradiction, bitterness and absence which are irreducible.

The contradictions the mind comes up against –these are the only realities: they are the criterion of the real. There is no contradiction in what is imaginary. Contradiction is the test of necessity.

When something seems impossible to obtain despite every effort, it is an indication of a limit which cannot be passed on that plane and of the necessity for a change in level –a break in the ceiling. To wear ourselves out in efforts on the same level degrades us. It is better to accept the limit, to contemplate it and savour it in all its bitterness.

When the attention has revealed the contradiction in something on which it has been fixed, a kind of loosening takes place. By persevering in this course we attain detachment.

Simone Weil [16]

The preceding sketch of philosophy was designed to highlight principles that I believe are equally important for understanding the phenomena of cinephilia. [17] The stark geometry of Weil’s demonstration –i.e. the triangle linking the “truth” of the scene to both the husband’s historical experience and the realm of reflection– offers a clear way of illustrating structural similarities between the two phenomena, and of modeling a set of assumptions which in any real example would be irreducibly complex and difficult to present. I’m gambling that it offers an example of cinephilia that is better than any actual instance for having been imagined differently by each of us; however diffidently one performs this crude cogito, however underdeveloped the scene may be, whatever substitutions or reactions it may provoke, it remains the creation of each individual, an element, however minor, of historical experience. As such it will constitute the analogical rock (or sand) on which I build my account of cinephilia.

What exactly do I mean by cinephilia? As in the case of philosophy and for the same reasons, it is crucial to begin by making a distinction between the innumerable instances and possibilities of cinephilia (part of the unmappable archipelago of human experience) and existing accounts of cinephilia (e.g. the maps film scholars currently use to characterize the phenomena). The need to establish this distinction is even more pressing insofar as cinephilia is commonly taken to be a historical movement with specific parameters, an experience that has certain prerequisites, and/or a unique culture whose heyday has past. Though the limitations of these characterizations may already be evident, in light of their widespread currency it is worth taking a moment to briefly note some of their common features and define my own approach by way of a critique.

In examining discussions of the topic, Paul Willemen notes a pervasive equivocation between defining cinephilia as “a particular relationship to cinema” or as “a particular historical period of relating to the cinema”. [18] Though the discourse treats these as if they were the theoretical and historical dimensions of a single phenomenon, he argues that, like comparable definitions of a literary or art historical phenomenon (e.g. classicism, romanticism, modernism), they inevitably contradict one another:
bq. Such an ‘ism’ is either a bundle of characteristics which can always be detected in a wide variety of historical periods and places (that is to say it never coincides with the historical placement of the label), or it designates a cultural-historical moment at the cost of abusively simplifying and reducing the phenomena one is trying to describe. Procrustes comes to mind in that context. [19]

If one reflects seriously on the critical categories cinephiles typically use to identify their experience –the work of an auteur, a specific genre or cycle of films, fleeting details of audiovisual contingency that provide pleasure or epiphany– it becomes impossible to limit the phenomenon to specific historical parameters. Nonetheless, and for their own reasons, most contemporary discussions of the topic have chosen to represent it as a historical movement without clarifying how the primary experience of cinephilia distinguishes this movement from adjacent phenomena (aesthetic experience in general, other experiences of the cinema).

As far as I can tell, the discourse has only been able to represent cinephilia in this way by alluding to a vague measure of “intensity” and by treating secondary or derivative factors as if these were valid principles of inclusion/exclusion. Self-proclaimed cinephiles typically appeal to the idea of a “golden age” during which the love of the cinema is said to have reached its highest pitch of intensity and this apex is then used to give a broad historical coherence to experiences that are nonetheless described in theoretical terms as irreducibly private and incommensurable. In order to secure this imaginary coherence the discourse is forced to treat the coincident conditions and secondary effects of a particular group’s experience of cinephilia as if these were necessary and definitive characteristics of any and all cinephilia. Susan Sontag provides us with some egregious but nonetheless representative examples of how this rhetoric operates:

Each art breeds its fanatics. The love the movies aroused was more imperial. Lovers of poetry or opera or dance don’t think there is only poetry or opera or dance. But lovers of cinema could think there was only cinema…

Cinephilia was mostly a Western European affair. The great directors of ‘the other Europe’ (Zanussi in Poland, Angelopoulos in Greece, Tarkovsky and Sokurov in Russia, Janscó and Tarr in Hungary) and the great Japanese directors (Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Naruse, Oshima, Imamura) have tended not to be cinephiles, perhaps because in Budapest or Moscow or Tokyo or Warsaw or Athens there wasn’t a chance to get a cinematheque education…

No amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals –erotic, ruminative– of the darkened theatre. People still like going to the movies, and some people still care about and expect something special, necessary from a film. But one hardly finds anymore, at least among the young, the distinctive cinephillic love of movies, which is not simply love of but a certain taste in films (grounded in a vast appetite for seeing and re-seeing as much as possible of cinema’s glorious past). [20]

The historical narrative that grounds this approach to cinephilia generally takes Paris from the post-WWII period to May 1968 as its principal setting and the critic-filmmakers of the Cahiers du Cinéma and French New Wave as its main stars. [21] Formed by their education at the Cinémateque Française, astounded by the quality of American films flooding into Paris, inspired by the independence and achievement of Italian Neo-realism, the early Cahiers critics created the auteur theory, the set of heuristic principles that was a crucial catalyst of cinephilia. The auteur theory and its key concept of mise-en-scène gave cinephiles the means to distinguish genuine cinematic achievement from the ersatz of ‘literary values’ and elevated subject matter; auteurs past and present gained increasing prominence and definition, while cinephiles around the world were emboldened to enter the field of production for themselves. Enabled by favorable economic conditions and the rise of certain institutions (cinematheques, film journals, art-house cinemas, film festivals), this historical movement of cinephilia created a singular climate of mounting aesthetic expectation, an unprecedented cultural synergy that, according to “those who were there,” brooks no comparison. Since the mid-1990’s Sontag and others have claimed that the movement is ailing and perhaps dead, the result of socio-economic factors and/or anti-cinephillic tendencies of doubt and suspicion within Film Studies. [22] These diagnoses predictably produced counter-proclamations attesting to the fact that cinephilia is alive and well in new, mutating, forms, and contemporary discussions of the topic typically focus on identifying distinct historical phases within the movement and on the cultural, sociological and psychoanalytic factors that can be said to account for these phases. [23]

But despite all its proliferating variations, the attempt to situate cinephilia within specific historical parameters can nonetheless be described as a regressive response to cinephilia as a primary experience; in the mannered shamelessness of its avowals (i.e. gargantuan appetites, reducing the general possibilities of desire to one’s own folie) this tendency exhibits a degrading auto-eroticism, “a forbidden kind of love,” a fixation on the pointing finger instead of the Moon it points to. [24] The fundamental heresy, which I hereby expose as incoherent and absurd, is that one can love films in themselves. If, as Sontag claims, films can “encapsulate everything,” it is only because they function as portals to reality; in the final analysis films can never be better than metaxu, means to an end, bridges or windows that allow contact with and reflection on the real world of human beings, living, dead and yet-to-be-born, with whom we have erotic and ethical relations. [25] The compulsive fixation on one’s own past responses only testifies to a fear of contact and a lack of hope in reflection that are symptomatic of (what was once called) the postmodern condition. It is not that self-proclaiming cinephiles have not enjoyed this contact or reflection, but that their retrospective accounts of the phenomenon are an abusive reduction of their own experience and a criminal devaluation of the experience of others. [26] By fetishizing cinephilic experience and making it exclusive they collapse the movement of opening and dialogue which the experience itself always inaugurates: paradoxical as it may seem, most of the current discourse on the topic is both uncinephilic and unphilosophical.

To move toward a more viable definition of cinephilia, we need to cut from the historical long-shot that most often organizes the discourse to some close-ups, examples of the primary experience itself. As theoretical inquiries into the topic always acknowledge, that experience is typically defined in terms of a contradictory relation to its immediate contexts. In their comprehensive review of the discourse, Willemen and Noel King can only identify two features common to the specific examples of cinephilia found in it. In one form or another there is a “moment of revelation” in which representation and intention seem to be transcended (“what is being seen is in excess of what is being shown”) and, in one sense or another, this experience of revelation is understood to be radically incommensurable or different: “what is being revealed is subjective, fleeting, variable, depending on a set of desires and the subjective constitution that is involved in a specific encounter with a specific film.” [27] Beyond the blunt fact of revelation, there is no discernible consensus regarding how or why such revelations occur or what it is that is being revealed; though cinephiles can “point” to elements they love –a movement of wind in some trees, the odd rhythm of a horse’s gait, Jean Arthur’s voice, Chaplin’s Tramp, Ozu’s Late Spring, the work of Jean Renoir, a cycle of spaghetti Westerns– they cannot theorize what all these have in common. [28] The discourse can only theorize the experience in negative terms, referring to “moments” or “details,” parts which in some sense do not cohere with the various discursive wholes in which they are found (e.g. the narrative imperatives of a given film, the semiological or affective expectations associated with a given actor or genre, the history of cinema, one’s previous experience of life and understanding of human history). [29] One identifies cinephilia not by the repeated manifestation of positive characteristics but by the way it ruptures existing patterns of expectation; only after the fact do these ruptures, these illuminated holes in wholes, cause one to infer the existence of “a world beyond representation which only shimmers through in certain moments.” [30]

If we take our bearings strictly by descriptions of cinephilia as a primary experience we are forced to recognize the basic incommensurability of the phenomenon, the fact that it eludes any positive theoretical formulation: as a subset of aesthetic-phenomena-in-general, it is the source of all difference in the cinema and cannot itself be subject to a general definition. The only meta-discursive constants are that the object of cinephile desire appears incommensurable in relation to its contexts and that therefore neither object nor contexts can be specified in isolation from each other: cinephilia creates both the object and its contexts. [31] We can infer that cinephilia is nothing more or less than the precise registration of a living contradiction, a contradiction in the historical experience of the spectator-auditor (where else could we locate it?) that persists in holding our attention, if only for a moment. Whether we judge it to be ephemeral or necessary, a perceptual blip or the index of a lasting truth, we have in any case paused in thought before the fact of its appearance: cinephilosophy begins with the recognition that the persistence of cinephilia turns the determinate historical subject into a dialogical multiplicity already engaged in a process of reflection. [32]

The innumerable cultural facts of this persistence (what was once called the art of the cinema) are the historical terrain that I seek to recover for the paradigm of cinephilosophy. To arrive at a philosophic approach to cinephilia it is therefore crucial not to succumb to an understanding of its moment as always fleeting or irreducibly private (i.e. the fatalistic and sentimental view put forward in accounts from the “golden age”) but instead to recognize an inherent capacity of expansion, the fact that a given moment of attention can last a lifetime, consistently informing our understanding of the cinema and other issues. The object of desire can be as ephemeral as a single awkward footstep that briefly seizes the cinephile’s imagination, a rupturing element that may have no dialogical consequence or historical significance. This weak or insignificant form of cinephilia was noted by Bazin when he wrote that “most of the best films depend to some degree on God, on a lucky or unlucky chance which belongs not to the film maker but to the film, an uncertain and involuntary poetry of the machine.” [33] But on another level of magnitude, a sense of poetic contingency, incommensurability or uniqueness can infuse the entire oeuvre of a given auteur, and as such moments of cinephilia have proven lasting and predictable enough to fill bookshelves with rational analysis and dialogue. Though this may appear to be a different phenomenon from that in the first example, careful scrutiny of auteur criticism and scholarship should serve to make the identity clear: somewhere at the heart or margins of analysis one always finds the same metaphoric gesturing toward or simply naming of a contingency that, in this case, is taken to define the author’s “signature” vision (i.e. capacity to sustain original reflection). Jacques Rivette highlights the erotic appeal of this expanded sense of contingency in his description of the work of Howard Hawks:

There seems to be a law behind Hawk’s action and editing, but it is a biological law like that governing any living being: each shot has a functional beauty, like a neck or an ankle. The smooth, orderly succession of shots has a rhythm like the pulsing of blood, and the whole film is like a beautiful body, kept alive by deep resilient breathing. [34]

Though the sense of contingency is not so clearly on display in all auteurist writing, one always finds some indication that the conventional language of the cinema (one of the ruptured contexts) is subject to transformation by a unique quality, often called style or mise-en-scène (the object of cinephile desire). Far from being irrational or fleeting, the singular moment of cinephilia is in this case understood to be produced by the artifacts of a lifetime of coherent reflection (i.e. the films of Howard Hawks), artifacts capable in principle of sustaining an equally-long process of dialogical response on the part of the auteurist critic. What is true of an auteur can also be seen to be true of any object that “singles itself out” from the indifference of its surroundings: specific film genres, stars, attractions, historical cycles or, so common and obvious as to go unmentioned, a specific film as a whole. The traditional categories and methods that film scholarship has always used to construct its objects as wholes can thus also function as devices which allow cinephilosophy to organize and extend its moment, i.e. its critical force in relation to all existing narratives, theories and interpretations; far from being a disqualification, the contradictions one encounters in trying to produce general models of such categories are, when rightly understood, an indication of the value their specific instances can have for fundamental reflection. [35] That said, it is important to remember that the experience of cinephilia creates these categories by induction, that it alone determines the specific magnitudes of its revelations, that between the forgettable footstep and canonized auteur there are innumerable renegade details, patterns of mise-en-scène and performances capable of surprising us and making us think. From this angle, cinephilosophy is not so much a new methodology as a hierarchy which subordinates all other methods to the critical analysis of cinephilic experience, one that allows the living contradictions underlying specific instances of cinephilia to identify the domains of knowledge where they intervene and the forms that intervention might take. Cinephilosophy in a broad or generic sense encompasses any project that allows cinephilia to maintain and extend its critical difference.


1 Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (Routeledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1963), 57.

2 Stephen Mulhall, “Ways of Thinking: A Response to Anderson and Baggini,” Film-Philosophy, vol.7, no.25, August 2003.

3 Proust provides the first metaphor for phenomena this chapter shall explore in detail:

“…many days in Venice, which intellect had not been able to give me back, were dead to me until last year, when crossing a courtyard I came to a standstill among the glittering paving-stones. The friends I was with feared I might have wrenched my ankle, but I waved them to go on, and that I would catch up with them. Something of greater importance engaged me, I still did not know what it was, but in the depth of my being I felt the flutter of a past that I did not recognize; it was just as I set foot on a certain paving-stone that this feeling of perplexity came over me. I felt an invading happiness, I knew that I was going to be enriched by that purely-personal thing, a past impression, a fragment of life in unsullied preservation (something we can only know in preservation, for while we live in it, it is not present in the memory since other sensations accompany and smother it) which only asked that it be set free, that it should come and augment my wealth of life and poetry.” Marcel Proust, “Contre Sainte Beuve” in Marcel Proust: On Art and Literature 1869-1919 (Carroll and Graf, New York, 1997) 20-21.

4 One could obviously answer this question in a variety of ways and at considerable length. In what immediately follows I offer a “working model” the conception of which is indebted to a variety of sources – Plato, Nagarjuna, John Arapura, Hannah Arendt, Mikhail Bakhtin, Walter Benjamin, Anne Carson, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marian, T.R.V. Murti, Paul Ricoeur, Stanley Rosen, Louis Ruprecht, Michel Serres, Leo Strauss and Simone Weil. Over the course of this ongoing research study I expect to reference these and other figures as a pedigree for the provisional account given here, but for the moment my goal is simply to get a heuristic model “up and running”.

5 As John Peters points out, this very influential Platonic interpretation of the term overstates what is strictly given in the Greek root phileo by borrowing the more charged connotations proper to eros. My own account of philosophy is completely-indebted to what Peters calls Plato’s erotosophic definition. John Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999) 43, note 22.

6 Though this is obscured by the reduction of philosophy to modern academic scholarship and the pronounced anti-religious bias of most of that scholarship, it is a historical fact that the philosophic traditions that emphasize the primacy of the ethical and erotic have dominated and continue to play a major role in the course of human history. In the first instance I refer to the many sophisticated traditions associated with the world’s major religions: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, etc.. But one could also point to a variety of figures who have attempted to express this ethical-erotic primacy in modern terms, often drawing on the insights of pre-modern thinkers such as Plato and Nagarjuna. The following works on this topic are only meant as a sample that is neither representative nor exhaustive: Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay On Exteriority (Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, 1969); Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (Routeledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1963); Louis A. Ruprecht, Jr. Symposia: Plato, The Erotic, and Moral Value (State University of New York Press, Albany, 1999); M.M. Bakhtin, Toward a Philosophy of the Act (University of Texas Press, Austin, 1993); T.R.V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (George Allen and Unwin, London 1980); J.G. Arapura, Religion as Anxiety and Tranquillity: An Essay in Comparative Phenomenology of the Spirit (Mouton, The Hague, 1972).

7 Simone Weil, The Need for Roots: Prelude To A Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1987) 241-242.

8 For contemporary work that affirms the centrality of philosophy’s skeptical imperative see: Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford University Press, New York, 1979); Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being, or, Beyond Essence (Duquesne University Press, 1998). Though Cavell and Levinas may be the best-known modern thinkers who work explicitly with this imperative, that imperative itself makes me wary of depending too heavily on their formulations. As the Buddhist saying puts it, one must not mistake the finger that points for the Moon it points at, the historical expressions of philosophy for the transhistorical reality they reference. Cavell and Levinas sometimes give the impression that they have become hypnotized by their own particular modes of pointing; though I may sometimes seem hypnotized myself, pointing to things in my own rude way has the advantage that nobody would mistake it for the Moon.

9 “… an experience of reality in which invention and discovery cease being opposed and where creation and revelation coincide.” Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor (Toronto: Toronto UP, 1979) 246. “We do not have to understand new things, but by dint of patience, effort and method, come to understand with our whole self the truths which are evident.” Weil, Gravity and Grace, 105. Probably the best-known source for this formulation is the concept of Recollection put forward by Plato in the Meno and other dialogues. Plato, Five Dialogues, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Hackett, Indianapolis, 1974) 84-88; (Meno, 96-110b).

10 Though I cannot pause to develop the point here, I take the entire project of analytic philosophy to be a demonstration that this “shifting” at the heart of language always renders the objectivity or transhistorical validity of a given formulation impossible. Stanley Rosen develops this argument in “The Limits of Analysis: Linguistic Purification and the Nihil Absolutum” in The Ancients and the Moderns: Rethinking Modernity (New Haven: Yale UP, 1989) 160-174.

11 “Parce que, tu sais, sur cette terre il y a une chose effroyable, c’est que tout le monde a ses raisons.” As Olivier Curchod and Christopher Faulkner note in their commentary on La Régle du jeu, this particular piece of dialogue dates from the earliest drafts of the film’s script and has without doubt received more critical commentary than any other in Renoir’s work. But what does it actually mean? Just as Robin Wood wonders at the absence of a satisfying account of La Règle du jeu despite the general consensus about its achievement, I wonder why nobody has really examined the sentence that most admirers of Renoir reference as essential. Quite often the references to this line in the scholarship are vague and based in egregious misrepresentation. For example, the widespread misuse of this quote as evidence of Renoir’s “humanism” and “sympathy” completely ignores both “effroyable” and diegetic and extra-diegetic contexts in which it is spoken. Jean Renoir, La Règle du jeu: Scénario original de Jean Renoir, critical edition with notes and commentary by Olivier Curchod and Christopher Faulkner (Édition Nathan, Paris, 1999) 107, 271. Robin Wood, Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond (Columbia University Press, New York, 1998) 60.

12 Jean Renoir, Renoir on Renoir, trans. Carol Volk (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1989) 121. Plato provides the paradigmatic articulation of this paradox in his employment of poetic discourse to ban the poets from his ideal Republic in Book X of The Republic. Plato, Plato’s Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Hackett, Indianapolis, 1974), 239-252. The central role ethical and political exigencies play in focalizing this paradox is discussed in Stanley Rosen, “Plato’s Quarrel with the Poets” in Patricia Cook, ed. Philosophical Imagination and Cultural Memory: Appropriating Historical Traditions (Duke University Press, Durham, 1993).

13 Is it really the case that Hitler’s appeal cannot be distinguished from that of Socrates in a way that would have universal credence? Though I can’t elaborate this here, we could divide forms of discourse into monologues (which would remain so no matter how many people participate) and dialogues (which always have their root in solitary reflection).

14 Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” in Malcolm Cowley, ed. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition (Penguin Books, New York, 1977) 30. Simone Weil provides a compact formula that answers the modern dogma that condemns faith as inherently-irrational: “Faith is the experience that intelligence is enlightened by love.” Weil, Gravity and Grace, 116. As far as I am aware, the most exhaustive examination of the giftedness of human experience in the “Continental” tradition is found in Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2002); the same principles are explored from an “Anglo-American” perspective in Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good (Routledge, New York, 1989). In Speaking Into the Air John Peters also arrives at an “optimistic” view of human communication by the very different route of comparative historical analysis. He contrasts Plato’s account of the close reciprocal relations required for a successful dialogue with Jesus’s image of a non-reciprocal dissemination in which the sender is an indiscriminate broadcaster of discursive seed and the receiver is responsible for allowing meaning to sprout, grow and bear fruit. The parable of the Sower reminds us that we manage to successfully communicate before we know how to communicate, and focuses our attention on the mysterious providence of earth, rain and sun that precedes and guarantees the intentions of sender and receiver. While noting the widespread influence of Plato’s anxiety over the possibilities of misunderstanding, Peters suggests we take our bearings by the basic non-reciprocality of most human relations and communications, from the asymmetric relations between parents and babies to the primarily-unidirectional mediascape we inhabit today. From this angle of approach, the Platonic ideals of mutual communion and justice as reciprocity are underwritten by the more primary sense of indebtedness that puts the economy of human relations in motion, i.e. the non-reciprocal “injustice” of parental love, the providential disposition of nature, etc. See Peters, “Chapter One: Dialogue and Dissemination” in Speaking Into The Air, 33-62.

15 Paul Willemen, “Through the Glass Darkly: Cinephilia Reconsidered” in Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory (BFI – Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1994) 231.

16 Weil, Gravity and Grace, 87-88, 89, 136-137.

17 In other words, my versions of philosophy and cinephilia share a common “root-metaphor.” According to Stephen Pepper’s model, root-metaphors are the rich and suggestive analogies that sit at the base of and support all “world theories” (i.e. comprehensive attempts at explaining phenomena). Translated into the terms I have been using, they are the “magical” assumptions that provide any theory with its aesthetic power of conviction; in terms of Platonic philosophy, a metaphor can be understood as the poetic expression of a discursive contradiction. Stephen Pepper, “Root Metaphors” in Berel Lang, ed. Philosophical Style: An Anthology about the Writing and Reading of Philosophy (Nelson-Hall, Chicago, 1980) 193-220.

18 Willemen, “Through a Glass Darkly”, 227.

19 Willemen, “Through the Glass Darkly”, 230.

20 Sontag, “A Century of Cinema,” Where the Stress Falls (Picador, New York, 2001) 117-122. 117-118, 119, 120, 122.

21 The portrait of cinephilia I am presenting here is a composite the features of which can be found in all of the following Anglo-American accounts: Susan Sontag, “A Century of Cinema” in Where the Stress Falls (Picador, New York, 2001); Philip Lopate, “Anticipation of La Notte: The ‘Heroic’ Age of Moviegoing” in Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticism from a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies (Anchor, New York, 1998); Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin, eds. Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (BFI, London, 2003); Thomas Elsaesser, “Cinephilia, or the Uses of Disenchantment,” Keynote Address to SCMS conference, London, 2005; Christian Keathley, Cinephilia and History, or the Wind in the Trees (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2006).

22 The role of economic factors in the demise of cinephilia is briefly referenced by Sontag and discussed at greater length by Philip Lopate; the role of certain tendencies within Film Studies is discussed by Thomas Elsaesser. Sontag, “A Century of Cinema,” 121; Lopate, “The Last Taboo: The Dumbing Down of American Movies” in Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticicism from a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies; Thomas Elsaesser, “Cinephilia, or the Uses of Disenchantment.”

23 An important series of exchanges among the “new cinephiles” is collected in Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin, eds. Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia; Thomas Elsaesser and Christian Keathley both provide accounts of the movement’s genealogy and prospects. Thomas Elsaesser, “Cinephilia, or the Uses of Disenchantment”; Christian Keathley, Cinephilia and History, or the Wind in the Trees.

24 The expression used by the Buddhist Priest to characterize Genjuro’s love for the ghost in Mizoguchi’s Ugestu is, I think, illuminating here, insofar as he also reminds of the ethical responsibilities his false love has caused him to forget: “Don’t you love your family? Do you want to sacrifice your wife and children and your life, too?” The metaphor of mistaking the finger that points for the Moon it points to is commonly used in Buddhist literature to illustrate the process whereby insight congeals into dogma. Keiko I. McDonald, ed. Ugetsu: Kenji Mizoguchi, Director (Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers UP, 1993) 65.

25 Sontag, “A Century of Cinema,” 118. I trust it is non-controversial to observe that the living are effected by the love and sacrifices of those who are dead –the gift of art being one such effect– and by their own efforts to repay their various debts to posterity.

26 In the passages quoted above, Susan Sontag is evidently willing to define the love of the cinema by the personal circumstances of her own experience and to discount the very existence of social and cultural experiences that do not closely resemble her own. Unconscious though it may be, the self-regard implicit in this definition of love amounts to a ridiculous degradation of the concept, a degradation that is revealed in its devaluation of the experience of others. Is it not absurd to treat the secondary factors that provoke one’s own desire as if they were a primary requirement for desire itself? If Ozu and Tarkovsky have to sit on the sub-cinephile bench, what of the Indian peasant who has watched Chaplin’s The Gold Rush fifty times? Are all three disqualified simply because they don’t wear the particular Manhattan lingerie worn by Sontag and Lopate? What of the audience for popular Indian cinema, for over fifty years the world’s largest and most complex national cinema culture? What of the first-year film students who discover, to their continued surprise, that they can’t stop thinking about L’Avventura ? I do not offer these instances as specific counter-evidence to be weighed against the dominant narrative; as many examples as I might provide can only begin to suggest the infinite possibilities, the openness of expectation, the desire for reality, that constitutes true cinephilia. It is ironic that the historical movement taken to define cinephilia represents a period when its ethical and political stakes were appreciated, but that these have been forgotten in the nostalgic attempts to recover it.

27 Though the Willemen-King interview dates from 1992, subsequent work on cinephilia can be said to confirm their general characterization. See Keathley, De Bacque/Fremaux. Willemen, 236-237.

28 “A particular term is widely circulated, widely taken up, and then someone comes along and tries to give it an essential definition, which is not the point because the whole reason for the term being in circulation in the first place is that it can cover different fields without specifying what is meant. As soon as you look at it more closely, it vanishes, like sand between your fingers. So cinephilia might well prove to be one of those terms…. We know there’s something happening over there, somewhere, and it’s in trying to give an account of that ‘something happening’ that the terminology shifts. But the new terms merely repeat the gesture of pointing, they do not clarify much at all. As I said, their use value probably is precisely in their inability to produce clarity: people can use them in all kinds of ways, even contradictory ones. The mere fact of using the new terms allows us to signal, or to fantasies, that we, too, have sensed the shift. That is all.” Willemen, “Through the Glass Darkly,” 226-7, 230. Keathley 8, Willemen 235.

29 “Detail” and “Moment” used throughout Willemen article and literature.

30 Willemen, 241.

31 The pervasive equivocation between theoretical and historical definitions that Willemen and King observing taking place on the meta-level of discourse about cinephilia is only a logical “effect” of the irreducible singularity of the phenomena themselves.

32 Though there are a great number of references one could make in supporting a conception of reflection as inherently dialogical, the common source of most of these can be traced to Plato. One of the clearest and most succinct outlines of this conception can be found in “What Makes Us Think? The two-in-one” in Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1978). The Socrates-Hitler comparison we made earlier is valuable here and Arendt has given us the definitive examination of it: one person such as Plato writing dialogues makes himself a productive, reflective multiplicity; millions of Germans under Hitler reduced themselves to collective, unconscious solitude.

33 Bazin/Renoir 117.

34 Jacques Rivette, “The Genius of Howard Hawks” in Jim Hillier and Peter Wollen, Howard Hawks: American Artist (London, BFI, 1996) 28.

35 The most comprehensive proofs of this claim are found in those ambitious projects which, in trying to produce general models of categories such as film genre or film language, end up revealing the inherent contradictions in any given example of the category. In this connection it is also relevant to observe that accounts of classical Hollywood cinema which focus on its inherent multiplicity of function and audience are also those that come closest to defining its singular aesthetic effect. C.f. Richard Maltby, “ ‘A Brief Romantic Interlude’: Dick and Jane Go to 3 1/2 Seconds of the Classical Hollywood Cinema” in David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, eds. Post-theory : Reconstructing Film Studies (Madison : University of Wisconsin Press, 1996); Rick Altman, “Dickens, Griffith, and Film Theory Today” in Jane Gaines, ed. Classical Hollywood narrative : The Paradigm Wars (Durham : Duke University Press, 1992); Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London, BFI, 1999); Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema (New York, Oxford UP, 1974).

What is Cinephilosophy? A Bazinian Paradigm, Part 1

Though Prakash Younger’s interests range widely across the humanities (including English and world literature, political philosophy, geopolitical history, and art history), his work as a teacher and scholar is grounded by a long-standing engagement with the cinephilic traditions that have shaped Film Studies as a discipline. Though his work is rooted in close attention to aesthetics and the details of cinematic form, Younger’s ultimate goal as both a teacher and scholar is to show how films give us an enhanced purchase on the real world beyond them. By taking advantage of the access films provide to the experience of other times, places, cultures and sensibilities we enhance our ability to connect with the world we live in today; unlikely as it may seem, a French film from the 1930’s or a Bollywood film from the 1970’s may turn out to be the “message in a bottle” we have been waiting for, the magic lens that brings certain facts and possibilities of the present into sharp focus. Studying film is a detour that is justified by the fact that, in the end, it always gets us to the right place, faster.

Volume 13, Issue 2 / February 2009 Essays   andre bazin   film theory   french cinema