Readers of Senses of Cinema are familiar, even comfortable, with the concept of cinephilia. Is there such a thing as “telephilia”? (1) Is there a loyalty to television as an art form that parallels the intense devotion to film present in cinephilia? Or is telephilia simply another word for “fandom”, the discourse of active audience engagement and obsession that has been formally recognised and celebrated in the discourses of Cultural, Media and Television Studies for several years? This article will explore the notion of telephilia as a distinct category of cultural experience with reference to cinephilia and fandom in order to invigorate discussion of televisual texts.
Cinephilia can be discussed in terms of a tradition, emotional responses, a set of orthodox texts, or a range of interpretive practices, among other things. The beginning of the official history of cinephilia is usually traced to France in the aftermath of World War 2, as film societies flourished and hitherto unavailable films, especially those from the United States, were seen for the first time (2). It spread to the United Kingdom and America in the 1960s, coinciding roughly with the development and influence of auteurism. “Thanks in large part to the writings of passionate cinephile critics, the movies achieved a widespread cultural respectability.” (3)
This passion has a number of aspects. For post war audiences, cinema was no doubt precious, at least in part, precisely because of the previous absence of so many films, of so many opportunities to become enriched by cinema. The sense of cinema’s ephemerality arguably persists for contemporary audiences, despite the extensive reproduction of some works of art through the auspices of the multiplex. For example, Australian distribution and exhibition practices severely restrict access to international cinema. Record attendances for local film festivals are perhaps indicative of a desire to overcome this textual isolation.
Christian Keathley locates the source of cinephilia in a different type of singularity: the epiphany, that brief encounter with a particular detail in a given film. He contends that cinephiles are drawn back into their own past through such meetings, much in the same way that Roland Barthes felt the punctum in a photograph, its wound of time, via one of its features, even though this trait might seem insignificant to others (4) According to Keathley, “the cinephiliac moment may be understood as a kind of mise-en-abyme wherein each spectator’s obsessive relationship with cinema is embodied in its most concentrated form.” (5)
Somewhat surprisingly, Keathley explains this “moment” in terms of a panoramic or distracted form of perception. This is consistent with the viewing practices associated with modernity, and especially the flaneur (6). Many film viewers no doubt have such recollections. However, while such disinterested engagement might account for the tendency of the cinephile to notice the incidental, and be moved by chance, surely cinephilia also implies an interaction with the filmic every bit as rapturous as that of the naive spectator? Indeed, it is this fixation that Christian Metz criticised and sought to quarantine from an intellectually rigorous, properly “scientific” (psycho)analysis of cinema.
For Metz, it is an affective relation to film that motivates cinephilia. Those who love the cinema treat it, in psychoanalytic terms, as a “good object”. The critic and the theorist are in constant danger of transforming their taste into theory by enshrouding a film they cherish in order to guard it from intellectual scrutiny and potential destruction (7). The film historian’s cinephilia is an expansion of this affective regard and protective impulse. The historian constructs an imaginary film archive to overcome cinema’s ephemerality. He tries to conserve as many films as possible, even though the selection criteria may be arbitrary or even contradictory. Thus
one film is “retained” for its aesthetic value, another as a sociological document, a third as typical example of the bad films of a period, the fourth is a minor work of a major film-maker, a fifth the major work of a minor film-maker, a further one owes its inscription in the catalogue to its place in a particular chronology (it is the first film shot with a certain type of lens, or else the last film shot in Tsarist Russia) (8).
We might also regard the cinephile who seeks to view or “collect” the maximum number of films possible as a variant of the film historian.
Adrian Martin provides a marvellous example of (part of) a cinephile’s archive in his 1992 article “Diary for My Loves.” This piece is an entry in a series on “best films” in Cinema Papers (the kind of “ten best” list that readers have created for this journal). However, Martin selects over one hundred films. He does not rank his selections numerically but arranges them into twenty categories. His inventory consists of seven directors (Cassavettes, Bresson, Lubitsch, Welles, Godard, Ruiz, and Blake Edwards), four genres (profound comedy, “gagology”, musicals and teen films), two historical periods (1915–1936, and the 1980s), short and experimental films, male melancholy, psychopaths, love and death, spirituality, and classic cinephilia. In explaining the rationale for his selections, he argues:
I feel more and more that critics who try to establish ‘objective’ standards of evaluation – the kind who endlessly, ferociously debate which movies are the ‘classics’ and the ‘masterpieces’, the ‘overrated’ and the ‘underrated’ – are simply elaborating an extraordinary cover for their own naked desire for particular films, film experiences and filmmakers (9).
Unlike Metz, Martin’s repudiation of the notion of objectivity does not serve as the beginning of a dispassionate ideological critique. Rather, his “subjective love, desire and madness” are inextricably linked to his assessment of cinema (10).
In formulating a concept of telephilia, it would be useful in my opinion to draw upon these different facets of cinephilia. We should acknowledge the singular feelings we have while watching television. We should appreciate that our desires to shield our aesthetic experiences against criticism and the fragility of time subtend our televisual choices. We should acknowledge the ways in which many of us develop and maintain our own record or inventory of television’s pleasures. I will return to this below.
* * *
Some years ago I was switching channels on late night TV when I bumped into Breakers (1998–1999), a half-hour soap. The show had been on for some time. It was being screened twice a day – I was watching a repeat. There was something odd or unusual about the program that was almost bewildering. The characters were not exclusively Anglo-Saxon and heterosexual (far from it). Some were permanently angry or unhappy, with no possibility of change. Social problems were dealt with in a reasonably convincing manner. It had natural performances and often used external locations. I was really excited, and watched regularly. I told friends and colleagues about it. Indeed, I was convinced (and still am) that it was the best Australian show on air at the time. But the series was cancelled a few months later. Breakers was widely reviled as the nadir of local programming (it was recently named in a newspaper column as one of the ten worst Australian TV shows of all time, along with another favourite of mine, Pacific Drive [1998–2000]). It was a cultural reference point for comedians, but otherwise apparently insignificant.
Some time later I tried to write an article about the program. However, I had neglected to tape it and consequently had no text at my disposal. The series did not seem to be on cable. The Sydney-based production company was willing to dub episodes from the masters, but only at a prohibitive cost. Although Breakers seemed out of my grasp, consigned quietly to the vault, it became encrypted in me, in memory’s personal, shifting archive. It dwells somewhere near other never-to-be-repeated wonders such as Steven Bocho’s Cop Rock (1990), the single good episode of the 1960s Canadian series Seaway (1964) which dealt with indigenous land rights and which I saw a few months ago, and the truly extraordinary Hull High (1990), an American program about high school that had its own rap version of a Greek chorus.
Does my love of this program mean that I am a fan of Breakers? Does the concept of fandom explain (my) telephilia? Fandom has become a central topic in studies of television, mainly because the varied activities of television fans indicate the inadequacy of any formulation of audiences as passive recipients of textual messages. Yet this multiplicity presents special problems for researchers because it underlines the heterogeneity of audiences. “There are as many fans and fan movements as there are there are meanings to contest and negotiate.” (11) For my purposes here, I will consider Henry Jenkins’ influential work in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (12).
Jenkins argues that television fandom “involves a particular mode of reception. Fan viewers watch television texts with close and undivided attention, with a mixture of emotional proximity and critical distance.” (13) Fans are willing to criticise what they regard as unsatisfactory or illogical features of their favourite programs, particularly character and story arcs. In this regard, fans are active readers who rework “dominant” textual meanings. This often includes the creation of fan fiction that will extend the hyperdiegesis or contradict the meta-text of their chosen show. Thus, they trans-form the text, acting as “textual poachers” (a term Jenkins borrows from Michel De Certeau).
While fandom may begin with textual analysis, it often proceeds far beyond the program itself to sustained social and intellectual engagement with other fans. They will challenge television networks over programming decisions. Fan communities impart interpretive techniques and traditions to new members (14). Fan communities also operate as alternative social networks with their own specialised cultural and economic practices that are often based on reciprocity rather than competition and commercialism (15).
While Jenkins’ work (and academic writing on fandom in general) has demonstrated the intensity of fans’ attachment to their favourite programs, and the hermeneutic significance of their reading activities, it is uncertain as to how useful this conceptualisation of fandom is to any potential definition of telephilia. For example, while I treasure Breakers, I did not tape it, or re-view it endlessly. I did not contest or rewrite its metanarrative, or any individual episode. I have not created any fan fiction based on the show, purchased any Breakers memorabilia, nor sought out any Breakers fan community.
Indeed, I’m unsure if I’m really a fan of any television program, at least not according to the framework of fan activities proposed by Jenkins. However, I’m obsessed with television, but my madness takes a myriad of forms, few of which are articulated in discourses on fandom. How useful is it to attempt to reduce such affectionate engagements to pre-existing explanatory categories of viewing behaviour, such as active, passive or distracted modes of television spectatorship? Rather, in articulating the affective dimensions of telephilia, I would emphasise the importance of the individuality of one’s aesthetic responses, as Martin demonstrates so well when writing about his cinephilia.
Thus, for example, my passion for Breakers is unique. I feel its presence still. I watched the final episode, but I choose to ignore its disappearance from the screening schedule. Perhaps this melancholic denial has something to do with my favourite character, Lucy (Louise Crawford). Indeed, I thought about entitling my project on the show “Breaking My Heart: Why I Love Lucy”. She was ambitious, beautiful, and destructive. She hurt herself and others; they wounded her. Lucy suffered, but most of all, she lived. And through her vivacity her character became animated for me. This is the only time in my life, whether watching film or television, that this has occurred. However, my affection for this character is not the source of my affinity for Breakers. Rather, Lucy’s naturalism, her radiant liveliness, belongs to the program itself, and this quality cannot now be resurrected through writing, called into being once more . . .
What might be said about my relation to Breakers is that it involves a bond that cannot be broken. I will not relinquish our tie because we are inseparable. This, paradoxically, is a non-relation because there is no distance between us that would allow for a relationship between my “self” and the textual object. One way of understanding this fusion of self and text is in terms of the radical changes that fans report to their sense of personal identity when they encounter their favourite programs. Fandom involves the appropriation of a television program by its fans, and the profound alteration of the fans by the program. As Jenkins observes, fans distinguish their “weekend only” identities from their weekday lives. Viewers are dis-placed, made an-other self, in fandom, perhaps transfigured as they cease to be exterior to the text.
Although I am not a fan of ER (1994–), I think that it is the best program on television currently. Watching the past few seasons has converted me. Stories and characters swirl, coming together and dissipating as lives are made or broken in just a few minutes of screen time. Each episode is a marvellous dance through any number of narrative spaces, as a company of principals, supporting characters and guest artists perform each complex manoeuvre. It is the formal properties of ER that I find so alluring: there is something dazzling and sophisticated about the relationship between camerawork and narrative. A close textual analysis of most hospital-bound episodes of ER would celebrate its long takes and depth of field. I could not care less if ER‘s stylistic brilliance is only possibly because of the steadicam – perhaps nothing else on television epitomises certain of Andre Bazin’s ideas about cinema’s possibilities (16).
However, this transformation of identity is not an essential category that defines telephilia, any more than the epiphany, “archive fever”, or personal preferences disguised as pretences to objectivity can be regarded as fundamental. Telephilia might eventually acquire a tradition and interpretive practices that can be taught, but if the term can resonate at present, it’s possibly because it can speak to a range of utterly subjective experiences. In this respect, the analysis of telephilia might commence with the (perhaps infinite) range of pleasures that television offers us. For example, my own enchantment with television comes from things such as narration, beloved characters, epiphanies, chance occurrences, boredom, mise-en-scene, endurance, uncharacteristic moments, reflexivity, genres, story arcs, repetition, and so on. That is, the joys or affects of television emanate from most things it gifts us. (Even infomercials have their merits. Have you seen the one that parodies Mulder and Scully…?)
This attention to an array of idiosyncratic or subjective pursuits does not mean that the analysis of television’s pleasures is trivial, far from it. Cinephilia played a historically significant role in the development of how we think about and study cinema, precisely because it involved evaluation, analysis and (intense) debate about the merits or otherwise of directors and specific films. Yet, as writers as diverse as Martin and Metz point out, passions played a decisive part in these intellectual encounters. At present, television programs are most often analysed in Media and Cultural Studies in terms of their ideological effects (television has replaced cinema as the “bad” cultural object par excellence) or mapped around the activities of their fans. Foregrounding and identifying our emotional responses to television programs could generate sustained criticism of the textuality of television shows? Who knows, we may actually begin to examine the formal elements of individual episodes (17).
Thu, in order to provoke further argument, I will conclude this piece with a list of some of my pleasures, in no particular order. Readers will notice that many of the “collectable” programs I referred to earlier are missing. Although I watch most of these programs, they are simply too earnest to be memorable. I’m sorry folks, but Buffy jumped the shark when the Scooby gang left high school. The most recent series of Angel was just putrid. Six Feet Under (2001–) should be put there. And is The West Wing actually a television show or just Aaron Sorkin’s attempt to imitate Shakespeare? (At least Sorkin’s earlier Sports Night [1998–2000] was mildly entertaining.)
Watching television for me is a process of constant discovery that requires commitment. Each week I scan the television guide in search of something new or an old friend I want to visit again. Many of the most stimulating, rewarding, and unusual TV programs are screened only after 11pm. Networks often regard late nights as a dead zone for dumping unwanted programs, screening repeats, or earning revenue through advertising. Amongst the dross (and there is plenty of it) I have found the following treasures:
Cleopatra 2525 (2000–2001)
Jack of All Trades (2000)
John Woo’s Once a Thief (1997–1998)
G vs E (1999)
Some people think that television has no visual style, or that intertextual, knowing, self-reflexive, or highly stylised television programs are recent innovations. John Caldwell has argued persuasively that excessive or self–conscious style, what has become known as “televisuality”, is an integral part of television industrial practice. Moreover, the qualities we associate with postmodernism can in fact be found in TV from the 1950s onwards (18). Reading and interacting with overtly televisual texts is often great fun, as well as being commendable intellectual exercise.
The dialogue of the first season of Dawson’s Creek is often stunning. It is in no way realistic. Rather, it is an artificial discourse of ideas about contemporary culture and relationships. Like many others, I appreciated the playfulness of Twin Peaks (1990–1991), and the uncertainty of knowledge and truth in The X Files. However, what I remember most now about them is their mise-en-scene. These programs have done for forests what Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) did for the beach. I am especially fond of the redundant shots of the waterfall and trees rustling in the wind at night in Twin Peaks.
The X Files
Dawson’s Creek (1998–2003) (first season only)
The Singing Detective (1986)
Test Cricket 1974–1993
It is impossible to explain the charm of cricket to anybody who doesn’t like the game. What other sport can last for thirty hours over five days and finish in a honourable draw? Watching Test cricket is an endurance sport in its own right. You can easily wait six hours for something important to occur, and then miss it while “flipping.” Twenty years of loyal viewing enabled me not only to feel the tedium of temporal duration far more expressively than any reality TV show, but also to overcome it.
There are many shows that people tell us we shouldn’t enjoy because they’re supposedly banal or reactionary. I love watching certain programs no matter how offensive or just plain irritating they might be to others. Moreover, I keep going back to them, despite the inevitability of their politics.
Walker contains a curious mix of Chuck Norris’s familiar vigilantism and liberal causes. If you have not seen Lorenzo Lamas’ mullet, or Branscombe Richmond as Bobby Six Killer, in Renegade, you have truly missed something. Nash Bridges is a vehicle for smug, post Miami Vice Don Johnson, but no less enjoyable because of it.
Walker, Texas Ranger (1993–2001)
Nash Bridges (1996–2001)
The Best of British
Growing up watching the ABC, I obtained the impression that the British made TV differently to everybody else. A certain kind of British television programs often draws explicitly on high culture references, contains RSC-trained actors, and employs expensive production values. This is the kind of television preferred by your high school teachers or the Ministers for Communications. Some of it is very good. On the other hand, when British TV is bad, it’s truly horrible.
Brideshead Revisited (1981)
Edge of Darkness (1986)
Testament of Youth (1979)
As a country boy, sport was an integral part of daily life for me, both as a participant and as a spectator. Watching sport on TV remains an important ritual for me. One of its pleasures is that it allows me to occasionally encounter Rudyard Kipling’s most imperial of twins, triumph and disaster, as well as poignancy, excitement and loss. I have listed some of the more extraordinary “moments” I have seen in sport.
Australia vs South Africa, World Cup Cricket semi-final, 1999
Michael Jordan’s final shot for the Chicago Bulls
Bill Bucknor’s World Series fielding error
Jana Novotna winning Wimbledon
Some television programs last for years; making it to the end is a feat in itself. As if accepting their own fates with wicked glee, some producers and scriptwriters seem to reward the patience of viewers with a final episode that is either an exceptional example (The Fast Lane) or a wonderfully hilarious mutation of everything that has gone before. Has there been a finer moment in Australian television history than when that ne’er-do-well Terry Sullivan (Richard Morgan) escaped from prison and ran over his sanctimonious, self-righteous father Dave (Paul Cronin) with a car? I think not.
The Sullivans (1976–1983)
Carson’s Law (1983–1984)
The Fast Lane (1985)
This article was refereed.
- Recently the term “telephilia” has been used by some commentators in the United States to refer to a person’s urge to appear on television, usually on a talk or reality TV show, irrespective of any detrimental consequences. I will use the term as the television equivalent of cinephilia. Cinephiles, of course, would usually rather direct films than perform in them.
- For a summary of this history, see David Bordwell, On the History of Film Style, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 46–82.
- Christian Keathley, “The Cinephiliac Moment,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 42, Summer 2000.
- See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, Vintage, London, 1993.
- Keathley, 2000.
- On this topic, see Anne Freidberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993.
- See Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema, trans. Celia Britton et al, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1982, pp. 3–16.
- Metz, p. 13.
- Adrian Martin, “Diary for My Loves”, Cinema Papers 86, January 1992, p. 48.
- Martin, 1992.
- Cheryl Harris and A. Alexander, Theorising Fandom: Fans, Subculture and Identity, Hampton Press, Cresskill, p. 4.
- Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Routledge, London, 1992.
- Jenkins, 1992, pp 277–278. My argument here draws substantially on the concluding chapter of Textual Poachers.
- Although it is not the main focus of my argument here, there are some obvious similarities between fandom and cinephilia. For example, the induction of fans into communities and the transmission of interpretive techniques and traditions might be compared to the ways in which new members of film societies are some times educated about what Adrian Martin calls “classic cinephilia” and the reading protocols associated with auteurism. These viewer discourses also converge in the work in television of renowned film directors such as Michael Mann (Miami Vice [1984–1989] and Crime Story [1986–1988]) and David Lynch (Twin Peaks [1990–1991] and Mulholland Drive ).
- For a critique of the utopian dimensions of Jenkins’ conceptualisation of fandom, see Matt Hills, Fan Cultures, Routledge, London, 2002, pp. 8–11. Jenkins looks back on his work in Textual Poachers in an interview with Taylor Harrison in Enterprise Zones: Critical Positions on Star Trek, eds Taylor Harrison, Sarah Projansky, Kent A. Ono and Elyce Rae Helford, Westview Press, Boulder, 1996, pp. 259–278.
- I might have written such an article on ER for Senses of Cinema, but access to this text was also a problem. As we know, the commercial success of film titles on DVD has been accompanied by the release of box sets of several television programs that might not have been released on video, or which might have sold poorly in that format. Thus, traditional collector’s items such as science fiction and BBC “quality” or specialist programs have been joined in digital by Friends (1994–), 24 (2001–), The X Files (1993–2002), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000–), Law & Order (1990–), The Sopranos (1999–), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Angel (1999–), and The West Wing (1999–). This is a boon for anybody fascinated by the text, whether a fan, collector or critic. However, while the television text in many cases is no longer occulted in the manner of Breakers, there is a curious absence from the DVD section at my local Target: ER.
- However, while accounts of fandom often stress the ways in which fans interpret or even challenge narrative components, there is little attention paid to the treatment of stylistic features of television texts, especially cinematography and editing. Or at least this is the case in academic writing on fandom. What fans do may well be another matter entirely.
- On these issues, see John T. Caldwell, Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1995.