Here we are now-the Goonies generation, or Explorers, or Gremlins, or more precisely, the Time Bandits (1); history seems to bend back into itself as soon as we get near enough to adjust the tracking.
We are the kids who saw Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) before The Searchers (John Ford, 1956). We ventured into the video aisles after school to pick up daily doses of cinema, activating them with the remote controls we were handed at birth. A bunch of us cinephiles grew up in Toon Town while no one was watching. If we were the stars of Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders, 1976) we’d be complaining that Spielberg had colonized our subconscious. Those who sought out The Searchers in those aisles are the ones who care about origins and instigators. Bemoaners of cinephilia’s demise simply ain’t tapped in enough to recognize the mini-revolution going on-cinephilia is more than ever an active passion. Whether it be picking up movies at the video store or traveling to film festivals to feed the fix, a new brand of cinephilia has been and is flourishing.
This new generation wasn’t alive in 1968 when Film Culture was alive and well. It begins as Serge Daney points out, at a loss. But even if the whole of film history contains too many hours for one born in the ’70s to catch up with, the playing field has been leveled. Watching Hollywood work its black magic is as fascinating as the exploratory undercurrents of new South Korean cinema. It isn’t that I fail to appreciate the huge cultural and historical differences between those worlds, film and otherwise, but rather that in grappling with the increased global nature of art and commerce, issues of intimacy and distance become a part of the fabric of the film. Approaching Kiarostami’s films is at once utterly foreign and intensely personal, likewise with Hou Hsiao-hsien or Chantal Akerman.
Those of us born in the early ’70s, the target demographic for Lucas’ Star Wars, grew up on his mythic contraption, and it served undeniably as our introduction to cinematic wonder. Lucas’ paean to his childhood was the film that ushered this new generation into the world of the movies. The film is a strange mix of The Searchers and Ford Beebe’s Flash Gordon serials, ham-handed and dashing all at once. Star Wars was our world. We wore droids on our clothes and slept in sheets spotted with Jedis to be. For the young minds it instructed, film history became a series of interchangeable images to recombine and reconfigure, traces of light (or magnetic pulses) that form the fabric of the ideal cinema.
Because Star Wars stands as such a monument in our cinematic imagination, it was a pretty bitter pill for many when the reissued series showed an achy, old-fashioned sensibility. If Lucas seems creaky in the ’90s, that may be because it was his savvier contemporary Spielberg who was the real executive producer of our cinematic coming of age. Slate‘s David Edelstein characterized ’80s cinema as “dark times” and “a downward spiral,” but formative aesthetic sensibilities for a new generation of filmmakers and critics were obviously shaped during that decade. The narrative whimsy apparent in the ’80s era work of Joe Dante, Richard Donner, Tobe Hooper, and Robert Zemeckis-all available at the local multiplex-paved the way for appreciation of the structural plasticity of Resnais, Godard, Ruiz, and Rivette-available at your finer video store.
In the ’80s, video was the great educator. The guy working at the video store was like Yoda, explaining the ups and downs of the new releases. When he was in the right mood, he’d bend the rules and let you check out Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986) or Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984) to throw on after the folks had gone to bed. Video transformed into a secret object, subversive and possibly even scandalous to a teenage mind. The video store allowed one to gobble up the films of Preston Sturges after the Coen Bros. have mentioned him, to see what curious combinations collided to produce Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1991), to see all of Scorsese, Demme, Rafelson, and Don Siegel, most of Godard, Fassbinder, Pasolini, Akerman. It allowed one to also simultaneously and unashamedly delve into the sections of the store supposedly off limits to the serious student of film, exploitation and horror flicks. Dario Argento, Russ Meyer, and Leatherface all presented us different versions of bodies in turmoil, reacting in extreme physical manners to a hyperdriven psychosexual world. These were not to be found in the multiplex.
Video has become, in many cases, the first mode of interaction, preparing us for the big night out when we will see the film in its proper incarnation. As David points out-this is not unlike experiencing great paintings in books, knowing you may never get a chance to see them as they are meant to be seen. The question then becomes whether or not this shift in first impressions is affecting the next generation of filmmakers and critics. Divergent examples of a post-Tarantino, video-educated cinema have reared their heads in America. A filmmaker like Kevin Smith, with his notorious lack of visual sense, seems to be composing his images for the television screen, with no feeling for space and depth. Flat lighting combined with long sections of exposition look OK on video or TV and are indeed slightly more tolerable in that form, but on the movie screen they just look lazy and distracted by the screenplay. Then there is Spike Jonze, a pop-culture junkie with a bartender’s knack for recombination and configurations of the old favorites. Where Smith makes movies to fit a TV screen, Jonze makes TV deserving of a movie screen. His music videos, like the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”, revealed an imagination capable of finding the essence of ’70s TV’s appeal (Michael Mann wrote some of the best scripts for Starsky & Hutch). With Being John Malkovich (1999) (despite its flawed final reel), he shows us the limitlessness of ideas that technology can yield when controlled with an imaginative yet subtle touch. Smith forgoes the visual aspects of filmmaking, while Jonze revels in them, giving us a carefully constructed system of zaniness. Chase scenes, song and dance, and flashbacks are integrated and brought to life, Jim Henson pipe dreams, mad fusions of Raul Ruiz and Joe Dante. Mixing styles and bending the real, Jonze’s films reveal the long term effects of an obsessional desire for reality to be more cinematic.
It may be that this desire for a cinematic real springs from the intimacy with which film can now be handled. DVDs and Videos give us a new kind of freedom with moving images. Favorite scenes are replayed like favorite tracks off records or CDs, the experience of interaction heightened by repetition and variation of the viewing situation. This is not a disrespecting of the holy cinema that Godard so lovingly suggests in King Lear(1987)-pig squeals fading in as he discusses the difference between watching a film in an apartment and on a movie screen-but rather an act of privatization, for better and worse. Movies seen on video become more personal and less public, more portable and less hierarchic. Film festivals are becoming more and more important to those who want to remain abreast of new developments in world cinema and their vitality continues to grow, and they offer a valuable space for film lovers to come together and experience that which brings them the most pleasure. Film festivals, however, are sporadic events, and because of that, they can’t replace the repertory-house. The shift to video distribution for older movies has isolated individuals from the community of filmgoers that once haunted rep-houses. Strangely, the Internet and its ability to level geographical boundaries has created a new space for film lovers to read about and correspond about the state of the movies.
Serious film writing in this country isn’t dead, just marginalized. High profile TV critics and daily-paper reviewers are often no more than blurbmeisters, sifting through press packets to reach their word count. But a lot of good writing is getting done. You just have to look for it, traveling the info’ mation road, but it’s there. The Internet for all its seeming chaos has been a stabilizer in my desire to read about film. While I really wish America had its Trafic, I am somewhat satisfied by the haphazard self-compiled group of critics that I read on a screen every week. My bookmarks comprise a film journal that I access different days of the week: from Internet critics like the contributors to this exchange, to adventurous weekly newspaper critics whose work appears online, as well as critics at dailies around the globe. Roger Ebert answers questions from readers on the Internet, Slate‘s Edelstein has organized real time email exchanges between critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum begins his review of Rosetta (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 1999) with a quote from an email he got from French film scholar Nicole Brenez, and suddenly there are a batch of collaborative web journals from Australia. If this is the dark age of film appreciation, I don’t mind.
People from all parts of the planet with access to a computer can come together and discuss the latest Wong Kar-wai or Abel Ferrara movie. Communities form despite barriers of space. Dave Hickey has written about these like-minded communities that form around works of art, allowing us insight and understanding about the work of art, ourselves, and the world around us. Talking about art gives it meaning. Cinephilia springs from the passions that urge us to discuss the films we love, to rewatch and reconsider them, to allow them to create a space between us, and to give them the ability to change our lives.