The cinema has always, it seems, been tightly connected with feelings of nostalgia, such that it is not hard to imagine a film-goer in the early 20th century pining for the lost past of the mid-1890s. With the exception of music, the nexus between watching films and feelings of nostalgia seems to be stronger than it is for any other art form. Why is this? Why do films have such a propensity to act like Proust’s madeleine in À la recherche du temps perdu, the mere scent of which is enough to pour out 3000 pages worth of personal memories?
Certainly, cinephilia has a tendency to take a hold of people when they are young – in their teens or early twenties – and hence at their most intellectually voracious. Who can avoid looking back fondly on the time in their lives when their eyes were opened up to the vast continent of the cinema, whose tectonic plates shifted with every film watched. But there is more to it than this. We can also be nostalgic for the cinematic experiences we had before contracting the bug of cinephilia, for our more naïve exposure to films, for the primal nature with which we encountered these works – whether pinnacles of the seventh art, or base products of the culture industry.
Perhaps it is because of the disjunction between the changes we undergo as human beings, passing from infancy to adulthood, from youthfulness to senescence, and the apparent stability that the film has as an object. Our memories are, by their very nature, unstable, unreliable, even faulty. We can misremember a film, even wildly so, and seeing the actual work again can be a discomfiting experience, confronting us with our own delusions. But it is also true that films themselves are not as stable as we might assume: they can physically change, as the image fades and deteriorates, but they also change along with us. We see things that we had not seen before, make connections that we were unable to make upon our initial viewing. Or, alternatively, something that in our youth struck us with awe for its powerful newness can come across, to our later, more cynical, more world-weary selves, as derivative or banal. Just as, for Herodotus, a man can never step into the same river twice, we can never, truly, watch the same film twice – because, in the intervening time, we have changed, but also because the film, too, has changed.
Nostalgia, we know, works in mysterious ways. Why does one film have the power to transport us so evocatively into the past, while another leaves us cold and indifferent? There are no objective reasons. Rather, it has to do with the intimate details of our personal biographies. It is for this reason that, in exploring the theme of cinephilia and nostalgia, this dossier necessarily has a deeply private element to it. The twelve articles included here are all, in various ways, personal reflections on the author’s own relationship with a film, filmmaker, or the cinema more broadly. For many, this is a relationship that lasts years, decades, even a lifetime, and it is one which has the same vicissitudes, the same ups and downs, the same moments of intimacy and distance that one’s relationships with other people have.
In this vein, the writers participating in this dossier have produced an eclectic personal canon. Tamara Tracz discusses her long affinity for the films of Éric Rohmer – which even included an encounter with the master himself, while César Albarran Torrés relates the resonances between Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and tragedies in his own life. Writing in a semi-fictional mode, Nafis Shafizadeh looks at what happens when a film society in a liberal US university takes it upon itself to screen Jerry Lewis’ The Errand Boy, while Tony McKibbin tackles nostalgia in a more theoretical mode, ruminating on its presence in the films of Garrel, Truffaut and Godard. André Habib also looks at Godard’s work, but this time focuses his cinephilic attentions on the uncanny movements made by Jean-Pierre Léaud’s left-hand in a key scene from Masculine-Feminine (1965). Amy Simmons, Eloise Ross and Joanna di Mattia look at the enduring roles that specific films have played in their lives, focusing their thoughts on Jaws (Steve Spielberg, 1975), Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy respectively. Similarly, Alex Heller-Nicholas explores her faded memories of a filmmaker’s debut: Jane Campion’s contribution to the 1980s TV series Dancing Daze. Hamish Ford gives us a look into the different “formative portals” of his life as a cinephile, from growing up in suburban Canberra to his time as a student in Sydney, while David Heslin provides insight into the comprehensive list he keeps of every film he has watched since early childhood. Finally, Daniel Fairfax takes a look at the role of YouTube as an archive for the more obscure, and even more disreputable, media artefacts on which our nostalgia can so often centre.
Of course, nostalgia is a contestable phenomenon – particularly in its cinephilic variant. In many quarters, it tends to be treated as a form of kitschy sentimentalism, or even insidious conservatism, a resistance to change or innovation, a dogged insistence that “things were better back then”. But nostalgia does not just have to be a reactionary yearning for a rose-tinted picture of the past. It can also revitalise us, charge us with the uncompromising idealism of our younger days, jolt us out of any complacency, scepticism or jadedness that may afflict our present selves, and challenge us with utopian visions of what the cinema can be, rather than being listlessly resigned to what the cinema is. Young people, Sartre once said, are nostalgic for the future. Likewise, all good cinephiles, regardless of their age, are nostalgic for a cinema to come.