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Into the Darkness: Is the Cinephile Culture 'Fini'?

The disappearance of art houses that show films by auteur directors is threatening an endangered American species: The cinephile

By Jim Gerard | June 5, 2013
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Jim Gerard is a journalist and author of four books, including Who Moved My Secret and Beam Me Up, Jesus. He lives in New York City. His website is www.gangof60.com.

Darkness brings people together.
— a character in Maurice Pialat’s film Under the Sun of Satan.

A man — Caucasian, tall, burly, raggedy hirsute, in his late 50s, a cross between Michel Simon and Sterling Hayden in Terror in a Texas Town — and a woman — shorter but bulldogishly built, in her late 40s, her brown hair in a bun tied so tight it seems ready to detonate, cross-channeling Margaret Hamilton and Eve Arden — snarling, nose to nose, loudly, ferociously, intractably. The woman glares at the man, then emits that Elsa Lanchester-hyena-like shriek: “Oh my god — they want me to get hitched to this schifoso made of spare parts with a bolt in his neck”— aimed at Boris Karloff in The Bride of Frankenstein.

The woman takes the man’s backpack off a seat and dumps it on the ground, then methodically slams her bags on the seat. Jump Cut: Now we’re in a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler directed by Martin Scorsese. The man retrieves his sack and curses the woman, who volleys in kind. Each escalating riposte edges closer to a physical violence you can sense is imminent and because it is in a public place, induces fear and discomfort, if not embarrassment, in me, and frustration among the surrounding strangers.

It is not a disturbance; it is a scene — but that is completely appropriate. Because these two are staging their contretemps in a theater — the Walter Reade at Lincoln Center, one of New York City’s most prestigious film revival houses. And their confrontation, to which they seem committed like frenzied combatants in the Thirty Years’ War, is about who has the right to a particular seat in the first row that each feels has been preordained for him. Not just any seat; this seat. It’s not the last open one in the house — far from it; there are plenty of empties.

Yet the theater’s manager must march down the aisle and stage-whisper to the warring participants that unless they resolve their conflict, management will delay the screening.

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While it would be easy to dismiss their histrionics as a scene from Shock Corridor, ironies abound. The first is that, despite their completely irrational, egregiously self-centered behavior, these two people are, in a bizarre way, cultural standard-bearers. Why? Because they, along with a few thousand like them — many of whom are just as eccentric — are helping to preserve the dying culture of cinephilia.

While there is no universal agreement on its definition, cinephilia has come to mean the obsessive love of film as an art form, along with its history and theory, and the director as the prime mover, or auteur, in what is the most collaborative of media. Cinephiles are not movie lovers or fans. They wouldn’t be caught dead seeing Iron Man 6: Iron Man vs. Iron Chef. Or even going to the cineplex. The art house is the cinephile's headquarters. 

The second irony is that both antagonists are otherwise friendly (if often at a distance), highly intelligent and extremely knowledgeable. A number are working professional artists; others are of the soi-disant variety. All are devourers of culture.

Irony No. 3: The cinephile community in New York City — or, more accurately, the kaleidoscopic assemblage of small groups (some no larger than three people) that more resemble anarchist cells — is one of the last bastions of egalitarianism. No one cares about your liquid assets, occupation, ethnicity, race, marital status, sexual orientation, religious affiliation or political beliefs. Once you establish that you know Robert Siodmak’s filmography or can discuss the aspect ratio of CinemaScope — or even that you’re very keen to learn such arcana — you’re tacitly accepted.

Never Know Who's in the Next Seat

Everybody’s equal in the dark. (And I mean everybody: Due to the charming informality of art houses, patrons can mix with foreign directors and even stars — let’s face it, where else is an actress from Sofia going to be treated like Sofia (Coppola)? Not in Sofia. On occasion, one can even engage a genuine, A-list celeb: One night outside the Walter Reade Theater, after a tribute to Roberto Rossellini, I found myself within breathing distance of his daughter, Isabella, chatting with some friends. I told her sincerely how much I admired her father’s films, and she thanked me just as genuinely.

Are the members of this semi-secret society amiable? Quite a few. Gregarious? Let’s not push it; most acknowledge one another with a nod or almost inaudible greeting. Erratic? (Please see the lead of this story.) While they will passionately engage you in a discussion of the influence of German Expressionist films of the 1920s on American film noir, most cinephiles are essentially loners. They know the loneliness of the long-distance sloucher. Almost all are single. A great majority of them are men — I do not know why. Some sprout nests of unruly gray hair and wear what seem like original Philadelphia Athletics baseball caps. Others are fleeing domestic oppressiveness, career disillusionment and other personal demons. Not that they would admit it — nor would you ever ask. Craig, a cinephile I know, has for years dropped references to his “girlfriend,” a spectral being like the ghost in Ugetsu who has not once accompanied him to the several hundred screenings at which I’ve met him.

Cinephiles always sit in the same seats (and, as we’ve seen, harbor strong territorial feelings about them). They never deviate from their routine. Peter checks his watch five minutes before the film is to begin, then announces he must “freshen up” and heads for the restroom, always returning just before the lights go down. Renalda constantly mutters to herself, a cryptic inner dialog just audible enough to disturb her fellow cinephiles. A man known only as “Mr. Suspenders” is keeping that garment sub-industry aloft, and he obsessively checks theater schedules, which he spreads out over three seats. Cynthia, a former writer for The New York Times, will snarl at you if you even think about crinkling plastic anything. Cinephiles sit very close to the screen and most consider it a capital offense if another patron blocks their view by even a hair. Some apparently consider hygiene to be a middle-class weakness.

I seem to be painting a picture of cinephiles that reads more like a police blotter, but don’t misunderstand me: They are also among the most fascinating, brainy and erudite people I’ve ever encountered. And, in the most important irony of all, without them, vast amounts of our cinematic heritage would’ve been lost. (I’ll get to that in a bit.)

When several years ago, in a desperate attempt to escape from psychic anguish, I revived a cinephilia that started in early adolescence, within a few months these esoteric oddballs accepted me into their inner circle.

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I Found It at the Movies

Though I might have trembled uninterruptedly from the time I left my apartment until I got my front-row seat, as soon as the lights dimmed and the image of Lady Liberty’s glittering torch (a Columbia picture), Mount Fuji (Shochiku Company Limited) or a man striking a large gong (a J. Arthur Rank production) appeared on the screen, I was instantly becalmed, immersed in that kind of oceanic experience usually associated with a spiritual epiphany.

Up to five and six times a week, I haunted the Film Forum, the Walter Reade, the Museum of Modern Art’s screening rooms, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Cinematek and the Anthology Film Archives. I’d see three or four films a day. Like Mr. Suspenders, I obsessively cross-checked schedules — theater, subway and bus — with the logistical passion of a five-star general.

On the surface, the object and engine of this extreme behavior was the compulsion to “see everything,” especially retrospectives of important filmmakers from the canon and revivals of films either thought to have been lost, never released in the United States, being presented in restored and/or director’s cuts and/or in 35mm prints discharged via a film projector and not digitally, via “DCP.”

Most cinephiles are also celluloid fetishists and consider digitalization and its discontents a scourge right out of The Seventh Seal. Stewart, a cinephile I know, has made the preservation of 35mm films his pet mania. He calls theaters the day of a screening and poses the cryptic question, “Thirty-five or DCP?” If the manager says, “DCP,” he hangs up. If the reply is, “Thirty-five,” he’ll ask “What kind of shape is it in?” He’s also been known to walk out before the opening credits finish rolling if the film’s print quality doesn’t meet his exacting standards.

I soon came down with many of these symptoms and eagerly awaited the New York Film Festival, the cinephiles’ mirthless Mardi Gras held at Lincoln Center every September.

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Do Cinephiles Have a Future?

The word "cinephilia" was coined in the 1960s. Cinephiles are mostly director-centric, which distinguishes them from the previous generation of filmgoers who were more focused on seeing their favorite stars. But just as the prior generation’s moviegoing habits differed from ours, so subsequent generations’ have “exploited” the shifts in technology that allows them to “watch” films — meant to be shown on a large screen in the company of others — on increasingly tinier and solitarily used devices. Think: “Lawrence of Arabia” on a cell phone screen the size of a large gnat. 

One night about a year ago I was riding home on the subway after seeing a film at BAM’s Cinematek when I spotted Richard Pena, the former program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and a professor of film at Columbia University. We talked for over a half hour the time it took the No. 2 train to get from downtown Brooklyn to downtown Manhattan — about the state of film culture, and Pena corroborated with facts and figures the precipitously declining interest in art-house fare. He admitted, “Most of my students have no interest in old films,” and predicted that, due to a ragout of technological and economic factors, “There won’t be any movie theaters at all in 20 years.”

Cinephiles, those querulous, OCDed, semi-socialized eggheads, are the ornithologists who alert the world to a vanishing species. And, like the species they’re trying to save, they, too, are dying — a situation tacitly acknowledged by institutions as august as the Film Society of Lincoln Center desperately trying to replenish their “graying” audiences by hosting “under-40” and “under-30” events that include an after-party.

The consequences of cinephilia’s death aren’t limited to the vanishing of obscure, seven-hour Hungarian existentialist misery-fests. And the culprits aren’t just younger generations’ indifference to our cinematic heritage. David Bordwell, one of the most esteemed of film writers, told Cineaste magazine, “The art-house audience is older and more affluent, so eventually they will realize that they can see foreign and classic reissues on their home-video screens.”

As art houses dry up and the multitude of at-home viewing choices (DVDs, films streaming, downloading and who knows someday? — images beamed right into your skull) continues to expand, studios will stop making new prints of classic films, which means that many will become lost, the survivors will be “digitized” — sometimes beyond recognition — theaters will close (both art houses and small, Ma and Pa Kettle-owned), people will lose their jobs (Mothers, Don’t Let Your Sons Grow Up to Be Projectionists), the art of film processing (printing, adding optical effects and other lab work) will become like whale bone corset making and, most important, a crucial part of our cultural history will vanish like Claude Rains.

If cinephiles had existed 100 years ago, they may have prevented the wholesale trashing of silent movies, 80 percent of which are considered lost, many of those because studios perceived they had no value and discarded them, allowing the fragile nitrate stock on which they were printed to disintegrate or conflagrate.

So we fallen angels will continue to drive by night to gather in our hidden fortresses in the naked city. It’s up to you, reader: Jump on our bandwagon and help us salvage the gold of naples from out of the past — or we all may end up where the sidewalk ends.

OK, it’s a wrap.

If You Go: The Cinephile Commandments

True cinephiles adhere to a strict set of unspoken principles regulating patrons' behavior in theaters.

I. Thou shalt not speak.
II. Thou shalt not squeak, nor should one’s chair.
III. Thou shalt not worship graven images — those made using CGI.
IV. Thou shalt arrive on time. Latecomers shalt be silently accosted from behind by an unseen hand holding a handkerchief laden with chloroform.
V. Thou shalt shuteth off all electronic devices. Should thou fail, despite several PSAs telling thou to, thou wilt suffer eternity in Hell, which resembles the world’s largest multiplex.
VI. Thou shalt not falleth asleep during a film. Snorers will be blindfolded during an Erich von Stroheim retrospective.
VII. Thou shalt not haveth unclean thoughts about going to see the next Spielberg film.
VIII. Thou shalt not eat, drink or play mind games.
IX. Thou shalt not move during the film — even if thou goeth into labor.
X. Thou shalt not breathe.

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