THE CINEPHILIAC MOMENT
'Cinema is the art of the little detail that does not call attention to itself.'
– François Truffaut, in a 1954 letter to Eric Rohmer
Near the beginning of his delightful autobiography, My Life and My Films, Jean Renoir recounts his first visit to the cinema, in 1897, when he was just two years old. Renoir and his beloved cousin, Gabrielle, were paying a visit to the Paris department store Dufayel when, Renoir reports, a man asked us if we wanted to see the 'cinema.'
Scarcely had we taken our seats when the room was plunged into darkness. A terrifying machine shot out a fearsome beam of light piercing the obscurity, and a series of incomprehensible pictures appeared on the screen, accompanied by the sound of a piano at one end at at the other end a sort of hammering that came from the machine. I yelled in my usual fashion and had to be taken out (1974: 18).
Renoir then comments, quite appropriately, on the irony that his first encounter with the medium that would become the love of his life was a complete failure. But before leaving the scene, Renoir notes, 'Gabrielle was sorry we had not stayed. The film was about a big river and she thought that in the corner of the screen she had glimpsed a crocodile' (1974: 18).
While this scene may at first seem merely amusing, on closer consideration it can be seen to condense several of the key theoretical issues that have recently preoccupied film scholars interested in the cinema's relationship to the general conditions of modernity. To borrow some of the terms common to those writings, one could suggest that, while the shock of this first cinematic experience provoked fear in the child Renoir, in the adult Gabrielle it provoked the distracted, anaesthetic state that Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer described as a basic condition of modernity. It was this state and its effects on habits of visual perception that facilitated Gabrielle's glimpsing of the crocodile in the corner of the frame. But in addition, it could be argued that Renoir's story is, more specifically, about an encounter with early cinephilia, for the anecdote perfectly characterizes that disposition's defining mode of vision: panoramic perception.
In a much-discussed 1996 article entitled 'The Decay of Cinema,' Susan Sontag wrote that, while it has recently become commonplace to lament the burning out of some fire in the life of cinema, what has in fact faded out is not the cinema itself, but a certain kind of intense loving relationship with the cinema that goes by the name 'cinephilia.' Beginning in the post
war period in France and the UK, and carrying over to the US and elsewhere by the 1960s and 70s, the cinema was the most urgent and important art form going, interacting in extraordinarily diverse ways with its cultural and historical moment. Thanks in large part to the writings of passionate cinephile critics, the movies achieved a widespread cultural respectability. As a result, even 'average' moviegoers developed a respect and appreciation for cinema as the art form for the times, and they happily accepted the challenges offered by ambitious, personal, unconventional films. But, Sontag laments, those days are over. One hardly finds anymore 'the distinctive cinephilic love of movies that is not simply love but a certain taste in films (grounded in a vast appetite for seeing and reseeing as much as possible of cinema's glorious past). Cinephilia itself has come under attack as something quaint, outmoded, snobbish. For cinephilia implies that films are unique, unrepeatable, magic experiences' (1996: 61).
Sontag's essay stimulated a number of American critics (David Denby, Stanley Kauffmann, and others) to pen their own considerations about the life and alleged demise of cinephilia, and in Europe, too, the topic of cinephilia was preoccupying film lovers of various stripes. Both Vertigo number 10 and Cahiers du Cinéma number 498 featured dossiers on cinephilia, and in March 1995, Antoine de Baecque and Thierry Frémaux organized a conference, 'The Invention of a Culture: A History of Cinephilia,' at the Lumière Institute in Lyon. In Europe, however, the discussion has been marked less by a gnashing of teeth over cinephilia's alleged demise than by a more measured consideration of what exactly cinephilia was - what defined it, what forces brought it into being, and what effects it had. Coincident with the Lyon conference, de Baecque and Frémaux published a statement about their project that is representative of the differences between US and European considerations of cinephilia. De Baecque and Frémaux propose to treat cinephilia as an historical object of study; that is, they see cinephilia - which they define as 'a way of watching films, of speaking about them, and then of diffusing this discourse' (1995: 134) - as designating a cultural phenomenon defined by various practices including (among other things) individual and collective relationships with the cinema, bodies of critical writings in both the specialized and general press, certain conditions of distribution and exhibition, intellectual and political currents, and so forth - all of which coalesced during a specific historical period, roughly the two decades from the immediate post-war period until the events of '68. Cinephilia, they argue, was no common subculture, but rather one that tranformed the cultural status of cinema and profoundly altered 20th century culture in general, both high and low.
Of its various elements, de Baecque and Frémaux note, 'The first object of cinephilic study is its cultural - we could almost say cult - practices. The dark cinema has often been compared to a temple, and it is true that cinephilia, although it is carried out in the most secular of spaces, is marked by a great religiosity of its ceremonies' (1995: 134). Like most religious ceremonies, the cinephilic experience is both collective and individual, rational and emotional. Paramount among these ceremonies are the particular viewing practices of individual cinephiles; for them, 'everything comes to depend on how one sees films, from where in the audience, in what position, according to which individual framing' (1995: 134). Jean Douchet has described his own viewing practices in detail.
I have to enter the auditorium by the right-hand stairway and aisle. Then I sit to the right of the screen, preferably in the aisle seat, so that I can stretch my legs. This is not just a matter of physical comfort, or the view: I have constructed this vision for myself. For a long time, at the Cinémathèque, I sat in the front row, in the middle, with no one in front to disturb me, in order to be completely immersed in the show, always alone. Even today, it's impossible for me to go to the cinema with anyone, it disrupts my emotion. But over the years and after many films, I've drawn back a bit, off to the right, and I've found my axis toward the screen. At the same time, I've positioned my spectatorial body with minute care, adopting three basic positions:stretched out on the ground, legs draped over the seat in front of me, and, finally, my favorite but the most difficult position to achieve, the body folded in four with the knees pressed against the back of the seat in front of me. (1993: 34).
While tracing the emergence of specialized journals and ciné-clubs or describing the development of a key critical position might be easily charted in a traditional history, an account such as Douchet's, with all its particularities and peculiarities, would seem to escape conventional historiographic practices. But if we are to embark on a history of cinephilia, such specifics must be faced - especially since so many cinephiles describe experiences that are similar, yet uniquely their own, and because it is the individual's relationship with the cinema, more than anything else, that defines cinephilia. De Baecque and Frémaux argue that a history of cinephilia must itself seize hold of the passion that so marks cinephilic experience; indeed, it is the very place to begin. There are, of course, any number of rituals or activities of the cinephile that would be appropriate starting places for one part of a history of cinephilia. I'd like to propose the following.
The Cinephiliac Moment
In a 1994 dialogue with Noel King, Paul Willemen noted that in the varied body of critical writings associated with cinephilia there exists a recurring preoccupation with an element of the cinematic experience 'which resists, which escapes existing networks of critical discourse and theoretical frameworks' (1994: 231). Willemen and King locate this resistant element specifically in the cinephile's characteristic 'fetishising of a particular moment, the isolating of a crystallisingly expressive detail' in the film image (1994: 227). That is, what persists in these cinephilic discourses is a preoccupation or fascination with what the various writers 'perceive to be the privileged, pleasure-giving, fascinating moment of a relationship to what's happening on screen' in the form of 'the capturing of fleeting, evanescent moments' (1994: 232). Whether it is the gesture of a hand, the odd rhythm of a horse's gait, or the sudden change of expression on a face, these moments are experienced by the viewer who encounters them as nothing less than a revelation. This fetishization of the otherwise ordinary details in the motion picture image is as old as the cinema itself. Indeed, as the story goes, the viewers of a century ago who watched the Lumière Brothers's L'Arrosuer arossé (1895) were delighted less by the scene being staged for their amusement than by the fact that, in the background, the leaves were fluttering in the wind.
In these 'subjective, fleeting, variable' moments (1994: 235), Willemen claims, 'What is seen is in excess of what is being shown': the cinephiliac moment 'is not choreographed for you to see. It is produced en plus, in excess or in addition, almost involuntarily' (1994: 237). Writing elsewhere about photogénie, which he regards as another name designating the experience of the cinephiliac moment, Willemen argues that such an encounter:
pertains to the relationship between viewer and image, a momentary flash of recognition, or a moment when the look at . . . something suddenly flares up with a particular affective, emotional intensity. The founding aspect of cinematic quality . . . is located not in the recognition of an artistic sensibility or intentionality beyond the screen, as it were, but in the particular relationship supported or constituted by the spectatorial look, between projected image and viewer (1994: 126).
In a sense, 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. Willemen cites his own fascination with 'the moment when the toy falls off the table in There's Always Tomorrow' (1994: 235), while Noel King notes that his cinephiliac moments regularly consist of 'dialogue performed via bodily gesture, a mixture of vocality and mise- en- scène': for example, in the famous dropped glove scene from On the Waterfront, King states, 'I tend to notice the number of times Eva Marie Saint tries to retrieve the glove and the things Brando does to delay this happening' (1994: 237). Other cinephiliacs have their own cherished moments. For example, of director Nicholas Ray, critic David Thomson writes, 'it is as the source of a profusion of cinematic epiphanies that I recall him: Mitchum walking across an empty rodeo arena in the evening in The Lusty Men, the wind blowing rubbish around him; that last plate settling slowly and noisily in 55 Days at Peking; . . . the CinemaScope frame suddenly ablaze with yellow cabs in Bigger Than Life' (1994: 614). Lesley Stern describes one of her favored cinephiliac moments in detail:
There is an extraordinary moment in Blade Runner when Pris, like a human missile, comes somersaulting straight toward us. One moment she is immobile (in a room full of mechanical and artifical toys she appears to be a wax doll); the next moment she is galvanized into life, her body moving at the speed of light. The force of her somersault charges the air; reconfiguring space and time, her bodily momentum is transmitted and experienced in the auditorium as bodily sensation. My stomach lurches. It is always surprising this moment, this movement, always and without fail it takes me aback. Yet what can it mean to yoke these incommensurate terms--always and surprising? Let me just say, at this point, that I am both surprised and haunted by this cinematic moment. I can't quite put my finger on the feeling it evokes, though there is a phrase of [Jean] Epstein's that resonates: 'On the line of communication the static of unexpected feelings interrupts us' (1997: 350).
While it is clear that some of the moments identified above are not accidental or marginal, but rather carefully designed and choreographed, the emphasis the viewers places on them is greater than their visual quality or narrative importance should provoke. It is thus important to make a distinction here between Willemen's cinephiliac moment and more common memorable filmic moments, such as the ones described famously by Walker Percy in his novel, The Moviegoer:
Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it was not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man. (1960: 7)
While I would not want to deny for a second the extraordinary pleasure that filmic moments such as these bring to both the cinephiliac and the ordinary movie fan, they do not qualify as cinephiliac moments as I am using that term because they are precisely designed to be memorable; and they are memorable because they are both visually striking and narratively important. A recent cover article in Entertainment Weekly focused on 100 such memorable movie moments from 1950 to the present, such as the shower scene from Psycho (Alfred Hitchock, US, 1960) and Marilyn Monroe's billowing skirt in The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, US, 1955) - moments everyone remembers (1999). The moments in which I am interested are those which achieve this level of memorability - especially if only subjectively - even though that are not designed to. I will return to the relationship between cinephiliac moments and memory/memorability later. In the meantime, I want to again stress the subjectivity which results in the cinephile giving some incidental moment what Roger Cardinal has described as a 'wholly "unreasonable" priority and value' (1986: 114).
Cardinal, another critic who has written suggestively about the fascination with marginal details, argues that the identification of privileged moments is not just a subjective activity, but a 'self-reflexive' one. In 'Pausing Over Peripheral Detail,' he explains, 'What I notice, or elect to notice, is necessarily a function of my sensibility, so much so that a list of my favorite details will equate to an oblique mirror-image of myself, becoming more noticeably idiosyncratic the longer it extends' (1986: 118).
Who else but I will have taken note of the black glasses worn by the man who sounds the curfew horn in Robison's Warning Shadows (1923); Lauren Bacall's hand clutching and unclutching at the back of the chair in the background in a tense scene in Huston's Key Largo (1948); the painting on A's bedroom wall of the mad Ludwig II of Bavaria out for a nocturnal sleighride, in Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad (1963); and of the author's name ("Juan Luis Echevarria") on the pink book shown to the camera at the climax of Ruiz's Letter from a Library Lover (1983)? (1986: 119).
It is, of course, possible that one or more of a viewer's privileged moments may be shared by another. For example, James Naremore has noted the curious number of other people who have remarked in print on one of his own favorite cinephiliac details: the color of Cary Grant's socks in the cropduster sequence from North by Northwest (1988: 214-215). But even held in common with others, such details remain one's own, no doubt in large part because the initial encounter was a private one, even though it occurred in the public space of a darkened theater. Cardinal notes, 'While any one of these collector's items could figure in someone else's inventory, the fact of their being grouped by me implies a characteristic angle of vision governed by my individual tastes and fetishes' (119). Lesley Stern, who links the feeling produced by such encounters to the euphoric experience of the uncanny, echoes Cardinal's argument about self-relflexivity, identifying these moments as 'a strange and unexpected meeting with yourself' (1997: 348).
For both Willemen and Cardinal, an important precedent for the fascination with marginal details in photographic images is Roland Barthes's 'The Third Meaning' (1977) and Camera Lucida (1981). In both these works, Barthes worked to identify that element of photographic representation that exceeds semiology's capacity to assign meaning. In the essay, he dubbed points of excess 'third' or 'obtuse' meanings; in the latter, making a clearer distinction between public and private, objective and subjective, he chose a different term: the punctum. The punctum is a site which, for Barthes, disturbs or punctures the unity of the studium, which he defines as the culturally/ideologically determined meaning communicated in a photo (a combination of denotation and connotation), one shared by the photographer who snaps a picture and the public who receives and recognizes it. The punctum is a detail which attracts him, which reaches out and pricks him: a boy's bad teeth or a woman's strapped pumps. Specifying its status as objectively present, but only subjectively provocative, Barthes writes that the punctum 'is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there' (1981: 55).
Importantly, Barthes concludes, the power of the punctum comes from its status as the mark of a prior presence. Barthes determined that, unlike language and other symbolic systems, which operate according to an arbitrary relationship between signifier and signifed and which banish the referent from consideration, the photographic sign is never arbitrary and, furthermore, always carries its referent with itself--both iconically and indexically. Because of the privileged relationship it possesses with what it represents, a photograph is the trace of a moment of life that was, in passing, captured by the camera, and then lost to time. 'What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once; the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially' (1981: 4). Emphasizing its close proximity to death as well as life, Barthes concludes, 'Photography is a kind of primitive theater, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead' (1981: 32).
Colin MacCabe (1997) has noted the remarkable similarities between Barthes's last book and André Bazin's cornerstone theoretical statement, 'The Ontology of the Photographic Image.' In that essay, Bazin analyzed photography's unique place in the history of image-making practices, all of which have sought 'the preservation of life by a representation of life' (1969: 10). Emphasizing its indexical status, Bazin compares a photograph to a death mask - the Shroud of Turin or the Veil of Veronica - a representation produced by direct contact with an object or person. This characteristic, in combination with the automatism of production, results in 'the irrational power' that the photograph has over us (1969: 14). Thus, Barthes's punctum or Willemen's cinephiliac moment - which Willemen links explicitly to Bazin's photographic ontology (1994: 243) - is the site where this prior presence, this fleeting moment of history, is felt most intensely or magically. The experience of such revelatory moments, Willemen stresses, is an experience 'of relating to something that is dead, past, but alive in memory,' thus his choice of the term 'cinephiliac' over 'cinephilic,' because of the former's overtones of necrophilia' (1994: 227). Your moment of revelation 'may be different from the person sitting next to you, in which case you may have to dig him or her in the ribs with your elbow to alert them'; nevertheless, he concludes, 'There is a theory of the cinema implicit in the dig of the elbow into the ribs just as much as there is in Metz's work' (1994: 237). And perhaps, as we shall see, a theory of the history of cinema as well.
While the encounter with cinephiliac moments may be a defining experience for the movie lover, locating them requires a different spectatorial posture than the one assumed and prescribed by dominant cinema. In contrast to that cinema's correctly disciplined viewer is one who, as Roger Cardinal writes, possesses a 'wilfully perverse gaze' (1986: 118), one that actively resists the congruity forced on images by the continuity system and instead seeks out the details not categorizable as studia. Cardinal explains:
A distinction thus emerges between two divergent strategies of viewing. The first is the 'literate' mode in which a single-minded gaze is directed towards the obvious Gestalt or figure on offer; where the artist has centred or signalled his image in accordance with the conventions of representation, the viewer's gaze will be attuned to the focal message and will ignore its periphery. [. . .] The second mode is one which focuses less narrowly and instead roams over the frame, sensitive to its textures and surfaces--to its ground. This mode may be associated with 'non-literacy' and with habits of looking which are akin to habits of touching. The mobile eye which darts from point to point will tend to clutch at fortuitous detail or to collect empathetic impressions of touch sensations (1986: 124).