Cinephilia Today

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Corporate Power applied to art produces a product which is on balance equal to Liberace stripped of his virility. – Norman Mailer, Some Dirt In The Talk

Big corporations still control a vast majority of what cinematic art we see in America today. Disney, Warner, Amazon, Sony, etc. all have a greater say in what is seen than audiences do. Most audiences aren’t even aware of the fact that when they complain that a blockbuster lacks diversity that, somewhere at some film festival, there is a film that is exactly what they are looking for, hoping for. And this isn’t news to people working in the film industry. Just the other day my friend, a highly respected actor here in Philadelphia, was telling some students that “real” filmmaking is going on at the independent and regional level.

What makes up this closed circuit of cinematic innovation? Why does it elude the public’s gaze? Simply put, the films being made independently outside of New York and Hollywood aren’t marketable for wide distribution. Some of these films fill a regional niche, some are aesthetically too challenging, and others are just the kind of boiler plate vanity projects no one anywhere really wants to see. But there are venues for this new “underground” cinema. Not just film festivals, but little bistros, coffee shops, and communal spaces that have dedicated themselves to exhibiting local films.

What really helps perpetuate this circuit, more than anything, are the cinephiles in these communities. It’s the cinephiles’ interest in film, of any kind, that generates enough demand for these spaces to exist, and, arguably, for regional filmmakers to keep on working. Cinephiles, as a small but “elite” demographic, also perpetuate venues like the Light Box Film Center,BMFI, Scribe Video, Lincoln Center, etc. That these non-corporate venues can sustain themselves with subversive and compelling programing speaks to the number of film goers invested in seeing new, obscure, and cult films from around the globe.

Cinephilia as a culture itself is global. Through blogging Cinephiles exchange and build upon ideas, they share and recommend titles; generally advocating and nurturing a more nuanced and complex form of film literacy. For all the good that cinephilia accomplishes it is still a subculture. It is still the exception to treat the cinema as an art here in the U.S. It is even more exceptional to actually seek out new forms of cinema, new filmmakers, and not just drink Disney’s kool-aid.

Cinephilia is not the same as being a film buff. Film buff’s are specialized and remain at “work” or “play” within a closed circuit. Cinephiles, on the other hand, engage in more complex and nuanced critical reasoning when interpreting a film, and build beyond closed regional circuits towards a more global and inclusive cinema. For the lack of a better analogy a film buff is akin to someone who calls themselves Christian and only goes to mass on Easter and Christmas. But I don’t intend to knock film buffs. Film scholar Adrian Martin once credited film buffs with having “opened up new intensities, new streams for the circulation and appreciation of cinema”.

Cinephile culture (like serious comic book fans, Trekkies, or Civil War re-enactors) is a culture of not just avid and obsessive auto didacticism or academic scholarship, but, for many at least, it is also a culture of collecting. Collecting original one-sheet movie posters and lobby cards, film soundtracks, DVDs/Blu-Rays, books, t-shirts, toys, boardgames, and really anything that ties in with one’s particular taste in film. So as streaming becomes more and more the norm, companies in the home entertainment industry are having to rethink their methods of attracting cinephiles, because, lets face it, few people other than cinephiles really want to spend money on objects as opposed to streaming services.

Consider that as vinyl albums and limited edition reissues continue to move in the direction of a collector’s market (as does home video) a mass of material that has long been unavailable is finally seeing the light. What this means for cinephiles is that accessibility to more obscure cinematic movements is becoming ever greater. In the case of soundtrack reissues it is a matter of presenting a component of a film’s text in a new context. Soundtrack releases, inevitably possessing superficial pleasures of their own, draw attention to one of the more neglected areas of film criticism; specifically, the creative contributions of a film’s composer.

It was with the compact disc format that soundtrack music really began to be anthologized in meaningful ways back in the 1990s. Such anthologies curated a compilation of tracks from one composer’s body of work or would cull works from one genre and many artists. The extensive liner notes and stills that would accompany these releases often represented more information about a particular film than the special edition DVD and now Blu-Ray discs do. The fact that most of the significant soundtrack releases of this kind deal with cult, porn, and foreign films and are only available in the U.S. as European imports generally speaks to the exclusivity of the market; a collector’s market.

Anyone who has been following the Criterion Collection the last few years is well aware that the company is finally getting around to releasing more cult films, particularly Japanese films including both Lady Snowblood films, the Lone Wolf And Cub trilogy, and the complete Zatoichi films. The white intellectual mainstream of America seems to be acknowledging for the first time that art in the cinema does exist beyond the “art house”. Still, there are no academically curated editions of Pinky films in this country. In fact, most all releases of Pinky films in America on home video are import DVDs or bootlegs that are sold at remarkably inflated prices. These imports and bootlegs are poorly subtitled and offer viewers no special features (unless one still considers a menu a special feature).

Arrow Films in the U.K. has released an edition superior to the Criterion Collection release of the Lady Snowblood films as well as deluxe limited edition boxed sets of other films starring Meiko Kaji including the Stray Cat Rock series and, my favorite, the Female Prisoner: Scorpion series. Arrow Films’ releases take a similar approach to home video that a label like Finders Keepers takes towards records in so far as packaging content (films/albums, special features, liner notes, images/stills, art, etc.) as a beautiful object unto itself. Releasing films on home video this way, in limited edition deluxe packages, increases not only the collectability of the object but saturates only the limited market of cinephilia so as to negate the issues facing wider distribution. Releasing films by the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Krzysztof Kieślowski as well as others in this same way, while always leaning towards the obscure cult items and foreign film titles, makes the Arrow brand something of a fusion between Eureka’s Masters Of Cinema imprint and Blue Underground (we all remember Blue Underground right?).

Other niche labels like Powerhouse films’ Indicator imprint, Severin, Scorpion, Code Red, and Vinegar Syndrome have taken a similar approach to cult films, prioritizing collectability for a smaller market saturation. This approach to home video, derived from the record collector market, remains the exception here in the U.S. Recently Kino Lorber and Olive films have flooded the market with their recently acquired catalogues of studio produced films. These editions are typically devoid of supplements, and in some cases even remastering. Similarly, the Criterion Collection is becoming less and less progressive with its releasing, while Milestone, and Icarus Films continue to pull back on releases all together.

What does all of this mean for cinephilia today? That cinephilia is a global community of collectors, curating their own libraries of films on home video and vinyl record soundtracks while further entrenching themselves on the periphery of serious film criticism? Simply put, it is that blogs, much like this one, continue to become a bigger player in critical discourse, opening up discussion and analysis to include such specific and non-mainstream genres as Pinky films. That, as streaming opens up and takes on more classic Hollywood and international art house titles, home video and other film oriented collector’s markets will issue lesser known and elusive titles that will in many ways help to erase national and historical borders from the cinema.