“Perhaps it is not cinema that has ended but only cinephilia — the name of the very specific kind of love that cinema inspired. Each art breeds its fanatics. The love that cinema inspired, however, was special. It was born of the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other: quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral — all at the same time.”
— “The Decay of Cinema,” Susan Sontag (February 1996)
I have been thinking a lot about this particular Sontag essay. For those who haven’t read Sontag’s (premature? prescient?) eulogy of cinema, I highly recommend it. It works both as a template for the endless “cinema is dead!” conversation that has accompanied film for so long, and as a fascinating example of what made Sontag such a fixture in cultural writing in the twentieth century. It’s also been a touchstone for my ongoing project “Being in the Picture: the Movie Fan and Queer Literature.”
The reason I’ve been drawn to this piece is Sontag’s conflation of two categories of cinema adoration that tend to be seen as antithetical to one another: the fan and the cinephile. Sontag’s excerpt begins with the notion of cinephilia (quite literally, the love of cinema) but attaches said love to fanaticism. And yet, even in invoking the word “fanatic,” Sontag’s description doesn’t quite recall the, at times, negative connotation that film fandom has accrued over the years; from the early years when the crazy hysterical mob and the silly schoolgirl became the poster figures for the inherent deviance in fandom to today where “fanboy” and “fangirl” are hurled as condescending putdowns.
Film fans have historically been associated with images of deviance; fans are characterized as being uncritically deranged in their love of specific films, directors, stars. Fan is a dirty word; cinephile (with its French origins and its association with the academicist — if not academic — discourse of Cahiers du Cinema) is its sanitized cousin. One can proudly call oneself a cinephile (there’s even an International Cinephile Society) but one should be wary of proudly calling oneself a fan. Where does the difference lie? How did the very fanaticism that drove Truffaut, Rohmer, Godard et al. to Hollywood studio cinema get cleansed of its affiliations with “fandom” and emerge instead as a seemingly different type of cinema appreciation?
One could argue that the cinephile is more discerning than the fan; that the cinephile is somehow able to marry his fervent love for the form with a critical eye for its product. And yet, whenever I’m persuaded to make this case, I’m struck by the way in which “cinephile” begins to eerily morph into “film critic” and/or “film scholar.” Are all film critics cinephiles? Is the love of cinema a necessary aspect of film criticism? What’s striking is that whichever moniker you choose, “fan” is ultimately left out in the dust. Fans are uncritical, blinded by their own obsession, and unable to detach their own opinion from knee-jerk reactions. In many ways, the fan becomes an infantalized stage: one may begin a fan (ever noticed that stories of fandom harken back to childhood?), but one needs to foster a critical eye and leave fandom behind (or, at the very least, keep it in check).
I’m not interested in reclaiming the word “fan” or writing an apology for the Comic Con masses, the Cumberbitches, the Tumblr-gif makers, etc. Instead, I’m fascinated by the way the “very specific kind of love that cinema inspired” begins with fanaticism but ends in cinephilia. The discourse around fandom has been threaded with discourses of childhood and gender (note the difference in valence, for example, between fanboy and fangirl) and has created the image of the fan as something threatening. It’s no surprise that while in 1938 we get the beguiled Judy Garland anticipating the very star-struck fervor she’ll eventually command in her own fans, by the time cinephilia was being birthed in Europe, Hollywood had begun to provide more menacing figures of the fan (from All About Eve‘s scheming protagonist, to Gore Vidal’s camp icon Myra Breckinridge).
More recently, and with Oscar nominations due tomorrow, it’s been fascinating to see critical conversations about films like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street (and unlikely, if heuristically helpful pairing in the context of award season) morph into battleground factions that invoke words like “critics” and “fans” as necessarily mutually exclusive. The slippage in semantics further bolsters the distinction creating an odd dichotomy: to be a critic and to unabashedly love something makes you automatically a fan unable to see flaws and cultural impasses, while failing to be a fan of a certain film makes you an unfeeling and heartless critic. The corners are drawn and all that’s left is to try and make sense of the way these words are thrown around.
To take a page out of Carrie Bradshaw, this got me thinking: how might be talk about fandom without invoking its dirty connotations? Is there a way to locate fans in productive conversations with cinephiles, film critics and film scholars? Must one check one’s fanaticism at the door in order to have critical conversations about cinema? Is the pleasure inherent in being a fan anathema to the intellectual work we associate with cinephiles and film critics?