I recently read Susan Sontag’s “The Decay of Cinema,” published in the New York Times in 1996, for the undergraduate class at USC that I’m a teaching assistant for.
In the essay she laments the commercialization of the Hollywood studio system, and how spectatorship evolved from an intimate and exciting experience in a darkened theater, to the less immersive comfort of a living room. At the crux of her essay is a memoriam to cinephilia, which she argues was once celebrated, but eroded by the turn of cinema’s 100th anniversary. Sontag’s argument essentially equates cinephilia with a certain type of movie-lover; for a true cinephile, cinema is their everything, and they elect to watch films in the most enveloping of spaces – the movie theater.
“Cinephilia itself has come under attack, as something quaint, outmoded, snobbish. For cinephilia implies that films are unique, unrepeatable, magic experiences. Cinephilia tells us that the Hollywood remake of Godard’s “Breathless” cannot be as good as the original. Cinephilia has no role in the era of hyperindustrial films. For cinephilia cannot help, by the very range and eclecticism of its passions, from sponsoring the idea of the film as, first of all, a poetic object; and cannot help from inciting those outside the movie industry, like painters and writers, to want to make films, too. It is precisely this notion that has been defeated,” (Sontag, 1996).
While I don’t disagree with many of Sontag’s sentiments, I must say that I believe that access to film and television, specifically by way of the internet, has created a new type of cinephilia. Last year, after reading an interview in which Quentin Tarantino voiced his objection to watching films on phone screens, I responded in a post. My feelings on the topic haven’t changed much: yes, I agree that watching movies on a phone seems wrong, and nothing trumps seeing a film in a theater and sharing the experience with others. But without the internet, I wouldn’t have nearly as much access to international cinema, American art house classics, avant-garde film, and television staples. As a film school graduate who didn’t grow up in an ultra-cinephilic household, most of my film history knowledge I owe to university screenings and, yes, Netflix. I absolutely patronize local video stores (and you should too), but my ability to access classic film and TV is largely thanks to the internet.
Sontag concludes her piece: “If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too . . . no matter how many movies, even very good ones, go on being made. If cinema can be resurrected, it will only be through the birth of a new kind of cine-love,” (Sontag, 1996). I wouldn’t argue against the notion that Hollywood stifles creativity and ingenuity – it absolutely does – but regardless, I don’t think cinema’s dead, and it’s thanks to a new kind of techno-driven cine-love.