The Way We Live Now: The 21st-Century Cinephile


The New York Times Magazine, November 14, 2004

Our entertainment-industrial complex operates as if the only movies that matter are a handful of studio blockbusters with the same toothy stars. Yet in March 2003, one movie-rich month out of many, a Los Angeles cinephile could go to a university theater, an art-house cinema and a cinematheque and watch a Chinese martial-arts film from the 1940's, Jean-Pierre Melville's 1970 policier, "Le Cercle Rouge," and the latest from the Mexican auteur Arturo Ripstein. That same month, a committed cinephile could have purchased newly released DVD's of films from Austria and South Korea and attended one of numerous film festivals in states from Maine to Texas.

Today, movie love means buying DVD's online, joining virtual communities on the Web and filling seats at regional film festivals. At once global and local, the new cinephilia simultaneously embraces old and new, avant-garde and mainstream, live action and animation, drama and documentary, celluloid and video. It supports modernist snobberies and promotes postmodern egalitarianism, worships dead masters alongside the living and takes film's aspirations to art as a matter of course. Its adherents use the Internet to track down cult directors and post reviews of films famous and obscure. For these new movie lovers, old divides like trash versus art, Hollywood versus the world have given way to an expansive inclusion of cinemas from around the globe.

In 1996, cinema and cinephilia seemed on the rails. That year, Susan Sontag published "The Decay of Cinema," an essay about cinema's centenary that read like an obituary. "Cinema's 100 years appear to have the shape of a life cycle," Sontag declared in this magazine, "an inevitable birth, the steady accumulation of glories and the onset in the last decade of an ignominious, irreversible decline." Sontag softened her verdict somewhat and said that perhaps it isn't cinema that had ended but the movie love it had inspired. "Wonderful films are still being made," she continued, "but you hardly find anymore, at least among the young, the distinctive cinephilic love of movies that is not simply love of but a certain taste in films (grounded in a vast appetite for seeing and reseeing as much as possible of cinema's glorious past)."

Sontag was mourning a lost world, a world in which movies mattered more than their box office and it seemed as if there were an art cinema on every corner of Manhattan, but she didn't realize a new world of cinephilia was coming into being. American independent films were stealing away much of the audience that once sought an alternative to Hollywood in foreign cinemas. Yet cinephilia has proved remarkably resilient, enduring cycles of decline and renewal. In the 1980's, the repertory house had been reborn on the shelves of adventurous video stores like Kim's Video in the East Village. VHS turned consumers into programmers, giving cinephiles access to otherwise unavailable filmmakers; later, DVD would turn movie lovers into collectors.

Of course, in a world of 24/7 streaming entertainment, it can be hard to hear the signal for the noise. The most familiar-sounding independent film companies, like Miramax and Fox Searchlight, are actually divisions of the major studios. Meanwhile, with the acquisition of MGM by Sony in September, all the major Hollywood studios are parts of multinational corporations for which movies represent only a slice of their overall profits. Among other things, consolidation has wrought seismic changes in how movies reach the public, so that now the new media empires incessantly generate their own flak. On the "Today" show, the host, Matt Lauer, flogs a General Electric-owned Universal movie on a General Electric-owned television station and so on, ad infinitum.

That's one reason regional festivals have become so critical to today's cinephilia. There are hundreds of festivals in the United States alone and many more throughout the world. In February, movie lovers attended the Santa Barbara Film Festival in California, where they watched films from Italy, China, Argentina, Denmark, Ireland, Iceland and Iran. Meanwhile, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival traveled to 21 cities. Among the works on tap were the documentary "Pinochet's Children," about the Chilean dictator, and "Rana's Wedding," a drama about a Palestinian woman crossing physical and psychological roadblocks.

Once local cultural events, places to catch up with a favorite foreign director or discover someone new, festivals have evolved into a crucial distribution network. They are of particular importance to small distributors like Kino International that can't always afford to buy their way into the national consciousness. Even filmmakers whose movies never open commercially in the United States can reach tens of thousands of enthusiastic filmgoers in cities that may no longer have a local art cinema. Festivals are the best public evidence of the endurance and expansiveness of our movie love and a face-to-face complement to the more private, geekier side of cinephila -- to those cinephiles who hack their DVD players to gain access to world cinema or swap online news about the latest outrage from the gonzo Japanese director Takashi Miike.

Not surprisingly, contemporary cinephilia finds its strongest expression in the blogs and online magazines written by undiscriminating fans, would-be critics, serious scholars and the usual malcontents, along with review sites like DVDBeaver, run by geeks whose fetishistic attention to technical detail mirrors that of hard-core audiophiles. The Internet is a natural home for this more rarefied type of cinephilia not only because it's cheap but also because it provides ready-made communities. Much of what is online originates with entertainment companies, and many independent sites do rely on commercial links for support. Yet for the best sites, like the online magazine Senses of Cinema, movie love doesn't begin and end with the latest Miramax release as it does for many offline publications. For these cinephiles, the Hungarian director Bela Tarr isn't an art-house curiosity; he's a star.

After it was published, Sontag's obituary for cinema inspired other elegists to wax nostalgic, though many seemed to be mourning their lost youth more than lost movies. They were mourning that moment when, on discovering the French New Wave, they discovered the ideal expressions of their own youthful curiosity and passion. Today, selective audiences and even many critics are unfamiliar with the likes of Tarr and Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien. Not because their names aren't as important as a Bergman or a Fellini, but because public and critical recognition of their work is so limited. The biggest difference between the cinephilia Sontag eulogized and today's is that the homogeneity of the marketplace -- and the media's complicity -- forces cinephiles to become their own cultural gatekeepers, to reach beyond the multiplex and chain video store. You have to seek -- sometimes quite resourcefully -- in order to find.

Earlier this year, after attending a preview screening of "Zatoichi," a stylish take on a popular Japanese film character from the director Takeshi Kitano, I went out and bought a DVD of the movie. This DVD is a Region 3 disc and as such will not play on most DVD players sold in the United States, which is designated Region 1. In the mid-90's, a consortium of hardware and software companies carved the world into eight regions so that consumers could watch only the discs that had been manufactured for their specific part of the planet. Movie studios don't want someone in Tokyo sampling the latest Hollywood blowout on DVD before it opens in Japanese theaters. Neither do they want us to watch "Zatoichi" before it opens here.

Cinephiles learned to circumvent the lockout by buying machines that can play DVD's from any region and on any television system or by hacking their players. After we had bought a Chinese-made DVD player, my husband transformed it into a region-free machine by downloading some free code that he burned onto a CD and inserted into the disc drive. Now with our player we watch Japanese yakuza films, French art-house classics and British television shows you can't find at Blockbuster. Although I buy most of these DVD's online from foreign retailers, I bought "Zatoichi" from my local video store because it was on the shelf. The colors on my Hong Kong DVD were murky (of the 17 available versions, I should have gone with a Japanese edition), but I can now watch the movie whenever I want.

Meanwhile, the new world of home entertainment allows you to rent a DVD of a difficult film like Jean-Luc Godard's sublime "In Praise of Love" online at, where customers have bestowed it a rating of three stars out of five. There's something mind-blowing and not a little bizarre in the juxtaposition of the world's biggest company with Godard, but such is the complex reality of our media-saturated lives -- it's a free-for-all. In the early 1960's, anyone with a dollar and change could go to the movies, but only those in the know frequented Manhattan art houses like the Carnegie Hall Cinema to see Alain Resnais's "Last Year at Marienbad." Today discriminating cinephiles with Internet access can go to and buy Bela Tarr's "Werckmeister Harmonies" on DVD. Then they can find "Film Directors -- Articles on the Internet" and read smart essays about one of Sontag's favorite directors.

Not long ago, movies were bigger than life; today you can buy a movie, hold it in your hand and take it home to watch again and again, a revolutionary step in the short history of the medium. Like VHS, DVD has radically changed our understanding of what it means to go to the movies. But while VHS had its greatest success as a rental medium, DVD's have become impulse buys, commodities tossed in the grocery cart along with the socks and sheets. As such, DVD's are increasingly driving entertainment-industry profits and cluttering home-entertainment rooms. Yet they have also helped create a new cinema culture that defies the industry's imperative to homogeneity, and in the process, they have helped revitalize the relationship between film and its lovers. Consumers have more choices than ever; so do cinephiles.

For those who came of age before DVD's and the Internet, there may be something unnerving about how small movies have become, but slipping a copy of "Notes From the Underground" into a backpack doesn't make it less profound. Television initiated cinema's transformation from communal ritual into a private activity -- and now you can pop a DVD in a computer and watch it any time, anywhere. Godard suggested that you look up at movies, you look down at television. Yet even as watching a movie has assumed the intimate aspect of reading a book, the popularity of festivals suggests we aren't ready to abandon the public pleasures of moviegoing. It is too early to know what, if anything, we have lost as cinema's first century has given way to its second. Here, on the cinephilic frontier at least, the signal is sounding louder than the noise.

Manohla Dargis is a chief film critic of the New York Times.

Copyright (c) 2004 The New York Times Company