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(In General) Towards a More Empathetic Cinephilia

Untitled (Group of Women) (Rabindranath Tagore, 1929-30)

The sentiments of this manifesto must be distilled—first and foremost—through autobiographical rumination. I promise to keep this brief. When younger, and closer to fresh adulthood, I employed cinema to identify myself to the world; now I use it to identify with it. The former tendency was the yield of a much too common resentment that can plague the later years of one’s teenage—I would not hesitate to recognize its very exercise as being slightly violent. This was therefore a means to say to all of those other individuals who I felt alienated from, “Okay, you have friends, but I have films”—rather nerdy and slightly sinister, but so it was. Over the years, however, it is cinephilia (the same general sentiment, but with a recalibrated mode of articulation) that has become for me the means by which to attempt to strive towards an unconditional empathy towards other individuals.

The manifesto will attempt to ruminate on the duration necessary to traverse between these separate states of being. This is after all, a transition between two meanings of the same word—the longest distance known to civilisation.

This manifesto, I confess, locates its foundational philosophy in the Tagorean notions of the ‘home’ and the ‘world’, carried as they are not only in the novel that literalises this duality, but also in various, other examples of Tagore’s writership, whether short stories, novellas, or ballads. This is to say, the equation of ‘home’ with the individual, private self—and that of the ‘world’ with a social, communal self. It will try thus to scrutinise and set certain standards of quality for both cinephilia(s): the first conducted by a person at his or her own behest, and the other one, organised as an operation in culture by society as a whole. Eventually, it may recommend models for the performance of both of these varieties.

But first, let us extend the analogy further, as Tagore himself does in his writings, to recognize a set of clear distinctions between the two nodes of this continuum of existence: the ‘home’, therefore, as a form of automatic, unresolved and asymmetric mode of being, and the ‘world’ as a performative, codified and institutionalized operation. In this, the manifesto posits that these latter descriptors are in no way inadequate or inappropriate if one were to try to talk of contemporary, ‘global cinephilia’ (an euphemism which can actually mean, a global audience for Western cinephilia)—a system governed by deeply entrenched (and retrenched, through the internet) rituals of access, acquisition and accumulation—whose ulterior end goals can often be as simple as individual or institutional mobility and influence.

This system, much of whose rituals and affects are visible to spectators from various corners of the world only from afar—and yet, visible because of the intensity of their cyclical, continuous performance—but whose rewards can only be accessed by a few, forms the very basis of contemporary film culture (or should one state, Film Culture). These tendencies—of a cultural landscape that features prominent epicentres, a profound imbalance and an amplified difference between the ‘visible’ and the ‘accessible’—radiate through the ecosystem of the film festivals, the journalists and critics who report on them, the publications they represent, the universities that subscribe to these and the museums or archives that store them for later use.

‘Global Cinephilia’, or as it came to be declared in certain, sovereign circles, ‘The New Cinephilia’, is a proposition whose very premise is based on a set of suppositions. To begin with, the spatial, in terms of its presumed ‘global’ ramifications (a notion not drastically removed from the marketing literature supplied by social media giants, who imagine the ‘globe’ as a single, unified context with a homogenized set of concerns, anxieties or zeitgeists) and to end with, the temporal, in terms of its usage of the epithet, ‘new’, which catalyses a thousand different questions: ‘new’ for whom? In the context of which timeline, and in whose narrative? If this is the ‘new’, what was the ‘old’? This, apart from the larger quandary it induces, but not does not deign to address, which is the imagination of cinephilia—and indeed, culture itself—as a vector whose evolution can be charted on a linear scale, without the requirement of paying necessary heed to the cumulative processes of revision or revolution that make any such evolution possible in the first place.

But this is not all.

It is useful to acknowledge that ‘Global Cinephilia’ or its numerous variations may result ultimately from the tendencies of the seemingly rational society to resolve a complex reality into a set of labels—a yield of the aggressive anthropological urge to categorise, index and then catalogue for later reference. These can then be employed as easy codes, linguistic totems of a secret cult, to talk to those who are also familiar with their meaning, or with whom their implications resonate. However, as with any regime that basis itself almost entirely on the notions of comprehensibility, there will be a necessary, accompanying expulsion of those who do not comprehend; the philistines, the illiterates, the ones who just ‘do not get it’. In a circumstance as volatile and precarious as this one, there will be necessary attrition. Cinephiles from countries other than those at the centre will observe the sordid lack of opportunities, become disillusioned, withdraw themselves from circulation and eventually, fade into obscurity. These will not necessarily however even be the worst casualties of this system; it will be those who will choose to stay that will become its most tragic specimens.

In the absence of any locally cultivated definition of cinephilia—and indeed, in the absence of any actual encouragement to even locate it—these individuals will be compelled to subscribe to a discourse forged afar from the context of their existence, thoughts and ideas; in effect, to the notion of a ‘global’, or a ‘new’ cinephilia. The act of subscription will render our cinephile-protagonist into a blunt instrument, a bland conformist. A new set of anxieties will be wreaked heavy upon them: the anxieties of relevance, of utility, of quality, and worse, of belonging. They will have drifted too far from their own context, but will fail to contribute in meaningful terms even to the ‘global’ discourse on film. In sheer desperation, thus, they will adopt wholesale the concerns, gestures, tokenisms, movements, causes and finally, the vocabulary of a society (or societies) of which they are not the immediate stakeholders. This will cause them to perpetuate a cycle of eternally measured and schematic pretence; the result of a culture that will reward their ability to exist as facsimiles, or how well they can speak like someone else, instead of the considerable nuance that their own perspectives can be constituted by—owed as much to their individual fervour as to their cultural upbringing and background.

We are witness to an era in film culture where gross mimicries permeate through the contemporary cinephilic landscape. The dominant, alpha cinephile-regimes centred in metropolitan North America and Western Europe continue to determine—as if through a memorandum—a matrix of concerns, agendas and tenor for the rest of the world, who must continue to perform an involvement, or an attention, if only to avert the threat of complete oblivion, in the otherwise. This is also therefore a cinephilia of utmost trendiness: #MeToo, representation, political correctness, the systematic purge of the pantheon of old, male directors and an odd obsession with a surge of apocalypses (with death, even): of film as a technology, of film ‘as we know it’, and really, of the era itself. These urgencies, each of which are borne—as collateral, refracted outcomes—of the seismic changes that the contemporary Western society is undergoing in terms of its spiritual, political and statistical constitution, are certainly currents that belong to this point of time in its history, but they do not, to every single place in the world, to this point of time in their histories. The hegemony of ‘global cinephilia’ ensures however, that aspirant cinephiles from the entire world apply not only the grand mannerisms that are an outcome of this discourse, but also the moral attitudes it espouses to their own, local context, regardless of how incongruent the two may be.

Therefore, in an era of the merchandisable image (image as merchandise, Hollywood as a toy-store) where citizens of different countries will soon have to seek a subscription to Netflix or Prime Video to pay Hollywood to prescribe for them how they must behave, look, or sound, we are now on the cusp of a merchandisable film culture—a series of cinephilic models, traditions, rituals, institutional mechanisms, icons, canons, anti-canons, and methods of discourse—that the Global North will impose upon and then ensure a steady circulation of through the rest of the world. But while the former will establish an economic supranational structure that will render each of its recipient a consumer, the latter will percolate down into their consciousness, affect their self-worth and install, in effect, a metaphysical regime of manners. Such transmission will allow individuals (or institutions) from these chosen, select countries to slowly accrue power and reputation, as also a coterie of admirers from the Global South, for whom these individuals and institutions will remain forever visible, but who themselves will forever be invisible.

It is on this thesis that the present manifesto will attempt to construct a system of propositions. The manifesto is therefore a result of both the writer’s private bitterness, and objective analysis. It will be the reader’s task to separate the two.

Let’s go.

THE WORLD

This is to determine or influence a new regime of cinephilia,

  1. which will seek to replace an older version that perpetuates itself through the active and relentless institution of circles of inclusion and exclusion (the collective cultivation of a canon; or in its response, the fermentation of a coup that then composes an anti-canon—a dialogue between people with heads up their own asses; the formulation of lists; festival coverage; the sacrifice of power at the altar of power) without the accompanying admission of the streams of privilege (economic, social, regional, religious and cultural) that make its sustenance possible.
  2. whose efficiency is established not by opportunities it presents in terms of annexation and consolidation, but instead, by how it eventually achieves the conditions for relinquishment of control and its transfer.
  3. whose quality is measurable not in the circumstance of a perpetual knowing that it induces, but instead, in if it can cultivate a habit of confusion, of crisis, and through these, of the desire to know further. This cinephilia is based also in the recognition that the former strain can, in this case, enforce an enclosure, a confinement within oneself (a cinephile who folds onto himself); the latter, however, will compel the cinephile-protagonist to reach out, seek allies and alliances, collaborate, ask, communicate.
  4. which will encourage the forging therefore, not of individual titans, giants, icons, heroes, messiahs, saviours, but of groups, collectives, communities, conclaves.
  5. which may therefore subdue the energies of the lone, young male figure that permeate through contemporary cinephilia. To elaborate, a budget-militancy akin to the aggressive victimhood of the incel communities that roam the underbelly of the Internet. Instead, it will help cine-love, or cinephilia emerge as an opportunity to exchange ideas, start affairs, compose friendships, talk more, listen more; talk less, listen more.
  6. which is not based thus in the centralization and then the wielding of the power that is the product of this centre, but in its steady, continuous destabilization. Power, therefore, but one that must disperse, disseminate, and use to (em)power others around the cinephile-individual or the cinephile-institution.
  7. which seeks an active demystification of the processes of contemporary cinephilia itself, based as these are in the perpetuation of a system  that is actively hierarchical (and thus, feudal) and institutionalized (and thus, scientific), to ultimately yield their replacement with a model that is horizontal, automatic and organic—certainly, without a centre.
  8. which will necessitate the revelation of—a turning over of—the hitherto opaque models of conduct that the powerful employ, but which are not available (or visible) to those who are its mere recipients or in certain cases, victims. A series of divulgences will become necessary (lest this be seen as an interrogation room, this too will be conducted in the spirit of, and only of, sharing): the hoarder-cinephile will list his sources; the curator will have to justify his or her choices through text; the museums and archives will need to lay their politics bare; the screening activist will need to introspect and relay his motives and the critic will need to preamble their filmic writing with spiritual, even interior contemplation. The burden will therefore shift from what we do, to why we do it—from a conception of culture that is sentimental and glorious, to one that is analytical and material.
  9. which envisions that such a deflation will allow local and sub-local (or sub-sub-local) communities around the world to establish and institute their own models of cinephilia, or engagement with the medium and not labour under the persistent hegemony of an established model that has gained success elsewhere (in another context, but not here). As such, we may be able to witness the emergence of a variety of cinephilias—the act of love, but now as a plural form—whose mode of existence will be original, novel, local and intrinsic, as opposed to a reduced, pathetic facsimile of an iconographic model whose success in its own context, while undeniable, is not applicable to each and every other context. The regime of pale imitations may finally be overthrown.
  10. and which intends therefore that the result of this overhaul will be a diffusion of expertise, and a reclamation of the common ground of curiosity itself. This is not to declare that expertise will cease to matter, but merely that the purposes of its application will alter: this is to say, it will not be used to summon a conclave of fellow ‘experts’, but will instead attempt to make it so that the opportunities of learning are available to those outside of this strictly delineated group.

THE HOME

As an individual, I would prefer to place my own -philia under a state of immense scrutiny and establish a set of parameters—free of duress but not of consequence—that allow me to examine its health, and durability; eventually, its purpose. The cinephilia I practice should allow me, therefore,

  1. to attain a movement that is not only inward, but by the way of it, relentless, always outward. This ambition exists not to eliminate or neutralize the possibilities of interior contemplation or introspection, but to seek an identification of these as means to a greater, more tangible end, and not ends unto themselves.
  2. to become—and I mean it—a better, and if not better, a more functional human being. As such, I demand of my cinephilia—in reciprocation of my immense deference to the various demands it makes of me—to aid my becoming into an individual who is more alert to the currents of my own environment, aware of the needs of those around me, and awake, to life itself.
  3. to comprehend, contribute, and construct, instead of judge, lament, and condemn.
  4. to cultivate and nurture an active sense of wonder, a substantial curiosity and a desire, eventually, whose abundance can allow its transmission to others, not as a disease or a sickness, but as a condition.
  5. to take care, be gentle, embrace emotion, use irony sparingly, lessen an absorption with self; and finally, be nice.