Film

Cinephilia Culture and the Fear of Missing Out

There just isn't enough time in the human lifespan to see all the films one 'should'. So why not just declare the death of the cinephile?

Above image: Retro cinema poster from Shutterstock.com.

There just isn't enough time in the human lifespan to see all the films one 'should', anymore. So why not just declare the death of the cinephile?

What does it mean to be a cinephile in the 21st century? With so many movies and television shows produced each year, instant access to all of them, and the internet to inform viewers of what they should watch and what they should skip, it seems now more than ever that anyone has the potential to be a cinephile.

In his intriguing essay “Cinephilia or the Uses of Disenchantment” published in Cinephilia: Movies, Love, and Memory (Amsterdam University Press, 2005), Thomas Elsaesser distinguishes between first- and second-generation cinephilia. First generation cinephilia, Elsaesser suggests, is “defined by the movie houses, the neighborhoods and cafes one frequented” (30). The second generation is quite different, and Elsaesser identifies two kinds of second-generation cinephilia. The first kind, Elsaesser explains, “has kept aloof from the university curriculum and kept its faith with auteur cinema,” and the second kind can be described as “post-auteur, post-theory cinephilia that has embraced the new technologies, that flourishes on the internet and finds its jouissance in an often undisguised and unapologetic fetishism of the technical prowess of the digital” (36).

Cinephiles once belonged to an elite club of movie theater dwellers, but the mass proliferation of technology and social media has granted anyone admission.
Like Elsaesser, I'm interested in the latter kind of second generation cinephilia, namely, those that have moved from movie houses to the internet, and those that have more access to media content than first generation cinephiles ever imagined. On the one hand, content accessibility via digital streaming services, DVDs sent through the mail, and resource websites like Metacritic and IMDB, has made the practice of cinephilia seemingly simpler. These days you don’t need to rely on movie theaters to catch up on the latest Godard, and you don’t have to convene at coffee shops to make your cinephiliac presence known. Instead, you can subscribe to Hulu Plus, Fandor, and Netflix and find what you need, and you can express your opinions about Godard on various internet message boards.

On the other hand, this “all access pass” has made it both practically and psychologically more complicated to be a cinephile. The convergence of media and the increased quality of television and internet programming over the years has expanded the cinephile’s scope of consumption. Now, in addition to the many movies that have been made, cinephiles have developed a passionate love for other types of visual art on television and the web.

In order to practice cinephilia in the 21st century, one must watch a lot of media content. However, it’s impossible to be caught up with everything in today’s connected culture. Just when you think you’ve mastered silent cinema, for example, out of nowhere you’re quizzed on the films by Lois Weber. And just when you’ve finished watching all of the movies on IMDB’s top 250, you’re asked about another, more expansive list on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They.com. Not to mention all of the new releases each year, a staggering 900, according to A.O. Scott of The New York Times, in addition to the great television shows and short films waiting for you on the web. ("Feasts for the Eyes, 1,0001 Nights' Worth", 11 December 2013)

In her article "The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re Going to Miss Almost Everything" Linda Holmes argues that “the vast majority of the world’s books, films, television and art, you will never see.” (Monkey See 18 April 2011) Holmes relies on the amount of content produced each year as well as the amount of pre-existing content to reach this conclusion, and her argument, while obvious to some, bears repeating in this age of hyper-connectivity.

Holmes’ point is problematic for those like me who adhere to a canon. As a cinema studies scholar, I’ve been trained to watch X amount of films and read Y amount of books if I am to be considered a serious student of film. In order to receive my MA in Cinema Studies, for example, there was a list of 100 or so films and books I was expected to watch and read. If I didn’t see King Vidor’s Stella Dallas (1937), how can any of my claims about early Hollywood cinema be taken seriously? If I didn’t read David Bordwell’s On the History of Film Style (Harvard University Press, 1997), what right do I have to discuss film form and style? I’m not sure I can answer these questions, but I haven’t seen Stella Dallas or read On the History of Film Style and this hasn’t stopped me from participating in the discussion.

The same applies to contemporary cinephilia culture. The general consensus floating around is that there’s no longer an excuse to miss a certain film or television show, given our relatively easy access. This consensus is obviously misguided, and if anything, the instant accessibility to content illustrates an individual’s inability to consume it all. There simply isn’t enough time. Technology may provide people with the illusion that they are connected and have access to so much content, but that doesn't change the fact that one person can't be everywhere and do everything in one lifetime.

Rather than merely echoing Holmes’ claim, however, I’m interested in how companies capitalize on this in order to make a profit. Companies use specific promotional techniques to attract consumers to their products, and in the case of the media industries, they tap into the cinephile’s psychology by releasing more “must-see” content in a shorter amount of time.

Fear of missing out, or FOMO, refers to the anxiety and inadequacy some may feel when using social media ("Never heard of FOMO? You’re so missing out", by Hephzibah Anderson, The Observer, 16 April 2011). Essentially, FOMO takes hold when Sally posts pictures of her awesome birthday party on Facebook and George becomes sad because he couldn’t be there. This concept isn’t specific to the information age, but the proliferation of social media on a global scale has caused more users to feel as if they are missing out on something else, other than what they’re doing, to the point that they check their phones during a party, rather than enjoy the party itself.

The concept of FOMO accurately represents the anxiety of practicing cinephiles. Some cinephiles with FOMO cross films and television shows off of a list and find that the list grows with each day, and others are so stricken that their enjoyment of any film or show is thwarted by thoughts of the next one that needs to be watched.

Indeed, there are a variety of reasons why FOMO plagues cinephiles. For some, cinephilia is practiced to reach a goal—to watch all of the important movies and shows that cinephiles are expected to watch—and when more films and shows are deemed important on the internet, cinephiles don’t feel like they will accomplish their lifelong pursuit. For others, cinephilia is a badge of honor, and if it turns out that they haven’t watched La Roue (1923) or Twin Peaks (1990-1991), they risk losing bragging rights, especially when they learn that someone else in the world has seen La Roue and Twin Peaks.

Then there are those who understandably love art and culture and want to experience as much of it as possible, and inevitably come to terms with the idea that they won’t get to encounter it all in their lifetime. They learn that they will miss out. Regardless of the reason, however, these cinephiles suffer from the shame and embarrassment of not having seen this film or that television show, and therefore live with FOMO on a regular basis.

My intention isn’t to offer a solution to this problem, because honestly the only solution available for cinephiles is to admit that they can’t watch every movie ever made, to accept that much of what they miss will be great, to understand that it’s okay not to have seen Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), and to realize that their love for cinema isn’t less powerful than someone who has seen that film. However, by understanding how media industries capitalize on FOMO, perhaps we will become more conscious of our consumption habits and recognize when we’re being manipulated to spend money in the name of cinephilia.

As Barbara Klinger argues, media industries are conscious of and adaptable to changing cinephiliac behavior. In her book Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home, Klinger writes that “film production companies, electronics firms specializing in home theater, VHS and DVD vendors, and other businesses avidly pursue the spectrum of possible collectors, attempting to ignite and feed their desires” (62). An updated version of Klinger’s claim might incorporate digital streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Fandor, and Mubi into this discussion.

Today, many cinephiles and casual viewers consume most of their video content on streaming devices, and Wheeler Winston Dixon wisely predicts that streaming will become the dominant mode of reception in the near future, if it hasn’t already. In his book Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access, Dixon claims that “the vast amount of information that each of us possesses will become more and more available to even the casual observer, who won’t even have to search for it” (129). Digital streaming services like Netflix put Dixon’s theory into practice, as users can tell the services what content they’re interested in (drama, thriller, comedy, etc.), and in exchange they will receive “suggestions” for which movies or television shows they should watch next. For a small monthly fee, users can sit back and let Netflix do all of the work.

All of this might suffice for the casual moviegoer interested in killing time with random escapist entertainment, but for cinephiles, Netflix is a valuable streaming service, yet it doesn’t complete the collection. A quick google search of the phrase “Netflix streaming selection sucks” will demonstrate that cinephiles aren’t satisfied with Netflix’s media library, especially when it comes to classic films. For the affordable price of $7.99 a month in the US, however, Netflix is still worth having for many cinephiles, especially if they want to remain culturally relevant and watch House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and the latest documentaries and foreign films.

The convenience and accessibility of streaming services attempt to alleviate the cinephile’s FOMO. If, for example, a cinephile can’t watch The Americans or Downton Abbey on Netflix, they can subscribe to Amazon Prime for a separate fee and they won’t miss out. Then there is Hulu Plus, which offers many titles from the Criterion Collection for just $7.99 a month. This is a cinephile’s dream, as many older foreign films on Criterion are considered essential but for some, too expensive to purchase on DVD. However, as many cinephiles know, the Criterion Collection doesn’t specialize in contemporary foreign and independent films, so Fandor and Mubi are needed to ensure that all of the important areas are covered, or so we’d like to think.

In addition to the many different streaming services that are offered, companies have relied on more creative attempts to reach cinephiles. For example, in a marketing ploy that is both genius and sadistic, some media industries have begun to incorporate tweets into their promotional materials. ABC, for example, marketed their new television series Resurrection by placing the many Twitter responses to the show in a number of TV spots. The tweets don’t comment on the show’s quality because the public hadn’t seen it yet. Instead, they call attention to the anticipation of the show. In this case, ABC instigates feelings of FOMO by creating a narrative around their show that everyone on social media is talking about it. Therefore, when consumers stumble upon the commercial and see that Twitter is deeming the premiere a must-see event, they feel like they will miss out on the conversation if they don’t tune in.

Susan Sontag once lamented the death of cinephilia in a seminal essay in The New York Times. ("The Decay of Cinema", 25 February 1995) Scholars have since dismissed Sontag’s essay as an out of touch ode to movie theaters. Jason Sperb and Scott Balcerzak, for instance, claim that cinephilia is alive and well in their anthology Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction, Volume 1: Film, Pleasure, and Digital Culture (Wallflower Press, 2009), and insist that cinephiles merely practice their love in newer, more tech-savvy ways.

Perhaps the issue, then, isn’t that cinephilia is dead, but that it’s no longer relevant. There are plenty of people who continue to love movies and television shows, but the distinction between cinephile and average consumer is becoming more difficult to make. When nearly everyone has access to the same content and not a single person can watch all of it, it’s arbitrary to determine who the experts are, and it’s futile to say what’s worth watching and what isn’t. Cinephiles once belonged to an elite club of movie theater dwellers, but the mass proliferation of technology and social media has granted anyone admission. This openness has complicated the practice of cinephilia, and has turned it into a shapeless, unidentifiable act.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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