Is cinephilia useful?
Rodney Ascher‘s Room 237 (2012) is an important film because it forces the viewer to confront this question. By exploring various interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Room 237 situates itself within film history as a film about cinephilia.
For the most part, the film shows us what cinephiles do and how they do it. In the case of Room 237, cinephiles watch films and analyze them obsessively. Some do this in movie theaters, but a number of the commentators point out how technological advancements like the VCR and DVD player allow them to practice their cinephilia at home.
A few interpretations in Room 237 adhere to close analysis of form and content, whereas others are more inclined to make abstract speculations about the film. Regardless of the approach, however, it is appropriate to assume that each interpreter has seen The Shining enough times to offer a detailed discussion of the film.
Room 237 has caused a number of critics to question whether or not any of this is productive. In her review of the film, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis acknowledges that the cinephiles in Room 237 take their interpretations of The Shining too seriously, but she argues that this can beneficial. She writes, “However fanciful or paranoid, now exists an adjunct or even alternative to those of official discourse. It’s the revenge of the nerds ad infinitum.”
That is, contemporary cinephiles like those featured in Room 237 “re-master,” “re-purpose,” and “re-frame” The Shining for their own needs and desires, to borrow terms used by Thomas Elsaesser in his essay “Cinephilia, or the Uses of Disenchantment” to describe contemporary cinephilia culture (see p.36 Cinephilia: Movies, Love, and Memory, Amsterdam University Press, 2005). It hardly matters what others think about their interpretations, as the film implies that cinephilia is the product of an intensely personal relationship between an individual and the moving image.
Historically, cinematic representations of cinephilia have not been as kind to cinephiles. Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), for example, argues that an extreme love for cinema can lead to copycat violence. The film follows an unknown killer who goes by the name of Ghostface as he terrorizes the fictional suburban town of Woodsboro, California. Consider the murderous methods of Ghostface, and how he treats actual murder (at least in the filmic world of Scream) as cinematic.
In the opening scene, Ghostface asks the film’s first victim Casey (Drew Barrymore) to answer various questions about movie trivia, and her level of cinephilia determines whether or not she will die. Here is a brief transcript of the scene:
Ghostface: Name the killer in Friday the 13th.
Casey: Jason! Jason! Jason!
Ghostface: I’m sorry. That’s the wrong answer!
Casey: No, it’s not. No it’s not. It was Jason.
Ghostface: Afraid not. No way.
Casey: Listen, it was Jason! I saw that movie 20 goddamn times.
Ghostface: Then you should know that Jason’s mother, Mrs. Voorhees, was the original killer. Jason didn’t show up until the sequel. I’m afraid that’s the wrong answer.
Ghostface clearly has an understanding of horror cinema, and he deliberately asks Casey a specific question that she must answer in order to spare her life. She gives the wrong answer, and one can imagine a true horror fan watching the scene and thinking that any self-respecting cinephile would have known that Mrs. Voorhees is the original killer in Friday the 13th.
This question therefore separates those who are in the know from those who are not, but at what cost? Is knowledge of cinema and popular culture really a matter of life and death? The exchange between Casey and Ghostface demonstrates the dangerous implications of cinephilia, and the ways it can lead to hyper-reality.
Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson further address these questions when the killers are ultimately revealed to be two teenagers obsessed with movies. Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu (Matthew Lillard), we come to find, have collaborated in the murders, and they learn all of their tricks, so to speak, from horror cinema. Below is a brief excerpt from an exchange between Sidney (Neve Campbell), Billy, and Stu after their identities are revealed:
Sidney: You sick fucks. You’ve seen one too many movies.
Billy: Now Sid, don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!
Billy and Stu are unable to separate the world of movies from reality, and as such, they treat actual murder as if it is a game, and they learn how to play it from the horror films they watch.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) similarly portrays cinephiles who isolate themselves from the real world and, as a result, remain ignorant to its daily problems. The film is set in Paris in 1968 and follows three youths who immerse themselves in the cinématѐque française. The main character, Matthew (Michael Pitt), is an American studying in Paris, and he compares the now iconic movie house to a palace.
On first glance, the film appears to pay tribute to the French New Wave and the enthusiastic cinephilia of that time period. In her essay “A Study of Cinephilia and Time Realism in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers,” Sutanya Singkhra argues that Bertolucci’s ultimate goal with the film is to “make us love cinema once more, in the age of television, the internet, and all the other ways we can store time and represent history, by making us first love the love of cinema which his own generation called cinephilia.” (see p.53 of Cinephilia: Movies, Love, and Memory, Amsterdam University Press, 2005).
The Dreamers certainly captures Bertolucci’s nostalgia for Paris in the 1960s, but he’s also critical of his main characters. As Matthew and his French friends Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel) engage in passionate debates about cinema, like whether or not Charlie Chaplin is better than Buster Keaton, they’re completely oblivious to the world outside that is slowly crumbling around them. They have sex, play movie trivia, and reenact scenes from Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part (1964), and as a result, they shut themselves out from the political reality of Paris. In one poignant scene, Theo’s father tells his son, “Before you can change the world you must realize that you, yourself, are part of it. You can’t stand outside looking in.”
In this regard, The Dreamers has much in common with Godard’s Masculin Féminin (1966). Both films are rooted in a harsh political reality, and even though Bertolluci is able to look back with the historian’s privilege of retrospection, his point of view is similar to Godard’s. In a time of political uncertainty, the filmmakers claim that cinephilia must be put on hold.
After the events of May 1968, Godard would abandon his cinephilic roots entirely, but a number of his films pre-1968 find him slowly turning his back on the very thing that introduced him to the world in the first place. His films gradually became less joyous and more punishing, and his characters were increasingly depicted through a critical lens. Masculin Féminin is fascinating because Godard is caught between his past and his future. On the one hand, the film is as playful as ever, but unlike Bande à part, Godard has a political agenda. He’s not merely interested in paying homage to his favorite Hollywood films.
Masculin Féminin is critical of characters that are self-absorbed and interested in the arts and consumer culture. At one point in the film, a title card appears that reads, “This film should be called ‘The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.’”
The main character Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is portrayed as a child of Marx, as he is politically involved and interested in alleviating global crises. At one point, Paul says, “Kill a man and you’re a murder. Kill thousands and you’re a conqueror. Kill everyone and you’re a God.”
By contrast, Madeleine (Chantal Goya) is a child of Coca-Cola, as she is obsessed with materialism and consumer culture. Unlike Paul, she does not engage in politics, and she only seems to care about her appearance. In one telling scene, Godard records Madeleine looking at herself in the mirror for ten minutes.
There are certainly problems with Godard’s representation of gender roles, as the women in the film are more likely to be vapid and superficial, and the men are more likely to be politically engaged and intellectual, but if we put this aside for a moment, we can observe Godard’s criticism of the cinephilia culture with which he once associated. By contrasting the politically engaged Paul with the superficial Madeleine, Godard shows his legion of fans that it is no longer acceptable to be passionate about cinema and popular culture, and that it is more socially responsible to be passionate about politics.
This point is made manifest when Paul describes his disappointment with the movies toward the end of the film: “The images flickered. Marilyn Monroe looked terribly old. It saddened us. It wasn’t the film we had dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts, the film we wanted to make…and secretly wanted to live.”
In this scene, Godard acknowledges his cinephilic roots, but shows that the political realities at the time couldn’t afford to sustain such superfluous desires. There’s a sense that the world was changing, and the innocence of youth and the love of cinema no longer mattered. Godard faces the fact that the dream of the nouvelle vague had died, and what had taken place was a grim political nightmare.
Godard’s Masculin Féminin serves as a manifesto of sorts, in which he encourages his fellow cinephiles to abandon the movie theater and join the political front lines. Bertolluci’s The Dreamers is about three cinephiles who don’t do this until it is too late.
By the end of the film, Matthew, Isabelle, and Theo’s dream is inevitably interrupted by the world outside. The riots on the streets of Paris are too big to ignore, and a piece of debris smashes through the window of their apartment. This is symbolic of the outside world intruding upon their intimate space.
The film concludes as the three characters leave their apartment and join the march. What will happen to them? Is it too late for them to participate? Should they have stayed inside? Such questions linger in the background, and Bertolluci doesn’t offer any easy answers. What remains is a reflection on his youth as a cinephile, and the possibility that many in his generation spent too much time in the movie theater and not enough time on the front lines.
Room 237 is different because it isn’t critical of cinephiles. The film isn’t afraid of their intensity, and it doesn’t arrive with any moral baggage. What separates it from the aforementioned films is that Ascher doesn’t presuppose that cinephilia is less significant than other desires.
Instead, Ascher gives cinephiles a chance to express their ideas to a mass audience, and he lets each interpretation speak for itself. As a result, Room 237 is one of the only films that respects and even admires cinephiles for their passionate love of cinema.