I’ve been spending the last couple of hours reflecting on Girish’s thought-provoking essay on “The 21st Century Cinephile,” part of a dossier on “slow criticism” sponsored by the Dutch film magazine, De Filmkrant. Girish starts by making the case that the practices of film criticism have radically changed due to two related factors: our mobile, shrinking screens and our expansive, web-based film discourse. As usual, Girish offers a concise, detailed (and non-judgmental) assessment of these new viewing conditions, readily identifying as an “internet cinephile.” He has also challenged to try to think through some of the ways in which these new viewing conditions interact with older forms of conversation about film.
First, Girish points out that our viewing practices have changed considerably since the days of the Nouvelle Vague: instead of submitting to a set of viewing conditions controlled by others (a darkened theater, pre-arranged seating, a projector), we now frequently watch films in home theaters or even in mobile settings. We can stop, rewind, fast-forward through, or eject a film. We can sample movies through compilation videos on YouTube or track down key scenes. To be sure, many of these activities have been possible for decades, thanks to VCRs and later DVD players, but today’s platform mobility offers a relatively unprecedented ability to control the viewing experience. As an example, Girish asks us to imagine watching Chantal Akerman’s seemingly interminable Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles on a laptop, stopping the film and starting it again at our convenience, perhaps during lunch breaks. Could such a film have nearly the same impact as it did when we watched it on a big screen, as I did during a feminist film theory class in college (when at least one of my classmates walked out of the film in frustration)? Perhaps not, but these same tools that allow films greater mobility might ensure that a wider audience gets to see it and engage with it.
Girish’s more crucial point, however, focuses on the changes in cinematic discourse, as social media tools become a more pervasive force in shaping the ways in which we communicate. As Girish notes, blogs have become a powerful tool for cinephiles, who often enjoy talking (and arguing) about films almost as much as they enjoy watching them. Provocative blogs posts (and articles like Girish’s) can echo for days, reverberating around the globe. But with our conversations often spilling out into Twitter feeds and Facebook news feeds, Girish adds that many of these conversations have the potential to disappear. Given that Facebook and Twitter do not offer an effective means of archiving posts, these conversations have an ephemeral quality, one in which “the past evaporates almost instantaneously.”
Girish adds quickly that this isn’t a particular concern. In fact, he emphasizes that we should instead strive for a dialectical balance between the long-form attention associated with film scholarship and criticism and the fragmentary attention associated with social media chatter (in fact, Girish’s discussion of his daily engagement with film and film criticism illustrates the value of the fragmentary). And while I don’t disagree with Girish’s conclusions, I think it’s worth adding that this dialectic seems inherent in film criticism prior to social media–instead, it might make more sense to suggest that social media has simply heightened our awareness of it. Facebook and Twitter comments typically echo the rhythms of conversation itself: here, look at this video I found; the ending of True Grit was perplexing; what’s going on today? These tools deepen our ambient intimacy, allowing us to connect, to share, and (hopefully) to listen. These conversations took place long before Twitter, but Twitter makes them visible, while also deepening the pool of potential participants and dispersing them geographically. They also, despite the ephemerality of the messages themselves, provide some of the means by which ideas are preserved. Although an individual tweet may disappear into the cloud, I discover much of what I read through social media, and I’m guessing others have a similar experience. I can then bookmark or blog those ideas and return to them at my convenience and, in the best cases, use that as a launching point for reading and writing scholarship. That being said, my Twitter feed typically serves as a reminder for how much I haven’t watched (I’ve been ignoring most posts about Sundance for that very reason).
Blogging, Twitter, Netflix queues, platform mobility: all of these tools change our engagement with film. We have fleeting conversations that disappear into Facebook’s vast databases. We start and stop movies at our leisure, perhaps in line at the grocery store, but more likely at the dinner table or in bed. We rate a movie on Netflix and get recommendations from an algorithm, we blog and read about films we haven’t seen, reinforcing a culture of anticipation (something that film festivals are specifically designed to create), producing orientations not merely to the past and present, but also the future. I’m still puzzling over some of these issues, I guess. When I first wrote about film blogging in Reinventing Cinema, I think Twitter was relatively new, so the issue of real-time (or close to it) conversation on Twitter wasn’t as relevant for me. Ultimately, I think what struck me most about Girish’s post is that it provoked me to try to think more carefully about some of my own reflections on media change and how those changes might be affecting how we watch, think about, and talk about film.