The Cinephile

CinephileThe cinephile is a unique entity, an individual who has failed to experience the entirety of the malaise that is adulthood. Or perhaps it is too harsh to refer to adulthood in such sickly terms? In that case, let it simply be said that the cinephile has not lost a certain sense of awe that most human beings see dissipate as the passage of time reveals each new moment to be decreasingly dissimilar from the last.

Why is this true? Perhaps this is an obnoxious question considering the lack of effort made to argue in favour of the contention. My claims are entirely based upon my own perceptions, and even as I write them I find myself doubting their veracity.

Perhaps I should start again and simply make this far more clinical statement: “The cinephile possesses an unusual level of sustained passion for the object of their affections – cinema. Such extreme levels of emotional investment in a non-organic object/subject are not the exclusive domain of the cinephile, but they are the domain of a certain breed of human whose interests generate far more enthusiasm than most people might be capable of directing towards a single (non-organic) topic.”

So, why is this true? A psychologist would no doubt provide some kind of explanation based on an innate lack within the individual. They might say – with a more scientific turn of phrase – that the cinephile finds security or comfort within the warm embrace of the moving image, a comfort they are incapable of finding in the real world. They might argue that the characters within a film cannot reject, criticise or attack the individual. They might even argue that the drive to watch endless amounts of cinema is not a passion but a compulsion – a prison of some kind. As for the choice of subject (cinema), the psychologist will probably claim that the object of obsession is solely symptomatic, it has no particular significance. The problem with such a reading is that (whether it contains truth for a given individual or not) obsessions, passions and compulsions have been the driving force behind the human race from its very beginnings. So let us assume that those who are obsessively passionate in their pursuits (from physicists to sculptors to cinephiles) are lacking and that such a lack is a core human strength rather than a weakness.

My question still remains fundamentally unanswered… or perhaps it has been answered and I have discovered that the question was wrong. We shall presume this is the case, and alter the question: “What do cinephiles see in cinema? Or more precisely, what do cinephiles see in cinema that they do not see elsewhere?”

I’ve certainly tried to answer this question before, albeit in a much more systematic mode than I am attempting to do here. But when I wrote I Believe in Cinema I was commenting on the capacity to read beyond the text into the cultural milieu from which it came. This is a huge part of what has drawn me to the medium, but it is not what drew my gaze as a child. Having said that, I’ve also questioned the beginnings of my passion for cinema as a child in an earlier piece, On the Couch, and this has not entirely answered the question.

Beyond the significance of cinema as a cultural artefact and beyond the capacity of the moving image to cross boundaries that had once been impermeable, is the fresh and crisp sense of opportunity afforded by a new and total universe. Each universe functions according to its own laws, and when those laws are perfect and perfectly adhered to, a crisp slice of unfettered expression floats faultlessly within a four dimensional space. This is a new form of space that has been constructed by human minds. Within this space is the opportunity to ask questions, give answers, find escapes and sometimes… return people to reality. This is a space understood by most, but one in which the cinephile becomes hyper-literate.

Unlike theatre, this space is fixed in time upon completion (let’s put aside the contemporary tendency to release endless restructurings of a single film). There is no room for the thespian’s variations and experimentations – the text is set in stone. From the moment a film begins to roll, it is at the mercy of the viewer’s gaze. The viewer will find its truths, perfections, faults and meanings. People will come together and discuss this slice of temporal art and debate its merits. There are millions of these creations where a hundred and fifty years ago there were none.

The cinephile will go further than any other in pursuing a total knowledge of these millions of films, fuelled by a deep passion to have observed all that there is, despite the fact that what there is increases at a rate beyond the mathematical possibility of progress. For each second that the cinephile lives, they will fall two seconds behind. For each second the cinephile falls behind, their need to pursue the totality of the form’s offerings doubles. It is a secret fantasy of the cinephile that the world might end, leaving them alone with the chance to make headway in their goal of total cinematic literacy. A morbid satisfaction will often fill the cinephile when they examine the work of filmmakers long gone – such occasions allow a total knowledge of the artist’s creative output.

Have I answered my own question? Possibly not, although I’m not sure that there is an answer that could possibly provide satisfaction. After all, it is a clumsy truth that there is no experience that can be totally understood through mere description.

And is such a description necessary? The moving image in an intoxicating space in which all things might happen – real or otherwise – and it is quickly becoming apparent that this intoxication is no longer the domain of the self-titled cinephile. The world is filled with gamers, surfers, televisual enthusiasts, movie buffs, academics and smartphone-aholics who will happily defend their brand of choice to the death (or at least until the passing of the CEO). The moving image is well understood by all.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

45 thoughts on “The Cinephile

  1. You know – honestly – I was rolling with (positive) laughter halfway down this post. Mostly because i’m not a cinephile and as such I observed it as almost sarcastic, dry-laced humor than in some respects is a great work of humor if not a great work of something else. (Like the incredible movie Spaceballs.)

    I guess my vice is being a linguophile. Who knows?

    Thanks for the read! ( and laugh!)

  2. “They might say – with a more scientific turn of phrase – that the cinephile finds security or comfort within the warm embrace of the moving image, a comfort they are incapable of finding in the real world.”



    and sighs.


    or maybe we just adore beautiful people in beautiful celluloid-deliciousness.

    cheaper than therapy anyway.

  3. Perhaps cinephiles are just people who like to be entertained by a good story, delivered in a visual medium, which can be replayed, enjoyed, and analyzed endlessly 🙂

    For me, personally, there’s the enjoyment of rewatching the story unfold, like a familiar friend, yet always catching something in the story I didn’t see before, like a new detail in the background, or a reinterpretation as life unfolds and one’s perception of things change, providing a new viewing experience for the story.

    Finally, just the experience of different cultures and viewpoints relayed through enjoyment of foreign films, which would not otherwise be possible 🙂

  4. I still like the ‘cowboys don’t cry’ era, where the hero always triumphs and the baddies get their come-uppance. The heroines of that time were a bit pathetic, though. Their contribution was generally to wring hands and go, ‘Eeek!’ in the action scenes.

  5. Great Piece!

    I could also add that you could also take another psychological thought and that maybe cinephiles watch cinema because of catharsis or because the media is able to teach a person how to be “human” according to their society/environment/and other cohorts.

  6. Thank you for following my blog. This post is stimulating. You are very up to date and perceptive. I don’t see very many new movies – wait for most of them until they make it onto Netflix, since my wife’s and my tastes differ widely. Loved Life of Pi, which we saw at the urging of our youngest daughter.

  7. Hello and welcome to you ~

    I truly enjoyed this wonderful expose of much philosophical and psychological analysis on this type of persona. You are quite at talent at not just writing but at finding comprehensive meaning behind what others might consider a mundane topic. Much relevance in the points you make.

    Personally, I go to the cinema for pleasure, escape, and discovery.

    Great blog you have here! 🙂

  8. Thanks for visiting my blog earlier! I loved this entry, and the voice you speak with. I’m not a cinephile, but I get it 🙂 My sister never watches movies so I’ve come to the conclusion that she must be some sort of alien. I think you’re right in that you can never adequately describe an experience to someone who doesn’t already grasp it, in some degree. It’s one of those things you almost intuitively understand. I love writing and love reading, but watching an awesome story unfold is a different experience all together. It’s heavily visual, and secondarily auditory. It’s easier to convey nuances and tone and all that lovely stuff…..with music to help you along! Great post.

  9. Pingback: Close-Up Of A Cinephile | That's so true!

  10. Your musings on cinephilia (literally translated, “love of movies”) were cogent, well-reasoned, and delightful to read for someone like me. I have gone beyond your definition of cinephilia, though… I work on making films instead of merely watching them. (It’s a difficult thing, at times… writing something that isn’t noticeably derivative of other things, casting, shooting, editing and scoring… )
    To see someone else as fascinated with movies as I am is a treat.

  11. Excellent essay! I like how you say ‘lack’ is actually a strength – so i watch films for the same reason I read novels – to learn, to put myself in someone else’s shoes, to gain a greater understanding of the human condition in a small way. So I acknowledge this current lack of understanding, and remedy it with learning, turning it into a strength. If I didn’t acknowledge this ‘lack’ then I wouldn’t watch films or read books. A teacher once said to me that the most important thing you can do is admit that you are ignorant. He’s right – the day you decide you know everything is truly ignorant day… Look at Faust – it all went wrong for his as soon as he decided that he knew all!

  12. James, an Academic and worthy article, as always from you. It is well-considered, relevant (at least to me) and an accurate description of someone with an abiding love of Cinema. I like the comparison with live theatre, and the opportunity to change work, when on stage. This often occurred to me, though I sympathise with a live actor’s plight, having to perform the same piece over and over. Regards from England, Pete.

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