“Cinephilia” has become a surprisingly common term, spanning the generation range from Susan Sontag to Steve Erickson, and while I have no objections to it, I’m not sure it captures my own relationship to the world of film. Since cinephilia must be a personal thing by any definition, I’ll get personal about it for a moment, and then make some observations about how it connects with my activities of film-related writing, lecturing, and teaching.

What has drawn me to the arts and humanities during most of my life has been the opportunity they afford for thinking and communicating about what may loosely be called the human condition. As a teenager, I was interested in novels, poetry, rock’n’roll – this was the fifties, after all – and especially the theater, which plugged directly into my fascination with role-playing and the deceptiveness of appearances, even though my experience with drama came more from reading plays than viewing them. I regarded my constant moviegoing as a guilty pleasure, and found at least as much aesthetic excitement in some TV shows I watched (the visual experiments of Ernie Kovacs, the intellectual arguments on Sunday-afternoon “egghead” shows, the spontaneous poetics of Steve Allen’s late-night program) as in the Hollywood pictures that paraded across the two screens of my Long Island town. My lackadaisical attitude toward cinema was hardly altered by perusal of the lone film book widely available at the time: The Liveliest Art by Arthur Knight, whose recitations of studio history and plugs for Important Works struck me as the unliveliest thing imaginable. (This didn’t stop me from scanning the TV listings for movies Knight mentions and checking them off in the book’s index when I’d seen them – a practice shared by other fledgling cinephiles, I later learned.)

Everything changed in 1962 when I wandered into a double bill of Alain Resnais movies at a Boston art theater. I found Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) astonishing, although I couldn’t begin to explain my enthusiasm (much less the style and content of the films) to the bewildered friend who accompanied me. What excited me most, I soon realized, was the experience of exploring a set of existential puzzles through formal devices that seemed to have been specifically invented for the very issues that Resnais and his collaborators had chosen to probe. My future path was clear – from one revival house to another for movies by France’s exhilarating New Wave directors, Italy’s equally amazing Neorealists, comedies and dramas by Ingmar Bergman, and so on. I had become, I suppose, a cinephile.

I’m fully aware that the story of My Life In Cinema is commonplace to the point of triteness, given the vast armies of fifties and sixties film-lovers who followed the same early route with minor variations of time, place, and titles. What makes my sensibility at least a little different from some others is that I always seemed more skeptical of what lay around the next historical corner than many of my peers did. It seemed clear to me throughout the sixties, the seventies, and much of the eighties that cinema was the most fertile, inventive, and all-around exciting art form of our time. Yet it seemed equally clear that no art form could sustain such a vigorous pace forever, and that film did not have a monopoly on innovative and productive ideas even during this largely excellent era. From the beginning of my critical career in the mid-sixties, I joined my fellow cinephiles in probing the uncharted arcana of auteurism, genre analysis, and so forth; at the same time, however, I wrote as much on music and theater-fields also bursting with brilliant new work – via the minimalist composers and a gifted corps of image-oriented stage directors, among others – as I did about cinema. The point here is not how I spent my professional and personal time, but my sense that the American cultural scene of the period offered aesthetic adventures of many different kinds, and no abstract commitment to cinephilia or anything else was going to stop me from experiencing as many of its diversified pleasures as I possibly could.

I don’t raise the latter point to indicate that cinephilia is less than admirable and important, but to stress that at any given time cinema is less an aesthetic island unto itself than a component in a larger and more far-reaching cultural fabric. In the 20th century film has probably been the most fertile and influential of all artistic media, but any cinephile with a sense of perspective will bear in mind the myriad ways in which it’s been molded and contextualized by the large-scale forces surrounding it. If in fact cinema has lost a measure of its erstwhile glory, we must ask ourselves, to what extent have its energies been inherited, extended, and perhaps even expanded by other art forms enjoying particularly rich productive periods to which we would do well to pay close attention?

These considerations may help explain why I apparently feel less of a jolt than some of my peers at witnessing the sad decline – partly alleged, partly actual – of cinematic art in the past decade or so. Other reasons have to do with the temptations most of us feel to measure current pleasures against the nostalgic glow of an imperfectly remembered past. Of course, there’s far less excitement on the current American scene than there was in the Good Old Days when a boisterous new gaggle of genuine giants (Martin Scorsese), ambitious innovators (Brian De Palma), impertinent neoclassicists (Francis Ford Coppola), nervy experimenters (Michael Cimino), and so forth were shaking up received ideas on what seemed like a monthly basis. But let’s recall that bad movies were as plentiful then as they are today, and that mainstream audiences and critics underrecognized many of that period’s most innovative pictures (from Who’s That Knocking at My Door [Martin Scorsese, 1968] to Hi,Mom! [Brian De Palma, 1969] and beyond) just as they (we) are surely doing with similarly audacious work today. This last point is crucial, since major new steps are often misconstrued and underrated (or overrated) when they first arrive: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) and Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952) lost money in first-run theaters; Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) was dismissed by many as a self-indulgent bore; and on the flip side, the George Lucas of THX 1138 (1970) and the Steven Spielberg of The Sugarland Express (1974) were hailed as aesthetic hipsters by many a cinephile who failed to detect the seeds of commercialism and conformity lurking in these superficially offbeat attractions. Like others of my generation, I look smugly down on the philistines of 1960 who couldn’t see the self-evident greatness of Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock), now widely viewed as one of the most brilliant achievements of the American screen. At the same time, I recognize that the different socio-cultural backgrounds and aesthetic priorities of younger critics may very well produce ingeniously argued books, essays, and articles demonstrating with persuasive vigor that the Spielberg films Hook (1991) and Always (1989) and 1941(1979) are as towering in their way as Psycho and Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1958) and Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller, 1963) are in theirs. What will be at issue here is not some “goodness” or “badness” inherent in the films themselves, but the ability of cinephilia to generate artistically and intellectually sound modes of appreciation for works that one loves enough to experience deeply, ponder carefully, and share with others articulately. As long as film-oriented writers, talkers, and thinkers persist in these activities, cinephilia will remain alive and reasonably well. Mass audiences will continue to prefer Patch Adams (Tom Shadyac, 1998) over Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995) but it was ever thus, and the point and purpose of cinephilia are hardly diminished by the reluctance of Saturday-night moviegoers to cultivate exacting critical tastes.

This said, cinephiles should certainly feel a responsibility to reach beyond like-minded circles and encourage everyday moviegoers to broaden their range of tastes and proclivities, and it’s here that I feel an urgent need for improvement. Existing for the consistently interested few, rather than the usually uninterested many, true cinephilia will endure, at least on a modest scale, as long as film-viewing is a cultural option. But film criticism (as opposed to film scholarship) exists for the many as well as the few, and I share the sense of insufficiency in this area that has led some of my critical colleagues (propelled in part by David Denby’s cogent alarum in a widely read New Yorker article) to bemoan an incipient crisis in their profession.

Film reviewing has never seen a Golden Age any more than filmmaking has. Critics for general-interest publications have usually mirrored the audiences they think they’re writing for, albeit with a bit less patience for the most patently awful pictures, since they have to sit through so many of them. But the publications themselves have declined, broadly speaking, in response to their own contemporary crises. It has become a cliché to observe that more and more media are clamoring for public attention-print media vs. broadcast media vs. Internet media – and this has exacerbated competition within the media categories themselves. Print is still the medium of choice for serious discussion of cultural and political issues, since broadcast outlets tend to privilege fast-moving superficiality and the Internet still lacks the time-tested cachet of paper-and-ink publications, as well as the latter’s potential outreach to anyone walking casually past a newsstand. But print outlets have lost an enormous amount of ground to cable TV, news radio, and other foes. (The largest American city, New York, had seven dailies when I was growing up – my parents remembered when it had more – but today it has three, and two of these swim in a chronic sea of red ink.) Faced with these pressures, many periodicals are taking an easy way out: capitalizing on the glitzy glamour of mass-market entertainment, hoping Hollywood’s coattails will carry them to sustainable circulations if not the sort of journalistic attainments that intelligent publications used to aim for as a matter of course. (A friend of mine recalls an entertainment editor who half-jokingly said his job description was “finding as many reasons as possible to run Sharon Stone’s photo.”) In this climate, more and more editors insist that their critics write big on the movie with the two-page ad in the latest issue, small (if at all) on everything else – the little movie, the art movie, the foreign movie. Shorthand gimmicks like star-rating systems and “thumbs up” slogans also proliferate, undermining the thoughtful critic’s responsibility to keep reviewing above the lowest-common-denominator level of mere opinion-mongering.

Regularly employed writers have little choice about accommodating to such circumstances, if only because conscientious critics are easy for publishers to replace with glib hacks who’ll embrace the most egregious policies for the sake of a position and a paycheck. A number of publications have resisted all this, to be sure – there’s good reviewing in some periodicals with traditionally low circulations and free papers that don’t rely on newsstand income – and some excellent critics manage to keep their jobs despite a steady stream of conflicts with the people who run their sections and departments. New voices arriving from the Internet may find innovative ways of bucking current tendencies too, and the Web itself may continue to grow in importance and influence. But the overall trend is a downward one, and while this isn’t demolishing a Golden Age that never was, it represents a deplorable waste for two related reasons. One is that good critics are in the best position to foster cinephilia, however one defines the meanings and limitations of that term. The other is that possibilities for the growth and refinement of cinephilia are greater than ever in an age when every well-stocked video outlet (including Websites and phone-order operations) is a Library of World Cinema just waiting to spread its riches to interested parties everywhere.

I know, I know, film-on-video is always already a degraded medium (low resolution, panning-and-scanning, etc., etc., etc.) that can never adequately substitute for the Real Thing in all its genuine glory. But the same purism (which has much to be said for it!) applies to paintings in textbook reproductions, music performances on scratchy vinyl discs, and sundry other corrupted artifacts that have enriched people’s lives throughout the age of mechanical reproduction on the simple principle that having worthwhile cultural products in reduced form is usually better than not having them at all. While average Saturday-night audiences will continue to emphatically not care, the fact remains that video and the new digital media are making more great cinema available to a wider range of people than has been remotely possible in the past, opening the door to greater waves of cinematic literacy than we have ever known. If criticism fails to encourage and nurture this hugely exciting prospect, cinephilia will certainly become the not-so-fabulous invalid that some already consider it to be.