The New Cinephilia
by Girish Shambu. Montréal: caboose, 2015. 64 pp. Paperback: $8.00 and E-book: $4.00.

The Permanent Crisis of Film Criticism: The Anxiety of Authority
by Mattias Frey. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press (Distributed in the United States by The University of Chicago Press), 2015. 196 pp. Paperback: $43.50.

Available free as an E-book from the OAPEN Library, a service of Open Access Publishing in European Networks.

Reviewed by A. S. Hamrah

François Truffaut wrote that everyone in the world has two jobs: their own and film critic. With the rise of Internet-based cinephilia and the concurrent decline of film critic as paying occupation, Truffaut’s maxim is truer than ever. Before the mid-1990s, not everyone who was a cinephile was a critic in the sense of writing for publication, and not everyone who was a film critic (for better or worse) was a cinephile. The Web and social media have changed the first half of that equation. Now any cinephile with a desire to write about film can do so in some public forum—and be guaranteed some readers. The cinephile community is linked in ways it never was before the Internet. Film criticism is more accessible and there is constant back and forth between people who may never meet in person, not even at a film festival. The line between writer and reader has blurred in new ways based on a variety of new writing modes. Some of these are fast and immediate, others are examples of “slow criticism.” They compete with, and sometimes obviate, the traditional publishing models, which occupy a middle ground, neither fast nor slow yet never exactly on time either.

Meanwhile, in this age of dwindling periodical circulation and subsequent loss of advertising revenue, the actual profession of film critic moves out of reach. Most “professional” critics cannot rely on their work to pay a living wage, ironizing Truffaut’s observation in a way he did not intend and could not have foreseen. If an aggregator site such as Rotten Tomatoes seems to belie this notion of deprofessionalization, with its ever-expanding roster of “Top Critics” and their bylines, it also extends the way ad-based Websites use more and more content without paying anyone for it. This corporate strategy is mirrored in the loftier realm of academia, where Film Studies grads are expected to work for starvation wages and to publish in peer-reviewed journals for little or no compensation, hoping and waiting all the while to land elusive tenure-track positions. Like other cinephiles, they turn to the Web and social media as outlets for their thoughts and ideas on cinema. 

Two recent books grapple with this situation in different ways. Mattias Frey’s The Permanent Crisis of Film Criticism: The Anxiety of Authority examines the current, uneasy state of film criticism as merely a contemporary instance of turmoil in a long history of apprehension. A crisis mode in film criticism, Frey explains, was born early in the twentieth century as moviegoing gained in popularity and filmmaking grew as an industry. Girish Shambu’s monograph The New Cinephilia has a higher goal. He shows how changes in film criticism in the twenty-first century reflect progress and inclusiveness in a precarious age. Frey’s book emphasizes the profession, Shambu’s the calling; Frey looks backward, Shambu faces the future.

Both approaches are valid. Each reflects its writer’s position on the continuum of cinephile-critic-academic, a continuum, as both writers point out, that is not (or is no longer) hierarchical. Frey, a film historian and theorist, is editor of the Manchester University Press journal Film Studies, has worked as a movie critic, and is employed as a film professor in England. Shambu runs an influential film blog and co-edits the online film journal LOLA with Adrian Martin, the prolific Australian film critic and academic who lives in Spain. Shambu has a second job: he is a professor, not of film but of business management, in Upstate New York. LOLA must be the first and only film journal published in Buffalo and Catalonia, if it can be said to have a geographic point of origin outside of cybercinephilia at all.

Frey and Shambu’s different positions as writers and teachers are evident in their work. In The New Cinephilia, Shambu mentions William Germano’s 2013 Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “Do We Dare Write for Readers?” In it, Germano proposes a distinction between two kinds of academic writing, which he calls the snow globe and the machine. Although a snow globe sounds friendlier than a machine, Germano’s snow globe is a scholarly tome, often an author’s first book, that is “paranoid” and makes sure “every authority on [its] subject has been cited and pacified”—we are to picture authority sifted and dusting a work under glass. A snow globe is “carefully constructed” and constitutes a “perfect little world.” A machine, on the other hand, is a tool, with a specific goal in mind. A machine, in this sense, is a text that is mobile and flexible. It is not designed to be complete or definitive because it is made to open up discourse. Frey’s book, you may have guessed, is a snow globe; Shambu’s is self-consciously a machine, a concise, welcoming manifesto designed to prepare cinephilic readers for new kinds of film writing.

Both writers begin by identifying moments of despair in the twin histories of film criticism and cinephilia. Shambu cites what is probably this history’s definitive moment, Susan Sontag’s 1996 essay, “The Decay of Cinema,” which lamented not just cinema’s decline but also cinephilia’s. According to Sontag, a whole way of watching, understanding, enjoying, and sharing movies had ended. Shambu points out two things of which Sontag seemed unaware, which affected cinephilia for cinephiles and critics younger than she was: the Internet and the DVD, both of which emerged the year before her essay was published (in an edited version) in The New York Times Magazine.

Frey does not mention Sontag’s essay at all in his dismantling of film-critical authority, which seems odd, instead roping together twenty years’ worth of hand-wringing over the death of critical influence, including Gerald Peary’s 2009 documentary, For the Love of Movies: The History of American Film Criticism, Raymond J. Haberski Jr.’s 2001 book, It’s Only a Movie! Films and Critics in American Culture, and Rónán McDonald’s 2008 study, The Death of the Critic, along with other work by Terry Eagleton and Maurice Berger. Frey and Shambu both start by building the case that obsessing over the death of cinephilia and/or criticism is a generational problem. Shambu is focused and gentle in this; Frey invokes a litany.

A. S. Hamrah is the new movies columnist for Harper’s Magazine and the film critic for N+1.

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Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 2