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To Live (with) Cinema:
Documenting Cinephilia and the Archival Impulse 

Rowena Santos Aquino


The renowned film archivists Henri Langlois (1914-1977) and Paramesh Krishnan ‘P.K.’ Nair (born 1933) are the subjects, respectively, of the documentary films Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinémathèque (Jacques Richard, 2004) and Celluloid Man (Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, 2012). While these two documentaries are about the safeguarding of films, preservation efforts and the building of film archives, they are also about the cinephilic drive that motivates the creation of film archives and cultures in the first place. The archival impulse goes hand in hand with cinephilia.


These two documentaries portray film archiving as both the technological and the emotional, the academic and the informal – expressed in different ways that seep into the everyday, so that the evident flipside of film archiving is cinephilia. The archival impulse is, in fact, another way to approach the notion of cinephilia and its everyday practices in the so-called classic era. This classic period is designated by Antoine De Baecque as beginning with the year of France ’s liberation from Nazi occupation and ending with the tide-change year of 1968. (1) But while De Baecque often defines cinephilic practices as principally textual, I refer, above all, to a performativity.


Between roughly 1968 and the late ‘80s, cinephilia was consigned to the wastebasket of irrelevance, most in/famously symbolised by Christian Metz when he bid adieu to his love of cinema in exchange for a theory of cinema. (2) Film studies followed suit, as George Toles succinctly writes: ‘In the 1970s and 1980s, [it] was eager to purge itself of the allegiances of childhood in order to don the lab coats of an earnest, disengaged maturity’. (3) As a result, a love for cinema was, for a time, considered an obstacle to a film theory increasingly occupied with ideological critique in the 1970s, followed by a sociocultural turn in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, coinciding with declarations of the death of cinema at the medium’s centenary, and the turn of the digital twenty-first century, cinephilia has returned.


Yet the emphasis in discussions of cinephilia still remains on the textual – the written word, whether in print, tweets or emails – to both define and guide discussions on cinephilia. The archival impulse gives us another perspective. The creation of an archive begins with emotional resonance, which is not the opposite of intellectual or educational engagement. The archival impulse is not just about the technical and technological aspect of acquiring, preserving and restoring films. It is also about an affective, physical experience: re-watching the film, communicating one’s reaction and/or the story to others, searching for a physical copy, looking for related literature, writing a program note, and so on.







1. Antoine De Baecque, La Cinéphilie : Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture, 1944-1968 (Paris: Fayard, 2003).  

2. Christian Metz (trans. C. Britton, A. Williams, B. Brewster & A. Guzzetti), The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977).  

3. George Toles, ‘Rescuing Fragments: A Task for Cinephilia’, Cinema Journal, vol. 49 no. 2 (Winter 2010), p. 160.  



In these two documentary films, we have less the tension between the institutional archive and a personal one, than a commingling of the two. This expresses what Marijke de Valck calls the ‘double-movement’ of cinephilia that weds the personal and the professional. (4) Here, the anecdotal accounts of constructing and developing a film archive reveals and documents cinephilia as both a tangible, everyday practice and an institutionalised one. By putting into dialogue these two documentary films and their narrations of cinephilia via Langlois and Nair, what emerges is a discussion of a love for cinema that is at once location-specific, transnational and highly performative. How do we live (with) cinema?

  4. Marijke De Valck, ‘Reflections on the Recent Cinephilia Debates’, Cinema Journal, vol. 49 no. 2 (Winter 2010), p. 139.

Together, the titles of these two documentary films – Phantom of the Cinémathèque and Celluloid Man – gesture towards the performative: the coming together of an elusive, incorporeal entity and a material being. Moreover, these titles also refer to the form of cinephilia that is firmly rooted in and centred around the dramatic staging and performance of the big screen, the movie theatre, the third row centre, and being enclosed. (5) Nonetheless, Langlois and Nair represent different periods of cinephilia, and different topographical coordinates.


Langlois established the Cinémathèque française in 1936 with Georges Franju and Jean Mitry. While his influential role is often mentioned in accounts of the Nouvelle Vague, emphasised is precisely the textual display of cinephilia centred around the notion of the auteur in Cahiers du cinéma’s theorisation. Fernando Ramos Arenas traces the development of post-war European cinephilia through the emergence of film journals, which he describes as the original ‘strongholds of the cinephilian discourses’. (6) He details the spread and exchange of film discourses across West Germany, Italy and Spain, with France as the magnetic hub, beginning in the second half of the 1940s and leading to the establishment of film studies in academia in the 1960s/’70s. He writes of the move from what he terms classic cinephilia (aesthetic concerns) to modern cinephilia (formalism wedded with ideology):




5. Nicolas Marcadé, ‘Entretien avec Antoine De Baecque: Les cinéphiles, une communauté nomade,’ Les Fiches du Cinéma, 16 July, 2009.


6. Fernando Ramos Arenas, ‘Writing about a Common Love for Cinema: Discourses of Modern Cinephilia as a trans-European Phenomenon’, Trespassing Journal: An Online Journal of Trespassing Art, Science, and Philosophy, no. 1 (Spring 2012), p. 29.


[Cinephilia’s] openness to theoretical and critical discourses coming from other disciplines robbed the film critical doctrines of some of their original joyous naivety and prepared their assimilation in the course of cultural changes taking place in these societies during the second part of the 1960s: cinephilia started to become analyzed, explained, criticized and, in a process of growing theorisation and politicisation of film cultures, slowly dismissed as an approach to cinema which was passionate and joyful but certainly not scientific enough. The process of institutionalisation of film studies launched in the late 1960s therefore put an end to early passionate forms of cinephilia. (7)





7. Ibid., p. 28.

Cinephilia is anecdotal, the social encounters that lead up to the textual; what Arenas describes is the ‘original joyous naivety’ of cinephilia, the ‘passionate and joyful but certainly not scientific enough’ cinephilia, the oral histories of anecdotes and seemingly incidental acts not often found in writing. But the passionate, joyful and scientific coalesce in the figure of the film archivist, as characterised by Phantom of the Cinémathèque and Celluloid Man. Looking at these films can contribute to a ‘liberation from traditional cinephilian narratives’ (8). Langlois and Nair navigate between the business, scientific side of obtaining films for their respective archives, and the passionate and joyful side of engaging others through films.


These documentaries illustrate an approach to cinephilia proposed by Mark Betz: ‘as phenomenon (cultural, historical, geopolitical), as experience (collective, individual), and as knowledge (fascination, reflection, interpretation). (9) As Betz describes, ‘What emerges, in the end, is the overwhelmingly physical disposition of film, how it figures bodies, machines, rooms, landscapes, and their relation as forms of deferral beyond the space and time of the film itself, leaving it for us to rescue, to explore, and to articulate – though not to complete – their moments of inscrutable pleasure’. (10)


Phantom of the Cinémathèque documents the classic, Europe-specific cinephilia described by De Baecque. Through archival footage of Langlois and filmmakers, and present-day interviews with those who had attended the Cinémathèque’s screenings under Langlois’ direction, Richard shows the droves of film fans that packed the theatres located on several floors. In addition, as Claude Chabrol recounts, Langlois would also project a film in the stairway area to get in as many screenings as possible – leading him to describe the Cinémathèque as the first multiplex. Richard also includes wonderful photographs of some of these Cinémathèque screenings, with the likes of Godard and his colleagues lying down on the floor in front of the first row of seats; so packed were the theatres that they consisted of not only ‘standing room only’ but also ‘lying down only’ screenings!


8. Ibid., p. 30.  



9. Betz, Mark, ‘In Focus: Cinephilia, Introduction’, Cinema Journal, vol. 49 no. 2 (Winter 2010), pp. 131-132.  

10. Ibid., p. 132.



Yet, contrary to De Baecque’s periodisation, Richard elaborates Langlois’ performative cinephilia not only after World War II but also during the Nazi occupation of the country, through several marvelous anecdotes. In his efforts to save as many films as possible from the hands of the Nazis, who often ordered their destruction, Langlois had to coordinate with other figures, some coming from unexpected places. Consider Major Hessel, representative of a German film archive, who would contact Langlois when there was to be a Nazi raid on the Cinémathèque, so that Langlois and his colleagues could stash away the films in advance. Consider Langlois himself, who continued to screen films, albeit clandestinely, under the Cinémathèque banner, even under threat of Nazi raids at any moment. Consider French actress Simone Signoret, who relates how she helped Langlois transport films by pushing a baby carriage containing reels, even sometimes past Nazis. And consider the SS officer who helped Langlois save the negative of The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1931) because of his love for the film – and Marlene Dietrich!


The performative gesture culminating this classic era of cinephilia arose because of the attempt by André Malraux to oust Langlois from his position as director of the Cinémathèque in 1968. In protest, actors, filmmakers, students, activists and cinephiles filled the streets; speeches were made by Jean-Pierre Léaud and Chabrol, of which Richard shows ample footage. Such a collective act situated Langlois, cinephilia and the Cinémathèque française within the larger, turbulent, sociopolitical context.


Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary on Nair is an engaging complementary work to Richard. Nair established the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) in 1964. From the viewpoint of De Baecque’s periodisation, Nair and the NFAI arrived late, four years before the end point of classic cinephilia. Nair stayed at the NFAI from the mid-1960s to the early ‘90s, an era that significantly coincides with modern cinephilia. But it would be too hasty and reductive to simply apply Arenas’ conception of modern cinephilia to what Nair represented at the NFAI, since we are dealing with the geographical specificity of India . Moreover, the cinephilic space that Nair created for filmmakers, actors and students à la Langlois (whom Nair cites as his mentor, though the two men met only once in France ) is an extension of classic cinephilia, insofar as it maintains the ‘big screen’ dream.


With the film appreciation courses that he conducted in collaboration with the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Nair became even more of a cinephilic guru for students and filmmaker friends. Through the screenings he organised, the friendships he forged, his efforts to secure films for the archive, Nair represents the communicative and performative aspects of cinephilia and the archival impulse. Like lending out a print of Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) to a student to watch the film a hundred times – a variation of Langlois’ prescription, ‘If you want to make films, you must eat 300 films’, even if it is the same film each time – betraying Nair’s trust in students to take care of the prints. Like holding screenings of the censored bits of films in the morning before the official day’s screenings began (as former FTII student and famed Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah relates). Like being woken up by the late Malayali filmmaker John Abraham at three in the morning, and being compelled to screen Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), and then conversing about the film through to the following day. A cinephiliac session such as this ultimately contributed to Abraham’s script and production of his 1986 film Amma Ariyan, released a year prior to his death.


Unlike Phantom of the Cinémathèque, Celluloid Man has the explicit advantage of having Nair present, to not only share his experiences as an archivist and cinephile, but also physically revisit spaces that constitute significant moments in Indian film history – spaces which he had an integral hand in constructing. One example is the film studio of Dadasaheb Phalke, the first Indian feature filmmaker whose important role in national cinema reaches us today only because of Nair’s efforts in recuperating portions of his work from Phalke’s son in the late 1960s and disseminating information about his importance. In the documentary, Nair visits the space once occupied by Phalke’s studio, of which the only thing that sadly remains is a sign with Phalke’s name on a building. Dungarpur also stages a cinephiliac performance by presenting Nair in front of a movie screen showing a scene from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), and having him utter, in sync, the dialogue he knows by heart.


The figures of Langlois and Nair, and the documentary films inspired by their lives, remind us to not lose sight of the emotional and physical motivations, alongside the intellectual ones, that generate an archive. Phantom of the Cinémathèque and Celluloid Man blend film history, cinephilia and oral history. And while they address, on a general level, national cinemas, they present a form of transnational cinephilia in their combined preservation and archival efforts, both formal and informal, traditional and unexpected. Moreover, we get a more complex idea of what exists beyond classic French cinephilia by including the comparative view through India.


If, as Betz writes, ‘Twenty-first-century cinephilia … marks a move away from the rarified, quasi-religious theatrical experience of the filmic relic, but at the same time carries with it both a version of the cinephilic object as fetish (the DVD as collectible) and of the myth of total cinema as articulated by André Bazin in the childhood of cinephilia itself’ (11), these two documentaries combine the classic and the new cinephilias by looking back on the big screen through the digital world in which we view them today.



11. Betz, Mark, ‘In Focus: Cinephilia’, p. 131.

from Issue 4: Walks


© Rowena Santos Aquino and LOLA August 2013.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.