Is Fandom the New Cinephilia?

By  · Published on February 2nd, 2017

It’s a legitimate question.

First things first, fandom is far from new – in fact, being at least as old as cinema (here’s looking at you, Sherlock Holmes), it is by necessity older than cinephilia – and as far as I’m concerned, cinephilia isn’t dead, so I’m not about to start accusing anything or anyone of killing it. On that note, I don’t consider cinema to be dead either, in spite of the countless obituaries that have been written. The Lumière brothers themselves called cinema “an invention without any future,” and every few decades or so since then people have spotted the death of cinema on the horizon – and yet, here we are. Cinema isn’t the king of the jungle the way it used to be, certainly, but it’s looking pretty good for something that has been supposedly dying for over a century. Not to say that cinema won’t die (and of course, what that even means is an entire debate in itself), but that if that day does come, we’ve falsely anticipated it one too many times to even sound an alarm in any meaningful way.

So, to summarize: fandom is old and both cinephilia and cinema are alive and well, even if they aren’t quite what they once were. Moving on.

Cinema and cinephilia are both fine (but yeah, film stock has reason to be very worried)

The reason I am writing this piece is because, reading film historian Thomas Elsaesser’s 2005 essay “Cinephilia or the Uses of Disenchantment,” I came across the following two passages, the first of which comes from the very first paragraph and the second of which comes from the very last:

“The term ‘cinephilia,’ finally, reverberates with nostalgia and dedication… and it evokes… more than a passion for going to the movies and only a little less than an entire attitude towards life.”

“The new cinephilia of the download, the file swap, the sampling, re-editing and re-mounting of story line, characters, and genre gives a new twist to that anxious love of loss and plenitude… technology now allows the cinephile to re-create in and through the textual manipulations… that sense of place, occasion, and moment so essential to all forms of cinephilia, even as it is caught in the compulsion to repeat.”

In the margins of this section I scribbled “fan works,” and was somewhat surprised to see Elsaesser actually briefly mention the term “fandom” on the next (and final) page. However, it’s in the context of a statement claiming that a new kind of cinephilia has been “revived by fandom and cult classics,” which makes me think that he is probably using the term in the very basic, collective-noun-referring-to-people-who-like-a-thing sort of way and less of an Organization for Transformative Works sort of way – i.e. not in a way that is really giving much thought to the uniquely productive potential of fandom.

Still, I was surprised to see him use the term, not because I do not think fandom should come up in scholarly writings, but because while the term cinephile can carry with it a sort of aggravating pomposity, admitting to being a fangirl/boy/active member of a fan community is the sort of thing that will inspire your uncle to call you a dork before going on to check his fantasy football stats wearing his favorite player’s jersey (why fanfiction is considered embarrassingly nerdy but fantasy football is not will forever remain one of the great mysteries of the Universe to me).

While fandom has started getting a little more scholarly attention in the past few years via the fledgling field of fan studies, it’s the sort of thing that’s still largely dismissed. I listened to a podcast on fandom recently, only to find that the entire thing, while claiming to be a sort of celebration of fandom, consistently referred to fandom as a kind of thing teenagers do online. Of course, teenagers do contribute a large portion of the fan works that circulate online. Not only do most people probably get involved in fandom in their late childhood/teenage years, but teenagers tend to have fewer responsibilities and therefore more free time than many adults, meaning more time to produce and distribute such works. Some people do “grow out of it,” so to say, but plenty others do not. Tumblr, for example, arguably one of the great bastions of online fandom, has a decidedly teenage appeal, but that hardly means that the generation of teenagers who helped it rise to power have all abandoned it now that they have reached their twenties.

Nana watches “The Passion of Joan of Arc” in “My Life to Live” (1962)

Beyond those two Elsaesser quotes I mentioned (and yes, I will delve deeper into the first one, just hold on for a few more minutes), there are two specific reasons I think the current state of fandom could be seen as a successor – or at least a second cousin twice removed – of classical cinephilia, and the first one is this: just as cinephilia came into (or perhaps more accurately closest to) the mainstream was when the first generation of cinephiles grew up and started working behind the camera, creating entire film movements like the French New Wave, some devoted fans have started getting their hands on the reins of long-running franchises. Of course, the implications are very different. To a degree, they’re almost opposite. While films made by cinephiles tend to be stuffed to bursting with homages, references, and other intertextual features, many also feature a good deal of “Rules, you say? Ha!” and “Why don’t I mess with this convention?” Fans who inherit franchises, meanwhile, tend to have more an attitude of “Trust me not to break it, I love it as much as you do.” But these different attitudes stem from the same source – awareness – and that’s as significant as it is intriguing. Knowing that the creator is aware of the audience in this way, that he or she knows the degree to which audiences can scrutinize each and every frame, validates and therefore openly invites audiences to interact with the creation on this level.

Star Wars “superfan” J.J. Abrams directed and co-wrote the long-anticipated seventh installment

I am sure there are those who would take issue with me conflating cinephilia and fandom (and if there are any such people reading this, remember that Thomas Elsaesser did it first), but in a time when we speak of media convergence, when film production companies are rebranding themselves as creators of “content,” it seems a natural next step to discuss how historically different concepts – or “schools” even, if you will – of appreciating media could too be approaching a point of conversion, or at least starting to hold a greater resemblance to each other.

An obvious distinction that I have not explicitly acknowledged until this point is that cinephilia is, by definition, limited to films while fandom is decidedly not. And this is indeed a limitation, because audiences interact with regular films – that is, non-franchise, non-series films – very differently than they do franchises or series (in any medium). The average film has a run time of two-ish hours, after which point all appreciation and admiration for the film is retrospective. In comparison, when you have an ongoing series or a franchise, consumers can remain engaged, even through years-long hiatuses, just so long as there room for speculation and the eventual promise of satisfaction (or at least the hope of potential satisfaction).

Finally going back to that first Elsaesser quote, a media consumption term that “reverberates with nostalgia and dedication” and is “only a little less than an entire attitude towards life” could just as easily refer to fandom than cinephilia. However, maintaining such dedication is a hell of a lot easier when something is ongoing than when something is over. Even when standalone films do spark their own fandoms (and here I am speaking of productive, active fandom, as opposed to just a group of passive admirers), they rarely last very long. While more people have seen Inception by now than in year directly following its release – and therefore likely more, or at least as many, people would call themselves fans of the movie now than then— the fandom it inspired was more or less defunct within a few years.

“Inception” (2010): The fandom may have dissipated, but the memes still make an occasional reappearance

There is quite a lot to be said about how ease fits into this equation, because while the ease of the internet has further enabled fandom to take on a degree of fervor and influence that make it more reminiscent of classical cinephilia, the ease of the internet has paved the way for a new relaxed cinephilia that lacks these qualities. When taken in conjunction with the closings of arthouse and indie cinemas around the world and the fall of film projection in the wake of the rise of digital, someone who loves movies – especially those that are old or obscure – will quite likely find more solace in a streaming service than a cinema. Of course, there is a lively online film community, but it’s more one that features just about every opinion imaginable on any particular film than one divided into definable sub-groups with different cinematic philosophies. In other words, less of a summit between different groups and more of a melee.

Is there a deeper significance in the obvious parallel between this shot of Jon in “Battle of the Bastards” and Daenerys’ (in)famous “Mhysa” shot? Fans have plenty of time left to speculate before Season 7 airs.

To look at the second reason I think it is worth at least considering fandom as a possible successor to classic cinephilia, we need to return to the idea of convergence. Television shows are looking more and more cinematic, with budgets and production values soaring (I am only speaking about film and television because I, admittedly, know next to nothing about fandoms from visual media besides film and television). Embracing this cinematic look opens up television to a kind of admiration not just previously considered limited to cinema, but a key component of cinephilia: a deep regard for mise-en-scène. Not only can fans sift through stills like a detective does a crime scene, looking for clues – like I’ve mentioned before – but there can be a good deal more there to appreciate on just an aesthetic level. Beyond that, digital distribution and social media makes it possible for fans to share, modify, and generate discourse over stills and clips from various installments. While all of these things are of course possible with standalone films, the ongoing nature of franchises and film and television series makes this discourse a lot more tempting, because questions can still be possibly answered and theories proven wrong or right. And greater attention to visual details combined with an ability to communicate with other fans has resulted in occasions when I have come across “meta” posts using concepts from film theory in support of fan theories.

Of course, such eagle-eyed speculation also means fans collectively miss absolutely nothing.

“Sherlock: The Six Thatchers” (2016): Having fun typing in that .jpg file, John?

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.