To watch or not to watch

I’d like to refer you to an excellent post by Jim Emerson in which he discusses a problem that likely doesn’t affect most of you in the slightest but that weighs heavily on my own mind: Now that practically every film ever made can be seen relatively easily, what should one watch and what should one abstain from watching? As Emerson puts it,

Libraries of thousands of movies are available for watching almost any time through various rental and video-on-demand services. This easy access to a wide cross-section of cinematic history is unprecedented.

So, there go our excuses. We now come to the point where not seeing a movie is often every bit as much a conscious decision as seeing one.

Emerson also articulates a notion that’s been fermenting in my own brain for quite a while now:

We have to face a few realities here: 1) Nobody can see, much less write about, every movie, even every “new” movie; 2) Time, availability, scheduling, spending money and other factors make it unlikely you will ever catch up with all the important, worthwhile movies you should see from the past (which keeps getting longer) or in the future (which keeps getting shorter).

This isn’t just a matter of the cinephile’s ability to determine the specific constitution of her own cinephilia by picking and choosing what to see and what not to see; there’s also something to be said for the sheer sense of vertigo that a cinephile experiences when reflecting upon the whole of film history—its inexhaustible vastness, the reality that one can’t possibly see it all, the unfathomable number of trails a cinephile can take on her way to defining herself as a lover of a highly particular kind of cinema.

The history of cinema closely resembles the expanding universe: this is both exciting (so many great films to see, so little time) and intimidating (where to begin and what to begin with?). This freedom, while more illusory than I’ve made it seem, is sort of like the freedom encountered by an artist when she asks herself that first essential question: “how can I express this thing—this idea, this emotion, this whatever?” As we know from the work of systematic stylists like Robert Bresson, Chantal Akerman, Straub-Huillet or Jacques Rivette, the solution to this problem often involves the establishment of parameters, of practical, technical and aesthetic constraints, thereby delineating a path toward a singular cinema.

Cinephiles think a lot more like filmmakers than either realizes, I suspect (though, obviously, “cinephile” and “filmmaker” are by no means mutually exclusive categories). The line between making and seeing is thinner than ever. Producing movies and watching them are both ways of creating cinema—but whose cinema?

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