“The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence”. – Thomas Wolfe
“Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” – Taxi Driver
What is it that drives some people to become cinephiles? For most people movies are a means of simple escapism and mainly for entertainment purposes. Some go beyond this with a more sophisticated appreciation as film as art but they do not necessarily have an abundance of knowledge and lack the time and or inclination to engage with the medium enough that it could be considered a major defining aspect of their identity.
The most obvious reason one may become an obsessed cinephile (or a film geek – that is a preoccupation with mainstream cinema) is the aesthetic value, the cultural significance, the emotional resonance and the sheer power that great cinema can have. It is like no other medium, a markedly different experience from TV, theatre and books – there is so much that only film can achieve. Visceral, ethereal, beautiful, brutal, shocking, glorious, consciousness expanding cinema. Why then is it only certain people who are drawn in so completely by film that they want to spend such a great deal of time watching, reading and writing about film? I believe the great common denominator between cinephiles is loneliness.
The foundations of my love of cinema were laid early in childhood with my mother taking me to the cinema to see Disney classics which left an indelible mark on me and are among my first memories, not just the films themselves but the feeling of being in that dark auditorium, the carpet in the lobby, the smell of popcorn. I would only call my interest in films slightly above average in my early teens however, it wasn’t until a bit later that I truly dived in head first coming up for air less and less.
I had left education after high school where I did not enjoy myself and was working at a laser tag centre and I was trying to come to terms with my shifting sense of self, the heartbreak of unrequited love and a deep sense of alienation. It was at this point with disposable income and a very strong desire for escapism that I began to develop my interest in seeing the canon of great films – the scope of which would grow and grow the more I watched. I was spending most of my time not at work alone and most of that time I dedicated to watching films and when you are starting out you have so many amazing films to discover – watching Scorsese, the Coen’s, David Lynch, the Godfather, Annie Hall, 2001: A Space Odyssey and so many more all the first time was constantly mind blowing and only opened up further avenues to explore. Film was becoming art to me, evaluated on a higher plane than simply whether or not it entertained me. After a year or so of this indoctrination as a cinephile I decided to go back to do A-Levels so I could study Film at University.
I felt separate from the world. Watching films was a means of seeking connection, I could get a sense of different places and different ways of life – things I was missing out on in my isolation/alienation and things that were completely different from my experience and perspective. This idea of seeking connection through film can also be explored through the prism of the Jungian collective unconscious whereby we inherently share certain aspects of psychological makeup – film artists attempt to reconcile these memories, dreams and feelings and put them on screen. This deep human desire for connection can be partly fulfilled by watching many films and is also convenient for the social outcast whether that distinction is by choice or dictate.
Also pertinent to my feelings of alienation, separateness and therefore loneliness was the idea of voyeurism. Not being part of the world, literally on the outside looking in – Cinema can be the great refuge of the disenfranchised and it can nourish and encourage this voyeuristic tendency. Watching other people live their lives, watching their love and struggle – even finding kindred spirits in the nebbish cinephile characters of Woody Allen or God’s lonely man Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. I remember driving around at night similarly to Travis just observing the night life, my fascination only outweighed by repulsion – I felt like a ghost in the world, an observer, not a participant.
Another aspect that I feel comes along with loneliness is low self-esteem. Becoming a cinephile and gaining that sense of superiority through the cultural capital of advanced taste and knowledge gives the illusion of and can replace actual achievement in someone’s life. If thinking negatively cinephilia could be considered a passive, misguided and even pathetic attempt to gain self-worth through obsessive film watching.
My love of cinema continued even as I felt less lonely and more connected to the world and while I do still feel quite a deep sense of alienation it is not as acute or defining as it was when I was younger. It was certainly loneliness that fuelled and developed my cinephilia, but now that fire is burning and it is hard to put out, just when the flames seem to be petering out the passion comes back with gasoline. I believe that this loneliness that I felt is a major driving force of any film obsessive’s origin story.
Once we have been sucked in by the initial incendiary of loneliness and our status as cinephile is full-fledged, even if those negative feelings eventually dissipate, it is too late – we have gone too far down into the rabbit hole. Further and further we go, the amount of time it takes to watch all the films we are interested in is socially prohibitive. New, classic, cult, esoteric, re-watching favourites, the obscure, the popular – the more we watch the more the list, rather than shrinking, grows exponentially. Just watched Andrei Rublev? Now I have to see all of Tarkovsky, just watched Teen Wolf? Now I need to have a high school movies season. Add to that the time taken by reading, writing and talking about film and cinephilia certainly comes at the cost of a full social life. Perhaps that suits the lonely and alienated down to the ground – whether it is preventative or is a replacement of a pre-existing lack. In the style of Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder are we lonely because we are cinephiles or cinephiles because we are lonely?