I first met J. Hoberman at Columbia University, where he taught a class on cinephilia. He agreed to meet me for coffee near Chambers Street. It was a chilly afternoon and, in a typical NYC-mode, my 2 train stopped mysteriously in the middle of the tracks for some time. When I arrived, the big windows of the café revealed that he was already waiting for me inside. Dusk was conquering the street and the café’s light illuminated the sidewalk. I walked in and we each ordered a café au lait.
AR: What is cinephilia for you?
JH: It’s a condition for people who are more than casual moviegoers, they are really passionate about the medium. Cinephilia used to be so wide-spread that there really was no name for it. As late as in the 1950s, movies were all that there was. And people went once or twice a week, and they naturally loved movies. Cinephilia only became a kind of condition once movies were displaced by television, and now they have been displaced again by digital media. With each displacement of cinema, cinephilia becomes more irrational. Susan Sontag wrote about this in a very eloquent way.
AR: When did you start being a cinephile?
JH: I started going to the movies in high school. I grew up in Queens, in a neighborhood that was half Jewish, half Catholic. There were a lot of kids, and they kept opening up new high schools every year — there were so many kids that these high schools would immediately get overcrowded. By the time I was a senior, my school was on triple session, which meant that I was out by noon! I had a huge chunk of the day free, so there was plenty of time for me to get the subway into “the city’”and go to movies at the MoMA or the Bleecker Street. And that is how I really got educated.
AR: Is there a special movie that you remember from that time?
JH: The first that really spoke to me was Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964), as it was addressing something that I was very preoccupied with in a way that I found incredibly liberating. I don’t think this was a unique experience. It was like a superior version of Mad Magazines, it was making so much fun of this terrible thing. That was the first movie that I remember ever going to see twice. But the movies that I really loved were movies by the Marx Brothers. Sometimes I would see them on TV, but I would also go see them in the theater. I also loved the French New Wave. I saw Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960) when I was 16 and realized that was the movie I wanted to live. I liked that movie so much that I went to a store in the Village where they sold French 45s, and I bought the soundtrack.
AR: Did your relationship to film change when you decided to make cinephilia your work?
JH: Maybe. When I was a weekly critic, it was enjoyable work and, in fact, my relatives were amazed of how I figured that this could be a way to make a living. I mean, how did I get away with this kind of a job? But, yes, you are not a civilian if you are looking at movies professionally. Also, you get spoiled because you go to very comfortable screenings, with a big screen, no previews and… for free! Later, teaching courses on cinema meant that I got to see certain movies over and over again. I enjoy watching movies with a class and talking about the movies with the students.
AR: I was lucky to be in one of your seminars! We talked a lot about our privileged moments, and I was wondering what is one of your privileged moments? Also, what exactly do you consider a privileged moment?
JH: A privileged moment is something very brief, like a look or a gesture. It can stand the part of the film: you can think that a movie is very stupid or boring, and yet there still might be something in it for you. There can be great scenes but also great moments, which have to do with people’s expressions. In Neruda (Pablo Larraín, 2016), the actor that plays Neruda [Luis Gnecco] is very good and people really respond around him. There is a scene in which his partner, who is played by an Argentine actress [Mercedes Morán], gives him this look, this indulgent and very proud of him look. And that moment is just great. Another of my privileged moments is from In the Street (Helen Levitt, 1948). She [Helen Levitt] is using a hidden camera to document these blocks in Spanish Harlem. There is one point when all these children recognize that the camera is there — they flock around her and stick their faces in the camera. It is such a strong image. She was clearly inspired by Walker Evans’ photographs in the subway with a hidden camera. People train themselves not to look at each other too closely on New York’s subway, because it can be seen as aggressive to do that. So, Helen Levitt helped Walker Evans with that project, and I think she must have been very impressed by these very inward and private expressions: people are thinking about something else when they are in the subway and you don’t really know what it is.
AR: Do you think cinephilia survives out of the theater, as when someone watches films on a computer?
JH: Personally, I find it difficult to watch films on computers. When I first started teaching, I wanted to show everything in 16mm, and I realized that it was hopeless and impractical because the medium was just being phased out. But how can you see 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) on your phone or on a computer screen? Some things have to be shown in the original way. And I think that what is going to eventually happen is that it will be like opera. There will be some theaters that can show movies as they should be shown. Some people will go for that experience, but I think that is going to be a minority.
AR: Can you tell us a film that shaped you and that everybody should see?
JH: The film that most excited me in college, in terms of film form, was Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929), together with experimental films, such as Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith, 1963). In high school, I also saw other avant-garde films that made a big impression on me, such as Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1963). It was so new that I recognized the soundtrack came from a specific summer: I knew all those songs! Anger did a very transgressive thing. In those days, artists would have listened to jazz, it would have been very unusual to them to listen to the Top 40. But I remember seeing it later when I was in college, at the Anthology Film Archives, with an audience that was my age — for them, it was like watching the T.A.M.I. Show!
AR: And where did you watch all these films?
JH: The theaters that I loved are theaters that are long gone. The old Bleecker Street was very eccentric, but I was very attached to it because of the movies that I saw there. There was also a very crazy theater, 80 St. Marks, which had nothing but 16mm prints of Hollywood musicals from the early 30s. It was a very uncomfortable theater, but I was very fond of it. I don’t feel that kind of attachment to a movie theater any more.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Alejandra Rosenberg (@alejarosenberg) thinks and writes on moving images, philosophy, feminism and poetry.