The differences between “movie buffs” and “cinéphiles”

Joe Hogan

In conversation, we hear two terms used to describe people who love movies: “movie buffs” and
“cinéphiles.” And if you talk to one, they’ll likely tell you that the other is very different. So let’s

Most obviously, both watch movies and commonly have an encyclopedic knowledge of their content.
Both are usually pale due to the amount of time they spend in dark rooms. Both are quite passionate
and somewhat pedantic, and will accost you outside theaters or in classrooms to discuss a certain
movie, or director, or genre.

However, there are also clear differences. Generally, movie buffs use the word “movies;” cinéphiles use
the word “cinema” or “film.” Movie buffs can quote each line from Scarface; cinéphiles argue over
whether Jean-Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut was the greatest French New Wave director. Movie buffs
spend their time in movieplexes; cinéphiles consider movieplexes the deplorable product of
capitalism. Perhaps most importantly, movie buffs don’t talk much about “art film;” cinéphiles bemoan
the fact that no one sees “art film” or knows it exists.

Of course, I’m generalizing. In fact, even as I read over the dichotomies, I can’t think of any person in
particular who fits either mold. Nevertheless, the general split between “movie buff” and “cinéphile” is
meaningful: it reflects two different approaches to thinking about film.

Perhaps the biggest difference of opinion between the two camps concerns whether Hollywood, in our
lifetimes, has been able to produce films of any artistic merit. We can guess the two responses easily.
The cinéphiles say, for the most part, that art film is superior to Hollywood movies, which only pander
to the masses. Hollywood movies dull our wit, our sensibilities, and blind us to the narcotizing effects
of mindless entertainment.

The movie buff counters: Hollywood is an industry that makes movies for entertainment. We go to the
movies to relax, to escape. Hollywood doesn’t make “art” like Picasso, but that’s not what movies are
for to begin with. Some movies are just plain entertaining and that’s a good thing. But others – the
best ones – are entertaining and profound. They change the way you see the world.

I sympathize with this perspective. After all, the reason I am a film major is because, as a child, I spent
countless summer days in the cheap theater down the street. Starry-eyed, I relished the dimming
lights, the dancing image, the solitude of sitting, nestled, in the middle row of an empty theater. In
some ways, the cinéphile’s argument that movies should always be tough, that entertainment ought to
take a back seat to “real art,” undermines the innocence of my youth.

Pondering this, I look through notes I’ve taken on the movies. I find an entry on Inception, which I saw
in its second or third week. The note makes me remember the hysteria that surrounded the film’s
release. All my movie buff friends praised Christopher Nolan’s genius, the immense scope of the film,
the philosophical notion it arrived at: according to them, “what is reality?”

Here is what I scribbled: “Perhaps there is something philosophical to be mined out of this film –
something the director has clearly intended to come to the surface. If so, it is clearly a philosophy that
can be consumed, soda-pop in hand.”

Why would I have thought that? Was it the many people in the theater, all staring wide-eyed at the
screen, shoveling down popcorn, slurping pop? This isn’t exactly a pleasant image; not only that, it
calls to mind an important question: do we thoughtlessly consume as much through our eyes as
through our gullets?

The cinéphiles may have something to say about this.

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