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The history of cinephil

The February 2023 edition of the ExBerliner magazine contained a very nice review of this blog (print version over, so I’ve posted a screenshot below). To help them produce it, I wrote a brief history of what this blog is and how it came to be. That is this history.

My name is Phil Butland. I am from Bradford, Northern England, but have lived in Germany since 1995 and Berlin since 2005. I started the CinePhil website in early 2019.

It started, as many things do, with a couple of facebook posts. At the beginning of the year, I set myself an exercise of typing a film review on my phone on my way home from the cinema. So, the first reviews are only a couple of paragraphs long. After a while, I started to get more serious, and they got longer. Now, most reviews are about 1,000 words long.

For a while, it was just a facebook thing, partly for friends but mainly for myself. Then people started to ask what I thought about certain films, and I thought it would be easier to put them all together somewhere rather than having to scroll down facebook. That’s when I set up the website.

Obviously, just having a few film reviews would make for a fairly boring website, so I added a couple of other things. I had occasionally written film reviews for the German magazine marx21, so I translated and added those, as well as some other articles I’d written on culture and interviews I’d done with film makers. I was already developing a list of cinemas in Berlin where people could see English language films, so I added that.

During full lockdown, when everyone was stuck at home with nothing to do, I started doing some online quizzes on film and music. They went on for 4 hours and involved quite a few people. The film quizzes also found their way onto the website.

The big shift, though, was when I lost my job towards the beginning of lockdown. I suddenly had lots of time, both to watch and review cinema. I also have a year ticket for Yorck cinemas, so could go as often as I wanted for no extra cost. I reviewed over 150 films in each year between 2019 and 2021, and nearly 300 last year.

Sometimes regular readers send me suggested improvements. So, some time along the line, I added the name of the director, and the year and country of release. More important, I added a rating – whether I thought it was Any Good. These judgments are entirely subjective – I am not particularly keen either on Marvel films or on many which do well at the Berlinale, but people who know me understand the type of film I like.

It’s not really for me to say what the principle discourse on the Blog is, but I think some things keep recurring. Firstly, we should treat all films as we do any other art. I go and see all sorts of things, from self-indulgent arthouse films to horror B movies, but the same questions apply for all of them. What are they trying to do? Are they able to do this? Do they engage us?

The final question, about whether we are engaged, is probably the most important, and explains my dislike of many Berlinale winners. You can have films which many film students and critics love because they follow all the cinematic rules that they’re supposed to. Well, all apart from one – many give not thought the poor sods in the cinema who have to sit through it all.

There is also a political aspect to many reviews I am politically active and also commissioning editor for website. Having said this, some of the worst films are propagandist rants which treat the audience as stupid automatons, who just need to be told the right line. The best films are those which address their audience and pose them questions.

It is also interesting looking at the social conditions in which a film is produced, and the artistic compromises that a director must make to get it screened. I recently wrote a long article about this for International Socialism journal, around the 60th anniversary of the film Spartacus (like all journal articles, this was edited down, and there’s an even longer version on the blog).

I’m not sure what else there is to say, but I would love people to engage with individual reviews that I write on the blog. You can subscribe to receive notification of all new articles.

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