Keathley and the “Cinephilic Spirit”


In the introduction and opening chapter of Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees, Christian Keathley seeks to describe the nature of cinephilia as both a spectatorial practice and historical-cultural phenomenon, as well as to articulate its continuing importance for the field of film studies. Defining cinephilia broadly as a “certain kind of intense loving relationship with the cinema” (2), and more specifically, as a particular “way of watching films” (6), one that is characterized by ritualistic practices of spectatorship and a deeply personal, suffusive, even “quasi-religious” (21) attitude towards the entire apparatus of the cinema, he locates the height of its expression and influence in post-World War II France with the writings of André Bazin and the Cahiers du Cinéma circle. Keathley likewise tracks its fall from critical prominence beginning in the late 1960s, when the academic and political institutionalization of film and its study, combined with the increased accessibility to film brought on by the advent of cable television and home video, resulted in widespread distaste for the openly reverent qualities of cinephilia. Moreover, Keathley argues that the resultant changes in patterns of viewership have actually influenced the production of films in recent years, causing a formal transformation in the way in which films are shot and a simplification of “film images that are unencumbered by any ambiguity” (25).

The explicit goal of his work is, in fact, to combat this distrust in the relevance of the cinephilic perspective to contemporary film theory. By narrowing his focus to an investigation of “the cinephiliac moment,” or, “the fetishisizing of fragments of a film, either individual shots or marginal (often unintentional) details in the image, especially those that appear only for a moment” (7), Keathley attempts to offer a new approach to historiographic methodology and writing that takes into account not only the generalized “cause-and-effect relationships” (9) of traditional practice, but also the uniquely subjective experiences of the individual. In so doing, he expresses the hope that he will provide a way of reintegrating the “cinephilic spirit” into modern film study without sacrificing the theoretical elaboration in the field gained after the initial demise of cinephilia.

Keathley’s suggestion for the reintroduction of the “cinephilic spirit” begs the question: what exactly is the essence, the defining characteristic, of that spirit? If the primary prerequisite for a truly cinephilic experience is the presence of a Benjamin-esque “‘auratic’ quality” (21) surrounding a given film and the circumstances of its viewing, a presence which has been largely negated, Keathley claims, by the technologically induced availability of films today, is it even possible to cultivate and extract a quality in any way remotely related to the “sacred” and “immortal” (28) sense of cinema inherent in the original movement? The continual development and introduction of new audiovisual technologies, which has undeniably increased in rapidity in recent years, can only make the distillation and application of a relevant “cinephilic spirit” all the more challenging. Already, elements of Keathley’s argument, barely ten years old, are no longer of any real cultural significance. The video store (which, in its own modest way, as Keathley himself implies, represented the semi-equivalent of the repertory or arthouse theater for the first post-cinephile generation, with its capacity to function similarly as an autonomous “event,” a symbolic and literal start to the prolonged act of film viewing overlaid with its own social and physical rituals of browsing, debate, etc.) and the home video player, the entities most complicit in the decline of pure cinephilia, are now themselves obsolete, replaced by a near complete diffusion, temporally and spatially, of the entire body of cinematic material since the birth of the form. What aspect of the original cinephilic concept can scholars now point to and harness in the formulation of a new approach to film theory or style that will remain vital for any productive amount of time?

Moreover, how do film scholars reconcile the reemergence of cinephilia with the critical theories that came after it, as Keathley suggests they should? If we approach the concept in the most generalized and reductive way, then perhaps cinephilia’s essence can be boiled down to the “loving relationship with the cinema” that Keathley highlights as a hallmark, and by a logical, and even necessary, extension, a love of watching. How might this type of perspective interact, or even be used in conjunction, with an approach such as Laura Mulvey’s in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” especially when applied to the analysis of a particular film?

Lost in Translation, for example, seems to me to be a post-cinephile film made for a cinephile audience. The intricacy of scenic detail, the uncontrolled and fleeting vibrancy of the city setting, and the heavy use of lingering shots and long takes all offer countless opportunities for an experience of the “cinephiliac moment.” Yet the thematic emphasis on spectatorship both on the part of the external audience and on the part of the characters within the internal diegesis of the film, who consistently watch each other and the city around them with as much fascination and emotion as we, the audience, do, also invites a more critical reading of the implications of the gaze in the vein of Mulvey’s approach; this is especially valid considering the presence of a clearly gendered dimension in Coppola’s film. Is there a way to incorporate or utilize two such distinct interpretive frameworks in order to formulate a more incisive, more comprehensive reading of the film?





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