Response to “Once Upon a Screen”: The Personal, the Emotional, and the Scholarly

“The function of art, both personal and social, is deeply involved with our emotional life; emotions are not merely ‘unscientific,’ they are also unacademic.” – Robin Wood 

But do they have to be? 

Wood continues, “University professors are not supposed to discuss the feelings (elation, despair, disturbance, etc.) that a given work arouses in them: in other words, they are expected to eliminate from their professional discourse all relation to art’s real function.”[1]

It’s easy to recognize the situation Wood describes.  Indeed, while we cinephile scholars are certainly familiar with intense emotional experiences at the movies, our scholarship has tended to repress them, or at least to back away from them, to keep them at arm’s length for the purposes of distanced, objective analysis and interpretation in a discourse marked by a full and firm hold on external reality.  But we should be able to find a way, as Annette Kuhn has written, to produce scholarship “without setting aside our inner lives, and thus our emotions and psychical investments.”[2]  Such a personal form of scholarly writing would not only acknowledge our emotional and aesthetic experiences, but would have the potential also to engage with our own individual creativity.

In film and media scholarship, videographic criticism seems to have emerged as the form that permits engagement with the personal and the emotional, for at least two reasons.  First, working with images and sounds from a film—manipulating, recombining, and so on—puts the videographic scholar in the position of the filmmaker, organizing material for aesthetic and emotional effect as well as rhetorical force.  The most successful such works not only make an argument, they are cast in a carefully calibrated tone that seeks not only to convince us by reason but also to move us with an emotional experience of aesthetic effect.  Second, video essays about film, produced by fans and non-academic cinephiles, were in wide circulation on the internet well in advance of the disciplinary validation offered by journals such as [in]Transition and MOVIE and The Cine-Files, and those pre-academic videos routinely employed the first person and engaged with the individual, the personal.  The appeal of video essays to cinephile scholars was due in large part to the opportunity they afforded to produce something scholarly using the materials of one’s object of study, as well as to work in a less rigid form, one that permitted the expression of one’s personal experience of movies along with whatever analysis was to be shared.

But does videographic work that engages with the personal and the emotional immediately qualify as scholarship?  My answer is clear: sometimes yes and sometimes no—and, inevitably, we could disagree about which ones achieve the standard.  As a founding co-editor of [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, I can say that we not only wanted to create an academic journal for peer reviewed videographic work, we also wanted to support work that tested the disciplinary norms of what forms and subjects constitute “scholarship.”  But even the co-editors don’t always agree on that.  

So, how to decide?  My own gauge comes in part from Stanley Cavell’s remarks about intuition as the starting point for research.  Contrasting intuition with hypothesis (and all the scientific processes associated with that term), Cavell explains that he begins with some intuition, some feeling, about a text that he then explores unsystematically, engaging with his emotions as well as his processes of rational thought, in order to learn something.  While hypothesis asks us to predict in advance what the outcome of our investigation will be, intuition asks nothing more than that we have a feeling that pushes us in some direction.  As for the results, “Both intuitions and hypotheses require what may be called confirmation, but differently,” Cavell explains.  While a hypothesis requires evidence, and “must say what constitutes its evidence,” an intuition “does not require or tolerate evidence, but rather, let us say, understanding of a particular sort.”[3]  However, intuition does come with a demand: that we make our intuition intelligible, to ourselves and others.  This means following our intuition to the point of tuition—that is, where we and others can learn something from it, even if what is learned is not easily summarized in language.  Most important here is that intuition indicates proceeding by a feeling: not separating emotion from reason, but rather extending experience through a thought process that is not systematized.

But even if one were to claim that none of the accompanying videos qualifies individually as scholarship, I would argue that the collection of them surely begins to.  Watching these videos, I was reminded of books like Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond’s Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing and Annette Kuhn’s Dreaming of Fred and Ginger, both cultural histories of movie-going and movie-watching.  Just as those oral histories shared individual accounts of what it was to go to the movies as a particular person, in a particular time, and at a particular place, these videographic works appear as contributions to a similar project, recounting experiences common to most movie viewers, and remembered with a special vividness by cinephiles like these videos’ makers.  

Considering them in this way thus situates the videos as one more important contribution to the history of cinephilia as envisioned by Antoine de Baecque and Thierry Frémaux.  As they defined it in 1995: “Cinephilia is a system of cultural organization that engenders rituals around the gaze, speech, and the written word. …. [in which] everything comes to depend on how one sees films, from where in the audience, in what position, according to which individual framing, on how a screening is brought to life, on how the group gets around, how this intimate diary of the gaze is shared (by conversation, by correspondence, by published writing).”  They go on to note that the history (or histories) of cinephilia is inclined “to find intellectual coherence where none is evident, to eulogize the non-standard and the minor,” and to focus on “limited subjects that could be viewed as anecdotal, even derisory.”[4]

Given their subjects, videographic essays like the ones we see here fit neatly into this inventory of ways of watching and ways of sharing, and watching one of these videos only makes you want to watch more—just as reading one Top Ten list or one account of “the movie that changed my life” does similarly.  For such an accounting amounts to a confirmation that movies are, as Thomas Elsaesser once put it, “events that have happened to us.”[5]  As we watch these videos, we understand not just one cinephile’s experience of a movie trauma, we begin to have a feeling for something much bigger: the place of the movies in the lives of generations of people.  Of course, we already knew this, but video essays like these prompt us to re-realize it with a particular force of recognition that also brings comfort.  

There are some interesting patterns in these videos, one of them being some makers’ use of other films to reflect on their childhood movie trauma, as if to signal that a broader cinematic canvas is needed to contextualize and reflect on their specific film experience.  But again, this is typical of cinephiliac discourse: every cinematic experience exists in a web that connects it to others, and its valence is charged by its association with those other experiences.  And sharing any one of them, even an especially distinctive one, inevitably means linking it to others—and to the experiences of others.

Cinephilia gave birth to academic film studies, an institutional practice that, as Wood and Kuhn lament, demanded a shedding of the personal and the emotional from film criticism.  Peter Wollen, writing in the guise of his alter ego Lee Russell, expressed a similar regret: “I was attracted by the element of cinephilia [in the early days of academic cinema studies] and that’s precisely what got lost with the relentless expansion of theory over the face of academe.”[6]  Re-engaging with and extending the practices of early cinephile discourse, and placing this discourse in a scholarly context (like The Cine-Files), is one important way to recover what was lost and put it back where it belongs.  

Christian Keathley is the Walter J Cerf Distinguished Professor of Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College.  He is the author of Cinephilia and History, or the Wind in the Trees (Indiana UP, 2007).  He is a founding co-editor of [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies and co-author (with Catherine Grant and Jason Mittell) of The Videographic Essay: Practice and Pedagogy .

[1] Robin Wood, “Creativity and Evaluation,” in Personal Views (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2006), 345.

[2] Annette Kuhn, “Thresholds: film as film and the aesthetic experience,” Screen 46, no. 4 (Winter 2005): 402.

[3] Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 3.

[4] Antoine de Baecque and Thierry Frémaux, “La Cinéphilie, ou L’Invention d’Unie Culture,” trans. Timothy Barnard, Vingtième Siècle 46 (April‑June 1995): 139, 137.

[5] Thomas Elsaesser, “Rivette and the End of Cinema,” Sight & Sound (April 1992): 22.

[6] Peter Wollen, Paris Hollywood (London:  Verso, 2002), 155.