Department of Theatre and Film
Introduction: Cinephilia and the Passion of Textual Analysis
Despite film and media studies’ sustained and even renewed interest in “the array of activities involved in the production and reception of films” and “the variety of ways in which the film text is intermeshed with a whole set of economic, technological, social, and cultural practices” (Hill xix), scholars continue to engage in extended, often markedly philosophical studies of films themselves. Using analytic methods that owe “much to art history” and literary theories, film scholarship that carefully, intelligently, and sometimes painstakingly explicates meanings created by narrative and cinematic choices in individual films constitutes a line of research that is quite different from work that ‘looks past the screen’ to understand audience reception, regulatory systems (especially censorship), and the many material facets of industrial media production (Smoodin 2). And so, while historical moments of cinephilia might be most readily associated with the art journals and film clubs of the silent era and later with the collection of critics in France and the U.S. who shaped filmmaking and popular taste in the 1960s, one can see that cinephilia still or now finds passionate expression in scholarship that to some degree locates “the site of aesthetic production [in] the mind of the critical spectator” but also aims to achieve an “Arnoldian ideal of critical disinterestedness” that is distinguished by “sensitive response” and informed, circumspect textual analysis (Taylor 150, 157).
The essays in this issue of The Projector belong to that engaged line of scholarship that attends closely to individual films or series of films, and thus frames them as works of art or at least as valuable objects for contemplation. Given the essays’ hermeneutic orientation that gives priority to interpretation of textual elements, is it perhaps fitting that the first piece, “Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue and the Ambiguity of Meaning” by William Verrone, has thematic as well as methodological connections with traditional, Biblical hermeneutic analysis; its nuanced analysis concerns commentary on and moments in the ten-part Decalogue film project, which takes as its subject matter “the tenuous relationship of the commandments to modern everyday existence” (Verrone). By carefully tracing the logic of the dramatic conflicts featured in The Decalogue, Verrone is able to explicate the secular, humanistic vision that infuses the project. Using examples from various films in the series, Verrone elucidates the paradox that characters discover that they must “contend with their moral dilemmas from the perspective of a solitary being” just as they come to understand that “their ethical choices necessarily involve interactions with others” (Verrone).
With science fiction functioning as one of the most vital forms for exploring existential quandaries in a modern, secular world, it makes sense that a hermeneutic approach would not only be well suited to an analysis of The Decalogue but also to the films that are meticulously examined by the other essays featured in this issue. The second piece, “Embryology of the Hyperreal: The Alien Films and Baudrillard’s Phases of Simulation” by Randy Laist, examines patterns that traverse the four films in the series, Alien (Scott, 1979), Aliens (Cameron, 1986), Alien3 (Fincher, 1992), and Alien Resurrection (Jeunet, 1997), to explore meanings that emerge from the visual and narrative changes that separate the “70s-style gritty realism that influenced Ridley Scott’s original film” from the “80s-style escapism” in James Cameron’s sequel, and from the 1990s films directed by David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “both known for their postmodern sensibilities” and both filmmakers who figured into “an era that seemed to become increasingly Baudrillardian the closer it approached the millennial moment that Baudrillard famously speculated would not take place” (Laist). Starting with Stephen Mulhall’s insight that the alien provides a means of exploring our “existential horror” because in its myriad forms and states of being it embodies “‘the essence of what it means to be,’” Laist follows Ripley’s journey from a figure “determined to keep a clear boundary between herself as a subject and the alien as an object” to the point where the “twin enemies from the first three films of the franchise – the alien and the Company – are now literally incorporated into Ripley 8’s being” (Laist). Using Ripley 8 status as a product of “the matrix of the genetic code” to illustrate Baudrillard’s observations about “the hyperreal condition,” Laist then identifies the ways in which the fourth film “provides a fitting fulfillment of the thematic concerns that traverse the series” – from the “implosion of dichotomies” to the “denaturing of reality into the matrix of semiotic codes” to the problem(s) of “feminist political resistance in a universe of monopolistic patriarchy” (Laist).
Whereas Verrone establishes evidence for his analysis by identifying correspondences between films in the ten-part Decalogue series and Laist uses a process of comparison and contrast to identify how metaphysical perspectives evolve over the course of the Alien films, in the third essay, Christopher Garland supports his textual analysis of scenes in the 1985 science fiction film The Quiet Earth by illustrating ways in which the film gives visual and narrative expression to the fraught history of Maori-European relations, which has for decades informed narratives in New Zealand cinema. Garland’s essay entitled “‘I have been condemned to live’: History, Allegory, and a New (Zealand) Tomorrow in Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth” also identifies correspondences between the film’s apocalyptic narrative and debates surrounding New Zealand’s anti-nuclear movement, which in the 1980s had created tensions between New Zealand and its former allies, pro-nuclear nations in the Northern Hemisphere. Supported by evidence from the salient aspects of the national cinema from which the film emerged, Garland’s comprehensive analysis of the allegorical story about three survivors of an event that has “caused the annihilation of all living beings in New Zealand” and very likely the entire world is thus able to effective describe the ways in which the film explores post-colonial and modern existential dilemmas (Garland).
Last, as we have sometimes done in the past, we are concluding the issue with an invited essay on a topic that we believe warrants attention in film and media studies. The invited essay, “No Tables at Dorsia: American Psycho, Food, and Failed Masculinity” by Mark Bernard, is a succinct analysis of Mary Harron’s 2000 film. The essay demonstrates the value of looking closely at food imagery and characters’ food behaviors. Bernard’s work tacitly builds on the body of scholarship that has helped to define the “food film” genre, which was kick-started by productions such as Tampopo (Itami, 1986) and Babette’s Feast (Axel, 1987) and includes films in which food is a “star” – because food preparation and presentation figure prominently in the story; because food shops, kitchens, dining rooms, commercial kitchens, diners, and other food-producing and food-consuming settings are important; and because characters’ food choices and food behaviors are integral to their interactions, dramatic conflicts, and evolving identities (see Bower, 5-6). Yet Bernard’s concise essay also departs from the scholarship concerned with the food film genre by focusing on the way a film’s ostensibly incidental uses of food imagery, food settings, and food behaviors can anchor analyses about the ideological or philosophical implications of its narrative and filmic design. His writing on food and film has been published in Food, Culture, and Society and can be found in The Politics of Food and Film (forthcoming).
Bower, Anne L. “Watching Food: The Production of Food, Film, and Values.” In Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film, ed. Anne L. Bower. New York: Routledge, 2004. 1-13. Print.
Hill, John. “General Introduction.” In The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, eds. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. xix-xxii. Print.
Smoodin, Eric. “Introduction: The History of Film History.” In Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in American Film History and Method, eds. Jon Lewis and Eric Smoodin. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. 1-33. Print.
Taylor, Greg. Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. Print.