Cinephilia: Far from Heaven

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Grete Kotryna
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Cinephilia: Far from Heaven

The term Cinephilia is even broader than the term cinema, because cinephilia encompasses both cinema and love for cinema. It is against the human mind to operate in such broad terms; therefore scholars challenge them and break them down. This essay is going to expose the views of three film scholars: Laura Mulvey, Christian Keathley and Lucas Hilderbrand. As it is going to become evident in the course of this piece, all three attempt to categorise cinephilia and cinephiles, and all look at fragmentation: extraction of a fetish in Mulvey’s case, focusing on a personally significant detail in Keathley’s, and clipping as a copyright-friendly means of sharing cherished cinematic moments in Hilderbrand’s. By presenting fragmentation as a predominantly cinephilic engagement, these scholars perhaps overlook their own frequent fragmenting of their subject, such as cinephilia in this case.

Laura Mulvey: the discourse of delay
In her book Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image Mulvey theorises cinephilia psychoanalytically. She suggests that there are two kinds of cinephilia: “a cinephilia that is more on the side of a fetishistic investment in the extraction of a fragment of cinema from its context” and “a cinephilia that extracts and then replaces a fragment with extra understanding back into its context.”1 Although Mulvey does not explicitly state so, it appears that she lines the first kind, “the possessive spectator,” with academics that lack a scholarly approach, and the second kind, “the more meditative, pensive spectator,” with more advanced academics. Mulvey believes that “the main aim of textual analysis” is “finding ‘the film behind the film,’” but a cinephile might become tempted to “detach a privileged sequence from its narrative armature (…) dismiss[ing] narrative and context.”2 Her choice of words explains her attitude: words aim, analysis and finding carry notions of a disciplined spectator, whereas temptation, detachment and dismissal refer to a passionate, instinct-driven spectator. While Mulvey does not openly disparage the passion – in fact, she admits that these oppositions inevitably imbricate3– she favours the discipline. Although cinephilia is a universal love of films, it is interesting to consider what filmic characteristics feed it better than others. Judging by the most frequently discussed recent example, a film about cinephilia indeed facilitates a cinephilic appreciation. Looking at it through a Mulvey lens, it is so because The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003) often draws on fragments of classical Hollywood and various films of the European New Waves. Not only are Isabelle and Theo’s rooms decorated with still images or posters of the films Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966), La Chinoise (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967) and Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966); the twins and Matthew also re-enact scenes, quote from and make reference to oeuvres of cinema all throughout the course of the film. Through the trio that fetishise films Bertolucci directly addresses the cinephile spectator: will he or she notice all the references? The game-like nature of such engagement corresponds with the cinephile’s passion.

However, while the subject of cinephilia might stimulate cinephilic acclaim, a film that does not address cinephilia directly can be appreciated by cinephiles just the same. This is proved by Mulvey’s discussion of the cinema of Douglas Sirk. According to her, “fetishistic involvement in Douglas Sirk’s cinema revolves around his style (…) [of] colours, lighting and camera movement.” So firstly, the bright colours, iconic lighting and meaningful camera movement make for convenient fragmentation. Secondly, Sirk’s favoured melodrama genre “is the genre of displaced meanings in which the ‘unsaid’ and ‘unspeakable’ find cinematic expression in the mise en scène. The melodrama demands a deciphering spectator.”4 Therefore, Mulvey’s reasoning fits in with the assertion that to satisfy a cinephile’s passion, a film needs to present itself as a challenging activity. To sum up, Mulvey’s take on cinephilia relies on the concept of delay: films that are easy to fragment lend themselves to a cinephilic mode of spectatorship; and digital technologies allow for precise “’delayed’ spectatorship5, that is, fragmenting cinema at the touch of a button.

Christian Keathley: the discourse of excess
Whereas Mulvey exposes a tension between the non-scholarly and the academically advanced cinephilia, Keathley’s book Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees takes up a more reconcilable approach. As Jennifer Pranolo points out, Keathley sees “cinephilia as more of an ‘attitude’ of looking than a drive towards analytic interpretation.”6 Keathley believes that acclaimed critical work is that of cinephiles: he tags “the majority of academics” as “devout cinephiles.”7 When Mulvey unfolds Imitation of Life in a Cahiers du cinéma author- and style-centered manner, she feels uneasy about the cinephilic extraction of the images from their context.8 Keathley states that Cahiers du cinéma auteur theory was “’a rationalisation and social justification’ for the obsessive pleasures of the cinephile. (…) With [this move of rationalization] cinephiles identified themselves not just as fanatics, but as specialists.”9 Here he raises three points to eliminate the unease. To begin with, if Mulvey follows a Cahiers approach, and Keathley regards the Cahiers critics as cinephiles, the term cinephilia should gain Mulvey’s favour. Then, the self-titled specialists justified their fanaticism, and, in Keathley’s eyes, cinephilia became absorbed by film criticism. Also, by awarding themselves with academic power, auteur critics established certain maxims, such as: fragmentation is a means of analysis; consistent distinctive style grants the director the status of an auteur. All in all, Keathley sees cinephilia “as a potential new paradigm for film historiography and criticism.”10 Relying on Paul Willemen’s theories, Keathley bases his suggestion on the discourse of excess that is seen at the “cinephiliac moment.”This is the moment when a spectator sees something that is “not choreographed for [him or her] to see,” but that he or she will always remember. The image that therefore appears “in excess” is not to be confused with the key image of the film that all spectators will remember universally.

By listing various “cherished moments” of Willemen, Noel King, David Thompson, Manny Farber and other scholars Keathley establishes that the “cinephiliac moment” is by and large of personal importance. Nonetheless, Keathley and his quoted academics talk about their semiotically favoured filmic moments with affection, and seem to disregard the threat of subjectivity. There could be two reasons for such treatment. Firstly, as Keathley himself points out, it is the self-reflexivity of “the identification of these privileged moments.” A scene picked out for subjective reasons is granted extended personal meanings, and the new meanings are then narcissistically protected from accusations of misreading or irrelevance. Secondly, perhaps the “marginal bits,” or the “tiny morbidly life-worn detail”11 are as much as the critic dares to claim for himself or herself. Then the detail is protected from charges of misinterpretation or irrelevance by the right of ownership.

Lucas Hilderbrand: the discourse of cinematic promiscuity
If Mulvey’s psychoanalytical theoretical framework of cinephilia contains some tension and Keathley’s semiotic framework is more reconciled, Hilderbrand’s state of ease can at times resemble ignorance. Hilderbrand does not think that “there is any dominant or coherent political position in cinephilia today.” He mentions the shift from “a rarefied specialist milieu or purist aesthetics to include more everyday practices” that loosened the “strict conception of the term.”12 For example, Hilderbrand quotes film scholar Charles Tashiro’s dissatisfaction with the aesthetic damage done by VHS releases in 1991, and Tashiro’s subsequent acknowledgement of “the pleasures of owning movies on video” in 1996. Hilderbrand is aware of the difference of a cinephilic “distanced aesthetic appreciation in a theatre” versus a videophilic “emotional openness at home.” He explains that while at its emergence videophilia was perceived as conflicting with cinephilia, with time cinephilia absorbed videophilia, and the current state of the love of film can be labelled as all-encompassing “cinematic promiscuity.”13 What emerges as the most valuable fresh thought in Hilderbrand’s article is his sub-grouping of cinephilia. At first he acknowledges the established binary of the continental intellectual and the American hedonist, putting it in a cinephilic context: “if the French model of cinephilia was about films and erudition, America film butterfly has been about how good movies make you feel – and how easily.” American-born but continentally-minded, Hilderbrand points out a necessary condition for classic cinephilia: it “can only exist in cosmopolitan urban locations: New York, Paris, London, San Francisco.”In small towns, where there is less than little demand for “classics, foreign art films, or obscurities,”14 one turns to videophilia. Such reasoning enforces the idea that videophilia cannot replace cinephilia, for videophilia is something one turns to when there are no conditions for cinephilia to happen. Hilderbrand’s thesis is thus valid: videophilia can be (or not be) part of cinephilia, and because of the different weights of the phenomena there is no contest.

It is worthwhile to note how Hilderbrand elaborates on the ideas of fragmentation and context that also resound in the work of the previously discussed scholars. Whereas Mulvey is concerned with fetishising via fragmentation, Hilderbrand suggests are more pragmatic take. “While studios have been mostly concerned with piracy of complete works, clipping and recontextualizing has become a major practice,” he writes. Therefore clipping is a safe means of cinephilic obsession. Simultaneously the criteria of inclusion and exclusion express the clipper’s “adoration and identification with specific content,” as Keathley has pointed out, too. In addition to Keathley’s insights, Hilderbrand offers a section on cinephilic identification intertwined with escapism. His statement finds its roots in psychoanalysis: while queer audiences tend to “fixate upon fleeting moments of queerness or diva fabulosity,” and “video facilitated access to (…) gay texts,” cinephilia is an appropriately recognised engagement for the homosexual spectator. Hilderbrand asserts that Far from Heaven is one of “the most interesting queer films of the home video era.” Firstly, Haynes’s cinephilia pronounces itself in the director’s exposed attempt at making a Sirkian piece. Secondly, in 2002 “gay visibility and politics have become relatively normative,”15 but the film still is popular with queer audiences who might find this take on homosexuality in 1950s America interesting.

Far from Heaven
In Mulvey’s psychoanalytic framework of cinephilia, Sirk’s mise-en-scène reflects the “displacement of emotion from character to cinematic language (…) and acts as a means of narration.”16 Mulvey’s insights on Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959) apply legitimately to Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002), as Haynes made his film in homage to Sirk’s cinema. In the trailer for Far from Heaven the following questions appear across the screen: “What lies under the surface? What hides behind the walls? What imprisons the desires… of the heart?” Although the answer is straight-forward (racist and homophobic intolerance intertwined with the faults of patriarchal order), it is more valuable to look at the questions themselves. They explicitly ground Mulvey’s semiotic suggestion that emotions (“desires… of the heart”) are coded in the melodramatic mise-en-scène (surface, walls). For instance, many interior scenes at the Whitakers’ house feature the stairway. As a transitional space, the stairway might suggest that change is about to take place in the Whitakers’ routine, or speak about the impossibility of social mobility, or function as an agent of unease: home is associated with finite spaces, whereas a stairway breaks the concept. While Mulvey’s approach of decoding melodrama might bring thrilling insights, it is necessary to understand that she is suggesting to read the unsaid and the unspeakable. Delving beyond the immediate meaning of images is the only way forward in textual analysis, yet one has to be very careful. There is a tangible risk of misunderstanding in attempting to word the unsaid, not to mention the unspeakable. As with any approach, it is important to keep it quite open. If an approach narrows down to a methodology, meanings might become obscured by the method. If the person deciphering and the analysed filmmaker come from different backgrounds, thus different systems of signs and signification, the first must be well acquainted with the latter’s symbolic system to understand it: in Mulvey’s words, the reader has to know how to treat “meanings that already have a cultural currency.”17 In the scene where Cathy Whitaker’s lavender scarf is blown away by the wind, does the scarf symbolise Cathy’s difference and rebelliousness, her inability to go against the dominant order of society, is it just a narrative prompter for Cathy and Raymond Deagan to go into conversation, or yet something else?

At this point let us discuss Far from Heaven by drawing on the strengths of Keathley’s semiotic framework of cinephilia. In the manner of the excess discourse, let us “devote space to the privileged moments,” as we all are curious what caught our followed scholar’s eye. Some memorable instants, such as a pan from left to right to reveal a vase with tree branches in the less than harmonious Whitaker’s living room, come to mind. However, judging by Keathley’s examples, this might be too outspoken of a “privileged moment,” as too many people might remember it. Then there is less space for narcissism and uncontested ownership. The shift from a camera on eye-level to a canted angle emphasising Cathy’s distress after she finds out that her husband has been having an affair with another man would likely be labelled as too outspoken, too. In Keathley’s manner, one should say: “I will never forget how Cathy says “It’s not so very far” with her slight drawl,” and vaguely assert that this resounds her oppression. While these suggestions might be of some interest to their author, important limitations come forward. As Pranolo notes, they are of “personal significance,” thus it might be that if a scholar has not yet become a “brand,” his or her cherished moments are less than significant to the general reader. While Keathley takes time in listing various well-known scholars and gently considering their subjectively preferred “marginal bits,” he ceases to discuss the importance of the scholar-as-star aspect. In addition, as Pranolo observes, Keathley’s suggestion to accept cinephilia as the “new paradigm for film (…) criticism” is “unnecessary proselytizing” – he has already acknowledged that most film scholars have always been cinephiles.18 Most importantly, Keathley suggests that each detail noticed in excess needs to be recontextualised,19 inserted into unexpected resonances,20 whereas the “disciplined” Mulvey manner strives for re-contextualising, replacing a fragment back into its context.21 Perhaps both ways are able to give birth to extra understanding.

At first sight it can seem that the Hilderbrand piece is overly simplified. However, the illusion of simplicity arises from the accessibility of the text, and in fact Hilderbrand makes some insightful observations that can be used in analysing Far from Heaven. As he rightfully points out, Far from Heaven is one of the most thrilling queer films of the home video era. Just like the other films that Haynes’s filmis listed with (The Long Day Closes, Super 8 1/2, The Watermelon Woman …), Far from Heaven offers a complex account of queerness. Frank Whitaker has all a man can wish for: a successful career, a kind, beautiful wife, two loving children and a large house with servants. However, he lives in constant disguise of his homosexuality, therefore he cannot be content. Curiously, although made by a homosexual director, Far from Heaven does not portray Frank as a positive character, and that is what makes this melodrama more profound than many films about queerness. Hilderbrand’s work on cinephilia, although it offers some useful insights, has a bias that diminishes his piece. Hilderbrand asserts that the films he praises as the great films of the home video era “are conceived out of their makers’ (…) drives to bring sex back to the cinema.”22 Such suggestion bluntly simplifies complex works by such profound filmmakers as Terence Davies. The drive of bringing sex back to the cinema is not Davies’s priority: rather, he feels so uncomfortable about his homosexuality that his depiction of it is less than sexual. Likewise, in Far from Heaven, sexuality is also desaturated. Frank’s homosexuality is presented as a troublesome state (Frank tries to treat the “disease”), then as a cold-hearted affair (Frank coolly arranges his divorce details with Cathy over the phone), and there is nothing sensual about that sort of depiction. This is not to say that sex in cinema is a sign of superficiality. Rather, this is to suggest that Davies, Haynes and others choose more thoughtful ways of dealing with sexuality than openly showing sex on screen.

As demonstrated by these brief analyses following a Mulvey, Keathley or Hilderbrand’s approach, cinephilia can be a rewarding angle of looking at films. At the same time, because of the broadness of the concept of cinephilia and cinephile, hurdles appear. On an ideological level, a cinephile could be an alpha scholar: passionate and meditative, re-contextualising and recontextualising an extracted fragment. On a practical level, the term cinephile frequently carries humorous notions of trivial knowledge that may not be crucial for a profound understanding of a given film, and comes saturated with aspirations for challenges that are too playful to be scholarly. Perhaps it would be useful to draw a distinction between a film lover and a cinephile. Most likely many scholars would admit to loving films, but would doubt and start a complicated discussion when asked to go under a certain French term.


1. Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion, 2006), 144.

2. Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, 145.

3. Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, 144.

4. Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, 146.

5. Laura Mulvey, “Some Reflections on the Cinephilia Question,” Framework 50, nos. 1 & 2 (Spring & Fall 2009): 192.

6. Jennifer Pranolo, “Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees by Christian Keathly,” Film Quarterly 61, no. 3. (Spring 2008): 85.

7. Christian Keathley, Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 135.

8. Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, 145.

9. Keathley, 14–15.

10. Pranolo, 85.

11. Keathley, 30.

12. Lucas Hilderbrand, “Cinematic Promiscuity: Cinephilia after Videophilia,” Framework 50, nos. 1 & 2 (Spring & Fall 2009): 217.

13. Hilderbrand, 214-216.

14. Hilderbrand, 215.

15. Hildrerbrand, 216.

16. Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, 147.

17. Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, 149.

18. Pranolo, 85.

19. Keathley, 153–178.

20. Pranolo, 85.

21. Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, 144.

22. Hilderbrand, 216.


Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966).

Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002).

Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959).

La Chinoise (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967).

Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966).

Super 8 ½ (Bruce la Bruce, 1995).

The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003).

The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies, 1992).

The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1997)