B is for Barthes, Roland. In particular, his 1979 essay “Upon Leaving the Movie Theater,” my favorite piece of writing on the syllabus of my freshman year film studies course. Barthes explores the pre- and post-viewing condition of the movie-goer—what he calls the “cinematic condition.” He describes the condition of the viewer before seeing a movie in Freudian terms: as “pre-hypnotic,” the viewer having a “‘crepuscular reverie’” that draws them to submit themself to the “anonymous, indifferent cube of darkness” that films are (1). He explains that the experience of a movie theater,one of complete darkness, is hypnosis, aided by the darkness and unfamiliarity of the space and people around the viewer.
Something about Barthes’ writing struck a chord within me when I read it. Perhaps it was because Barthes so lovingly describes a mode of watching movies that my peers and I haven’t been able to experience in the past year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. During Zoom movie screenings, we viewed films through what Barthes calls the “opposite experience,” one where “the darkness
is dissolved, the anonymity repressed, the space is familiar, organized (by furniture and familiar objects), tamed” (2).
However, as my classmate Maryam Abuissa wrote in our collective essay about watching a movie together on Zoom: “It is a different experience surely, but there’s something kind of magical about the collective experience, distorted through space instead of darkness, through time instead of anonymity.” Even through the strife of virtual learning, a deadly global pandemic, apocalyptic wildfires, an unstable election and democracy, and so, so much more, my peers and I (distorted through time and space, and sometimes anonymity) were still able to become cinephiles. Through this “opposite experience,” we were able to find merits in it that Barthes could not.
C could be for cinema, or closeness, or connection, but I’d like to talk about cinephilia. In Peter Wollen’s “Alphabet of Cinema” (2002), he composes his essay in alphabetical order and through a list of terms that describe his brand of cinephilia. In his essay, C is also for cinephilia. He describes it as “an obsessive infatuation with film, to the point of letting it dominate your life” (5). I was acquainted with a Wollen-like definition of cinephilia before the course, but I was not acquainted with the concepts of “new” and “old” cinephilia. A generational gap exists between cinephiles characterized by the emergence of the digital revolution and the recent accessibility of film.
In his essay “Everyone I Know is Stayin’ Home: The New Cinephilia,’’ James Quandt laments the losses that come with viewing digital
copies of films (Barthes’ “opposite experience”). Quandt likens the disparity in quality of a digital copy of a film and a film screening to that of a CD and a live concert, saying that no digital copy, “no matter how superbly produced, could ever replace seeing it in its original format and classic setting” (208). Initially, Quandt’s fixation on small altered trivial details frustrated me. For example, his focus on the color of a “pale pink dress in Demy’s Model Shop (FR/US, 1969)” showing as white seemed silly and irrational to me (208). Additionally, Quandt shows that he is self-aware and acknowledges that his comments could be called elitist. He attempts to dismantle this argument by attacking the word itself, saying that elitism is “a word that has become specious by ideological overuse” (208). I wondered: How could he say elitist and exclusive things, and then claim that he is not elitist because he does not like the word? More importantly, how could he imply that the movie-watching experience of my peers and me is any less valuable because of our inability to attend a theater?
As I’ve mentioned before, part of cinephilia in my film class has arisen from the difficulties and triumphs of connection and disconnection. Connecting with peers during virtual learning sometimes seems impossible. Although our course was entirely online, my peers and I were able to bond over the movies we watched. I showed my Zoom viewing group (composed of Majo Jaramillo and Maryam Abuissa) one of my favorite movies, I Dream in Another Language (Contreras, 2017). In our subsequent and aforementioned collective essay, we felt inspired to write about the unappreciated merits of our collective online (or “opposite”) experience. We spoke of being able to see each other’s faces as we experienced similar emotional responses and using the chat function to comment without disrupting others. Under normal circumstances, the darkness of a room or theater doesn’t allow one to see the faces of their fellow movie-goers, and excessive commentary is a cinema faux pas. Neither of these qualities would have been
possible without a digital copy of the film. Our viewing group also watched One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (Varda, 1977) on Zoom, attempting to sync our movie times by counting down to press play. The film is about two best friends being separated, meeting again, then separating once more—but staying in touch by writing each other postcards. The coincidence of watching this film during a period of separation and isolation was poignant. While Suzanne and Pomme see each other’s lives flash by through the postcards, we felt their loneliness in their separation. In our collective essay in response to the movie, we compared the postcard writing of Suzanne and Pomme to our desire to stay connected while watching the film through our individual screens. The nostalgia that Suzanne and Pomme have for each other is matched by our nostalgia for watching movies in person with other people.
Ultimately, I believe Quandt was right about the differences between traditional and digital ways of watching films. He was right not because of the quality of the movie, but because of the unique collective experience that one gains from watching a movie in a movie theater with close friends, enveloped in a crowd of people one may or may not know. Although there are some joys in viewing films virtually, they do not exceed the experience of the movie theater as a social and bonding event. While I recognize that Quandt’s claims have some merit, I still would not be as critical as he is about new cinephilia. Growing up, I watched most movies at home. I learned to love movies by watching them on my computer, in my bed, and surrounded by my most familiar objects. I don’t think these experiences are less valuable because they were not the formative experiences Quandt had in cinemas. Ultimately, I am not a prescriber of either new or old cinephilia. People should be able to enjoy movies however they are accessible to them, without their experiences being looked down upon. I cannot deny that my first experiences going to movie theaters were special occasions, rightfully so. The experiences of going to a movie theater and watching a movie at home are very different but equally valuable to the creation of cinephiles.
D is for dream sequences. Dreaming is very familiar to the experience of watching films. According to Siegfried Kracauer, the heightened consciousness of what Barthes describes as hypnosis invites dreaming, and movies can be said to resemble dreams at intervals (163-164). Moonlight and I Dream in Another Language are very similar movies. They both feature a protagonist (Chiron and Evaristo, respectively) on the brink of adulthood who deals with questions about his sexuality. The protagonist is separated from his love interest (Kevin and Isauro, also respectively) for decades, and then reunited by the end of the movie. The movies have different
social contexts and thus different reasons for the development of the protagonist’s story. Moonlight shows the ways being black in America challenges the protagonist’s identity and perception of self throughout his childhood and into his adulthood. I Dream in Another Language shows the long-lasting influence of Spanish colonialism on the indigenous culture and language of the main characters.
For both movies, the use of dreams and the overall dream-like qualities are very intentional. I Dream in Another Language introduces the subject matter to the audience through its title. James Laxton, Moonlight’s director of cinematography, even said that he tried to “‘create a very immersive experience that’s almost a dream-like state’” (Gates 44). Both movies use dreams to portray their charac-
ters’ states of mind in pivotal moments of their lives and the shame they feel about their sexuality. In Moonlight, Chiron wakes up in the middle of the night and finds Kevin having sex with a girl outside. Kevin looks up at Chiron and asks, “you good, Black?” Chiron keeps watching them, and the viewer feels confused. Why is he still watching such an intimate act? The scene is cast in a green light that just barely separates it from the look of the rest of the movie, so we don’t realize that it is a dream. Chiron promptly wakes up and so do we. The fear and confusion settle on his face, and the audience knows that Chiron is asking himself the same questions.
In I Dream in Another Language, Evaristo’s dream is even more elusive to the audience. Evaristo goes to find Isauro at the mission, where they take Spanish lessons from a missionary. Before he reaches the window of the classroom, he looks up and realizes that the statue of Jesus is crying tears of blood. He looks down and realizes that he is slipping in the puddle of blood. He falls back and wakes up, gasping for air. Like Chiron’s face, Evaristo’s reveals the panic and shock of what he’s just seen. Through the sudden nature of these close-ups, we are also ripped out of our dream-like state and vicarious dreaming through both Evaristo and Chiron.
We feel the shame they feel and embody their terror, but we also realize that we are not actually dreaming. More importantly, we realize that we are completely at the mercy of what is in front of us—even, or especially if it is as confusing and nonsensical as dreams are.
E is for Jean Epstein and his focus on close-ups, F is for flashback sequences, and G is for Racquel Gates and her examination of the politics of image quality in black film and media. Each has been valuable to my evolving cinephilia, but I confess I must fast-forward through them, as I am excited to reach H.
For H, I could go to Hitchcock and his intriguing way of looking at terror and suspense. But, like Wollen, I’m going to end this essay, and therefore my participation with my “Film and Writing” class with the beginning, with Barthes and his “hypnosis.” After consuming so many movies and immersing myself in the world of film theory, finishing my film class is much like leaving hypnosis, seeking “the oldest of its powers: the cure” (Barthes 1). Showing the shifting nature of the definition of cinephilia, Wollen disagrees with Serge Daney’s definition of cinephilia as a “sickness, a malady which became a duty, almost a religious duty” (Wollen 5). Instead, Wollen has a more favorable view of the ‘malady,’ “not as a sickness, but as the symptom of a desire to remain within the child’s view of the world, always outside, always fascinated by a mysterious parental drama, always seeking to master one’s anxiety by compulsive repetition” (5). Removed from the periods in which Daney and Wollen write, nestled in my own social and historical context, I can see that their definitions share more similarities than differences. The main similarity: obsessively watching more and more movies is the cure to this illness, or fascination, or anxiety.
And so, although I am leaving the hypnosis of Film and Writing, I take with me this obsession and desire to continue to walk in and out of hypnosis, for as long as I can and by whatever method that will allow me to do so.
Barthes, Roland. “Upon Leaving the Movie Theater.” Cinematographic Apparatus: Selected Writings, edited by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Tanam Press, 1980, pp. 1-2.
Gates, Racquel. “The Last Shall Be First: Aesthetics and Politics in Black Film and Media.” Film Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 2, 2017, p.44.
Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film. Princeton University Press, 1960, pp. 163-4.
Quandt, James. “Everyone I know is Stayin’ Home: The New Cinephilia.” Framework, vol. 50, nos. 1&2, 2009, p. 208.
Wollen, Peter. Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film. London, Verso, 2002, p. 5.
Yasmin Hamilton ’24 is a staff writer