Introduction: Emotions, History, and Philosophy in Cinema

This Special Dossier for Screening the Past grew out of an event organised at the University of Western Australia and the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions (ARC CHE: CE110001011) in December 2015. A core aspiration of ARC CHE is to take an interdisciplinary humanities-based approach to an understanding of the long history of individual and communal emotions in Europe (1100-1800) and to use this knowledge to illuminate modern emotional, social, cultural experience. The event behind this dossier was a project emerging out of CHE’s Shaping the Modern program, which focuses both on the legacies of European premodernity in modern emotional life and on the emotional investments that modern cultures have in the European past.

Participants were invited to explore the nexus between emotions, history, and philosophy in cinema from a variety of theoretical and disciplinary perspectives; they were also encouraged to reflect on and respond to the following questions:

1. What kind of contributions does cinema make to the philosophy and history of emotions?
2. How does cinema construct the historical past in emotional terms?
3. How does cinema articulate a philosophy of emotions?
4. What are the philosophical implications of various styles of historical cinema?

This intersection of questions and disciplinary approaches aims to take a distinctive approach to the study of cinema and history, for which Screening the Past is a vital forum. The motivation behind these key questions was to focus attention on some of the complex historicist dimensions that are currently missing from the application of theories of emotion to cinema. By throwing into relief the affective states experienced as a result of the historicity of viewing, the historicity of the cinematic medium, the historicity of the cinematic worlds onscreen, and the historicity of emotion itself, the essays presented here reflect on how our experience of cinema might offer insights into understanding emotion from historical and philosophical perspectives. Contributors were invited to explore how cinema constructs historically specific worlds in a manner that evokes mood, elicits emotion, and contributes to a sense of historical ‘pastness’. The question of whether cinema could help articulate a philosophy of emotions was central throughout, along with the idea that varieties of historical cinema have theoretical implications that are yet to be explored. The notion of ‘historical cinema’ invoked here spans period fictions, genre movies, films dealing with specific historical events, and films concerned reflexively with the question of how cinema bears witness to history.

There has been a significant focus in recent years on theorising emotions in cinema, and the relationship between philosophy and film has also attracted considerable interest. Far less attention, however, has been given to the question of emotions and history in cinema, let alone the manner in which emotions, history, and philosophy are related in our experience of movies. Hence the aim of bringing all three perspectives together in order to explore emotions in historical perspective as well as expanding inquiry into emotion in cinema by focusing on the relationship between emotions and history. The result was a rich series of interdisciplinary contributions bringing together theorists from film/media studies, philosophy, history, art theory, literature, and cultural theory. We hope that these articles highlight the rich potential of interdisciplinary inquiry into the emotions and art, and underline the manner in which the study of emotion in cinema could benefit from more detailed attention to the theoretical implications of understanding emotions as historical and transhistorical phenomena. Movies, we contend, provide a mode of aesthetic experience with the capacity to help us think through the emotional dimensions of historical experience.

The essays in this dossier are divided into two clusters. The first contains four essays that reflect on the specifically historicist nature of the emotions solicited by the viewing of historical films. They are concerned in particular with anatomising how a sense of ‘pastness’ is registered by modern viewers in affective states that are amorphous and transtemporal, but also shaped by long cultural legacies in which different pasts come to accrue a range of recognised meanings (the classical as heroic and timeless; the medieval as brutal or fanatical; the Age of Exploration as exhilarating yet ominous). Corresponding with CHE’s focus on Europe pre-1800, there is a particular emphasis in the cluster on the cinematic representation of distant European pasts: Homeric Greece, “eleventh-century” Scotland (via Shakespeare), and the convivencia of Moorish Andalusia.

A leitmotif through the first three essays is mood as an affective state that registers cinematic historicity. Each author argues that extending the concept of cinematic mood to encompass its cultural and historical aspects can enrich our understanding of the interplay between emotional engagement, aesthetic expression and trans-historical experience in narrative film. Robert Sinnerbrink’s essay opens this cluster by exploring the concept of historical mood as it is captured in narrative film. Drawing on phenomenological and cognitivist approaches, his essay examines how historical mood becomes manifest in different kinds of films: those which articulate explicit historical forms of sensibility as part of their fictional world; genre films which evoke historically particular kinds of mood in creating generically distinctive cinematic worlds; and films that implicitly express moods that can be recognised retrospectively as expressing specific cultural–historical milieux. Sinnerbrink also develops a taxonomy in which historical films can be said to express historical mood via immersive or reflective approaches.

Ika Willis’s essay explores an instance of a reflectively moody historical film in her analysis of the treatment of time and Homeric ‘history’ in Ben Ferris’s Australian-Croatian film Penelope (2009). Applying a critical framework originally developed out of literary studies, she investigates some ways in which affect is deployed in historical cinema to produce distinctive experiences of temporality. Willis argues that the experience of watching historical film is irreducibly and originarily asynchronous, and that affect – including emotion and mood – produces a circuit of attachment between the present time of viewing and the represented past. Her essay contrasts a mainstream cinematic retelling of Homer’s Iliad, Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004), where emotion is used to repair temporal disjuncture, to Ferris’s more interesting Homeric film Penelope, which explores the experience of asynchrony itself, both through the subjective time of waiting and through an investigation of the ‘timelessness’ of the classical.

Louise D’Arcens’ essay explores historical mood and transhistorical empathy as cinematic experiences with specific cultural valencies in popular medievalist narrative films. Analysing the 2015 Justin Kurzel film Macbeth, her essay develops a critical frame using phenomenology and romantic hermeneutics to illuminate the affective experience of viewing films set in the Middle Ages, exploring in particular the diffuse emotional registers that it calls ‘medievalist moods’. D’Arcens argues that the historical moods evoked in and by films such as Macbeth are central to the experience of viewing historical cinema. Using notions of empathy developed within German hermeneutics, especially the concepts of Einfühlung,Verstehen, and Nachfühlen, it accounts for the transhistorical empathy encountered in the viewing of historical films.

Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman continue the emphasis on medievalist cinema in their essay on Youssef Chahine’s 1997 film Destiny. Emotion, philosophy, and history intersect in their analysis of how music operates idiosyncratically in the film to offer an affective proxy for the neo-Aristotelianism of the “twelfth-century” Andalusian philosopher Averroes. Pointing out that critics of Destiny assume that its message is that ideas will always trump censorship, they argue that such responses neglect to ask why Chahine chose to make this film a musical of sorts and to what extent the coupling of philosophy with song and dance might work to contest oppressive state and religious power. Song and dance are not simply window-dressing in the film, they argue; rather, they represent defiance in the face of loss and defeat. In Destiny, conviviencia becomes conviviality, but it is ephemeral, doomed to fade along with the music’s dying notes.

The second cluster of essays focuses more on films that engage in different ways with the historicity of modernity, where modernity is variously characterised as a period of urban ennui and postindustrial alienation or as an era of mechanised atrocity marked by the experience of mass political violence. The films considered in this section are all distinguished by their relatively recent “twentieth-century” historical settings (Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, films by the Dardenne Brothers, Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt, and Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida), and span a range of styles and genres such as modernist, realist, historical biopic, and historically situated narratives. The authors examine a range of issues including the relationship between cinema and the history of painting, the idea of moral beauty in cinema, the historical rendering of philosophical biography, and the aesthetic presentation of grief, absence, and loss in historical cinema. All of the films discussed here could be described as considered cinematic and moral-philosophical responses to the disasters and challenges of modern historical experience.

Richard Read’s essay, ‘Emotional Historiography of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse‘, explores the emotional dimensions of Antonioni’s critique of traditional art forms, and proposes the idea that films can ‘express emotions about the history of entire media’. Read examines the relationship between cinema and the history of painting, arguing that a key opening scene in L’Eclisse – in which Vittoria (Monica Vitti), during a protracted and deflationary dispute with her partner, plays with an ornate empty picture frame – enacts Antonioni’s specifically modernist cinematic critique of the traditional artistic media, chiming with contemporary critiques of the ‘end of art’ in 1960s Italy and Europe.

In ‘Moral Beauty in the Cinema of the Dardenne Brothers’, Damian Cox takes a philosophical approach, arguing that the revelation of moral beauty provides the most ethically defining feature of their work. Taking an historical perspective on the idea of moral beauty, Cox explores the manner in which the aesthetic experience of pleasure in moral beauty in the Dardenne’s films intersects with a realist presentation of moral experience in a manner that deftly avoids sentimentality and didacticism.

An historical biopic provides the focus of Ned Curthoys essay, ‘Selbstdenken, remembrance, and the future of civil courage in Margarete von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt (2012)’. Focusing on Arendt’s experiences covering the Eichmann trial (the basis for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem wherein she introduced the idea of the ‘banality of evil’), Curthoys argues that the film’s presentation of Arendt’s struggle to define her idea of the banality of evil – describing Eichmann’s institutional abrogation of moral responsibility and calamitous failure to ‘think’ – does justice to both Arendt’s complex psychological character and the volatile social, political, and ideological milieu in which she was writing.

The link with the historical catastrophe of Nazism is continued in Matilda Mroz’s essay, ‘Framing loss and figuring grief in Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida’ (Agate Trzebuschowska). Noted for its austere visual style, this film tells the story of Ida, a young woman about to enter a convent, who discovers her Jewish heritage while vising her family home with her troubled older sister. The sisters learn the shocking truth about their family’s fate, their parents and sibling killed by Polish neighbours who then took over the family home. Reflecting on the film’s aesthetic figuration of grief and loss, Mroz shows how the experience of historical trauma finds indirect expression in the film’s remarkable black and white imagery, empty spaces, silences, and absences. Historical experience is rendered in imagery that is both visceral and austere, opening up an experience of grief that is at once affective and historical.

All of the essays collected in this special issue take seriously the capacity of cinema to render, reveal, and question history. They explore the manner in which films contribute to our understanding of the emotional dimensions of historical experience, and find novel and compelling ways of enacting diverse modes of transhistorical consciousness via aesthetic means. We hope that they contribute to fostering further inquiries into the nexus between emotion, history, and philosophy not only within individual films but by way of cinematic experience more generally.

About the Author

Louise D’Arcens and Robert Sinnerbrink

About the Authors

Louise D'Arcens

Louise D’Arcens is Professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the Department of English at Macquarie University. Her publications include Old Songs in the Timeless Land: Medievalism in Australian Literature 1840-1910 (2011), Comic Medievalism: Laughing at the Middle Ages (2014) and the edited volumes The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism (2016), International Medievalism and Popular Culture (2014), and Maistresse of My Wit: Medieval Women, Modern Scholars (2004).

Robert Sinnerbrink

Robert Sinnerbrink is Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Macquarie University. He is the author of Cinematic Ethics: Exploring Ethical Experience through Film (Routledge, 2016), New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images (Continuum, 2011), Understanding Hegelianism (Acumen, 2007), and is a member of the editorial board of the journal Film-Philosophy.View all posts by Louise D’Arcens and Robert Sinnerbrink →