Gender, Class and Cinephilia: Parisian Cinema Cultures, 1918-1925
This dissertation examines the discursive strategies through which French intellectual critics exploited gender, nationalism and class as tools in the production of French high-brow and avant-garde film culture. To date, scholars have largely studied French cinema of the inter-war period through the now canonical lens of this reflexive, self-critical community of cinephiles concerned with the state of French cinema. By contrast, I draw on alternative archival sources—including letter columns in popular film weeklies, fan letters, police reports, taxation policies, municipal memos and notices in the leftist press—to reveal the socially engaged and even revolutionary film communities that formed what I call a “counterpublic.” All the dissertation chapters thus deal with key moments and sites of negotiation between, on the one hand, elitist, intellectualising and national bourgeois cinephile critics and filmmakers, and on the other hand, a heterogeneous public of ordinary filmgoers. In some of these moments the negotiation was gradual, discursive and developed through columns in newspapers and film weeklies, while in other moments it took the form of violent clashes. In the first chapter I examine the reception of D.W. Griffith’s film "Broken Blossoms" (1919), a foundational film for cinephilia. Using fragments of materials from daily newspapers and the film press, I show how French film industry representatives instrumentalised popular audiences’ negative reactions to this film to argue for a separate exhibition network for elite publics. In the second chapter I similarly trace the reception of the anti-Bolshevik film "Red Russia" (1921). I examine secret police reports of Parisian Communist Youth Party meetings, correspondence between these youth groups and Moscow, and notifications to Party members in the leftist press, to demonstrate how cinephile critics like Louis Delluc approached political films with a conservative disdain for non-aesthetic concerns while leftist audiences reacted by creating two alternative exhibition networks in the weeks following the films release. In the third chapter I transition from social activism to a more intimate sphere of film engagement to show how the experience of individual cinemagoers was connected to cinema’s public dimension. I place fan letters to the popular serial star Sandra Milowanoff, as well as cinema programmes and popular film weeklies, into conversation with the political notices and reports that I analyse in the previous chapter. Because most of the fan letters were written by working-class female moviegoers, they provide insight into the motivations and individual modes of engagement with film culture for a population segment all but overlooked. At the same time, they allow me to create a spatial representation of audiences’ homes and workplaces in relation to local cinemas, thus grounding my analysis of their spectatorship within the political and economic concerns of their local communities. If "Broken Blossoms" was a central film for cinephilia, photogénie was its central theoretical concept. In the fourth and final chapter I show how, like the film "Broken Blossoms" and the journal Cinéa, the term photogénie was the site of a slow, discursive and gradual negotiation between high-brow and low-brow film culture. Young female film fans seeking to become actresses wrote into film magazines with their photographs to ask if they possessed photogénie. While cinephiles depended on such film fans for selling their magazines, however, the popular understanding of photogénie went against the grain of what they sought to accomplish in terms of creating an elite terminology for an elite art cinema. This chapter thus demonstrates how early cinephiles sought to distance themselves from popular audiences’ unsophisticated understanding of photogénie. This dissertation thus recovers several key points of cultural negotiation, revealing the contingency and contestability that were at play during the crucial few years when cinephilia emerged and became the dominant mode of discussing film in the French public sphere. In the process it reconstructs the lively and unruly culture that existed around Parisian working-class cinemas in the years following the Great War.
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