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Thinking Cinema Lecture: “Is Film an Optical Medium?”

Francesco Casetti, Yale University

September 26, 2017 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · 010 East Pyne

Committee for Film Studies and the Humanities Council's David A. Gardner '69 Magic Project

On Tuesday, September 21, the Committee for Film Studies will host the first lecture in its seven-part, year-long Thinking Cinema series, which structures vibrant encounters between leading film scholars and the Princeton community. Francesco Casetti, Yale University, will address the question “Is Film an Optical Medium?”

Friedrich Kittler has located film squarely within the lineage of optical media, retracing its roots in the camera obscura, the magic lantern, and photography. The same historiographical account may be found in most of the archaeologies of film, which often include optical toys, the phantasmagoria, and the panorama in their chronologies. But is this lineage correct? I contend that at the climax of the long process of visualization (Latour) that characterizes modernity and brings to the fore the primacy of sight and visual notation, film represents a sort of paradox. Early film theories emphasized the role of screen as the surface where moving images can be projected, but also as filter that sieves reality, as a shelter that offers the filmgoers an illusory protection, and as a divide that separates a space of fiction from a space of reality. In doing so, early film theories activated non-optical connotations that predominated uses of the term “screen” before the first decade of 19th century. The consequences of these alternate associations are threefold. First, early film theory bears witness to the fact that cinema is not just an optical art, but also, and even more, an environmental medium. Second, media archaeologies tend to simplify their lineages: we need to get rid of a recognition based on the “likeness” and the linear “progression” of the objects (cinema is “like” magic lantern, which is “like” camera obscura…). Third, in considering the screen as a form of installation, we not only discover alternative lineages, but we are compelled to reconsider what the emergence of a new medium means.

Francesco Casetti is the Thomas E. Donnelly Professor of Humanities and Film and Media Studies at Yale University. Among his books are Inside the Gaze: Theories of Cinema, 1945-1995; Eye of the Century: Film, Experience, Modernity; and The Lumière Galaxy: Seven Key Words for the Cinema to Come. He is working on a genealogy of screen that underlines its environmental aspects and its propensity to become a component of our current “mediascapes.”

Sponsored by the Committee for Film Studies and the Humanities Council’s David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project.

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