In conversation: Francesco Casetti on a new era in cinema

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Francesco Casetti, winner of the Limina Prize for Best International Film Studies Book. (Photo by Laila Pozzo)

Francesco Casetti, chair of the Film and Media Studies Program, recently received one of the most prestigious European awards in film and media studies — the XIV annual Limina Prize for Best International Film Studies Book.

Casetti, who is also the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of Humanities and professor of film studies, was honored with the award for his 2015 book, “The Lumière Galaxy: Seven Key Words for the Cinema to Come.” The prize is given by the editorial board of Cinéma & Cie. International Film Studies Journal, which includes 50 world-renowned film and media scholars.

Casetti recently met with YaleNews to talk about the impetus for his book, the new emerging era in cinema aesthetics, and why the Yale scholar believes it is important to have “novel insights into ideas in the present that were fed by the past.”

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

What does winning this award mean to you?

It means a great deal to me because the decision on who is to receive the award is made by the paramount colleagues in my field from both sides of the Atlantic. The ballot is secret, but I have heard that there were many excellent books nominated for the prize. This also makes me happy because it means that it was a good year in cinema writing.

What prompted you to write “The Lumiére Galaxy”?

My previous book, which I wrote in 2005, was on the relevance of cinema in the culture of the 20th century. I concluded that book by posing a question about what was going to happen to the cinema in 10 years. In “The Lumière Galaxy” I provide an answer that I believe is radically unconventional. Instead of thinking that cinema is deeply changing and that we are no longer watching movies when we watch them on our television screen, I believe that the experience of watching movies on a big screen that was created at the beginning of the 20th century is still very much alive in today’s world. When I binge-watch a series on Netflix I am still doing something that is deeply cinematographic. Even though I am at home and I am deciding when to begin to watch the show, the kind of experience I have with these images is deeply ingrained in the cinematic experience.

Early cinematic theory tells us that film has always been thought of as a spectacle to be enjoyed in many venues and through many devices. After 2005 book was published, I discovered a quite shocking text written by one of the most famous film theorists of the day and published in a 1924 French journal. The article stated that film is a perfect experience, but for two important elements: It is too expensive, and you have to leave your house in order to go to the movies. The perfect cinema, the film theorist said in the journal article, would be one that was less expensive — and of course we think of digital — and the second is that the perfect cinema is one that is released from a central location directly to homes. My contention is that our experience of cinema is still strongly based in going to the movie theaters, and it is there that we became spectators. But it is clear that film has always been considered beyond its own borders. This is the unconventional answer that I give to the question of whether or not cinema is dying.

What do you hope your students learn from you?

I teach my students that what looks new is sometimes is just an avatar of the old. What inspires me as a professor is to encourage my students to explore the entire span of the history of the medium of cinema and to not focus solely on the last invention. This is the reason that I am happy to be here at Yale, because Yale has both this sense of tradition and this sense of not running after the last invention. My book takes a “Yalie approach” to the media rather than a more technological approach that might be found at another institution.

I also want my students to be open minded and curious about life. What I try to teach is not answers but questions. I may be teaching my students about media, but my students know how to use media better than I do! I was influenced by great mentors such as Umberto Eco, and these mentors taught me to have novel insights into ideas in the present that were fed by the past. I push my students to do the same.

How are new media technologies producing a new era in cinema aesthetics?

New technologies are preserving cinema but making it different at the same. If you watch something online, that is a new aesthetic. If you create a movie on your cell phone or smart phone, that, too, is a new aesthetic. A prime example of a new aesthetic in cinema is a sweded trailer. Sweded trailers are low-cost remakes of old movies using mostly what the director has at home. They resemble the original but are totally different, and the pleasure in a sweded trailer is in the joke.

Why is cinema still relevant in the 21st century?

Cinema is still relevant because it still fills our imagination, and through imagination it helps us to cope with reality — as literature and painting do, but more intensively.

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