In a recent blog post for Columbia University Press – “Anxious Afterthoughts on Anxious Cinephilia” – Sarah Keller provides her latest book with a casual addendum, addressing film in the age of Coronavirus to underscore her belief that “cinephilia” – or “a love of cinema” – is grounded in anxiety. In worrying whether movie theatres and festivals will “go the way of the dodo,” Keller re-demonstrates that a medium in flux is bound to worry its enthusiast; just like the volatile passions of Hollywood melodramas, the cinephile’s affair with the ever-changing motion pictures is fraught with trepidation and worry.1 Put simply, Anxious Cinephilia: Pleasure and Peril at the Movies (2020) hopes to explore the hazy relationship between spectator and screen, an amorous space defined by “the oscillation between love and anxiety, such that they are like the proton and electron that attract each other and give [the cinephile] energy” (p. 34). This apprehension stems, in part, from the filmic medium’s temporality. Following Laura Mulvey’s notion that cinema is “death 24x a second”, Keller believes that film’s ability to shape and represent time forces mortality – one’s own, one’s parents’, etc. – at the wide-eyed spectator: “like Hamlet’s poor Yorick, the [cinema] reminds a body of its ultimate destination as an inanimate object” (p. 24).2 This inherent anxiety “goads one to articulate and stand up for what matters most in an appreciation of a film”; in short, cinema’s often uncomfortable chronotype inspires its ardent spectator to understand the spectral world before them. Keller’s ambitious book – intent on grounding unease as the basis of moviegoing – boasts an abundance of research, from the early theories of Bela Balázs and Jean Epstein to the contemporary historiographies of David Bordwell and Thomas Elsaesser. Though there are moments when Anxious Cinephilia’s glut of information seems to congest “a more nuanced understanding of the arc of film history and theories of cinema spectatorship within and beyond that history,” Keller’s sinuous structure and near-claustrophobic syntax succeeds in meta-textually expressing one’s fraught relationship with the shifting screen (p. 27).

Anxious Cinephilia’s first chapter – “Ardor and Anxiety: the History of Cinephilia” – chronicles five periods: proto- (1895-1907), transitional (1907-13), pre-war (1913-30s), post-war (1940s-1960), and contemporary (1970s-present). While Keller explores their many differences, arguing that spectatorship – like the medium it responds to – adapts, or resists, to changes in the cultural landscape, she also advocates for a pervasive and unifying anxiety. The audience of L’arrivée d’un train (Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1895), for instance, certainly differed from that of Jeanne Dielman (Chantal Akerman, 1975), but both were deeply concerned with the images before them: early cinemagoers unsettled by the dangerous locomotive and 1970s arthouse fans by Akerman’s portrayal of institutional domesticity. This ubiquitous apprehension was, and is, further provoked by an unknown future; channelling the concerns of Walter Benjamin, Keller writes that the cinema-to-come was “either an ultimately unstoppable force ready to wreak havoc on the senses or a cure for what ailed the modern subject – or both” (p. 59). Alongside this ever-present anxiety, an unease expanded upon in the following chapter, Keller charges her account with a socio-political slant, attempting to collapse the elitist gap between the “serious cinephile” and the “everyday moviegoer” by interrogating its source: the academics and directors of post-war France. Arguing that the contemporary canon – American Hollywood, French New Wave, Italian Neo-Realist, and Japanese films – stem from the likes of André Bazin, Jean-Luc Godard, and François Truffaut, Keller advocates for a broader evaluation of cinephilic, and thereby cinematic, history, championing the notion that, as “we tend to value certain films and filmmakers over others, the power to produce work has remained in certain demographics” – namely, those of straight, white men (p. 2). In giving equal credence to each of these cinephilic periods, Keller takes a remarkable first step towards this democratisation, making good on her chapter’s promise “to chart the history of cinephilia […] and to demonstrate [anxiety’s] ubiquity over time and across national boundaries” (p. 88).

Acting as foil to its first chapter, Anxious Cinephilia’s second, “Enchanting Images”, interrogates the psychology of the spectator, appealing to phenomenology, alongside an assortment of post-structuralist thought, to examine the complex “negotiations between the cinephile and the screen image” (p. 88). Here, Keller works to identify why (instead of when or how) movies are so affective, rifling through the theories of Vivian Sobchack and Mary Ann Doane in the hopes of clarifying “the spectator’s relationship to that elusive, immaterial object”: the screen (p. 34). The chapter concerns itself with that “cornerstone of cinephilia,” spectatorial identification, bouncing Epstein’s notions of a totally immersive cinema against Christian Metz’s primary and secondary identifications to explore the magic of film and its impact on the fervent cinephile (p. 97). Through Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933), Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960), and an impressive reading of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), Keller probes film’s alluring power, and, along the way, reminds the reader that this cinephilic engagement is at once pleasurable and fraught with apprehension.

Following the first two chapters’ historical and theoretical primers, the second half of Keller’s book takes on a new and narrower approach, arguing that the cinephile’s peaks and valleys – their oscillating optimism and anxiety – are most apparent amid times of technological change. These paradigmatic shifts challenge stable notions of what we assume and understand cinema to be, provoking a “love that is in constant danger of being destabilized by such changes” (p. 144). In turn, Anxious Cinephilia’s third chapter – “Cinephilia and Technology: Anxieties and Obsolescence” – re-examines cinephilic history, in particular the spectator’s response to three technological upheavals: the turn to sound, colour, and digital. Similar to chapter one’s disapproval of the hegemony of French post-war cinephilia, Keller charges this section with an anti-capitalist current, pinning each of these “technological inevitabilities” on greedy production companies and the Hollywood system: sound, for instance, being employed to attract wider audiences, just as the move to digital promised cheaper production and distribution. The chapter is perhaps most interesting in its discussion of colourisation, in which Keller chronicles, not the 1950s move away from black and white, but its botched counterpart of thirty years later. In the 1980s, Ted Turner of Turner Classic Movies attempted to colourise one hundred films for financial gain, including Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) and Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). Turner’s attempts at “modernisation”, however, proved unsuccessful, marking a rare victory in the cinephile’s long battle against corporate greed. As Welles prognosticated two weeks before his death: “Keep Ted Turner and his goddamned Crayolas away from my movie!” (p. 161). Alongside this archival work, Keller also discusses nostalgia, the spectator’s desire for simpler times. This sentimentality – due in part to anxieties of an unknown future – is often ironically purged with the help of contemporary technology, from the restoration of old film strips to modern uses of CGI, like the de-aging procedures of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019).

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013)

This theme of technological change is carried into Anxious Cinephilia’s fourth and final chapter – “The Exquisite Apocalypse” – in which Keller strays from her earlier historiographic work towards a more critical interrogation of the medium’s present and future. The section focuses on the “postmillennial apocalypse film”, which exhibits “the dynamics of cinematic love and anxiety” through industry’s often debilitating effects on the (diegetic) world. In short, these movies cinematise the “filmgoers’ apocalyptic fears into stories depicting the destruction of cities”; I am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007), for instance, channels the cinephile’s technological distress – their fear of sound, colour, or the digital – through the story of a devastating scientific breakthrough: a “cure” for cancer that accidently kills 90% of humanity (p. 181). Keller is quick to point out, however, that while such doomsday scenarios reflect the spectator’s fears of corporate enterprise and irresponsible technologies, there is a light at the end of the tunnel: new beginnings, she implies, are often wrought from violent change. Movies like Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (2013) may warn of the consequences of global warming, but they also end on possibilities of rebirth and restoration – in Snowpiercer’s case, the emergence of a polar bear as proof of nature’s resilience and a cleaner future. Drawing a parallel between the apocalypse film and the recent loss of analogue, Keller traces a silver lining in today’s turbulent cinema-scape. Perhaps, as Joon-ho’s film anticipates, digital industry will revitalise cinema, or, at the very least, “make something out of the aftermath of something coming to an end, even if that thing is the cinema itself in what some have described as a “post-cinematic age” (p. 224).

In her book’s short conclusion, Keller writes that “anxious cinephilia fuels cinema experience and undergirds cinema’s fluidity and multiplicity,” implying that it is the subjective spectator who is accountable for film’s endless possibilities (p. 227). Though this may be true – certainly, no two people or films are exactly alike – it is through this equivocation that the preceding chapters seem to run into trouble: at first glance, Anxious Cinephilia’s reliance on the cinephile’s individuality spreads its eponymous concern too thin. Opposing the many critics and historians cited, Keller is knowingly reticent to lay claim to any one definition of her key concept, persistently reminding the reader that because film fans “watch and obsess in different ways,” the cinephile should be understood as an ever-changing subject: “I adopt a capacious sense of cinephilia here,” she writes, “one that allows for change and does not attempt to limit the idea of one that everyone, including me, can share” (pp. 1-2). This claim, or lack thereof, seems to be an excuse for imprecision; though perhaps an impartial approach to criticism, “shifting cinephilia” does less to articulate one’s volatile relationship with the screen than justify surplus – in Keller’s case, an assortment of near-autonomous analyses working against a cohesive whole. Chapter two, for instance, a section concerned with “what and how one beholds”, is made up of vignettes too brief to get at the heart of whatever theories of spectatorship may apply, bouncing from documentary and experimental films to landscapes and the sublime in a matter of pages (p. 94). Upon finishing Anxious Cinephilia, however, this seems to be the point: like Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed (1971), Keller’s work shines, not only with impressive scholarship, but a conscious ephemerality. Her book’s piecemeal structure – focusing “its attentions on the cinema’s unique and remarkable qualities, on its ability to stun an audience or make an audience lose itself in the lives of others” – is deliberately eclectic, democratising the polyvalent cinephile by exposing their many shapes and sizes (p. 2). Keller’s inordinate amount of research is not employed to pinpoint the spectator, but to recognise the impossibility of doing so; if “anxious cinephilia has shaped every moment of cinema’s history,” then the only way to understand it is through comprehensive and labyrinthine archival work (p. 227). In her introduction, Keller writes that “when love is involved, things get complicated quickly”, a warning to her audience that the book to come will be as challenging and fraught as the topic it knowingly thickens; true to form, as the reader drifts from one sub-heading to the next, they begin to feel the same restive apprehension as the anxious spectator they are attempting to decipher (p. 15). For all its opacity, Anxious Cinephilia is a meta-textual job well-done.

Sarah Keller, Anxious Cinephilia: Pleasure and Peril at the Movies (New York City: Columbia University Press, 2020)


  1. Sarah Keller, “Anxious Afterthoughts on Anxious Cinephilia, Columbia University Press Blog. April 5, 2020. https://www.cupblog.org/2020/04/05/anxious-afterthoughts-on-anxious-cinephilia-by-sarah-keller/
  2. Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London, Reaktion Books, 2006), p. 15.