Public Lecture: Lesley Stern – How Does (the) Cinema Feel About (the) Animal?

On Thursday November 12th,  renowned film scholar Professor Lesley Stern presented a public lecture at the Monash Conference Centre. Sponsored by the Film and Screen Studies Program, the School of Media, Film and Journalism and the Faculty of Arts, Monash University, Professor Stern presented an incredibly smart and beautifully written paper, theorising what the cinema feels about the animal and in turn what those affects tell us about the cinema more broadly. Her talk was attended by people from cinema and cultural studies programs across Melbourne, and it generated a much needed discussion about the relationship between the burgeoning field of animal studies and film studies.

In the cinema all things are potentially equal: objects, people, animals. All things come into being—come alive, acquire performative powers—through cinematic magic. But even though the cinema is not exclusively human it has surely been permeated by the spirit of human exceptionalism. Bad blood enshrouds the inception of cinema, and its legacy is a haunting. When we watch movies today we cannot avoid the presence of ghosts: slaughtered elephants, galloping horses, sacrificial dogs, carnivorous bears—all hover and materialize and enter our dreams. Much recent work in cinema studies has turned attention to the place of the animal in the cinema and this paper is enabled by such work. However, rather than thinking through generalities my attention is caught, today, by moments of sensuous intensity, by fragments and scenes from various films in which animals and people and places are brought into strangely affective alliance. Reaching from Buster Keaton’s Go West to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, the paper will speculate on how films (via modes of mimeticism, empathetic projection, animistic gestures) might affect and change the way we feel and identify across differences.

Professor Lesley Stern is the author of Dead and Alive: The Body as Cinematic Thing, The Smoking Book and The Scorsese Connection, and co-editor of Falling For You: Essays on Cinema and Performance. Her work moves between a number of disciplinary locations and spans both theory and production: although her reputation was established in the fields of film theory and history, she is also known for her fictocritical writing. Her work has been highly influential in the areas of film, performance, photography, cultural history, postcolonialism, feminism and gardening/ecocriticism.