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Q&A: Dr. Isabelle McNeill Draws Upon a Unique Set of Personal Passions and Professional Interests

Dr. Isabelle McNeill draws upon a unique set of personal passions and professional interests in her role as the Philomathia Fellow in French at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge. As the Director of Studies in Modern & Medieval Languages and an affiliated lecturer in the Department of French at Trinity Hall, Dr. McNeill specializes in French cinema and theory.

Isabelle McNeillAlready the author of Memory and the Moving Image: French Film in the Digital Era (Edinburgh University Press, 2010) and the co-editor of Transmission: Essays in French Literature, Thought and Cinema (Peter Lang, 2007), Dr. McNeill is currently hard at work, researching and writing a book on the cinematic rooftops of Paris, which engages with questions of perspective, urban space and cultural history in relation to cinema.

She recently took some time to discuss her background, provide some enlightening insights on film as an object of cultural study, as well as share some thoughts on one film in particular that has been the subject of immense critical acclaim over the past year.

Philomathia.org: Tell us a little bit about you personally before we get to your professional interests. Where did you grow up?

Dr. McNeill: I grew up not so very far away from Cambridge, first in Oxford and then in rural Somerset (which seemed a long drive when I was a student at Cambridge University). We didn’t have much money so I didn’t get to travel much. However we lived for a short time in Tuscon, Arizona, when I was five, which gave my brother and I a sense of a wider world. I have incredibly powerful memories of that time and place, with its breathtaking natural beauty, dangers (gun crime was a big problem) and social inequality far more glaring than back home [in England.]

Philomathia.org: What were you like as a youth, and does anything from that time stand out as an indicator of what your future career would entail?

Dr. McNeill: I was a bookish child and dreamed of being a writer. I also used to devour old Hollywood films that were shown on TV on weekend afternoons. Our house was always full of books, music, discussion and laughter. Since a lot of my adventures came through books or films, I think I was always fascinated by how that worked, how art could create other worlds.

Philomathia.org: So you grew up mostly in England, with some time spent in America; at what point, and how, did your interest in French culture, language and cinema enter the equation?

Dr. McNeill: My grandmother was a school French teacher and taught me my first words when I was tiny. But the breakthrough came when I went on a French exchange near Bordeaux: suddenly those abstract words had a real effect and purpose! I became a little obsessed and was constantly translating in my head, experimenting with sentence structures and learning new vocabulary. In my teens I started reading French literature and poetry: a lifelong love of Baudelaire began. I studied modern languages at University, which included a year spent in France. I studied history of art, feeding my love of visual culture, and watched a lot of films in the local arthouse theatre. The French have an impressive cinema-going culture. No matter where you are, there will always be an ‘arts and essay’ cinema somewhere nearby. I also met my husband, who is French, during that year. We now have two little ‘franglais’ boys and speak French at home. Britain leaving the European Union is a terrible prospect for our family (and in general). We’re working on getting all our dual nationalities sorted out.

Philomathia.org: You mentioned that you used to devour old Hollywood films, so it seems you’ve always had a love for cinema; when were you awakened to the idea that film theory and criticism could be a potential career path for you as an academic?

Dr. McNeill: It definitely started with a love of cinema. Once I discovered the big screen I was hooked and couldn’t wait to study cinema to understand its mysteries. But that didn’t come until the end of my undergraduate years. Before that I was focused on literature, and that’s what drew me to theory. Modern French literature is very intertwined with French and continental philosophy. Reading the work of post-structuralist thinkers like Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva and Cixous as an undergrad challenged my assumptions and made me better understand the role language plays in shaping our ways of seeing and thinking. Then I discovered that film is even more complex, because it is made of images as well as words, and images are slippery in quite a different way.

Philomathia.org: In what sense?
Dr. McNeill: Photographed images seem to be so simply what they represent. Even though we know really that there is always a point of view, a context, a juxtaposition, or even downright alterations, we tend to believe in what we see. In a world increasingly populated by audiovisual images, I’m excited by the idea of films that allow us to see things differently, or challenge what we think we see – and I also think that can be an important role of film criticism.

Philomathia.org: You touched on a notion there that I’d like to explore a little bit further. The analysis of film in an academic environment is often based on things that an average popcorn-eating moviegoer would pay no attention to: for example, the particular framing and lighting of a shot to reveal something about a character’s mindset. Do you think that having a base of critical theory and analysis under your belt fundamentally changes the way that one views a film? Do you think you generally get “more meaning” out of a film, or does it just depend on the particular movie?

Dr. McNeill: This question reaches into some crucial aspects of film studies that I don’t think I will ever be finished thinking about!

Firstly, it’s true that studying film theory, history and aesthetics fundamentally changes the way one views films. The vast majority of films use conventions designed to immerse the viewer in a story and hide the artifice that produces that story and its fictional (or even documentary) world. Learning how films are made, even on quite a basic level, reveals the artifice that is usually hidden. Now that (almost) everyone can make films on their phones, I’m amazed to find that so many young people I talk to still have no concept of what a ‘shot’ is and find it hard to perceive them in a classically edited film. The magic of cinema still persists! Theory enables further analysis of how these technical aspects of film intersect with broader questions, such as context, ideology, or how film form manipulates and constructs time and space.

I’m not sure, however, that all this necessarily make it possible to get “more meaning” out of a film, or at least not in the sense that this could imply there is some meaning missing in the “popcorn-eating” experience of the film. In fact, it’s precisely that (mysterious, fluid, infinitely variable!) “ordinary” viewing experience that I’m interested in: I want to understand the role the film plays in creating it (and here I take it that meaning is constituted between the film and the person viewing it – what the individual, who is both unique and part of various groups and contexts, brings to it is something that reception studies try to address, a very complicated and interesting field!)

However, there is then the question of “criticism”: I mentioned that film criticism can challenge what we see or think. For me, this is slightly different to finding “more meaning” in a film. It is perhaps more about understanding what different meanings the film makes possible, how they are produced, and questioning the assumptions that underpin them. I believe it’s possible to do this with any film. This is not just about aesthetic techniques but also relates to the concept of ‘cultural memory’ I explored in my first book.

Just as films use conventional aesthetic techniques developed over the years, such as flashbacks, voice-over or shot-reverse-shot sequences, so too do they draw on a bank of cultural knowledge. The use of genre is one example of this: Westerns and Rom Coms have become genres, so never make their meanings in isolation but rather in relation to other instances of the genre. This is what makes parody possible. For example in the film They Came Together (David Wain, 2014) the characters themselves tell the story of how they met using all the clichés of the Rom Com genre, saying, “it was just like something in a movie, but this is our real life!” (incidentally this film bombed at the box office: making a joke of beloved clichés is tricky territory to tread!) Every film taps into our wider knowledge of art and the world around us. Interestingly, in the days of Google and Amazon Video (which provides information about the film you are watching in a sidebar), this is becoming less dependent on an individual’s memory, as we can click to follow up on an allusion, cameo, music clips or place. A good example is Woody Allen’s 2011 film, Midnight in Paris, a film in which Gil, an American screenwriter visiting Paris, finds himself back in his favourite period of Parisian history, the 1920s. The film moves between touristic scenes in the present day, in which Gil’s distance from his materialistic fiancée Ines becomes increasingly glaring, and scenes in which Gil mingles with the famous artistic and literary figures of Paris in the 20s. This provides – quite overtly at times – a singularly rich touristic experience for the viewer who, alongside Gil, is able to travel through all kinds of beautiful images and ideas of Paris past and present. A combination of close analysis and theory can show how that experience is constructed, through both allusions and cinematic codes, and how it fits with contemporary practices of tourism.

Philomathia.org: While we’re on the topics of Hollywood films and the portrayal of Paris – the Oscars have just wrapped up and La La Land was one of the evening’s big winners. I understand you have some thoughts on the film’s portrayal of Paris in your new book – can you fill us in?

Dr. McNeill: I’m writing a book on city space and cinema that focuses on the rooftops of Paris. Some might find it surprising that a book on Paris should discuss a film so explicitly set in LA! But that is is precisely the point: for me La La Land is, above all, a film about the magic of cinema, its power and its limitations. Its repeated views over Los Angeles frame a place associated with the ‘dream factory’ of Hollywood, but it also includes a fantasy sequence that offers a whirlwind tour of Paris as dreamt by cinema. Indeed, it is explicitly a cinephile tour of Paris, with multiple references to Hollywood films such as An American in Paris (Vincent Minnelli, 1951) and Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1957).

There’s a wonderful tradition of Paris constructed by Hollywood, and it often starts with a postcard-like view. In a chapter exploring touristic images of the rooftops of Paris, I examine high angle and overhead shots in Hollywood films. These views are used in a sequence in La La Land, with the image of couple flying over the skyline that also alludes to another cinephile film set in a fantasy Paris, Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001). But if La La Paris celebrates the delights of such exuberant flights of fantasy, and the cinephile pleasures they entail, the narrative of the film suggests that they screen out a sadder, colder reality, in which the personal ambitions triggered by the ‘American dream’ so beloved of the movies ultimately triumph over spontaneity and genuine emotional connections. The film doesn’t show us Mia’s real visit to Paris, and of course even her ‘real life’ is just the film we are watching. La La Land’s ending strongly recalls Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964, referenced several times in the mise-en-scène), a musical in which true love loses out to circumstances and social convention. In both films, it is not clear which of the two alternative paths would have been the ‘authentic’ one or the right choice. Rather, it makes us question the boundary between real life and dream life. Just as when we visit Paris we are, to an extent, always re-visiting the movies we have seen of it.

The Rooftops of Paris: Cinematic Perspectives is under contract to Wallflower, a subsidiary of Columbia University Press, with publication anticipated in late 2018. I will be addressing some of the themes of the book in a keynote talk entitled, ‘Ways of Seeing a City: The Rooftops of Paris in Cinema’, as part of a mini symposium on French cinema at Berkeley, 13-14th April 2017. I’m delighted to have been asked to act as guest teacher during my visit, for a senior undergraduate class on women directors in French cinema: we’ll be discussing Yamina Benguigui’s Inch’Allah Dimanche (2001).