The Concept of Sentimentality in Critical Approaches to Film and its Cultural Antecedents

Charles Burnetts

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis examines how sentimentality, as a term central to film criticism, has been mobilized, denigrated, quarantined or ignored over 300 years of aesthetic debate. It responds to the often vexed question of what the sentimental means, by unpacking the concept’s intellectual and artistic history, tracing a transition from the Enlightenment use of sentimentality as a positive concept denoting pedagogy and moral feeling, to its entrance into the modern vernacular as a term connoting its own excess, as a function of its alleged appeals to indulgent or unearned pathos. A key question of the research concerns whether the sentimental can be recuperated within contemporary moving- image culture once we are re-familiarized with its early (lesser known about) critical applications. I contend in such a vein that the unpacking of such positive aspects of the sentimental very much colours our critical understanding of such cinematic figures as Charlie Chaplin, Steven Spielberg and those in their wake, both in terms of their films and the reception of those films. I argue that the early, classical and post- classical periods of cinema can be significantly differentiated in terms of how sentimental cinema fares critically, providing new insights into such intellectual spheres as naturalism, modernism and postmodernism in relation to the cultural reception of cinema. Theories of emotion (especially in relation to spectatorship and film theory) are also examined closely up to what I argue to be a now established, and indeed, valorised melodramatic ‘mode’ of contemporary mainstream cinema, as applicable to Hollywood and beyond. As a theoretical tradition that both validates ‘feeling’ in its pedagogical and idealist aims while remaining problematic ideologically, I show how the sentimental demands to be understood alongside the most contemporary of critical positions, not least in terms of the critical turn towards affect and the body.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Langford, Barry, Supervisor
Award date1 Oct 2011
Publication statusUnpublished - 2011

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