Stanley Cavell Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Philosopher Goes to the Movies: Cnversation with Stanley Cavell, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics in the General 
  Theory of Value, Emeritus; Harvard Universty. 2/2/02 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 4 of 6

Philosophy and Film Criticism

You have a large body of work in philosophy, and in our discussion I thought it would be useful to talk about your work on film, which interests me, and which will help us talk about doing philosophy in this particular context. Could you tell us what the relation of your work in philosophy is to your work in film, or is there one?

Oh, I hope there are lots. I think, for sure, there's not just one. You asked me the right question in suggesting that if I write about film it's for reasons that struck me as philosophical reasons. But the question is odd, it's another one of these questions that has different levels of answers, and on a different day I might answer differently.

My first writing about film was ... well, there are various ways to answer this. I don't mean to stumble, but I don't want to answer more superficially than I absolutely have to in a short time. I found myself going to films less and less, and I wondered why that was the case. It's true, I could answer by saying, "Well, I didn't have time. At Berkeley, I was teaching three courses every term, and I was trying to finish a Ph.D. thesis at the same time, so, of course, I couldn't go." book coverThat is not much of an answer, because for one thing, Berkeley was the best place on earth, as far as I knew, to see films. Pauline Kael had in those days started her two, then three venues -- small rooms in which you could see film. It was an education.

There was another one of those moments, eventually, in my life, after I finished my Ph.D. thesis, when I went every night again and saw two films. Odd education, but to be drowning in the material is really the only way. Not to care too much about what you're seeing, to care a lot about what you think about what you're seeing, but to see everything you can, that's indispensable.

I wanted to know why, more basically, I wasn't going to films. I started then, out of this sense of something missing, to write about what is this thing that I'm missing, what did it satisfy that nothing else satisfied? So my first philosophical question was when I asked myself, "What is film?" [which] came in the form of "What are its differences?" From painting, from theater, from any of the arts, from literature -- how is a script different from a libretto, all of these questions. And that produced this book that I see on the table here, The World Viewed.

But there's a moment before that which I believe I don't talk about in any of these texts that I've written, that had already given me the sense that film meant something to me that I wasn't able to write about. And that was, while I was working on my Ph.D. dissertation, I was, after months and months of writing day and night on that and teaching classes, I decided to let myself, because I was stuck, go to a film. It turned out the film was Smiles of a Summer Night, an Ingmar Bergman film. It probably was playing in a real theater -- in a commercial theater -- and it may have been my first Bergman film, I'm not sure. I had just become aware of the Godard films, the Fellini films that were beginning to emerge, and I was fascinated. They started putting a perspective on the films that I had seen. Everything seemed to be undergoing change by then. But the effect, in particular, that Smiles of a Summer Night had on me was that I went back to my pathetic digs and wrote about Smiles of a Summer Night all night long, when I should have been trying to add a couple of pages to my dissertation. But it wouldn't leave me alone.

And after a night of that, I had, I don't know, some thousands of words, none of which I ever published; but that was the moment at which I recognized something that I've known about the other arts since before I could talk. I could read music, as I recall it, before I could read words, and I had known since then that in the arts, everything matters. This was the first time that I had had the experience of a film in which I had the absolute knowledge that everything that went on in that film mattered. So what writing about it meant was to discover why each frame was the way it was, why each gesture, why each posture was as it was, and why each word was said, not just as it was but where it was, by whom it was said, in that light, and with that background.

And so, true or false, illusion or not, that was my experience of what knowing a film was. Some eight years later, in another country -- I had, by then, moved back to Cambridge -- this sense that I wasn't going to films, even newer films, came over me. It was that sense that this is what I needed to discover for myself.

In one of your essays you're talking about Buster Keaton and about how movies give us a capacity to see, and you say, "Every motion, in particular, every human posture and gesture, however glancing, has its poetry, or you may say it's lucidity." And I guess that's what you're suggesting happened to you when you went to this ...

Good for you. Yes, that is the sort of experience that I was having. It has its poetry, and to characterize that poetry means to say something lucid. This is an old Emersonian moment of mine. That is, Emerson has a crack, that when I read it I thought, "Yeah, that's something I want from writing philosophy." He says, "You need always to look for the gleam of light, the little spark, the intuition." And the reason he says intuition is that he wants to go on to say, "... for which you then provide the tuition." So, providing the tuition for intuition, I could say, is what I would like philosophy to be about, to do. It's certainly what I wanted writing about film to do.

You also write somewhere else, "I understand philosophy as a willingness to think not about something other than what ordinary human beings think about, but rather to think undistractedly about things that ordinary human beings cannot help thinking about."

Yes, I accept that also. The difference of all of these characterizations is that they're all to specific doubts and specific questions about philosophy. In a certain mood, if you ask me what philosophy is, I could answer it's to think undistractedly about what we can't help thinking about. That's an answer. But it's not an answer I would give to, for example, "Why do you write about film?" or "Why do you write philosophically about film?" or "What is the relation of your experience to philosophy? How faithful do you have to be to your experience? Do you want to preserve your experience, transcend your experience?"

So I'm glad for these things. I've been noticing in one of my favorite texts in the world, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, he has an endless set of remarks about what philosophy is ... they're not endless. My old teacher, Austin, would hate saying "endless." He has a number of characterizations; each should be traced back to some particular contretemps that he had, for which he's asking himself what's he doing, what's he looking for.

Was it a matter of some controversy when you, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, started writing about films?

It's caused me a certain amount of grief, that's true. Harvard's rather a proud place, as Berkeley is. At Berkeley, they figure if you're there, you probably know what you're doing. But there was quite a lot of curiosity about it, and I like that.

I think film may have been a motive that got me continuing to write. I've written much more about film than I had ever expected to. You point to three books of mine. I'm amazed by that. That's probably a quarter of what I've written. I hadn't expected that. But what's kept me going was the sense that it was not a question of why I was interested in film, but a question of why, since everyone is interested in film (one supposes throughout the world), why don't philosophers write about it? That was the question that, perhaps, more than anything, puzzled, bothered, even provoked me.

I don't say there aren't any others, but, really, terribly few. In all traditions, in both traditions of philosophy, either on the continent of Europe or by us, terribly few, who take it really seriously. There are, in the Frankfurt School of Philosophy, exceptions to this, but even Walter Benjamin, whom one always mentions, almost obligatory to mention in the study of film, never wrote a critical account of film. He regarded himself as having an aspiration to become the greatest critic of German literature, but he didn't have any aspiration to become the greatest critic of film. He wrote some remarkable things about it, but not that. Why not that?

So I wanted it to become a normal part of what philosophers did in their work in aesthetics, for example. That hasn't happened (there are exceptions -- it's happened more). I've also wanted it to become something that was more a part of a university curriculum than it has managed to be. Of course, there are now departments, but I didn't want it to be a department, exactly, any more than I would want there to be a Department of Books. Of course, it's not the same, and film has its own gorgeous subject, and the making of film is its own gorgeous craft. Having grown up as a musician, I'm not unaware of what it takes to become a master or a good apprentice or a follower or a devotee of these crafts. Still, there is such a thing as thinking about film, and it hasn't become as common a practice and as ordinary, which I would have liked to see.

That may be not something to deplore, maybe something further to think about, if I could realize that that's the way things are, it's not going to happen. It may be that what one should ask oneself is what it is about film that seems inherently illicit, not really something you do quite in the light of day -- you sneak into the theater before anybody quite sees you, or when you're too young; secrets are being revealed which you're afraid to reveal. There is something of that shock in film. Film is shocking. We know it's shocking in its aspects of horror, but maybe it's just as shocking in its aspects of comedy. We don't see it.

You suggest in your writings that what movies do through the camera is to focus on things we don't see in the ordinary, and to do that watching in silence. That's very important to your theory, isn't it?

It is. The relation of what films construct for you to see and what we see is simply endless, and I expect there to be further and further instruction about that, as writing about film goes on. You can't help thinking about that.

Next page: Film and Cultural Discourse

© Copyright 2002, Regents of the University of California