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

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Film and Cultural Discourse

In one of your introductory essays you say that your father always said that you could learn something from everybody. So that points us to an understanding of why you could find significance in what appeared to be very ordinary. But you also talk about this American cultural tradition, which is one in which there isn't a high culture established in the way it is in Europe, and there is a movement between high and low culture. Both of these suggest reasons why you went through this door of film. Is that fair?

Yes, sure it's fair. It's fair. I'm an American kid, and so I went to the Saturday afternoon movies, as American kids in my day did. And it's ... I want to answer at various levels about this again. It is a feature of American culture that it has produced two of the most admired and treasured forms of art, which can be called something less than high art, but which have served to question the distinction between high and low art: movies and jazz. American film has made its contribution to the world art of cinema, and it has been a puzzle to me that American intellectuals and academics have not wanted to understand and appreciate that fact. That's one level of answer. I don't want to say that America has established its position in world cinema more than its rights in the high arts of the world, though American intellectuals in some way don't, on the whole, treasure these matters. But why should I say that they don't, on the whole? Some do, and maybe enough do. But it has bothered me that it doesn't play a role in American thinking and in American philosophy in the way that I want it to, or had hoped that it would.

The other level of speaking about that, however, is that I want it to be a matter of ordinary conversation and allusion, for example, in professional discourse, in a way that it really hasn't been able to be. If I want to refer to a film in a lecture of mine, I have to think, "How likely is it that this film has been seen, and if it's not likely, how much of it shall I describe in order to try to make this point?" Whereas, if I want to refer to any novel, however obscure ... well, not however obscure, but to one of the great novels of James or Proust or any of hundreds of novels -- and one knows we haven't all read all of these novels -- but there's no hesitation in referring to what happens in this novel. Not because one would be embarrassed to say, necessarily, that they haven't read it. I mean, there are jokes about who is not willing to say they haven't finished reading Proust. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about whether you're really communicating something or not. What's the feeling? You say it; if [students] want to go look it up and have a chance or think about it, then [they] do. I like to say something beyond what students are apt to have at their command. Partly to say, "There's a large world, go find out." Partly to say, "You may not have heard of this yet, but you will, and here you can work your way back and find something to do with it."

Film has not become easy in that way. It isn't as though people will feel grateful if you say, "Oh, you should see this, and relate it to these other things, treat it in this way." I'm still asking myself, "Why not?" That is why ... I think, again, as with films, as with music, as with the arts -- the arts differ, you should try to see everything as well as hear everything. But I also think, as I've said, you should discriminate and find out which gets to you, and then ponder why. I don't on the whole find as many occasions for that as I would like, so I write books about it.

Let's talk about the two major books that you've written on film.  One is called Contesting Tears: The Melodrama of the Unknown Woman, and the other, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Now, both of these suggest that the two sets of movies that you're studying -- and we'll talk about that in a second -- are an important moment in the evolving consciousness of women about, on the one hand, their relationship to men, and on the other hand, their determination of their own lives, and the realization that they don't need men, that they want to go it alone. Talk a little about why you chose these two sets of movies.

We're having the same problem. It's a question of where I dig into this. I think I'll take it in stages. The more important, the more fundamental, is the book on remarriage comedy, because the melodramas, I say, are derived from them. I care about the melodramas, and it's very important what you just said, that there are these two sides to the day -- one light, one dark. In the comedies, a certain agreement to marriage is arrived at; it's very ambiguous. In the melodramas, marriage as a possible state for these women is rejected. But the fact that one has derived from the other means that these women are connected to one another -- I call them sisters of one another. And why one takes one path and why another set takes another is the subject of ... well, especially the second book.

About the comedies, it happened to me, as it happened to so many people in the sixties, book coverthat we rethought our existence as professionals, as teachers, as members of universities, as Americans during the Vietnam War. As a part of my incessant conversations with students in those days about everything, the world opened up. We talked about things you would never dream, or I wouldn't have dreamed that I would be talking to students about -- whether they should enlist for the army, whether they should get married, whether they should stay in school -- endless topics. We were going to movies again together, and I tried giving a course about films. I wondered in my relation to the young, how the movies that I treasured when I was young would hold up now. This is after I had started thinking about the earlier book on the ontology of film, the world view. And I had some things that I could already say about film, but now I wondered, "How about really choosing the films that I recall as mattering to me?"

So I gave a course in which I thought the test case would be comedies. If you can share a sense of humor, then you know that the generations have ... everyone was talking about "generation gap," and so on in those days. I thought, "Well, suppose we could share a senses of humor? That would matter to me." So I ordered some films that I remembered. And it turned out that the seven films ... I may be misremembering, but the bulk, at least five of the seven films that survived and formed the basis of Pursuits of Happiness: The Comedies of Remarriage, were among those I remembered as being the best and most memorable of the comedies that I saw, growing up in the thirties and in the forties.

And these are movies like It Happened One Night and Adam's Rib?

Exactly. Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth. When we screened them, they held up. The students were absolutely involved in them, absolutely ready to go through and talk until we dropped about what was going on in them. This was exhilarating for me, and the more we got into them, the more fascinated I became by them. Then I had one of those clicks in the head in which I saw what they seem to have, some process they seem to share, each in a different way, and that is the feature of not, as in classical comedy, a young pair getting together, fighting obstacles to their romance, usually in the form of the woman's father, but winning out in the end, and the comedy closing in some festival, generally called marriage. But on the contrary, beginning with trouble, beginning with threat of divorce, on the part of an older pair, where the narrative is to find its way to getting the pair back together, or in the title of a not great, but still a member of the genre, getting the pair together again. And it turns out that that one difference turns out to have an indefinite sequence of features that differ.

You make the point in the book that this is actually a coming together of a number of factors leading to a rethinking of woman, her role in society and her relationship to men. In Hollywood, it's the generation of actresses that were appearing in these movies, and [in society] this would have also been very relevant to the times you're talking about, the sixties, when you were doing this writing.

It would have been, or especially just a little bit later, when these issues more and more occupied the center of the stage. Yes. It couldn't have been exactly explicitly for me, because it wasn't on a social agenda yet, but there, I retreat to the more personal. I grew up with a professional woman as a mother, and I knew then that she was not really like the other mothers of friends of mine, who were at home. When I would read that the Hollywood tear-jerker and so on were made for isolated wet afternoons in darkened movie theaters, I thought, "My mother didn't go to the movies in the afternoon, she was working. So what are you talking about? They can't have been made just for women." So for whom were they made, and what are these films?

It turned out that the films that I thought were the best were themselves preoccupied with women of this character who demanded equality with the men. They demanded something that they called marriage. The difference between the women who accept [marriage] is, they find [equality]. In the melodramas, the women don't find it, and they won't accept anything else. There might be other reasons why they don't want to be married to a man, but one reason is they haven't found any man for whom it's worth it. So what they do is resist society's compulsion to marry. How they find the strength to resist that, in those days, is something else.

Those films, those Hollywood comedies, are beloved worldwide. They were seen by the directors of films all over the world -- Indian directors, Japanese directors, Russian directors, Chinese directors, all knew these films and admired them, learned from them, treasured them. The best collection of these films, I'm told, now exists in the Soviet Union. I don't know whether the archive has been opened up yet or not. I'm glad to know that there are perfect prints available. But the question why they should be about such women is a standing question. They saw something in them.

Now, can they only be made by casting women born between 1904 and 1911, as Irene Dunn, Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn all were, or are there equivalents? Well, as you know they're not the only women of this kind. So that's something, I take it, that you're referring to, in saying that things came together then in order to make these films. That's right.

A question that comes after that is, do these films continue to be made? Well, evidently, they don't continue to be made in that form. So what does one expect of them now, what's come together now? I don't really know how to answer that question. For one thing, film doesn't play the same cultural role in the States. Now, if only 10 percent, as opposed to 90 percent of the population goes to films every week, and they see different films, it stands to reason that what's called a "star" is a much more evanescent thing than what a great star was in the thirties or forties, and so on. Not at all to say there aren't absolutely first-rate and wonderful, fascinating films made. But they're not made, so to speak, out of the same mold, and reliably, and a certain number every year.

Next page: Intensity and Artistry

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