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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Intensity and Artistry

We've come to understand why you went to the movies, why you became a philosopher and began going to the movies as a philosopher and thinking about them in that way. But movies are a mass medium, so what I would like to ask you is how would you distinguish the way you respond to movies versus the way a mass audience does? What do the movies do to us, and what is the distinction to be made about how a philosopher responds to them?

I hope to heaven that I respond to movies the way everybody else responds to movies, otherwise I wouldn't trust what I said about them. It may be that I trust them to be saying something more than most people do. It may be that when a tune gets stuck in my head or an image gets stuck in my head, I figure there's a reason why, and I'm on the lookout for it, maybe, more than others do. But impact, I hope, is just a plain down-and-dirty, being-overwhelmed impact. To talk about what that is, why they are overwhelming, is a part of an ongoing aesthetic inquiry into what films are. The world viewed is, I think, as much about that question as about anything else. It used to be that you could say one of the things about film is the gigantism of the images, which dwarf you, which infantilize you, which make you speechless. Maybe one can see smaller images now and still have an experience of film, but now there are so many intricacies and technologies involved, that somebody's going to have to rewrite all of this for each of these technologies. I think there's nothing about how they transfer to one another. So when I talk about film, I'm still talking about the screening on a big screen.

Now, even what an audience is is different from what an audience is anywhere else. One difference between the audience at a film and the audience in a theater is that the theater still feels like the assembly of a city. And in a movie, you can be simultaneously two -- you can be alone, that's one important experience -- but you could be two, and that can be an extremely important audience, the two of you there. And it can be worldwide at the same time.

So all this just has to be unraveled, it takes patience to figure out what these things are. And to take individual moments. I think it was Thomas Mann who was convinced that film was not an art; various people have been convinced that film is not an art for different kinds of reasons. One, is ... I'm repressing his name at the moment, a very well-known writer, mostly about silent film ... whose idea was that it couldn't be art because it was photography and photography just copied the world, so that can't be art. Well, that's not a very heavy reason any longer, since one doesn't feel that photography copies the world, and so on. But what he was responding to may have been something that Thomas Mann was responding to, that I alluded to, namely that the experience is too overwhelming for it to be art. It's something else. It hits you like ... what? Like a circus does, or like an overwhelming sports event, or an automobile accident, which Godard almost says in one of his films. So that's not a response that you could really attribute to something that's artful. Or is it? Can you make of that something that's ponderable, something that has a sublimation into intelligible, sharable, responses, not simply isolating responses of this kind? But -- "to be continued."

On that note, Professor Cavell, I want to thank you very much.

Well, and I thank you.

Yes, our time is up. And this has been a fascinating odyssey that took us both through your work in philosophy, but also we went to the movies.

We did a bit go to the movies. I appreciate it, I enjoyed it very much.

Thank you for coming back to Berkeley, and come back again.

It's a pleasure.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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