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Stanley Cavell (1926-2018)

The American philosopher Stanley Cavell passed away. A professor at Harvard University, he was known for his work in film philosophy. In 1979, along with the documentary filmmaker Robert Gardner, Cavell helped found the Harvard Film Archive, to preserve and present the history of film.

In 1969, his collection of essays Must We Mean What We Say? makes him known in the field of the philosophy of ordinary language. But it is especially through his works on the seventh art that he became known: in 1971, he published his first book on cinema, The World Viewed. Cavell shows how cinema, by projecting the world on a screen, realized our dream of embracing it in its entirey.

“Memories of movies are strand over strand with memories of my life. During the quarter of a century (roughly from 1935 to 1960) in which going to the movies was a normal part of my week, it would no more have occurred to me to write a study of movies than to write my autobiography. Having completed the pages that follow, I feel that I have been composing a kind of metaphysical memoir – not the story of a period of my life but an account of the conditions it has satisfied.

A book thus philosophically motivated ought to account philosophically for the motive in writing it. What broke my natural relation to movies? What was that relation, that its loss seemed to demand repairing, or commemorating, by taking thought? It is not a sufficient answer to point to the emergence, as part of ordinary moviegoing in America, of the films of Bergman, Antonioni, Fellini, Godard, Resnais, Truffaut, et al., because while they invited reflection they also (perhaps thereby) achieved a continuity with Hollywood movies – or, generally, with the history of movies – that Hollywood itself was losing. They were no longer foreign. Nor is it sufficient to answer that what was lost was a form of public entertainment, the need for which society and I had outgrown – as in the cases, say, of the circus and vaudeville. We have not outgrown the need for entertainment; some movies still provide it; it was never all, or the importance, of what movies provided, any more than it is all that novels or music provide. To account for the motive in writing this book may be the most accurate description of its motive.

The immediate history of its composition is easier to tell. Every teacher knows the excitement, and chaos, in learning about a subject by undertaking to teach it. In 1963 I chose to use the movie as the topic of a seminar in aesthetics. Its pedagogical advantages looked promising: everybody would have had memorable experiences of movies, conversation naturally developed around them, and the absence of an established canon of criticism would mean that we would be forced back upon a faithfulness to nothing but our experience and a wish to communicate it. The members of the seminar, many of them literate and gifted, enjoyed the idea. But it was a failure. Or rather, what was learned was important enough, but it came from our failures. Each week I assigned one or two students the responsibility of opening the discussion by reading a two- or three-page description – nothing but description – of the film we all had seen. It turned out that the descriptions were never quite accurate, not always because some gross turn in the plot was out of order or an event had been forgotten, but often because more was described than had been shown. (For example, “The car followed her to the hotel.” But in viewing the film, we had not known until later that the structure was a hotel.) After that, I noticed that almost every summary statement of a movie, whether in newspaper “criticism” or in brochures for a projected series, contains one or more descriptive inaccuracies. Is that because summaries don't really matter? Or because it is unclear what one wants from them? Only about operas, certainly not about novels or stories or poems or plays, would we accept so casual and sometimes hilariously remote an account as we will about movies.”

Stanley Cavell1


“Perhaps more than in any other country, film studies in the United States have been hampered by a tradition of casual reporting and a smuggish academic refusal to allow a mass entertainment art any serious intellectual status. Stanley Cavell's The World Viewed is an important a valuable counter to this tradition and its journalistic judgments... As a philosopher of art, Cavell is clearly not only a rigorous thinker but an imaginative one who can convincingly integrate phenomenological conc epts into film studies or translate figures from Baudelaire's Painter of Modern Life into illuminating categories of film analysis.”

Timothy Corrigan


“Chantal Akerman's breakthrough film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) [...] can be taken as a study, or materialization, of the self as a collection, in the particular form in which the one who is the subject of the collection is not free (or not moved?) to supply its narrative. I sketch from memory certain events, mostly of its first hour, already knowing that while little happens that in customary terms would be called interesting, the way it is presented, in its very uneventfulness, makes it all but unthinkable to describe what happens in sufficient detail to recount everything shown to you. [... ]

The second day, for instance, we see the preparation of the potatoes for the soup, watching each potato being peeled. Kant says that every object which enters our world is given along with all the conditions of its appearance to us. I should like to say: every action that we enter into our world must satisfy all the conditions of its completion, or its disruption. (Every human action is, as Kant says, handled, performed by the creature with hands, the same action in different hands as different, and alike, as different hands.) With this knife with this blade, sitting in this garment at this table, with this heap of potatoes from this bowl, within these walls under this light, at this instant... the woman knots herself into the world. [...]

Each time the woman moves from one room to another room of the apartment (kitchen, bathroom, her bedroom, the dining-sitting-sewing-reading-sleeping room, all connected by a corridor) she opens a door and turns out a light and closes the door and opens another door and turns on another light and closes that door (except after the stabbing). The spaces are kept as separate as those in a cabinet of curiosities. (What would happen if they touched? A thought would be ignited.) [...]

The pivotal role claimed for Akerman's films as events in the unfolding of contemporary feminism would mean, on this account, that she has found women to bear undistractibly, however attractively, the marks of supposedly interesting social partitions or dissociations. Her pivotal role in the unfolding of filmmaking is then that she had constructed new means of presenting the world in which these marks perpetuate themselves, and has thereby made them newly visible and discussable. Call this a new discovery of the violence of the ordinary. In this Akerman joins the likes of Beckett and Chekhov, but also Rousseau (in his revelation of mankind so far as free and chained – the easiest thing in the world not to notice), as well als Emerson and Nietzsche (in what the former called conformity and the latter philistinism). That Akerman's camera can as if discover suspense in what is not happening, as if we no longer know what is worth showing or saying, what is remarkable, shows a faith in the sheer existence of film, the camera's unadorned capacity for absorption, that approaches the prophetic.”

Stanley Cavell2


Andrew Klevan: You refer to Wittgenstein’s claim that in philosophy we do not seek to learn anything new (distinguishing philosophy from science, since science is the unsurpassable source of paradigms for learning something new about the world. We want to understand what’s already in plain view. The film criticism I admire most helps me to understand what is in plain view.

Stanley Cavell: Yes, I agree absolutely. What’s the sense of something in front of your eyes that you do not see. Wittgenstein also says that what’s hidden is of no philosophical interest to us, as though philosophy were a game of getting hot and getting cold – the object of its inquiry from the beginning a perfectly familiar object. But film dramatises ‘all in front of your eyes’ in a way painting does not. Film is put in front of your eyes and persists in saying something to you in front of your eyes. I suppose it is a source of film’s popularity, as if we knew what this meant.

SC: Such thoughts reveal that film is about how things happen, or happen to happen, or happen just here and now, or happen to look. The anecdotes teach you nothing, yet they are not even boring, which is quite amazing. What difference does it make that this is the first film in which Tony Curtis appears and has no lines? This was the entire content on television the other night of the introduction to a really quite interesting film noir called Criss Cross, from just after World War II, and the way of introducing it was to alert the audience to notice this good looking young man who’s dancing with Yvonne De Carlo (until Burt Lancaster comes along); this sixty seconds was the making of Curtis’s career. But this film is about how people look and about the accidents of a career and about being able to appear and say nothing. All of these things are deeply part of the grain of film. The gossipy anecdote, about essentially nothing, of which nothing is made, nevertheless gives the audience a specific stake in the film. It breaks the smooth, hard, undifferentiated surface, like a dive. And the most serious criticism also needs to do that.

AK: I wonder why so many of the serious things we feel about films are mysteriously diverted when we speak or write about them. Why are our thoughts and words about film deflected? Anecdotes seem to be one of the many instances of diversion. I was just thinking of that anecdote about the Renoir film Partie de Campagne...

SC: ...Yes. ‘It rained that day.’

AK: Actually that is not necessarily an unhelpful anecdote if it leads one, as it led me, to be even more astonished at how Renoir made use of the rain (on the water) in the film. Indeed, we are more alert to the complexity of its integration.

AK: I find that after I’ve watched a film I normally have a few moments or maybe just one moment that really strikes me.

SC: A moment you care about, however apparently trivial, can be productive. Why did the hand do that? Why did the camera turn just then?

AK: There’s a moment that really stuck me in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). I read your piece on the film after re-watching it, and was pleased to see you mention this moment. It is when Mr Deeds (Gary Cooper) is lying on his back on his bed talking to Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) on the phone. He has his right calf and ankle resting on the knee of the other leg, and he’s playing with his foot while he’s talking to her. The camera is behind his head so that most of his face is obscured (this shot is repeated a number of times). Then when the phone call is over you see him playing his trusty tuba and his face is even more hidden than in the previous version of the shot. Why did they think to execute it like that... like that?

SC: Like that...

AK: And why was I drawn to these shots? I suppose there is something unusual about seeing someone on their bed playing with their foot in a film, or with their tuba, and not seeing their face. Yet, I didn’t only think the shots were unusual, or striking, I thought they were gently mysterious, and that they were significant. They asked questions of me. As the film continued, the memory of the shots kept returning. My intuition was that because these shots were like that they might give me a key to the whole film, and open it up in new and rewarding ways.

SC: I like it. I share it. It is always important that one is drawn, that a memory keeps returning. I’m inclined to say further that there is always a reason. But wordlessness may be as significant a response as an essay. You remind me of a little private concept of mine – ‘the nothing shot’. Sometimes just rhetorically it makes a break in the narrative at certain times. In another Frank Capra film, It Happened One Night (1934), with the pair Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, we find them walking together down a road away from us, an empty road, and that’s a shot that over and over I came back to in my mind. I had nothing to say about it. I knew that it punctuated a moment in the film; it was the end of something and the beginning of something. It could have been months, maybe years, until I just stopped and asked myself, in the right mood, what is it about a couple together at dawn walking down a road together away from us? Where are they coming from (what is dawning), and going to; why are they – are they – silent? They direct brief words to each other, but what are they thinking about? And suddenly every word seemed to mean something and at that stage I could hardly keep up with thoughts that I was having about it. I then wrote a brief essay about simply that shot, simply that shot, which seemed to me to raise every issue in the whole film. But as an exercise, it is so hard – isn’t it? – to characterise in such a way that a group of people each can follow it, get something out of it. It’s not to be counted on.

AK: You’ve written the idea that films think, and further the idea of films thinking philosophically. One can imagine this sounding obscure. How can films think?

SC: Well, of course, that is to begin with just a somewhat provocative way of saying: Don’t ask what the artist is thinking or intending, but ask why the work is as it is, why just this is here in just that way. [...] Intending something is a function of wanting something. My formulation employing the work’s thinking or intending or wanting something, is meant to emphasise the sense that the work wants something of us who behold or hear or read it. This is a function of our determining what we want of it, why or how we are present at it – what our relation to it is. It and I (each I present at it) are responsible to each other. [...] It’s hard for me not to invoke here an idea I broach concerning Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, concerning Deeds’ saying ‘Everybody does something silly when he thinks.’ This is said in a courtroom as Deeds begins to mount his defence against the charge that he does outlandish, incomprehensible things, like playing a tuba as he lies in bed, or feeding doughnuts to a horse. Taking its cue from Deeds the camera goes on to illustrate his examples as he picks out characters in the courtroom who are doodling, cracking their knuckles, drumming their fingers on a table, twitching their noses, and so forth. Where Descartes says that nothing is more human than thinking, that thinking is the human essence that proves its existence to itself, this film is saying, ‘Indeed. And what thinking looks like is this, namely a property provable upon the body.’ I raise this not to argue it but to observe that in directing the camera to provide this proof by way of the body, Deeds is simultaneously showing that film is thinking about thinking, that is, about what it is to be human.

AK: You’ve also said that film is inherently self-reflexive. This is of course a very important topic in The World Viewed.

SC: What I wanted to capture by saying that film is inherently self-reflexive is simply the significance of the fact that what you’re given in film is a view of a place or a person or an object that is from one place rather than any other, at this time and not another, for this interval rather than another, in this light and with this texture and not others, and so on. Choice – thought, reflection – is on the surface. Obviously there are homologous choices in the other arts, but with film the alternatives (of angle, distance, lighting, interval, etc.) are in principle so obvious as to be imponderable. The reason for emphasising this, even so brusquely, is that it is just the thing that is invisible about film. It’s on the surface, you can’t miss it, but you inveterately miss it. Film trades on this, on missing it; it is part of film’s emotionality. Call it the false transparency of film. If we say that this transparency is achieved through film’s power to induce trance-like states, then our next task is to uncover the sources of this power. Should we relate false transparency to a resistance to the recognition of reality’s independence of us? [...]

SC: Well I wouldn’t have missed this life, and I’m glad it has incorporated film – it might not have.

AK: I’m very glad too that your life incorporated film. Thank you, so much, for having this conversation with me.

Stanley Cavell in conversation with Andrew Klevan3

  • 1. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed. Reflections on the Ontology of Film (Cambridige: Harvard University Press, 1979).
  • 2. Stanley Cavell, “The World as Things: Collecting Thoughts on Collecting,” Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006). Italics are ours.
  • 3. Stanley Cavell and Andrew Klevan, “What Becomes of Thinking on Film? Stanley Cavell in conversation with Andrew Klevan,” Film as Philosophy. Essays in Cinema after Wittgenstein and Cavell (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Excerpts