Remembering Stanley Cavell

On Film / The Daily — Jun 21, 2018

Stanley Cavell, the American philosopher who passed away on Tuesday at the age of ninety-one, was an early proponent of cinema as a subject worthy of serious study. He’d engaged with the art form throughout his life. When he was a young boy, his mother would take him to movie theaters in Atlanta, where she played live piano accompaniment to silent films. As a teenager studying music, Cavell “started playing hooky,” as he put it, skipping classes to catch two or three films a day. And when he started teaching at Harvard, he was the first professor to include movies in an introductory course on western philosophy. Catherine Wheatley opens her remembrance for Sight & Sound with a quote, the first line from Cavell’s 1971 book, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film: “Movies are strand over strand with memories of my life.”

Cavell’s advocacy for such a popular art as a subject worthy of serious philosophical study goes hand-in-hand with his commitment to the methodology known as ordinary language philosophy. As Neil Genzlinger notes in his obituary for the New York Times, Cavell argued that philosophy should be a “willingness to think not about something other than what ordinary human beings think about, but rather to learn to think undistractedly about things that ordinary human beings cannot help thinking about.” The clarity of his writing made Cavell one of the rare philosophers “who was read as much for his prose as for his ideas,” notes Jeet Heer in his appreciation for the New Republic.

In an outstanding piece that ran in n+1 in 2011, Mark Greif emphasizes that Cavell resisted the division of movies into high-, middle-, and lowbrow categories. In the 1960s, Cavell “started to encounter people in Berkeley or New York or Cambridge who wanted to talk about Bergman and Antonioni but not Cary Grant or the Marx Brothers—that is to say, he met fools of a dangerous type.” Greif then quotes Cavell’s argument that “it is generally true that you do not really like the highest instances unless you also like the typical ones. You don’t even know what the highest are instances of unless you know the typical as well.”

Seven Hollywood films made between 1934 and 1949—Adam’s Rib, The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night, The Lady Eve, and The Philadelphia Story—are the subjects of the book by Cavell probably best known to cinephiles, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981), a consideration of the narrative that reunites a couple after a divorce or separation. For Rex Butler, who conducted an “exchange” with Cavell that ran at Senses of Cinema in 2001, his other “great book” is Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (1996), a study of Letter from an Unknown Woman, Gaslight, Now Voyager, and Stella Dallas, films in which a woman’s pursuit for equality leads to her isolation. And back in Sight & Sound, Wheatley notes that Cavell would write one more book focusing on cinema, Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life (2005), which “weaves philosophy and philosophical accounts of literature with studies of films to provide a moral articulation of a democratic society.”

If that sounds a bit dry, Christopher Benfey tells us in his remembrance for the New York Review of Books that Cavell was “the most exciting classroom presence I’ve ever experienced.” For more on the philosopher and his work, see the robust collection links that Catherine Grant put together at Film Studies for Free in 2009; Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies; and a tidy set of links to and excerpts from pieces by or about Cavell from the editors of the London Review of Books.

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