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Twelve pieces on subjects ranging from Emerson and Thoreau to film and television to politics and culture.
THE THOUGHT OF MOVIES
What follows appeared in the Winter 1983 issue of the Yale Review. It was delivered on May 20, 1982, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., under the sponsorship of the American Film Institute, as the Second Annual Patricia Wise Lecture. I was told, in my invitation to prepare the lecture, that the idea of the series was to provide an occasion for writers and scholars not centered within the film community to describe the importance to their work, or to contemporary culture, of the existence of movies. I found I wanted to use the occasion to respond with fair consecutiveness to the repeated quizzing I have been subjected to over the years about my interest in film, especially on the publications of my books about film, The World Viewed (1971) and Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981), the publications which, I assumed, had produced the invitation to me to give the Wise Lecture. So I am glad for the opportunity to have the lecture printed essentially as it was delivered, with no effort to remove what I had been careful to include within it—my sense of its occasion.
* * *
It must be the nature of American academic philosophy (or of its reputation), together with the nature of American movies (or of their notoriety), that makes someone who writes about both, in the same breath, subject to questions, not to say suspicions. The invitation to deliver this year's Patricia Wise Lecture is the first time I have been questioned about this combination of concerns, or obsessions, by a group of people committed to sitting quietly for the better part of an hour while I search for an answer.
The question has, I think without fail, come my way with philosophy put first: How is it that a professor of philosophy gets to thinking about Hollywood films?—as though becoming a professor of philosophy were easier to accept than thinking and writing about movies. So defensive have I grown that it took me a while to recognize that for most of my life the opposite direction of the question would have been more natural: How is it that someone whose education was as formed by going to the movies as by reading books, gets to thinking about philosophy professionally?
For a long time I believed the connection to be a private crossroads of my own. It became explicit for me during that period in my life I learned later, in a calmer time, to call my identity crisis. After college, in the late 1940s, I was accepted by the extension program of the Julliard Conservatory as a composition major, following some two years of increasing doubts that music was my life. Almost as soon as I arrived in New York and established myself in school, I began avoiding my composition lessons. I spent my days reading and my nights in a theater, typically standing for the opera or a play, and then afterwards going to a film revival on 42nd Street, which in the late forties was a rich arena within which to learn the range and randomness of the American talkie. What I was reading all day I privately called philosophy, though I knew no more about what other people meant by the word than I knew why it was in philosophy that I was looking for the answer to the question my life had become.
Since I had spent my undergraduate years torn between the wish to be a writer and the fact of composing music for the student theater—for anything ranging from numbers for our annual musical revues to incidental music for nothing less than King Lear—what I learned in college would scarcely, I mean by European standards, have added up to an education at all. But I was encouraged to go on learning from the odd places, and the odd people, that it pleased my immigrant, unlettered father and my accomplished mother to take me to—he who was in love with the learning he never would have, and she who while I was growing up made a living playing the piano for silent movies and for vaudeville. The commonest place we went together was to movies. So while before I entered college I would not have heard a performance of, say, the Beethoven Ninth, and lacked any obvious preparation for it in the history of music and of German culture, I had known enough to attend carefully, for example, to the moves of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Jerome Kern, so that when the chorus in the last movement of the Ninth sings the two principal themes in counterpoint, the ecstasy this caused me had been prepared by my response to the closing of Swingtime, in which one of the pair is singing again "A Fine Romance" while the other is singing again "The Way You Look Tonight." This would not have constituted the preparation I claim for high art unless it had gone beyond cleverness. It is essential that each of the Kern songs is as good individually as it is, so that when the pair modify and cast them together in the reprise, each can be seen capable, so to speak, of meaning the separate song he and she have on their minds.
In the same way the lyrics of such songs were preparation for the high poetry I had yet to discover. In my early adolescence lines such as
Heaven, I'm in heaven
And the cares that hung around me through the week
Seem to vanish like a gambler's lucky streak
When we're out together dancing cheek to cheek.
a stanza such as this was what I thought of as poetry—nothing else will be poetry for me that cannot compete with the experience of concentration and lift in such words. It seems to me that I knew this then to be an experience not alone of the behavior and the intelligence of the words with one another, nor only, in addition, of the wit and beauty of invoking the gambler's run of luck, but that it was an experience of these (though I would have lacked as yet words of my own in which to say so) together with the drama of using the vanishing of the streak, which is a bad thing, as a simile for the vanishing of cares and the access to heaven, which is a good thing—as if beyond bad and good there were a region of chance and risk within which alone the intimacy emblematized or mythologized in the dancing of Astaire and Rogers is realizable. Eventually I would be able to note that happiness and happenstance spring from the same root, that the pursuit of happiness—whether this is an occasion for a step into selfhood or into nationhood—requires the bravery to recognize and seize the occasion, or as Emerson had put it, "the courage to be what you are." I am not claiming that I, then, on 42nd Street, had already planned my book on the Hollywood comedy of remarriage; but rather that that book is in part written in loyalty to younger versions of myself, some of whom were, or are, there. Certainly I can sympathize with Steve Martin's half-crazed hero in the recent Pennies from Heaven when he says, crying from the heart about the songs he peddles and believes, "Listen to the words!" And I am, I guess, claiming that that younger version of myself, playing hooky from Julliard and in the poverty of his formal education reading all day and spending half the night in theaters, was already taking to heart Henry James's most memorable advice to aspiring writers. In "The Art of Fiction" James says:
The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implications of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it—this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience.... Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice "Write from experience and experience only," I should feel that this was rather a tantalizing monition if I were not careful immediately to add, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost."
By the time the time came for me to write my book about a set of Hollywood romances (Pursuits of Happiness), I had come to count on myself as one of the people willing not to be lost to his or to her experience, hence to count on being able to survive the indignities of sometimes guessing unconvincingly and of sometimes tracing things in thin air. So, for instance, in my book I build a sense of the shared structure of the comedies of remarriage out of an understanding of Shakespearean romance; and I discuss the blanket in It Happened One Night in terms of the censoring of human knowledge and aspiration in the philosophy of Kant; and I see the speculation of Heidegger exemplified or explained in the countenance of Buster Keaton; and I find in The Awful Truth that when the camera moves away from an imminent embrace between Cary Grant and Irene Dunne to discover a pair of human figurines marking the passage of time by skipping together into a clock that has the form of a house, that in that image something metaphysical is being said about what marriage is, that it is a new way of inhabiting time, and moreover that that is a way of summarizing the philosophy, among others, of Thoreau and of Nietzsche.
So I suppose I should not be surprised that this book of mine has met with some resistance from its reviewers. More than once it has been called pretentious. Put aside for the present the possibility that its ideas are poorly executed or voiced in the writing—there is nothing I can do about that now. If that is not the whole story, then the charge of pretension must have to do with the connections I make between film and philosophy; at any rate, the charge levelled against either separately would hardly be worth responding to. But what in the connections may strike one as pretentious? It is important to me to bring out what I find to be a harmless way of issuing the charge, and a harmful way.
The harmless way takes the connections as a matter of preference, and on this basis I can see that one who is not familiar with the texts I mention may prefer that I not drop their names. I have two excuses for doing so. First, since I find in movies food for thought, I go for help in thinking about what I understand them to be thinking about where I go for help in thinking about anything, to the thinkers I know best and trust most. Second, as is typical of a certain kind of American, I find what I do to be pertinent to any and all of my fellow citizens, and I secretly believe that if they saw it as I do, they would all immediately devote themselves to doing it too. This accounts in part for an American's readiness to lecture his fellows, a practice that made an impression on de Tocqueville during his visit to us in the 1830s, the decade before Thoreau moved out to Walden to prepare his kind of lecturing, or dressing down. It is a practice some will find insufferable and others generous. The practice raises for me the issue whether Americans have anything to their name to call a common cultural inheritance, whether you can name three works of high culture that you can be sure all the people you care about have read or seen or heard. This lack of assured commonality would be another part of the cause for our tendency to lecture rather than to converse with one another.
The harmful way of charging my book with pretension takes it for granted that philosophy and Hollywood movies occupy separate cultural intentions, with nothing to say across their border, indeed with not so much as a border between them. The immediate harm in this view lies in its closing off an exploration of what those Americans to whom it matters may be said to have instead of a common inheritance of high culture, namely an ability to move between high and low, caring about each also from the vantage of the other. This has its liabilities, naturally; for example, of indiscriminateness and of moments of incomprehensibility to the outside learned world. But it also, to my mind, accounts for what is best, or special, in our work; for example, for the reach in Thoreau's prose from the highest sublimity to the lowest pun. I am reminded that de Tocqueville also remarked a liveliness among the populace of our democracy that he missed in his populace at home and which he attributed to the fact that in America there is genuinely public business which requires learning and intelligence to take part in. This seems to me the condition for the kind of mutual respect called upon in putting together the high and the low.
For someone, or most people, to take for granted that there is no border between philosophy and movies, for this to carry its apparent conviction, there must be available fairly definite, if unconscious, interpretations both of what philosophy is and of what the Hollywood movie is. Philosophy would have to be thought of as a more or less technical discipline reserved for specialists. But this would just interpret what it is that makes philosophy professional; and however internal that state is to philosophy and indeed to the growing professionalization of the world, it does not say what makes philosophy philosophy.
I understand it as 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, or anyway cannot help having occur to them, sometimes in fantasy, sometimes as a flash across a landscape; such things, for example, as whether we can know the world as it is in itself, or whether others really know the nature of one's own experiences, or whether good and bad are relative, or whether we might not now be dreaming that we are awake, or whether modern tyrannies and weapons and spaces and speeds and art are continuous with the past of the human race or discontinuous, and hence whether the learning of the human race is not irrelevant to the problems it has brought before itself. Such thoughts are instances of that characteristic human willingness to allow questions for itself which it cannot answer with satisfaction. Cynics about philosophy, and perhaps about humanity, will find that questions without answers are empty; dogmatists will claim to have arrived at answers; philosophers after my heart will rather wish to convey the thought that while there may be no satisfying answers to such questions in certain forms, there are, so to speak, directions to answers, ways to think, that are worth the time of your life to discover. (It is a further question for me whether directions of this kind are teachable, in ways suited to what we think of as schools.)
It would not become me to proceed, in speaking on this occasion of my interest in movies, other than by way of faithfulness to the impulse to philosophy as I conceive it. Apart from the best I can do in this attempt, I would not have approached the question whether the same sensibility that is drawn to and perplexed about philosophy is drawn to and perplexed about movies.
There is, I suggested, an interpretation of Hollywood movies that is the companion of the interpretation of philosophy as a specialized profession. This interpretation takes movies as specialized commodities manufactured by an industry designed to satisfy the tastes of a mass audience. Conventional capitalists as well as conventional Marxists can equally take such a view. It is no more false than is the interpretation of philosophy as a profession, but it is no less partial, or prejudicial. Just as it would be possible to select films carefully with an idea of proving that film can attain to art (people interested in such selections will on the whole not include Hollywood talkies in this selection), so one could heap together abysses of bad and meretricious movies with an idea of proving one's bleakest view of Hollywood. These are not my interests, and have nothing special to do with assessing the life of movies.
What interests me much more in these terms about Hollywood is that for around fifteen years, say from the middle thirties to the early fifties, it provided an environment in which a group of people, as a matter of its routine practice, turned out work as good, say, as that represented by the seven movies forming the basis of my book on remarriage comedies—work, that is to say, as good, or something like as good, as It Happened One Night (1934), The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), The Philadelphia Story (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), and Adam's Rib (1949)—work that must participate in any history of film as an art that I would find credible. I am not, perhaps I should say, claiming that this work is the best work in the history of world cinema, nor that these films are better than the experimental or nonfiction films contemporary with them. I am, I guess, claiming that they are good, worthy companions of the best; and also that we have as yet no way of knowing, no sufficient terms in which to say, how good they are. So it is no part of my argument to insist that major work can only come from such an environment or to deny that significant movies continue to be made in Hollywood. But I expect that no one still finds that they come almost exclusively from there, and routinely, say every other week, something like twenty or twenty-five times a year. Over a period of fifteen golden years, that comes to between three hundred and four hundred works, which is a larger body of first-rate or nearly first-rate work than the entire corpus of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama can show.
How could we show that it is equally, or anyway, sufficiently, worth studying? Now we are at the heart of the aesthetic matter. Nothing can show this value to you unless it is discovered in your own experience, in the persistent exercise of your own taste, and hence the willingness to challenge your taste as it stands, to form your own artistic conscience, hence nowhere but in the details of your encounter with specific works.
It is time for some more extended examples. I choose two principally, one beginning from a question I have about a moment in The Philadelphia Story, the second from a question I have about the mood of Pennies from Heaven.
Excerpted from Themes Out of School by Stanley Cavell. Copyright © 1984 Stanley Cavell. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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