Home

The philosopher Stanley Cavell (1926-2018) was the author of a relatively small but extremely rich collection of books and articles on film, mostly concentrating on classic Hollywood cinema, which have generated both passionate adherence and vehement criticism. In a conversation with George Toles, Michael Silverblatt related the story of how he was so excited by Cavell’s article on Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) upon its first appearance in The Georgia Review in 1976 – it subsequently became chapter three of Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness in 1981 – that he called Toles up and read the entire article down the phone to him. “It only took three hours, I think”, remembers Toles, going on to say that “no essay on film has ever made a more revolutionary impact” on him.1 The most famous examples of criticism are, perhaps, the feminist objections of Tania Modleski, which Wheatley discusses extensively in Stanley Cavell and Film: Scepticism and Self-Reliance at the Cinema. But the passion on both sides has not led film studies to be divided into pro-Cavell and anti-Cavell camps; most of the time he is simply ignored or footnoted as a rather idiosyncratic curiosity.

The reasons for this, I assume, have a lot to do with his prose style. Although it is often structurally challenging (at every level, from the sentence all the way up to the book), his work is mostly written with an ordinary vocabulary, and so somehow falls between the stools of immediate accessibility and enticing obscurity. There is not, for example, a great deal of terminological explanation for a mini “Cavell industry” to devote itself to; quite the opposite is true for his almost exact contemporary Gilles Deleuze.2 If Cavell’s prose draws you in, as it did Silverblatt and Toles, then one is already away; but what to do if it does not, or if it proves (as was the case with my own early experiences of The World Viewed, in particular) intriguing and irritating, interesting and bemusing, attractive and rebarbative, in roughly equal measure? There has long been the need for an introductory work on Cavell to help such readers get their bearings, something “neither uncritical nor unsympathetic”, as Stephen Mulhall puts it on the back cover of Stanley Cavell and Film. A lecturer at King’s College London who has previously worked extensively on the cinema of Michael Haneke, Catherine Wheatley has written, very elegantly and with a deceptive simplicity that belies a thorough grasp of the material, just such a book.

Stanley Cavell and Film is certainly not “merely” an introduction to Cavell; those already familiar with his work will find a great of value within it. It does, however, take as its main task the clear explanation and elucidation of Cavell’s work on film, rather than attempting to peddle a particular “line”. In keeping with the focus of the Film Thinks series, to which it belongs, on the question of how film has “influenced the way we think”, Wheatley tells us that her book’s central questions are: “‘How has film shaped Cavell’s philosophy?’ ‘How do the film books reflect and expand upon concerns already present within Cavell’s early work?’ ‘What, in short, does film – all film – teach Cavell, about how best to live in the world?’” (p. 24) The book takes a chronological approach, tracing the development of Cavell’s thinking about film and its relationship with his wider philosophical work. Throughout, Wheatley – wisely, to my mind – concentrates on the films that Cavell himself discusses. She does not attempt to extract a “method” from his writing on film, but to look closely at that writing – and at the films he writes about, in the light of that writing – in order to find out what we can learn from what Cavell claims to have learned from films.

After an introduction sketching Cavell’s personal and intellectual biography, some important context, and Wheatley’s intentions for the book, the next two chapters, “Everything Matters” and “Screening Scepticism”, engage primarily with Cavell’s first book on film, The World Viewed (originally published in 1971, reappearing in an expanded edition in 1979).3 There is in the first of these chapters a very lucid explanation of the importance of the – rather different – “ordinary language” philosophies of J.L. Austin and Ludwig Wittgenstein to Cavell, tying this in to the fact that “Cavell sees cinema as having a special relationship to the ordinary or the uneventful” (p. 31), while the second deals with Cavell’s controversial ontology of film, persuasively arguing that “Cavell’s real interest in film has not to do, then, with what happens to things on film but what happens to us when we see them.” (p. 71) The next two chapters – “Acknowledgement, Other Minds” and “Self-Reliance” concentrate, respectively, on Cavell’s books on what he calls the “comedy of remarriage” (Pursuits of Happiness, 1981) and the “melodrama of the unknown woman” (Contesting Tears, 1996).4 Stanley Cavell and Film traces the development of Cavell’s central philosophical interests and how these are borne out in his studies of film. Crucial to his earlier work is his interest in the question of scepticism, by which he means the peculiarly modern condition (using modern in a broad sense to refer to something that begins roughly around the sixteenth century) in which “our newly revealed subjectivity comes between us and our ‘presentness’ to the world.” (p. 95) In his later writing he turns his focus towards the Emersonian idea of perfectionism which, Wheatley insists, “‘does not imply perfectibility’ […] the Cavellian perfectionist is constantly striving for what Cavell calls ‘the unattained yet attainable self’.”’ (p. 184) The latter notion is explored chiefly in a chapter entitled ‘Perfectionism, Friendship, Education’ that concentrates on 2004’s Cities of Words.5

The final chapter, “Love’s Work” (an allusion to the philosopher Gillian Rose), concentrates on Cavell’s relationship to his critics, although similar material is deployed effectively throughout the book. In an interesting and successful gesture, Wheatley takes seriously Cavell’s understanding of philosophy as a form of conversation in which friendship is central, and reads his confrontations with his critics – even at their most prickly – as just that: a conversation among friends, or at least people striving toward friendship. To understand Cavell we need to understand what this might mean: “It seems the question of what a friend is, and what friendship is, needs some attention.” (p. 192) Wheatley sees, for example, Modleski’s criticisms as having “a profound effect on Cavell, not least insofar as they present to Cavell the possibility that he may be (perceived as) rejecting an offer of conversation and hence failing, in his own way, to acknowledge the existence of others.” (p. 159) She also argues that Robert Gooding-Williams’ critique of Cavell’s treatment of race in his writing on Vincente Minelli’s The Band Wagon (1953) “seems to have a similar effect on Cavell to Modleski’s criticisms of certain sections of Contesting Tears.” (p. 235) The Cavell that emerges in these passages is someone decidedly open to criticism, but who also sees it as a mark of respect to an interlocutor not to capitulate to criticism merely for the sake of a quiet life. In many ways, given its focus on the difficulties and possibilities of mutual acknowledgment, this makes Pursuits of Happiness (and not, as is sometimes assumed, the ontological investigations of The World Viewed) seem like the central text of Cavell’s writing on film. The plots of the films discussed in that book center, for Cavell, around the loss and recovery of mutual acknowledgement between the couples that are the films’ protagonists. Wheatley argues powerfully that comparable procedures are at work between film and viewer and that, for Cavell, the responsiveness that films demand of us as viewers, “is fraught with risk – of rebuke, misunderstanding, of dismissal,” but that it is precisely this that “makes it a moral act.” (p. 249)

Fred Astaire and Leroy Daniels in The Band Wagon (Vincente Minelli, 1953): “So it is that Cavell understands Astaire’s ‘dance of praise’ as a passionate utterance, one that risks being read as an expression of white privilege. Likewise his praise for this scene […] is Cavell’s own passionate utterance. […] Passionate utterances leave the expresser fully exposed, at risk.” (p. 240)

Inevitably, I do have a few quibbles. Although a very elegantly produced book, it is a shame that what Wheatley rightly refers to as Cavell’s “magnum opus” (p. 17), The Claim of Reason, appears at one point as The Claim to Reason and at another as The Claim of the Reason (pp. 17 and 40).6 (In fact, I personally would have been interested to see more detailed discussion of this book and its relation to Cavell’s work on film. However, given that Stanley Cavell and Film manages to cover Cavell’s work on film so comprehensively without becoming dense or congested, Wheatley was probably wise to avoid attempting this, which might have unhelpfully muddied the waters, particularly for those coming to Cavell for the first time.) Also, Wheatley’s admirable goal of being as generous as possible both to Cavell and his critics means that she sometimes leaves unchallenged points that I might like to have seen her engage with. For example, she appears to grant a point derived from Noël Carroll that Cavell’s method can lead to “logical fallacy”, that his writing exhibits “a deliberate lack of distinct or rigorous argument” (pp. 20 and 12). I would be inclined to grant the first adjective but not the second: if by “distinct” Wheatley means that Cavell wants his prose to feel more like a conversation than a mathematical proof, this is certainly right, but I would contend that Cavell does not lack rigor so much as he rejects a certain account of what argumentative rigor is, or should look like.7 It is reasonable that a book like this devotes more attention to what Cavell says rather than why he says it in the way he does, but for me the balance could perhaps have been a little different. Finally, I find myself disputing some of the necessarily thumbnail sketches by means of which Wheatley contextualizes Cavell philosophically. We read, for example, that “modern philosophy – from Kant through Locke to Hume, Hegel to Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – tells us: that the world is beyond our reach”, whereas I would have thought that post-Kantians like Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche all (in their very different ways) deny that this is the case. The question for them is what exactly the “world” is, and what it would mean for “us” to “reach” it – which is of course a rather Cavellian kind of question.8

But as mentioned above, there has been a real need for a book like this, and we should be grateful that Wheatley has been the person to write it. (It is to be hoped that it will inspire others to contribute to remedying the neglect that Cavell’s work has suffered from.) It takes real delicacy, and a real grasp of what is at stake – an ability always to distinguish the wood from the trees – to convey another thinker’s ideas at book-length without this coming across like an extended précis, and Wheatley has exactly the skills required. She always keeps in touch with the details of both the texts and the films in question, yet never gets bogged down in that detail. Some of her formulations are particularly strong, being completely clear and yet – just like Cavell’s best work – pregnant enough to make me lay aside the book for a while in order to ponder them. To take just two examples: “Each instance of communication is not a matter of obeying a preexisting rule but of a negotiation with the prevailing conditions of language and the figuring out of a way to make oneself understood within them.” (p. 114) And (a particular favorite, this): “for us to see anything as something, there must be another way of seeing it.” (p. 238)

The central virtue of Stanley Cavell and Film is, I think, that Wheatley not only clearly (yet without over-simplification) explains what Cavell has to say about film, but also conveys with passion (yet without myopic partisanship) why we should care. She returns us to Cavell’s writings and to the films that he writes about eager to develop our relationship with them. Wheatley writes early in the book that “what follows is written in the spirit of friendship” (p. 28); on the evidence provided here, more academic books should be written in such a spirit.

Catherine Wheatley, Stanley Cavell and Film: Scepticism and Self-Reliance at the Cinema (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019)

Endnotes:

  1. “George Toles: Paul Thomas Anderson”, Toles interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on the Bookworm podcast, April 6th 2017, https://www.kcrw.com/culture/shows/bookworm/george-toles-paul-thomas-anderson.
  2. As Wheatley notes, “while countless books have been written elucidating, commenting upon and extending Deleuze’s relationship to film and film theory, there exists relatively little literature devoted exclusively to Cavell’s writings on film.” (p. 19)
  3. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Enlarged Edition (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1979).
  4. Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1981); and Stanley Cavell, Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  5. Stanley Cavell, Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life (Cambridge, Mass. and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004).
  6. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). I was also sorry to see Wheatley submit to the current tendency to use “begging the question” to mean “raising the question” (p. 111).
  7. Juliet Floyd has recently described The Claim of Reason as “a rigorous book”. “Why does The Claim of Reason matter?”, symposium held at Duke University, September 13th 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYgUg9WuKLc.
  8. I would also query the quotation from Lisa Trahair on p. 83 that makes a similar point. I’m influenced here by Robert B. Pippin; see, for example, his Modernism as a Philosophical Problem (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999).