“Every teacher knows the excitement, and chaos, in learning about a subject by undertaking to teach it.” So writes Stanley Cavell of his decision in 1963 to teach a seminar on film. The idea struck him as pedagogically promising, in that all present would have memories of their experiences with movies, and no established body of criticism yet existed to distract them from the nature of those experiences. As Cavell recounts in The World Viewed, though, the seminar was a failure. “Or rather,” he writes, “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.
Another failure in the seminar’s work was no less pervasive, and far more disheartening. The willingness to forgo theory and criticism was too proud a vow, particularly in view of our continuing inability to discover categories we had confidence in or to make comparisons (e.g., with the novel, plays, and painting) that really carried the weight we wished upon them. A frequent reaction to these dead ends was to start getting technical; words flowed about everything from low-angle shots to filters to timings and numbers of set-ups to deep focus and fast cutting, etc., etc. But all this in turn lost its sense. On the one hand, the amount and kind of technical information that could be regarded as relevant is more than any of us knew; on the other hand, the only technical matters we found ourselves invoking, so far as they were relevant to the experience of particular films, which was our only business, are in front of your eyes. You can see when a shot begins and ends and whether it’s long, middle, or close; you know whether the camera is moving back or forth or sideways, whether a figure brings himself into the field of the camera or the camera turns to get him; you may not know how Hitchcock gets the stairwell to distort that particular way in Vertigo, but you can see that he got it. Then what is the reality behind the idea that there is always a technical something you don't know that would provide the key to the experience?
The questions raised by the “failure” of the seminar stuck with Cavell over the next several years, and he describes their lingering effect as the genesis of The World Viewed, which was first published in 1971. The significance of that book, and of Cavell’s work on film more generally, is noted in two recent appreciations from the folks at n+1. In a piece earlier this month, Charles Peterson deems Cavell “one of the greatest American philosophers of the past half-century” but one who’d have become “little more than a curious footnote in American intellectual history” had he not turned to “the more practical concern of how to ‘reconstruct the everyday.’ ”
This he has done, with a success that can only be called stunning, through interpretations of literature and film. Having encountered his specific readings, one returns to his more general work with awe, as if, without quite realizing it the first time around, he must have been penetrating into the essence of things.
And back in n+1 issue 12, from Fall 2011, Mark Greif has a long piece on “Cavell as Educator,” in which he notes how the evolving artistic possibilities of the medium helped inspire Cavell’s work on the movies:
In the late 1960s, Cavell had felt the danger for the first time that the movies were becoming modernist in the way that painting had, meaning that this vast audience could be divided. “Sophisticated” taste would no longer coincide with the common, shared, democratic run of movies, the best that the Hollywood studio system had created. 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. Snobbery would cause the loss of a unique aesthetic forum, and, unless someone philosophized movies differently, it would be the fault of the intellectuals.
It’s in The World Viewed that Cavell lays out the democratizing nature of film, the uniquely all-brow arrangement that modernism threatened:
The movie seems naturally to exist in a state in which its highest and its most ordinary instances attract the same audience (anyway until recently)… (P)eople who attend to serious music do not attend to light dinner music, say, or movie music. They may admire Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern, the Beatles, jazz. But then everyone should admire inspired inventiveness, true sentiment, rocking joy, passionate honesty, and the turning of captivity and grief into radiant shouts and virtuoso murmurs of community. And people who read serious novels do not on the whole read potboilers (with the occasional exception of the detective story and science fiction, sociological curiosities of their own). There are, of course, in literature a few instances of very great artists who are at the same time popular. But my claim is that in the case of films, it is generally true that you do not really like the highest instances unless you also like typical ones. You don’t even know what the highest are instances of unless you know the typical as well.
For Cavell this inclusivity is mirrored in the very nature of our experiences with film, which are so dependent on the social context of our viewings. While for Cavell the events associated with the experiences of books and music are only occasionally as important as the experience of the works themselves, our memories of films are “lined with fragments” of the conversations and responses of the friends with whom we’ve watched. As film was becoming high art, Cavell saw our experience of it evolving apace, and he sure didn’t love it.
One could say that movie showings have begun for the first time to be habitually attended by an audience, I mean by people who arrive and depart at the same time, as at a play. When moviegoing was casual and we entered at no matter what point in the proceedings (during the news or short subject or somewhere in the feature—enjoying the recognition, later, of the return of the exact moment at which one entered, and from then on feeling free to decide when to leave, or whether to see the familiar part through again), we took our fantasies and companions and anonymity inside and left with them intact. Now that there is an audience, a claim is made upon my privacy, so it matters to me that our responses to the film are not really shared. At the same time that the mere fact of an audience makes this claim upon me, it feels as if the old casualness of moviegoing has been replaced by a casualness of movie-viewing, which I interpret as an inability to tolerate our own fantasies, let alone those of others—an attitude that equally I cannot share. I feel I am present at a cult whose members have nothing in common but their presence in the same place.
The World Viewed is one of the 100 works we’ve chosen to highlight as we celebrate our first 100 years. Over at our centennial site, we’ve posted an excerpt in which Cavell considers Vertigo, which just this year supplanted Citizen Kane on Sight & Sound’s list of the 50 greatest films of all time.