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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Happy Stanley

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 06/10/06 at 12:07 AM

So it’s the other day, and from the library I’ve got the Criterion DVD edition of The Lady Eve. One reason for getting the Criterion edition is to get the commentary. In this case, it’s by Marian Keene. At the time I have no idea who she is. But as I start to play the film, with commentary, I am asking myself, “Will this Marian Keene be mentioning Stanley Cavell?” For this film is a central text of, in fact, the first work discussed in Pursuits of Happiness, his book on what had been hitherto exclusively known as “screwball comedy.” To be honest I haven’t watched that many Criterion DVD’s, & don’t have a sense of how academic the commentary gets. & I’ve never had an objective view of how difficult or pertinent Cavell’s work is. Back when I was an undergrad & reading lots of Cavell, I thought that he was very accessible, and that everyone should read him. I think I even started thinking that everyone had read him. Since then I’ve come more to my senses, but have never fully shaken my early infatuation.

Does she mention him? Mention him, she can’t stop talking about him! Cavell’s thought is brought in throughout, and explains all the significant points of the film, & the only other critic mentioned is Northrop Frye, whom Cavell also mentions (& not just mentions: the central conceits of Pursuits rework Frye’s thought on Shakespeare). If I’d known more, I wouldn’t have been surprised. In addition to commenting on other films for Criterion (mostly Hitchcock), Keane has written, with William Rothman, a commentary on Cavell’s The World Viewed (a book I’ve previously mentioned) called Reading Cavell’s The World Viewed. So she should know her stuff. And her commentary for Lady Eve accessibly presents the stuff. Or at least I think so, but as I said, I’m not a judge in these matters.

Pursuits of Happiness is full-frontal genre study, a topic of some interest around Valve-parts, & of great interest to our not-to-be-as-much-with-us colleague, Ray Davis. If I can take up some of Ray’s thought, it seems to be Cavell does a good job of sticking to description, rather than establishing rules. He even manages to find limits to his own considerations: “if genre itself were decisive, Hitchcock’s Mr. And Mrs. Smith…which works brilliant variations within the genre, would have more life for us than is to be derived from its somewhat cold comforts.” What Cavell does is take a group of films that had been intuitively associated and labeled with a painfully under-descriptive term (How is A Day at the Races any less screwball than Bringing Up Baby?), and gives them a painfully unmarketable but perspicuous term: “comedies of remarriage.” Because it turns out, that’s what these films are all about, folks breaking up & getting back together again, only doing it better the second time. & having fun all the while, even when they aren’t.

What say you, gentle reader? The on-line blurb for Keane & Rothman’s book calls The World Viewed “one of [Cavell’s] most neglected books.” Is Pursuits any less neglected? Or is it wildly popular in places I don’t go? Allow me one more personal statement: Pursuits, of all the philosophy books I’ve read, has had the greatest impact on how I live my life. No, not any scales falling from my eyes or such, but it did change how I have thought about my own marriage, and the need to renew it, and have fun.

Speaking of fun, of course Lady Eve is quite. If only for the supporting cast: Eric Blore puts in another solid performance, William Pallette is at his basso-est profundo, and William Demarest gets one of the greatest ever last lines, as he barely escapes the honeymoon (belated) suite: “Positively the same dame!”


"If only”, Mr White? Me...I could hardly take my eyes off Barbara Stanwyck whenever she was on the screen. However, you may (perhaps) put that down to simple lust?

By John Henry Calvinist on 06/10/06 at 09:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, em, lust, yes, there’s that too. Speaking of which, just how much did William Demarest see before he leaves the room? I know, I know, it’s only a moment or two, so it can’t be much, but still, it’s not the kind of scene that usually has a witness. & the look on his face: he’s still combatative, but something in him has been checked. He’s definitely suffered a setback.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 06/10/06 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pursuits, of all the philosophy books I’ve read, has had the greatest impact on how I live my life. No, not any scales falling from my eyes or such, but it did change how I have thought about my own marriage, and the need to renew it, and have fun.

I agree.  Not that I’m married or anything.  Far from it.  But it made me see the idea of marriage in a different light, and all the marriages that I saw around me in a different light too.

Cavell was mentioned recently when Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was released and interpreted as a comedy of remarriage.  Critic David Edelstein started his review by mentioning Cavell (That, incidentally, was how I got interested in reading Pursuits of Happiness).  And A. O. Scott of the New York Times wrote an article on Cavell’s latest Cities of Words here .  (Not that the article said much—it just sort of swooned over Cavell).

By Shreeharsh Kelkar on 06/10/06 at 02:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I know Valve commenting is supposed to be a cut above the IMDB message board, but I think Eternal Sunshine is a great movie. & esp. a great movie about marriage.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 06/10/06 at 04:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the recommendation, Lawrence—I’ll check Pursuits of Happiness out. How does it compare to Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, The Runaway Bride, and Fast-Talking Dames? Cavell can be an interesting writer. I haven’t been thrilled by his movie criticism, but then I haven’t read much of it.

The Lady Eve is a tough movie to talk about without falling into the enthusiastic-descriptive mode of James Harvey. Everything seems there on the surface, ready to be picked up. The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek may come closer to perfection, but at the cost of emotional depth. Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda were the most soulful stars Sturges ever had, and when those fragile idiots break their hearts, the audience feels it in a way that Rudy Vallee or Betty Hutton can’t match.

Speaking of Stanwyck heat and stars as auteurs, Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire came out the same year as The Lady Eve, and both include a very, herr-rrhh, memorable scene in which the leading man holds her bare foot.

By Ray Davis on 06/11/06 at 09:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, Ray, I’m not familiar w/the other books. I would be very curious to know what you think of the Cavell.

I may not know much, but I do know that Betty Hutton (along w/Carmen Miranda) was Wittgenstein’s favorite actress.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 06/11/06 at 11:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess that’s not surprising—I noticed a striking difference between the Amazon “Customers who bought this item also bought” lists of the Harvey and the Cavell.

(I mean not surprising that you haven’t encountered those other books, Lawrence. I guess it’s also not suprising that Wittgenstein had very peculiar tastes in movie stars, but that’s not surprising in a different way.)

By Ray Davis on 06/11/06 at 11:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray...hadn’t actually noticed the foot parallel - but, of course, you’re definitely right. So, do we get into foot fetishism in early 40s Hollywood (only joking, folks), or do we ask about what makes for a truly great artistic tradition? I posted something re same on a recent thread, but it appears to have got lost…

Anyway, my take (for what it’s worth) on Hollywood romantic comedies (from Lubitsch to Sturges?) is that they are the veritable jewel in the crown of the live film art of the last century - because (like all of the ancient popular art we still enjoy) they managed to deliver to a popular audience art that equally delivered to a much more snobbish (I could use a MUCH less-loaded term, here, but that would actually detract from the essential point) audience...and their virtues are now almost universally accepted by any who’ve had the joy of seeing them now, well over fifty years after production - unlike, say, silent comedy, which is now rarely appreciated by other than students of film. 

So...why? And, I’m not particularly interested in “great man” theories here - because, it strikes me that most great traditions are already great before the acknowledged “masterpieces” come along…

By John Henry Calvinist on 06/12/06 at 03:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

All the books I mentioned take a stab at the “why” and “how” of it, JHC, and I bet Cavell does too. I also bet that people keep feeling dissatisfied and coming up with explanations, same as with other cultural florescences.

By Ray Davis on 06/12/06 at 08:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Admittedly, Ray - albeit I’ve only read the last two of the three you cite (can’t afford all the books I’d like, to be blunt). Still, I’ve yet to see what I’d accept as a reasonably comprehensive answer…

Just why, for example, did the (almost all male) screenwriters - and the studios that paid for & then used their work - not reinforce gender-restrictive modes of behaviour, in a clearly highly-competitive world w/v.high unemployment rates? After all...that (rather than what we got - an extraordinary efflorescence of verbally-brilliant female roles, that basically put the males to shame) is what history - and, by the way, neo-liberal economic models - would’ve predicted…

Now, I’m not (at all) saying that neo-liberal economic approaches to behaviour are in any way sufficient - merely that I’ve yet to see a genuinely compellingly full explanation for exactly why we got what we did (and, by the way, the question I raised above is only one of many)...and, I do think that the reluctance of film academia to address this genre (just look at the different numbers re studies of romantic comedy & film noir) might offer us at least some reason for this...apart from the point you make.

But...in comparison to most florescences, we have VERY detailed records re the forerunners of this genre - both in film and theatre, as well as other possible influences. Here, to my mind, is exactly the sort of case study we need to try & establish whether or not we can adequately explain such florescences...and film historians - much more interested in formalist approaches such as film noir - have, to be blunt, mostly let us down. Appreciative approaches we have...but, very little in the way of more detailed analyses re the full cultural/social/economic context…

Such is the state of the Humanities?

Our “tools” - such as they are - strongly privilege formalism...and, in consequence, almost all practitioners do the same. To the man w/a hammer, after all, the whole world looks like a nail.

all the best

By John Henry Calvinist on 06/12/06 at 09:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually JHC, Cavell has a pretty intriguing (though probably not socio-economic) explanation for why those movies with their “verbally-brilliant female roles” were made when they were, although he doesn’t quite get to why male writers were able to come up with it.

He attributes it to a kind of nascent “settling-down” of feminism.  After achieving the early feminist victories of the 1920s, getting voting rights and so on, the movement lapsed into a reflective mode, and was then proceeded by the second wave of feminism in the 1960s.  In between these two phases, Cavell supposes, there was a kind of rethinking—about marriage, about happiness, about the meaning of partnership—and all of this he finds manifest in the comedies of remarriage.

Pretty good explanation, I think.  Cavell may not be rigorous in his explanations but he has a way of putting them down that always makes me agree with him somewhat.

By scritic on 06/12/06 at 09:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, scritic...looks like I might have to (eventually) find the cash to purchase Clavell. Still - as I’m sure you realize - just why early feminism should settle down in just this form - and, after all, we’re talking a major genre in the most influential medium of its day - is a real question in itself. I, in fact, was particularly prompted to raise this here because of Clive James’ review of “Fast-Talking Dames” (a book I treasure, by the way)...and his v.proper insistence that said dialogue was almost entirely the product of male writers…

Nostalgia for the unbuttoned freedoms of the affluent 20s...shared by female audiences in particular - and, given the increasing role females had in the emergent retail/clerical sectors in cities, “imposed” upon the film audience as a whole?

I think that’s at least part of the explanation - but, I’ll be damned if I’ve seen any scholar even attempt to make it via hard evidence...which is exactly what I was condemning! Damn formalist prejudices, this is EXACTLY the sort of thing that serious scholars of film culture ought to be hot to investigate.

Instead, they’re mostly hung-up in some kinda Lacanian post-structuralist nightmare...which (by the way) has NO support on scientific grounds, whilst they totally ignore the genuine science re human development.

Me...I’d rather watch Barbara Stanwyck. Because, she (at least) knows what she’s on about!

all the best

By John Henry Calvinist on 06/12/06 at 10:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Comedies of remarriage” turned out to be an eminently marketable term, I’d have said.  It’s found very wide acceptance and I often see it applied to films that really aren’t comedies of remarriage in the strict Cavellian sense, but have a pretextual plot element of romantic reconciliation eg Twister.

I love Pursuits of Happiness.  It’s a magical book.  Its theory of genre-as-medium (ie generic tropes and elements as significant form) is inextricably embedded in the readings but there is a compressed version in Cavell’s essay called “The Fact of Television” (collected in the book called Themes out of School.)

Just how deep Pursuits is I did not fully appreciate until I read Contesting Tears which is also about feminism but this time via melodramas like Now, Voyager

The one problem I have with film criticism on Cavellian principles is that it doesn’t seem to be something many other people can do without adopting Cavell’s speech rhythms and that tends to sound a little like parody.

By on 06/12/06 at 08:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I know this is an ooold post, but thought I’d give some back story to your post.  Marian Keene was my film studies prof. at CU Boulder in the early ‘90s and an amazing woman.  Cavell was a professor of hers at either NYU or Harvard (can’t remember which).  Pursuits of Happiness was not only required reading, but really framed the ouvre of several classes including the films of Renior/Cukor and Hitchcock studies.  The conversations that came from these readings carried well beyond our classroom experiences.  My friends Sean Anderson and Susan Arosteguy went on to produce DVDs for Criterion and they’ve enlisted Marian to give her read on a number of films.  Her other students at the time, Trey Parker and Matt Stone weren’t quite as into Cavell, but that’s a different story all together.

By on 06/03/08 at 12:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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