Mar 17, 2011

Pursuits of Happiness: A Short Response

Stanley Cavell in his book Pursuits of Happiness writes about remarriage comedies in movies made after the advent of talkies (1934-1949). Cavell's list is as follows: The Lady Eve (1941), It Happened One Night (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949), and The Awful Truth (1937).


The female characters embodied by the stars Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Claudette Colbert are about thirty years of age, not too young, but old enough to have both experience and viable sexual attractiveness. The women are motherless and not connected with maternity (nor is the mother present). For Cavell the crux of the remarriage genre is how to come back together again. It's a twist on the traditional trope of romantic comedy where the female is a young ingenue, the boy woos her, they get together, they break apart, but after a series of comedic foibles, come back together again. I think of Midsummer Night's Dream as the leitmotif of this kind of romantic comedy. In the remarriage comedy the idea is the women have already experienced first love. Remarriage comedy is adult romance. Not young love. Lost in the woods everything gets turned upside down kind of love. In the remarriage comedy the question of coming together is a question of coming back together again outside of traditional authority structures that bring people together in the first place: law of the father, a signed piece of paper, contractual obligation. family fortitude, church weddings, etc. In the remarriage comedy traditional authorities are sidestepped. The question of what constitutes a union becomes a philosophical question. In the absence of traditional signifiers of a marraige: wedding, children, in-laws, house and home. security, et cetera what the remarriage comedy seems to ask, at least in Cavell's reading, is stripped of these traditional forms, what can we say constitutes a union? What authorizes togetherness? Modernity offers a possible vacation from traditional authority figures but instead of immediate liberation from patriarchy what the absence of authority does instead is to leave us with another question. Cavell seems to think movies are perhaps modernity's art form per excellence created to fulfill modern man's desire to understand what brings us together, as man and woman. The movies of the 1930s begin with remarriage and broach the topic of divorce in order to carve out a space where such questions can be entertained. All of the characters are wealthy. So the question of poverty is not an issue. In Aristotle's sense of the word leisure, the couples in these movies are able (free) to entertain fundamental questions of happiness. What is the good life? Since the question is lodged in the movies, we have a version of the question offered through film, which is a self-reflective medium, able to think about itself as an art form, as well as an intersubjective medium. Movies can think about themselves as movies and we can think about movies as they think about themselves. Moves can think. Movies are a form of thought. At least the best movies are a kind of thought. In The Lady Eve Barbara Stanwyck reads  through her objective lens other women vying for Henry Fonda’s attention. We see through Barbara Stanwyck’s compact mirror what she sees: a condensation (like a dream) of the myth of woman displayed in the thingness of the movie strip. Stanwyck comments on human mating through her lens, a comment on film itself, its ability to comment, all while we the viewer comment and speculate. In the Awful Truth, to use another example Cavell uses, Irene Dunne is not convinced that her desire for Cary Grant is hallowed by a matrimonial bond; despite Cary Grant’s “continental mind,” the two break up their marriage over a trivial dispute over marital infidelity (where neither is not found to be guilty). The plot seems to carry with it the question of conviction in a union between two people, together. The conversation is inherent in both the aesthetic object of the movie and its ability to share its conversation intertext. The plot of the Awful Truth involves Cary Grant and Irene Dunne plotting together to come back together again in a series of acknowledgments and counter-acknowledgments. Cary Grant courts a night club singer named Dixie Bell who sings atop an air-conditioning vent so her dress can flare up when she sings the word “wind” and Irene Dunn takes on a hunky Oklahoma type named Dan (Ralph Bellamy) who has a penchant for singing “Home on the Range” at untimely moments. In the context of screwball comedy hijinxs Cary Grant and Irene Dunne vie for the acknowledgement of each other. And for the viewer’s acknowledgment. In the following clip from “The Awful Truth,” notice who is viewing who. We first see Irene Dunn as the one “viewing” when Dan takes her onto the dance floor. But when the music changes, viewership is transferred to Cary Grant who takes embodied delight in becoming the one who views. The automatism of the film image itself allows us the viewer to both gaze on Irene Dunn and Cary Grant as “stars” and also to see them gaze on each other. With "the holiday in his eye," Stanley Cavell quotes Emerson on Carey Grant's performance: "he is fit to stand the gaze of millions" (Pursuits of Happiness, 235). Cavell presents us with a version of what we discussed last week as the dual axis theory. The vertical axis is the narrative of man and woman’s desirous bond, the game of who is watching who, and the horizontal axis is the ontological reality of the film strip itself which allows for us, the spectator, to read the film, to become viewers. Notice at the end of the clip the gaze (by virtue of the camera) is transferred to us, the spectators, as we become complicit in Cary Grant’s gaze by viewing from behind the chair and onto the dance floor. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne come back together at the end of the movie, “the same but different.” The “awful truth” is the acknowledgement that happiness is “a run of laughs, within life; finding occasions in the way we are together” (239). Cavell’s focus is man and woman, together. Borrowing from Northrop Frye’s work “The Argument of Comedy,” Cavell suggests that the comedy of remarriage is a transgressive form of Frye’s classic distinction between Old and New Comedy in Greek Theater. Both Old and New Comedy, according to Frye, depict a young couple “overcoming individual and social obstacles to their happiness” which concludes in the end with wedding bells. New Comedy stresses a relationship with a younger man tutored by an older mentor figure. Old Comedy, however, emphasizes the heroine who seems to hold the key to the question of happiness in marriage. She may be disguised as a boy and is transformed in something like death and restoration (1). Cavell does include comedy of manners in his exposition, nor slapstick comedy. The comedies Cavell writes about were created in Hollywood around and during the Great Depression. During this period there were certainly romantic comedies that fit the category of “fairy tales for the Depression.” Cavell mentions You Can’t Take It with You (1938), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and If I Had a Million (1933). Cavell seems to want to say that the characters in these films, who almost exclusively come from extreme wealth constitute a certain fantasy common to the everyday person in the 1930s and 1940s. Could I hazzard a guess that a similar trend has reappeared in Hollywood during the recent Great Recession? Sex and the City II comes immediately to mind. Cavell does not eliminate the fact that this may be one factor contributing to the manufacture of romantic comedies during this period (and our own), but he thinks the deeper issue at stake is the question of happiness, human fulfillment and sexuality. Cavell writes, “... the achievement of human happiness requires not the perennial and fuller satisfaction of our needs as they stand but the examination and transformation of those needs” (5). In other words, to examine happiness the basic necessities of life: food, water, security, and shelter must be established. When “there is satisfaction enough,” the leisure of the rich affords them (and us who watch -- gaze, I should say) the opportunity to investigate the issue of happiness. In Milton’s Paradise Lost Adam and Eve share a prelapsarian scene of conjugal pleasure bereft of guilt. Adam and Eve enjoy each other’s company while sharing a meal together and having sex, which Milton himself saw as the essence of marriage in his tract on Divorce where he says the married couple consists of “a meet and happy conversation.” In Shakespeare this same interplay is carried out in a green world where nature provides the scene of remarriage. Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps an example of this trope. What Cavell hopes to do in Pursuits of Happiness is create a space for such a conversation to take place in examining the ways in which we respond to the aesthetic experience of these films as objects worthy of natural conversation and not merely as examples of escapism for the masses. Cavell juxtaposes Emerson and Thoreau’s idea of “silent melancholy” and quiet desperation” with a sense of skepticism we bring to cinematic depictions of human suffering, or happiness. Can movies be more than mere convention? Movies generate a philosophical aesthetic conversation: an investigation of the very idea of conversation, “of what it means to have an interest in your own experience” (7). Movies can be read in conjunction with philosophy because movies are shareable aesthetic objects that communicate meaning. Is it silly to co-join Capra with Kant, as Cavell does so unabashedly in Chapter Two where he takes seriously the claim that It Happened One Night is an examination of the conflict between a prescribed limit to ethical action in human togetherness and a palpable transgression shown exquisitely by the film’s final scene where we are not privy to who blows the trumpet to bring down the wall (the blanket) of Jericho (105-106). We hear the trumpet blow. And we know that the marriage has been consummated. It’s all done in comedic frivolity, but Cavell seems to say there is an interconnectivity between our reading of film, film’s inherent inter-relationship with other films, and the history of ideas. Cavell wants to bring to a reading of movies exactly what he calls the project of philosophy: “to disquiet the foundations of our lives and to offer us in recompense nothing better than itself” (9). If movies are our epoch’s typical cultural artifact, then what is shareable in our collective experience of movies? The authority of the movie as art is what Cavell argues in his essay “Music Discomposed”: art is purposive in the face of indifferent nature and a determined society. If the problem of Modernity is the loss of authority and tradition, the conjunction of philosophy and film is not that we have movies instead of books as our legacy, but rather we confront the “instead of” as undefined (10). We are not clear that movies form a common sense of taste (in the Kantian sense) nor are we clear what it means to have movies as an inheritance. The commitment we do have to film is to be guided by our experience and not dictated by it. The juxtaposition of Capra and Kant, or Heidegger and The Awful Truth is to acknowledge the intellectual nature of the movies themselves as bringing to bear in a shareable way something worthwhile (10).

One reading of a film is connected to another. Films lend themselves to such self-referencing. I can think of a dozen examples in movies where one film references an other in a subtle or adroit way: e.g., Hitchcock’s insistence of his own presence in each of his films. To care about movies is to think of them as existing “in a state of philosophy” (13). The moves, in their self-reflexivity, lend themselves to a philosophical reading on both the horizontal and vertical axises. Cavell is preoccupied with the notion that “words can be quoted on the page and moving images cannot be,” a preoccupation we have already seen in The World Viewed. Our recollection of a movie is analogous to our recollection of a dream. We don’t remember movies in the same way we remember or go back to a text. The common cultural inheritance we share in the movies is not the same as the inheritance we share from books. Movies do not provide a stable underpinning for sound recollection. Cavell seems to be saying, “that’s ok.” Here is what I take to be Cavell’s claim about how to go about reading film:
“Our films may be understood as parables of a phase of the development of consciousness at which the struggle is for reciprocity or equality of consciousness between a woman and a man, a study of the conditions under which this fight for recognition (as Hegel put it) or demand for acknowledgement (as I have put it) is a struggle for mutual freedom, especially of the views each holds of the other” (17-18).
Men and women, the possibility of togetherness, in the absence of stable traditional authority as Samule Weber defines it are embodied by Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Catherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Claudette Colbert, to be exact. Children for the most apart are absent from these stories (except for the mild exception of The Philadelphia Story). The Father figure, as in the Lady Eve or It Happened One Night, seem to encourage remarriage and discourage the woman’s “other man.” Mothers are curiously absent. The dialectical scene is meted out between the man and the woman in their search for the authority of their desire, or bond. The women in these films were born between 1904 and 1911. They’re about thirty years old. Neither too young or too old. Experienced yet still hopeful. Why does the female heroine reappear in the genre of remarriage circa 1934, in America, “of all places” (19)? Why do the seven movies take up the genre of remarriage, which raises the question of the legitimacy of marriage? We are speaking of movies, no matter if they are “adapted” from a theatrical source or an original screenplay. Cavell says that the medium of film is “inherently unpredictable” and “a film will make of a play what it will” (25). The movies of the 1930s begin with remarriage and broach the topic of divorce. Fast forward to the 1970s and 1980, movies of remarriage begin with divorce and do not provide certain hard and fast conclusions to the future of the marriage (e.g., Kramer Vs. Kramer). Why does the theme of remarriage resurface and reconstitute itself from its original beginning? How can we add “something” to the genre and not take something away from the features of the genre itself? There is an innocence in these movies which make even the romantic remakes produced in Hollywood today still feel dated. A general worry about the possibility for an objective reading of a text is, when a critic reads into a text there may be more than one interpretation (35). Does this worry, as Cavell says, originate from the fact that those who say they are afraid to begin to “read into” the text  have not even read the text at all (35). The worry of overinterpretation is a mask for the general fact that most texts are underread. To say there are other interpretations to a text is only valid until a second interpretation is posited to counter the first. In not seeing something in the text that could be deemed interpretation, we instead name things in the text that are more what Wittgenstein calls, “preparations for saying something” (37). In the visual arts genre is to a medium, just as paint is to painting or sound is to music (28). The slight differences and identities between films in the genre of remarriage could be called “family resemblance” -- or to use Wittgenstein’s phrase, “a genre of human activity” (29). What constitutes a genre, then, and we return to the original question of what is the genre of remarriage, is in this case, not a strict adherence to narratological scripts. For couldn’t we argue that each film Cavell presents us with belies the comedy of remarriage? In Bringing Up Baby Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn are not married at the outset. Or, in It Happened One Night, Clark Gable is not extremely wealthy (he rejects wealth). The idea of the genre of remarriage is the notion of shared inheritance “of certain conditions, procedures, and subjects and goals of composition, and that in primary art each member of such a genre represents a study of these conditions, something [Cavell] thinks of bearing the responsibility of inheritance” (28).
I began by referring to Cary Grant’s comment to Irene Dunne at the end of The Awful Truth that in the end they were the same yet different. Cavell pulls from Cary Grant’s words and actions the embodiment of Parmenides’s thought that in difference is the act of becoming (Pursuits of Happiness, 55). Philosophy “may begin in wonder” and “may continue in argument” as a kind of self-referential conversation akin to the relationship of comedy and tragedy (which we will see the tragedy element next time in a reading of Cavell’s Contesting Tears).  In The Lady Eve Barbara Stanwyck reads  through her objective lens other women vying for Henry Fonda’s attention. We see through Barbara Stanwyck’s compact mirror what she sees: a condensation (like a dream) of the myth of woman displayed in the thingness of the movie strip (see Pursuits of Happiness, 55).# The importance of the concept of difference is at the heart of identity. To have becoming is to situate difference with sameness. The movies as meta-conscious: the movies become aware of themselves as movies.
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