Stanley Cavell: Philosophy's Recounting of the Ordinary

By Stephen Mulhall | Go to book overview

9
Cinema: Photography, Comedy, Melodrama

Cavell's work on cinema divides up relatively neatly into two parts or levels -- analyses of specific films and examinations of the medium of cinema itself (with particular reference to the relationship between the screened image and the viewer of that image). However, his work none the less possesses a real unity: in part, this is because he finds that the films he studies themselves study their relation to their medium and its audience; but it is also because his work focusses upon precisely the same issue at both levels -- that of scepticism. In other words, Cavell claims to detect a thematic doubling or mirroring which is itself a version of the doubling we examined with respect to Shakespeare: scepticism is not simply a topic examined by certain films but an issue that is central to any real understanding of our relationship to the medium of cinema. I shall begin by examining Cavell's reflections on the medium, before going on to examine the two genres of film to which he has paid most attention in his work.


Photography and Film

Cavell.'s first book on cinema, The World Viewed, is subtitled Reflections on the Ontology of Film; and it opens with the assumption that, since our experience of any film is an experience of a projected sequence of photographic images, the best way to understand our relationship with works produced in that medium is to examine the nature of photographs. In particular, Cavell raises the question of the relationship between a photograph and that of which it is a photograph. A photograph of an object is a visual record of that object: it is therefore similar to a painting (in that a painting too can be a visual record of an object -- e.g. a portrait or a still life -- and of the very same object as that captured in a photograph), and yet dissimilar (since the causal role played by that object in the making of the painting is entirely unlike its role in the taking of the photograph). We can express this dissimilarity by saying that a photograph is not so much a visual representation of an object (a

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