Offscreen Notes

Stanley Cavell: 1926-2018, R.I.P.

June 22nd, 2018

The American philosopher Stanley Cavell, born on September 1, 1926 in Atlanta, Georgia, died at age 91 on June 19, 2018. Cavell was best known as a philosopher who helped “humanize” the field of philosophy, bringing a sense of the world as experienced rather than philosophy as a “discipline” by expressing ideas through ordinary language. Cavell also chose to write on “ordinary” films (i.e. popular rather than arthouse) such as screwball comedy (Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage) and melodrama (Contesting Tears: The Melodrama of the Unknown Woman). Perhaps his most well known film book, his first, _The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film), reads as his attempt to bring Andre Bazin’s empathetic and generous ontology of film into a more direct philosophical worldview. Cavell was a big influence on a generation of film thinkers, many trained in philosophy rather than film, who offered a different approach to film than the political, cultural, social and ideological theories that dominated the halls of academia from the 1970s on. Film philosophers and writers like Ian Jarvie, Victor F. Perkins, Nöel Carroll, Gregory Currie, Berys Gaut, George Wilson, David Bordwell, Gilles Deleuze, Cynthia Freeland, Murray Smith, Ian Tan, and Daniel Frampton. His influence will, I think, be lasting. I know that whenever someone —and it can be a student as much as a seasoned writer— says that a film is great because it “made them feel like they were right there with the character” I cringe, and then take out my trusty Cavell quote as my rebuke to such easy platitudes: “The camera is outside its subject as I am outside my language” (The World Viewed, 2nd ed., 127). Thanks Stanley.

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