Again I investigate the questions: What makes a movie a work of art? How can film be interpreted? And which role do the actors play? How can film as a performing arts be interpreted? To give one answer to these questions I’ll take a look on Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed.
Presently I had the opportunity to work out the next chapter of Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed. 😉
In his chapter “Audience, Actor, and Star” of his book The World Viewed Stanley Cavell stated that the movie star is dependent of the public as well as from a single actor or actress. So the movie star is an individual incarnated in various figures of films. In this sense he or she is in contrast to figures enacted on the theatre stage which is an entity that can be played by everyone. (Call into mind the comparison with a position in a sports game.)
1. The essential.
In the subsequent chapter “Types; Cycles as Genre” (pp. 29-37) Cavell heightens this statement into a very surprising, worth of thinking about and challenging one. He writes: The stars “realized the myth of singularity” (p.35), wherefore “movies have an inherent tendency toward the democratic, or anyway the idea of human equality” (p. 34).
What are his reasons to state such a daring thesis? First, a film creates types which carry certain forms on which films bank on. Those types are not types because of a supposed similarity with other assumed members of this type, but they are types through an outstanding separateness from other human beings.
Second, this separateness is not their beauty, but their singularity. Singularity means here that their social role is by chance or incidental; an aspect which doesn’t apply to theater figures.
What is the public supposed to conclude from this? The distinction of a movie star from us doesn’t rest upon a metaphysical background which we have to accede to, rather this distinction is a matter of responsibility to which we have to submit to. It’s the ability to stand on one’s own uniqueness or singularity. So the movie stars appeal to us to become an individual.
In the following I want to chart Cavell’s way of coming to this position as well as some of his constraints to this position and criticism of a misunderstanding of the movie star. Just in case you should be interested more detailed to this idea.
2. Why did popular and folkloristic themes and characters provided themselves to films?
The opening question of the chapter “Types; Cycles as Genres” is as this heading is called: Why did popular and folkloristic themes and characters provided themselves to films?
At first Cavell appreciates this fact and defends it against purely intellectual approaches to film. So he doesn’t waste time on discussing those positions. Instead he discusses the answers given to this question by Arnold Hauser and Erwin Panofsky. In passing through this discussion he develops his own position.
a.) Vs. Arnold Hauser
According to Cavell Arnold Hauser claims that only a young art is popular. Against this is to be said that famous artists like Verdi, Dickens and so on didn’t create their work in young arts. Apart from this we don’t know what the life span of an art will be.
b.) Vs. Erwin Panofsky
i.) The folcloristic character of films was developed within the limits of its own possibilities.
Cavell writes that Panofsky asserts that the legitimate paths of film’s evolution were opened by developing this folksy character within the limits of film’s own possibilities. Those possibilities are the dynamisation of space (that in film things move and that the viewer can be moved by film) as well as the spatialisation of time (that consecutive events can be experienced at the same time).
But Cavell considers this as being incomprehensible, because two questions suggest themselves. First, from where do we know that these are the singular and particular possibilities of film? Second, what does it mean calling them possibilities? This question could be asked differently, too: Why didn’t film began under the condition of home movies and stayed within them?
ii.) The folcloristic elements were necessary for the public to be able to understand the medium film.
According to Cavell Panofsky is of the opinion that the early silent movies were imposed on an addicted public being unable to understand the unknown language of these movies. In order to make them understand this new, quickly developing medium the movie makers referred to fixed iconography like the vampire, the innocent girl, the family father, the villain. Thus they became less necessary by two facts. First, as the audience was used to interpret the action by themselves. Second, as the silent movies were replaced by the invention of spoken cinema.
Cavell counters this opinion by asserting that the language of the early silent movies wasn’t unknown, at first not to the movie makers, then later on not to the audience. Apart from this he points to the fact that films and iconographies, although continuing to be particular, are changing, since we can’t accept explanations like that given by Panofsky.
i.) The possibilities of the medium film are what gives the movies meaning.
Well, the direction is not that first there were some guys who had some forms which they tried to apply to movies (that’s supposed to be Panofsky’s position), but there were some established forms which gave point to some characteristics of film. With this it is implicated that the aesthetical possibilities of a medium are not given facts. That’s why the direction is the following: One can just determine what gives those particular and singular possibilities of films significance by watching movies and reflecting on them. It’s the same with paintings or music. Jackson Pollock’s dripping technique wasn’t invented by him, but he made it a new medium. Igor Strawinsky’s Le sacre du printemps made traditional definitions of music obsolete. Today for us the pictures of Pollock are paintings and Le sacre du printemps is music.
That means the discovery of a new possibility is the discovery of a new medium. And a medium is something that provides ways of giving significance, is something through which and by using it something is done or said in certain kind of way.
ii.) The changing of films and iconographies is founded in the medium film.
Films bank on certain forms which are carried by types. And media create types which last. Those types are individualities created by the medium film. Yet types in film are not types because of some similarity with other members of this type, but they are types through an outstanding separateness from other human beings. That means that that individuality in film has a natural primacy upon the social role in which an individuality is expressed; which is to say that the social role in movies is by accident and incidental.
That’s why “movies have an inherent tendency toward the democratic, or anyway the idea of human equality”. This tendency depends upon the acknowledgement of film types as preserved through figures we have met and could meet that way in other situations. That is the recognised recurrence of film performers. In this way movie stars “realized the myth of singularity” or became more like us. Therefore their distinction from us doesn’t rest upon a metaphysical background which we have to accede to, but this distinction is a matter of responsibility to which we have to submit to. It’s the ability to stand on one’s own uniqueness or singularity.
By the way, the necessary conditions for the formation of types are the same for the development of the medium film: projected visibility and ontological equality.
A particular and singular possibility of films is the fact of the movie star. That folksy themes work for film means that those forms gave significance to this possibility. The changing of iconographies and their variety is caused by the movie stars being types in the sense of individualities. A Buster Keaton or a John Wayne could only be able in the medium film, but nowhere else; and there is no other Buster Keaton and no other John Wayne. That way they are like us. And lived out singularity is a key feature of democracy. That way their singularity appeals to us to be like them.
Since movie has a natural attraction for the masses it has counter-democratic tendency towards the fascistic and populist.
Oftentimes for type casting factors have been used which were irrelevant for making movies (i.e. beauty).