What makes a movie a work of art? How can film be interpreted? To give one answer to these questions I’ll take a look on Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed.
In his opening chapter to The World Viewed, “An Autobiography of Companions” (pp. 3-15), Stanley Cavell interconnects the questions “What is art?” and “What is the importance of art?” He discovers that only movies are generally important, while music, paintings, sculpture, poetry and novels are not. In describing the conditions under which movies are made, he prepares the answers for the question “What is film?”
To give a general and formal answer, movies are so important because of what they are as art. For example, the individuality of the movie star is a symbol for democracy and the narrative mode of films provide the myth of democracy.
The importance of movies
Stanley Cavell admits that he learned a lesson by reading Leo Tolstoy’s What Is Art? There Tolstoy asks, as the title says, what art is. Cavell marks, that Tolstoy’s answer leads to him rejecting the majority of the great works of art from the past.
However, Cavell recognised that Tolstoy wasn’t searching for a description of the nature of art, rather he asked for the importance of art. And the importance of art is a redemptive one. So the reason why he dismissed so many works is that they were only important for the rich, while for the poor art had no importance. That’s the point where Cavell realised that the questions “What is art?” and “What is the importance of art?” are interconnected.
Hence, with regard to film Stanley Cavell asks the question, why films are important. That movies are important, according to Cavell, is a matter of fact.
Rather, they are more important than all the other arts. Music, painting, sculpture, poetry, they all are only important to a small group of people. (I.e., music refuses tonality, sculpture doesn’t allow a material to be sculpted, painting refuses not merely the presence of humanity in its content but evidence of the human hand in its making.) By contrast films are generally important; illiterates as well as intellectuals, they all have a relation to movies.
Associated with this is the fact that films’ audience is continuously attracted by common movies as well as by the best movies. (Indeed a fact Cavell began to doubt as he wrote The World Viewed in 1971. But maybe it’s still true? Take for instance Stanley Kubrick, Krysztof Kieślowski’s Colours-Trilogy, and Jean-Luc Godard in comparison to the fame of and hype in Chuck Norris, »Troll 2«,and Ed Wood. Borderline cases may be, i.e., the films by Andrey Tarkovsky, Alain Resnais or Béla Tarr, but definitely not generally accessible are the films, i.e., by the avant-gardists Stan Brakhage or Bill Morrison, which is possibly not the case with the early avant-gardist Maya Deren.) That’s different with, for instance, music and novels. Someone who admires, say, Giacinto Scelsi won’t listen to Lady Gaga – and vice versa. And someone who reads high literature won’t read dime novels – and vice versa. That leads to an indiscrimination about choosing films to think and talk about.
This randomness, yet to be justified, counters at least two approaches offering a scheme to choose those films which stand for film as such.
The first approach, which I call the decadence theory of anonymity, is choosing only the masterpieces being free from the corruption and stupidity by Hollywood’s industry of money and stars. However, it could be objected that only “few regimes are so perfectly terrible and efficient that they prevent every drop of originality from leaking through their clutches” (p. 15). Furthermore, the auteur theory made us understand that many movies are worth of owning and turning to, even though they may have been created under suspicious conditions. That way the auteur theory also runs contrary to the opinion, that movies are in principal descend from other movies. (Which I suppose is a theory that can support the decadence theory of anonymity.) For the fact is that “a new work is born in civilization from the powers of the art itself” (p. 8).
But the auteur theory is obsessed with offering a canon of the films par excellence. In any case, although this project is a good start, it will face theoretical problems which will make it seriously impracticable. Apart from this, the proof of a relation between a film and a director is oftentimes (not always, there are exceptions) nothing more than saying that something can be credited to a human being.
That’s why Cavell concludes: “Neither a romanticism of anonymity nor a romanticism of individuality is going to account for the power that movies have or have had for us” (p. 8).
Well, we are still faced with the requirement of a certain indiscrimination in accepting movies. Now, Cavell comes closer to the reason why movies are important and randomness is required.
As was already mentioned film’s audience is attracted by common movies as well as by masterpieces; which is to say that who doesn’t know and like typical films can’t distinguish the highest ones. That’s plain a negation of the condition of the modernist arts. Michael Fried, as Cavell writes, describes this condition as art not allowing room, or promise, for the small arts: “it is a situation in which the work of the major artist condemns the work of others to artistic nonexistence, and in which his own work is condemned to seriousness, to further radical success or to complete failure” (p. 13). (Take, for instance, Igor Stravinsky’s »The Rite of Spring« or “4′33″” by John Cage forcing philosophy of music to confound their definition of music and struggling for one down to the present day. Or let’s not forget the aesthetics of nature. In modern paintings nature is excluded or, as in the case of Gerhard Richter, cryptically, somehow ironically re-established. One, so it seems, can’t go back to the traditional landscape art when creating painting as art.) That’s a condition under which films are not made. Yet film isn’t the modern art (for reasons Cavell gives, but which I won’t mention here.)
Finally Cavell asks: “But if one’s range of care [about movies] is wider [than the range of the decadence theory of anonymity], then how is one to explain the effect of those ordinary instances, which seem just to have been made for the industry to make? What is the power of film that it could survive (even profit artistically from) so much neglect and ignorant contempt by those in power over it? What is film?”
One answer to this question, “What is film?,” I already gave as I wrote about Cavell’s ideas on the movie stars. That the individuality of a movie star is a symbol for democracy; that movies provide the myth of democracy.
The next entry will be about the difference in viewing paintings, photographs and films, and listening to records.