ENGL 357
Film and Philosophy: Cavell and Hollywood Cinema Spring 2023
Division I

Class Details

A central figure in the movement known as ordinary language philosophy who wrote compelling studies of Wittgenstein, Emerson, Thoreau, and Heidegger, Stanley Cavell was also passionately devoted to Hollywood cinema. Although the highly popular films of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” in the ’30s and ’40s have often been dismissed as light entertainment, Cavell took such films very seriously. Following his early major study of the aesthetics of cinema (The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film), he transformed the critical understanding of two central Hollywood genres that had previously been regarded as slight and commercial, in Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage and Contesting Tears: The Melodrama of the Unknown Woman. For Cavell, the seeming frivolity or pathos of such films energizes the subtle engagement of philosophical and political ideas that he traces in them. Cavell’s culminating work on cinema, Cities of Words, explores ideas of moral perfectionism in essays on prominent philosophers and literary artists, paired with analyses of Hollywood films that for him pursue the same issues. His essays explore these films’ meditations on the nature of happiness, the instability of identity and difficulty of self-knowledge, the surprising forms fidelity may take, the genuineness of false appearance, the explosiveness of desire in a world of compromise, and the claims and possibilities of moral growth. Yet his analyses never lose sight of the immediate pleasurability of such films as a popular art-form, and his acute eye allows him to single out and make use of their striking cinematic qualities. In few other thinkers is the disarming appeal of popular art brought together with the resonances of philosophical and literary thought so productively. Readings will be drawn from the four books named above, and will be analyzed together with films such as The Lady Eve, The Philadelphia Story, Gaslight, Adam’s Rib, Stella Dallas, It Happened One Night, Letter from an Unknown Woman, and The Awful Truth.
The Class: Format: seminar
Limit: 25
Expected: 18
Class#: 3831
Grading: yes pass/fail option, yes fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: Active and regular participation in class discussions, and two papers 8-10 pages in length.
Prerequisites: a 100-level ENGL course, or a score of 5 on the AP English Literature exam, or a score of 6 or 7 on the Higher Level IB English exam, or consent of the instructor
Enrollment Preferences: English majors, then Philosophy majors
Distributions: Division I
Attributes: ENGL Criticism Courses
ENGL Literary Histories C

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