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On"Over-reading" and "Under-reading" Films Stanley Cavell.Pursuits of Happiness: TheHollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Cambridge,Mass.: Harvard Universtiy Press,1981.283pp. William Luhr.Raymond Chandler and Film.NewYork: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1982.208pp. GeraldMast.Howard Hawks: Stol}'te/ler.NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1982.406pp. Carole Zucker Perhapsthe most provocative section in Stanley CaveirsPursuits of Happiness turns around the question of "reading in" or "over-reading a text," terms oftenemployed to invalidate the writings of Cavell and his colleague William Rothman. Cavell, who is Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, writes: "In my experience peopleworried about reading in, or overinterpretation, or going too far,are, orwere typically afraid of getting started .... My experience is that most texts, likemost lives, are underread, not overread .... Reading in, therefore, going toofar, is a risk inherent in the business of reading and venial in comparison withnot going far enough, not reaching the end; indeed it may be essential to knowingwhat the ending is" (p. 37). At base, it is the argumentation in this passage that has driven a wedge between Cavell and many contemporary filmscholars. Interpreting, unless of a specific type (feminist, psychoanalytic, Marxist) has become devalued as a critical activity. Cavell believes that a personal response to art is valid (and that film is an art, not a science as structuralist and post-structuralist critics would have one believe); for Cavell the reading of a film by the spectator has at least as much-if not moresignificance as the film itself. In this heightened estimation of the reading process, Cavell is not unlike the group of reader-response critics (Fish, Iser, et al.) who have come to prominence in the last ten years and whose work isbeginning to be acknowledged among film scholars. The act of readingCanadian Review of American Studies, Volume 17, Number 1,Summer1986,251-255 252 Carole Zucker particularly when informed by the breadth of knowledge Cavell brings tohis work-is not merely an adjunct to film; it is, in and of itself, a work of art. In the same vein, Cavell indirectly chastises formalist critics (for whom the value of art resides solely in the object) when he writes: "So many remarks one has endured about the kind and number of feet in a line of verse, or about a superb modulation, or about a beautiful diagonal in a painting, or about a wonderful camera angle, have not been readings of a passage at all but something like items in a tabulation, with no suggestion about what is being counted-or what the total might mean. Such remarks, I feel, say nothing, though they may be, as Wittgenstein says, about naming, preparations for sayingsomething ..." (pp. 36-37).It isno wonder, then, that Pursuits of Happiness has roused considerable antipathy among formalist-materialist critics. In Cavell's work the "spectator" is once again human; Cavell the spectator sees and writes with a refreshing abundance of insight, intelligence and originality. The book makes several fundamental claims (a favorite word of Cavell's): that the seven films under examination (The Lady Eve, It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Adams Rib and The Awful Truth) are "the principal group of Hollywood comedies after the advent of sound" (p. 1); that these films are conjoined in the mutuality of their address to the subject of remarriage; that this particular sub-genre of comedy invokes the pre-occupations of late Shakespearean Romantic Comedy. As enunciated by Northrop Frye inAnatomy of Criticism (an acknowledged source for much of Cavell's argument), these late comedies begin with "a stable and harmonious order disrupted by folly, obsession and forgetfulness ... pride and prejudice ..." (p. 171).There is also a crucial fatherdaughter relationship, an absent (or ineffectual) mother, a shared childhood (or "playtime") of the male-female couple, the conflict of innocence and experience, and the eventual movement back to the "green world" whichis, according to Cavell, in Connecticut. Another of Cavell's propositions in the introductory section of the bookis that this sub-genre has powerful feminist connotations. He writes that the women in these films (Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunn...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 251-255
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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