America on film: philosophy’s American inflection

Thanksgiving weekend is a great time to relax and watch a few classic hollywood movies. Let The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood help you (re)discover some of the great achievements of American cinematic art, like Adam’s Rib and The Philadelphia Story.

Usually, both films fall into the “screwball” category of comedy, though Stanley Cavell has argued convincingly for their classification as definitive of a genre, which he calls, “remarriage comedy”.

In this passage from The Soul of a Nation, I riff on Cavell, offering what I hope sounds something like what philosophy sounds like in what I follow Cavell in calling its American inflection:

Cavell notes a peculiarity in the film, namely that, unlike the other definitive members of the remarriage genre, the heroic couple in The Philadelphia Story rediscover their happiness in the larger world in which they grew up together and in which they divorced. Cavell goes on to observe that this odd feature would reach what he calls “a satisfactory equivalence” if we could understand Tracy and Dexter as having come to regard their own larger society as itself world enough, itself the scene of adventure. earlier in our investigation, we saw that philosophy and gnosis are basically opposite attitudes toward the world. if Cavell is correct in attributing the couple’s rediscovery of happiness in their world to be a sign of their discovery of that world as one of adventure, that is, worth experiencing and endlessly knowable, then the couple’s discovery that happiness is worth pursuing together in their world, the world of Philadelphia and its story, is a discovery that places what we have been calling America further in the way of what we have been calling philosophy. Cavell puts the matter as one of the couple’s discovery of their marriage as exemplifying or symbolizing their society at large, “quite as if,” writes Cavell, “they are its royalty; and their society itself is embarked on some adventure.” The knowledge to which the film attests, i.e., that 164 years after the signing of the Declaration of independence, America still exists (cf. Cavell, Cities of Words, 75 ), does not foreclose, but urgently presses the question as to what legitimizes American society. At the same time, and precisely insofar as the integrity of society and the integrity of marriage are functions of one another, the legitimacy of marriage is exposed to doubt, and so, as it were, from within. – The Soul of a Nation, 182

It being Thanksgiving weekend, it would be sinful of me to omit mention of one autobiographical particular.

My senior year in high school, my English lit teacher (and a classic film buff), Mr. Barry Wallace, showed us Billy Budd, and encouraged us to take film seriously as an art form and a storytelling medium. I suppose he was impressed with something I said, for he broached the subject of perhaps screening some films together. I did not understand the honor being done me, and so shot off some pretentious drivel about the written word being so far superior to film as to make the latter no more than a guilty pleasure at best, and one for which I hadn’t the time.

Mr. Wallace had piqued my interest, though, and I began some time not too long after the aforementioned exchange to watch film carefully and to take movies seriously, and I hope that the lines on film in The Soul of a Nation (the lines above are only a taste) might go some way toward payment of the debt I incurred that day.

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