Stanley Cavell and the Queer Thought of Movies

Updated: Jul 23

Author: Lee Wallace, Film Studies. Excerpt from 'Stanley Cavell and the Queer Thought of Movies,' in Screen, Volume 63, Issue 1, Spring 2022, Pages 115–122. To read the full open source journal article go to https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/hjac010

Stanley Cavell is not usually counted among queer theory’s fellow travellers, but his account of film’s capacity to capture the extraordinary in the ordinary, including the ordinary of married life, is an exceptional resource for thinking about queer attachment in the era of marriage equality.1 In the context of the invitation to contribute to this Screen dossier, I re-read his essay ‘The thought of movies’, which is typical of his occasional writings on film.2 From the outset Cavell establishes an intensely personal voice that slides between the first-persons singular and plural, thereby collectivizing the idiosyncratic observations being put forward. Autobiographical details are used throughout to anchor otherwise abstract claims. Seemingly arbitrary textual objects are described in terms both diegetically exact and thematically free-ranging. The occasion behind his essay – in this case a lecture for the American Film Institute (AFI) – is used to justify the near-verbatim recycling of ideas and arguments from previous publications. And all of this is underwritten by an unshakeable confidence that the resumption and extension of a formerly disputed idea will now find readerly agreement. While these are all mimicable traits – like impersonating a movie star, to use a Cavellian example – a faithfulness to Cavell does not require fidelity to his critical style. Instead it requires adherence to his method of bringing into the space of textual interpretation experiential vectors that may generate unexpected recognitions, these being more widely applicable than the individual films or personal circumstances to which they were initially attached. That is the autotheoretical invitation of his work.3

Fig. 1. Filming Rear View (Anna Breckon and Nat Randall, 2018) on a sound stage.

My own theoretical interest is in Cavell’s account of marriage as remarriage. This emboldens me to reframe gay marriage as neither a contemporary novelty nor a tired derivative of conventional unions, which is what many of its queer critics take it for, but as an inventive progenitor of conjugal possibilities. In ‘The thought of movies’, Cavell elects to revisit his account of the Hollywood comedies of remarriage in light of the criticism that his book Pursuits of Happiness had received since appearing the previous year.4 Hurt by its reception, Cavell wishes to defend himself against ‘the charge of pretension’ levelled by some commentators. They are, he thinks, objecting primarily to the connection he draws between popular film and star philosophers such as Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, names etched into the bright boulevard of western thought, and the way he hustles them onto the less distinguished Americanist back street inhabited by Emerson and Thoreau.5 Talking to the AFI audience, Cavell strategically adopts the persona of a regular filmgoer in order to insist on the ‘serious business’ of ‘general movie culture’ and its capacity to generate a ‘common inheritance’ via a broad canon of films, stars and genres around which convictions are held and debated in both casual and scholarly conversations.6 Undeterred by criticism, much of it from feminist quarters, Cavell boldly doubles down on the idea that he was right to argue that the Hollywood comedies of remarriage intuit

that the validity or bond of marriage is assured, even legitimized, not by church or state or sexual compatibility (these bonds, it is implied, are no deeper than those of marriage), but by something [he calls] the willingness for remarriage, a way of continuing to affirm the happiness of one’s initial leap. As if the chance of happiness exists only when it seconds itself.7

And second himself he does, revealing a capacity to bounce back from criticism that annoyed his feminist critics across the length of his career.

Let me risk a similarly timed reaffirmative leap. In my 2020 monograph, Reattachment Theory: Queer Cinema of Remarriage, I argued that Cavell’s ideas around remarriage, and the feminist responses they generated, warranted revisiting in the context of the advent of marriage equality and the legal extension of the right to marry to same-sex couples. Although Cavell explicitly predicts the alignment of remarriage and gay marriage as early as 2004, he declines to explore their conjunction on experiential grounds:

While same-sex marriages, or unions, have become common enough to force a consciousness, and elaboration, of the economic and legal consequences for partners and for children reared in such marriages, it is too early yet to know (or I am too isolated in my experience to tell) what new shapes such marriages will discover for their investments in imaginativeness, exclusiveness, and equality.8

While Cavell envisions the need for future films and experiences to give shape to what those entering same-sex marriages will discover, he misses the obvious point that generations of gays and lesbians have grown up watching exactly the same films as he has, many of them indelibly marked by gay and lesbian talent both above and below the line. Which is to say, Hollywood remarriage comedies and related studio-era films, as well as the independent films that followed them, already constitute an archive in which these same-sex ‘investments’ are being worked out. As I will elaborate, this claim is brilliantly instantiated by Anna Breckon and Nat Randall’s Rear View (2018), a filmed performance piece that mines the classical Hollywood archive in order to produce a formal statement about lesbian coupling and its endurance in cinema.

As Cavell points out, the comedies of remarriage concern themselves with marriage as story rather than marriage as plot. Although they are always set in motion by conjugal mistakes, they deliberately abstain from turning up evidence of the fact of marital error, preferring to concern themselves with ‘how a matter’ – even a matter as charged as infidelity – ‘gets opened to experience, and how it is determined by language or, let us say, by narration’.9 It is the re-narration of events that reckons the reparative difference ‘between a liberating and stifling understanding, or between sincerity and cynicism’, in the matter of coupled love, a relationship Cavell memorably figures as ‘the civilized violence of one soul’s intelligence of another’.10

In Pursuits of Happiness, the re-narration dynamic at the heart of remarriage is linked to a wider ‘metaphysics of repetition’ that Cavell finds articulated in Søren Kierkegaard’s study of the possibility of marriage – titled Repetition – and Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of Eternal Return as a ‘heightening’ of time as expressed in Hochzeit, the German term for marriage. So far, so philosophical. Pursuing this line of thought, however, leads Cavell to a more lesbian source of marital insight, namely Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, which he prefers to summon through the dramatic machinery of memory rather than the sure-footedness of scholarly citation:

She speaks, I seem to recall, to the effect that the knowledge of others depends upon an appreciation of their repeatings (which is what we are, which is what we have to offer). This knowing of others as knowing what they are always saying and believing and doing would, naturally, be Stein’s description of, or direction for, how her reader is to know her own most famous manner of writing, the hallmark of which is its repeatings. The application of this thought here is the suggestion that marriage is an emblem of the knowledge of others not solely because of its implication of reciprocity but because it implies a devotion in repetition, to dailiness.11

Stein’s presence in Cavell’s thought licenses me to argue that his idea of remarriage can be conceived as lesbian marriage, a kind of coupling with no necessary relation to formal celebration or sanctification but every relation to the repetition embedded in the everyday. Furthermore, this lesbian marriage will be the making of all who are predisposed to re-find happiness in the repetitive and reciprocal experience of dailiness rather than seeking outbreaks of happiness in what is otherwise experienced as dull routine.12

This proposition about repetition and its relation to conjugality manifests in a number of recent lesbian films – The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014), Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015), The Favourite (Yorgas Lanthimos, 2018), Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019) – but is most fully tested in Breckon and Randall’s Rear View, a work that reanimates the Hollywood back catalogue by repeating its foundational claims about sexuality in a broad Australian accent. Commissioned for ‘The Theatre is Lying’, a group show at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Rear View initially appears as a queer take on the masculinist road movie.13 Falling just short of the 90-minute industrial standard for a feature-length film, it features Randall and actor Linda Chen in a real-time performance, filmed on a sound stage against rear-projected footage taken from the tail end of a pick-up truck as it travels a cinematically resonant route between Broken Hill (colloquially known as the Hollywood of the Outback) and Wilcannia in regional New South Wales (figure 1).


1 Lee Wallace, Reattachment Theory: Queer Cinema of Remarriage (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

2 Stanley Cavell, ‘The thought of movies’ (1983), in William Rothman (ed.), Cavell on Film, (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005), pp. 87–106.

3 For more on the autotheoretical stance, see Annamarie Jagose and Lee Wallace, ‘Dicktation: autotheory in the coupled voice’, Arizona Quarterly, vol. 76, no. 1 (2020), pp.109–39.

4 Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedies of Remarriage (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).

5 Cavell, ‘The thought of movies’, p. 91.

6 Ibid., pp. 103, 105, 91.

7 Ibid., p. 95.

8 Stanley Cavell, Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 16.

9 Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness, p. 233.

10 Stanley Cavell, ‘Seasons of love: Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night and The Winter’s Tale’ (1994), in Rothman (ed.), Cavell on Film, p. 195.

11 Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness, p. 241.

12 For discussion of the many genres of repetition that make up lesbian conjugality, see Annamarie Jagose and Lee Wallace, ‘Serial commitment, or, 100 ways to leave your lover’, in Scott Herring and Lee Wallace (eds), Long Term: Essays on Queer Commitment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021), pp. 223–49.

BIO: Lee Wallace is an Associate Professor in Film Studies and Director of Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), University of Sydney. The author acknowledges the support of the Australian Research Council which funded the larger project of which this is a part (DP 190101539). © The Author(s) 2022. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen.

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