"A Capra Moment"

by Stanley Cavell

Humanities, Vol. 6, No. 4 (August 1985), pp. 3-7

Editor's Note: Materials in Humanities (published by the National Endowment for the Humanities) are not copyrighted, as they are publications of the U.S. Government. They may be freely reproduced, although the Editor of Humanities has asked that credit be given to the original publication.

About the Author: Stanley Cavell (1926 - ) is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value at Harvard University. His publications include The Claim of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979) and Themes Out of School (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984). He was the recipient of a "Genius Award" from the MacArthur Foundation in 1992.

Paragraph numbering below has been added to facilitate class discussion. It was not included in the original publication. Pages from the original publication are indicated in the text as follows: /p. x.


Author's Note

/p. 3 Because the widespread presence of film studies in higher education is still in its first generation, the overwhelming majority of those who presently teach the subject cannot have acquired their teaching degrees within the field.

Each college or university that has wished to teach film systematically has had to find its own home for film - often in the English department, sometimes distributed among various departments of modern and/or comparative literature, sometimes as part of the theater or visual arts, sometimes as a newly created department, occasionally even one that is authorized to grant the Ph.D.

For me, all this chaos has been worthwhile, not merely because I love film and wish to see it lovingly studied under any reasonable circumstances, but because film study has profited me in the rest of my humanistic work. When, for example, a Shakespearean structure is found to underlie a genre of Hollywood comedy, that structure is freshly illuminated along with the genre.

But the chaos and the new raw degrees have meant that film, especially in these intellectually volatile years, will sometimes be taught less responsibly than, or in poor isolation from, established humanistic subjects with their long history in certifying competence. These difficulties will help to justify the refusal of many of my academic colleagues to grant the study of film a place in a serious university curriculum.

"A Capra Moment"

#1. An indiscriminate scorn of film study strikes me as a continuation of America's contempt, or ambivalence, toward its best contributions to world happiness, like jazz and public friendliness. I take the present opportunity not as one for further preaching on the text of film's worthiness despite its sinfulness, but for presenting a specific instance of how I think about film. It is only in one's concrete feeling for particular films that genuine conviction of its value for study can, or should, develop.

#2. To exemplify this conviction here I take as my example a moment from Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert), a moment whose apparent commonplaces or evanescence found no place in my long and difficult chapter on the film in Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Harvard University Press, 1981). A man and a woman are walking away from us down an empty country road. I knew afresh each time I viewed the film that this moment played something like an epitomizing role in the film's effect upon me, but I remained unable to find words for it sufficient to include in my critical account of the effect. I have now found some that begin to satisfy me, and to air them is my present happiness.

#3. It will help prepare the way to explain that It Happened One Night is one of the seven talkies made in Hollywood between 1934 and 1949 definitive of a genre I name remarriage comedy. The title "remarriage" registers the grouping of a set of comedies which differ from classical comedy in various respects, but most notably in this: In classical comedy the narrative shows a young pair overcoming obstacles to their love and at the end achieving marriage, whereas comedies of remarriage begin or climax with a pair less young, getting or threatening their divorce, so that the drive of the narrative is to get them back together, together again. The central idea is that the validity or bond of marriage is no longer assured or legitimized by church or state or sexual compatibility or children but by something I call 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. In classical comedy people made for one another find one another; in remarriage comedy people who have found one another find that they are made for each other. The greatest of the structures of remarriage is The Winter's Tale, which is, together with The Tempest, the greatest of the Shakespearean romances.

#4. In accounting for the effect upon me of the moment preceding the one in focus here (of the pair on the road), I was led to speak of the "American transcendentalism of Capra's exteriors." In thus aligning Capra's work with the thought of Emerson and of Thoreau I was trying to locate one of Capra's signature emotions - the experience of an ecstatic possibility, as of a better world just adjacent to this one, one that this one speaks of in homely symbol, one that we could (in romance, in social justice) as it were, reach out and touch; if only . . . . My alignment was formed by a series of shots of Claudette Colbert responding to a meditative description by Clark Gable in which he has invoked "those nights when you and the moon and the water all become one and you feel you're part of something big and marvelous." The description felt to me (and I imagined, to the character played by Colbert) to be an expression at once of an old fantasy of the man's, /p. 4 and of his fresh memory of the previous night which the two of them had spent together, ended by their sleeping in separate regions of a haystack. The description, taken in itself, is not much more than newspaper filler. But set to Gable's entranced recitation, and authorized both by Combat's entranced responsiveness to it and by our own memory of their night in the moon-bright open field (and of their arriving there by fording a stream filled with reflected stars), the words take on the weight of a passage from Walled. (Even seen in motion, in the crossing of the stream it is somewhat hard to make out that Gable is carrying Colbert slung over his left shoulder, holding a suitcase in his right hand, her high heels pointing in the direction of their progress. But the point of the shot for my purposes is clear: The stream is shattered by stars. It is an image of something Thoreau calls "sky water.")

#5. Capra's transcendental moments derive in part from German Expressionist cinema (as Emerson's transcendental thought derives in part from German philosophy); they display the mood of a character stretched across that character's setting. But the German settings tend toward the closed and their mood toward the haunted; the Capra tend toward the expanded and their mood toward a tortured yearning. If one does not find, or will not permit the mood, the Capra moment is apt to produce titters, as from emotion with no visible means of support.

#6. The moment I concentrate on here occurs the morning following the night in the open field. The shot lasts under thirty seconds, during which the pair have this exchange (the woman speaking first):

--What did you say we're supposed to be doing?


--Oh. Well. You've given me a very good example of the hiking. Where does the hitching come in?

--Uh, a little early yet. No cars out.

--If it's just the same to you I'm going to sit right here and wait 'til they come.

#7. Despite what I started thinking of as the "nothingness" of this shot - remarking the spareness of imagery, the conventionality of the words, the apparent off-handedness of the characters' manners - the transcendental mood seemed to me continued in this early grey morning. But then I felt: Certainly it continues. This just means that the powerful, expressionistically enforced mood of the right before persists, for us and for them. It is only natural, given that the sequence had climaxed with an extreme close-up of the pair resisting an embrace; they are unreleased. Then again I felt: No. I mean the mood persists not just as in memory but as present, continued by the new setting at dawn. The spareness, the conventionality, the off-handedness are somehow to be understood with the same expressionist fervor of the moonlit night scene. Of course in the new setting the cosmos will not be concurrent with the words that are said, but rather the words will have to be heard as covering, barely, the attraction of the mood. Even the variance of the pair's individual manners suggests the covering - the man somewhat depressed, the woman somewhat manic. So I imagine them as moving together but each keeping to himself and herself, filled with thoughts of one another, trying to accommodate to what has passed between them and to their knowledge that they each know what the other is going through, including an unreadiness to become explicit.

#8. My critical claim is that this understanding is not a guess on my part as to how a couple of other people must be, or ought to be feeling, based on what I know of their time together; but that it is a reading, a perception, of what I am calling the transcendental mood of this utterly specific shot now before us, a reading of its very nothingness. To substantiate this claim, I must provide this reading. I begin by repeating the recasting the title description I suggested in introducing the shot, and I divide it into four segments: On the road/walking/together/away from us. I take up the segments in reverse order.

#9. Away from us. It is my general impression that the motion picture camera held on a human figure squarely from behind has tended to inflect some significance of human privacy and vulnerability, of self-reflection, of the capacity or necessity to keep one's counsel. I expect everyone can recall analogous shots of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp walk-/p. 5 ing away down a road. Beyond noting this as providing one of the sublime groups of images on film to capture human isolation, vulnerability, yet hopefulness, I note that such a shot naturally constitutes the ending of a film. What is one of them doing at something like the center of the present film? This is in effect to begin asking: How does this specific shot inflect the range of associated shots that invoke the sense of privacy, vulnerability, thoughtfulness, and so on?

#10. Together. The pivot of inflection is that while they still keep their individual counsels they are joined by moving in concern exactly away from us. It is an essential feature of the genre of remarriage comedy that the films defining it each close with some indication that the principal pair, in re-entering the state of matrimony, are crossing some border that leaves us out, behind, with no embrace of their own, with nothing meant to insure or to signal that they will find, or rather re-find, their happiness. In The Awful Truth, the pair at the close are metamorphosed into figurines on a Swiss clock; in His Girl Friday they run away from us down a flight of stairs; in The Lady Eve a door closes in our faces; in Adam's Rib, curtains close; in The Philadelphia Story the pair freeze into still photos; in the present film the ending consists of a mostly empty, darkened frame in which we see a mythical blanket barrier tumbling down. But the centered walk away down the road we are considering here does also feel like something is ending, hence like something is beginning, some border being crossed. It is this undefined openness, as if leaving the past behind them, that marks this particular inflection of vulnerability, of thoughtful anticipation.

#11. Here is a place to pause for an instant to see whether the words of this sequence are as unremarkable as we have assumed. What becomes of words on film can prove to be as significant a matter as what becomes of people and things on film. Take the line, "Oh. Well. You've given me a good example of the hiking. Where does the hitching come in?" I hope you can come to the place - it will not happen on a first viewing - of wondering whether "hitching" here pertains to getting hitched, and even to what Katharine Hepburn refers to in The Philadelphia Story - having to explain to her assembled wedding guests about the successful failure of her wedding plans - in saying that "There's been a hitch in the proceedings." Not only was this man on this road with the woman supposed to be /p. 6 helping her return to her so-called husband, but generally hitches in hitching are the study both of classical comedy and (oddly reshaped in significance) of remarriage comedy. I find the thought reinforced by the surprisingly touching fact that the woman is limping; she has a hitch. So Capra's shot immediately, ironically, informs us that hitching has already come in, more or less before our eyes, that the tying of the (hitch) knot, the entanglement of lives, is on the way and will not, for some happy reason, come undone. (This sketches the moral of the remarriage structure.)

#12. Walking. What they are doing is walking together on a road, hiking until hitching. This fact began to take on thematic importance for me some time after a colleague inquired whether I had thought about the range of vehicles in the film, suggesting that they form a little system of significance as striking as the system I had found in the various food consumed in it. Thinking this over (there is a yacht, a bus, a roadster, one or two limousines, a flight of motorcycles, a freight train, a private passenger plane, a helicopter) it seemed to me that the vehicles mostly emblematize or differentiate matters whose disposition in this film we know independently - power, isolation, vacuity, the capacity for community. Whereas the system of foods and their modes of preparation or gathering provides the basis of relationships that serve to establish and measure acceptance and rejection. Even so, the intuition of significance in the system of vehicles still seemed to me just. I have come to understand it in its contrast as a whole with - hence its emphasis upon - the human fact of walking; just as I had taken the system of foods as a whole to emphasize the human fact of hunger. Being hungry and being on the road are familiar scenes of the depression. Hollywood comedies of the period are often chastised as fairy-tale distractions from the terrible realities of those times. I do not deny that some were, maybe most. But the best among them were tales that continue the extreme outbursts of hope in human possibility that were also part of the realities of those times; otherwise their persistent popularity and instructiveness would seem to me inexplicable. Hunger in It Happened One Night stands for the reality of imagination, the imagination of a better world, a better way than we have found. Now I wish to make explicit a companion representativeness in its idea of walking together. Accordingly let us consider where it is they are walking.

#13. On the road. In four of the seven definitive remarriage comedies the denouement of mutual acknowledgment is achieved by a removal of the pair to a place of perspective that, following Shakespeare's psychic geography, I call "the green world." I find that It Happened One Night compensates for its lack of this more or less explicitly mythical location by its presentation of perspective acquired on the road, which is the classical and no less mythical location of picaresque quest and adventure. Its interpretation of the green world as the location of successfully achieved romantic marriage is, hence, an interpretation of successfully achieved romantic marriage as itself the process of quest and adventure.

#14. There is another declaration of this road as a mythical or psychical locale. After Gable's lecture to the woman about the three modes of thumbing a ride and then his proving to be impotent to stop the first three cars by any item in the sequence of his means, the road suddenly produces, as from nowhere, an unending stream of cars rushing past his abashed thumb and disappearing around the bend into /p. 7 nowhere, as if the proper rebuke to this male expansiveness is to show the man failing to stop each and every car on earth. This cosmic rebuke, as by the medium of film itself, sets up the succeeding rebuke by the woman, who famously stops a car by showing some leg, thus proving once for all as she says happily to the gloomy man, "that the limb is mightier than the thumb."

#15. It was in connecting, more or less consciously, the ideas of the road as the equivalent of a spiritual realm of perspective and adventure, with the persistence of a transcendental sense of dawning landscape as calling out a moment of openness and beginning, and with the specific cosmic rebuke of male assertiveness, that I turned for the first time in years, to Walt Whitman's "Song of the Open Road." I remind you of what there is to be found there. The thirteenth section opens:

Allons! To that which is endless as it was beginningless,

To undergo much, tramps of days, rests of nights,

To merge all in the travel they tend to, and the days and the nights they tend to,

Again to merge them in the start of superior journeys . . .

#16. The fifteenth and final section concludes:

Camerado, I give you my hand!

I give you my love more precious than money,

I give you myself before preaching or law;

With you give me yourself: will you come travel with me?

Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

#17. The mood is of course different from that of the shot of our pair on the empty dawning road. But if you will take Whitman's closing questions as lines for the invention of a new wedding ceremony, they match as perfectly as any I know the questions and the tasks proposed by the genre of the comedy of remarriage. (By "the invention of marriage" I mean a task of these comedies that they share with Shakespearean theater, as in Antony and Cleopatra and in The Winter's Tale.) it follows that I am proposing the shot of this pair on the road walking together away from us as a wedding photo.

#18. Even if you will take it so for this moment, you may not for the next. Not every moment will yield to, or require, the mood of Whitman's ecstasies and exhortations, any more than every moment can tolerate, or use, the sentiments and elations of Capra. But I imagine that these artists themselves composed knowing this, even that they meant to declare it, respectively, of the nature of poetry and of film, to acknowledge their intermittence, our evanescent readiness for them. Or in Emerson's words from "Experience": "Since our office is with moments, let us husband them." Or as Wittgenstein will put a similar thought: "What dawns here lasts only as long as I am occupied with the object in a particular way." We have perhaps most poignantly in film, something we have in any art, the opportunity to find, but always the freedom to miss, the significance of the nothing and the nowhere.

#19. Am I claiming that Capra is as good as Whitman and Emerson? Am I saying that he intended the matters I have invoked to account for my mood with a moment he has provided? These are reasonable questions, deserving reasoned answers. Until then I may put my approach to them this way. Capra shares certain of the ambitions and the specific visions of Whitman and Emerson, and he knows about working with film roughly what they know about working with words. If your fixed view is, however, that no film (anyway none produced in the Hollywood sound era) could in principle bear up under any serious comparison with major writing, then our conversation is, if it has begun, at an end; for I would take the fixed view, or attitude, as representative of a philistine intellectuality fully worthy of the philistine anti-intellectuality from which we more famously suffer.


In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism. University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Harvard University Press, 1981.

The Claim of Reason. Oxford University Press, 1979.

The Cavell Reader. Edited by Stephen Mulhall. Blackwell Publisher, 1996.

Themes Out of School. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984.

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