Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman

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9780226098142: Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman

What is marriage? Can a relationship dedicated to equality, friendship, and mutual education flower in an atmosphere of romance? What are the paths between loving another and knowing another? Stanley Cavell identified a genre of classic American films that engaged these questions in his study of comedies of remarriage, Pursuits of Happiness. With Contesting Tears, Cavell demonstrates that a contrasting genre, which he calls "the melodrama of the unknown woman," shares a surprising number and weave of concerns with those comedies.

Cavell provides close readings of four melodramas he finds definitive of the genre: Letter from an Unknown Woman, Gaslight, Now Voyager, and Stella Dallas. The women in these melodramas, like the women in the comedies, demand equality, shared education, and transfiguration, exemplifying for Cavell a moral perfectionism he identifies as Emersonian. But unlike the comedies, which portray a quest for a shared existence of expressiveness and joy, the melodramas trace instead the woman's recognition that in this quest she is isolated. Part of the melodrama concerns the various ways the men in the films (and the audiences of the films) interpret and desire to force the woman's consequent inaccessibility.

"Film is an interest of mine," Stanley Cavell has written, "or say a love, not separate from my interest in, or love of, philosophy." In Contesting Tears Cavell once again brilliantly unites his two loves, using detailed and perceptive musings on melodrama to reflect on philosophical problems of skepticism, psychoanalysis, and perfectionism. As he shows, the fascination and intelligence of such great stars as
Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, and Barbara Stanwyck illuminate, as they are illuminated by, the topics and events of these beloved and enduring films.

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Review:

What do the movie masterpieces Gaslight, Stella Dallas, Now, Voyager, and Letter from an Unknown Woman have in common? Stanley Cavell, Harvard professor and film lover, believes they make up a small genre: the Hollywood melodrama of the unknown woman. In this sequel to his book Pursuits of Happiness, Cavell argues that these darkly beautiful films respond to issues raised in such comedies of remarriage as The Philadelphia Story, Adam's Rib, and The Awful Truth. The author's prose is sometimes challenging, but he remains one of the most interesting critics of film genre and classic Hollywood. One would be hard-pressed to find an author who writes about individual films with his kind of rigor, or who connects the various issues they raise to so many different philosophies of mind and art. The section in which Cavell refutes the academic commonplace that the camera offers viewers only the male gaze is particularly well done. In it, Cavell lists sequence after sequence in classic Hollywood films in which audiences are invited to look through the eyes--and the desires--of women. --Raphael Shargel

About the Author:

 Stanley Cavell is the Walter M. Cabot Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value at Harvard University and the author of many books. These include Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, In Quest of the Ordinary, and Themes out of School, all published by the University of Chicago Press.

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