Melodrama and Philosophy

Stanley Cavell was a thinker who viewed philosophy and Hollywood films together. He argued that some popular Hollywood films are a kind of philosophy, that these films speak philosophy. There is no doubt that this is an opinion that openly invites reactions and criticism. However, it should be noted that:

Cavell simplified the language of philosophy and made the subjects of popular culture the subject of philosophy. He made philosophy for the common man. Didn’t Socrates do the same? He didn’t just discuss philosophy at the banquet tables. He also interacted with people he met on the streets of Athens and listened to their voices. Cavell also says that philosophy is the “human voice”. Which person? ordinary man. The person that Walt Whitman sang. Walt Whitman once said, “I sing for a man, a simple man, who is different from all others / Yet I use the word ‘Democratic’, the word ‘The Multitudes’. That was the voice Cavell had heard, the voice of the only person Whitman had sung. The voice of the human being who is the subject of a democratic society and democratic life.

Cavell shared his experiences analyzing Hollywood films. In other words, in his cinematic writing he generally reexamined the mental and spiritual relationship he formed with the films he saw during his childhood and early teens. In recent years, his writings have attracted increased attention in the fields of film criticism, cultural studies and film philosophy, and in this sense the “Cavell effect” is also called. In addition, his film analyzes are compared with Gilles Deleuze’s writings on film philosophy. However, there is an important difference to note: Cavell focused on popular cinema, Hollywood genre cinema, and viewed these films from the perspective of philosophy. He hasn’t written much about European “art cinema” films.

World Viewed, published in the early 1970s, is Cavell’s first theoretical work on the art of cinema and his first book in which he establishes a relationship between philosophy and cinema. A study that questions the experience of films. As J. Dudley Andrew pointed out, the theses put forward here are quite close to those of Andre Bazin. Bazin did not develop a theory of cinema, but the first was “What is cinema?” in 1957. It was profound and complex enough to impress many theorists in the years that followed the articles and reviews collected in four volumes, three of which were published during his lifetime, three of which were published posthumously. He argued that cinema was based on visual and spatial reality. Of course, he did not deny that the reality of cinema is fiction. He thought that although the reality of cinema and the reality of the world we live in are irreconcilable, there is a strong bond, a strong affinity between them. Cavell emphasized the photographic characteristics of film, following Andre Bazin, who accepts that cinema is an “art related to visual reality” and defines cinema as “the art of reality”.

The American thinker has written two books directly about Hollywood cinema. The first is In Search of Happiness: Hollywood’s Remarriage Comedy, released in 1981. This book, in which he explores marriage comedies and takes a philosophical view of said films, gained popularity by reaching a wide audience outside of the academy. Cavell noted that “remarriage comedies” are a distinct genre. The films he analyzed in the book were films translated between 1934 and 1949 after the cinema’s use of sound. He looked at seven examples of the peculiarities of the genre. These were the films he saw as a child, in his early teens, and they have a place in his memories. In a way, they were the heirs to Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. In these comedies, couples who love each other had to overcome difficult obstacles to get together and be happy.

Contesting Tears is a sequel written fifteen years after In Search of Happiness. Cavell continued his film readings, which began with comedy, with melodramas. But isn’t fifteen years a long time for a sequel? Uzun has suggested that there are various reasons for this. The most common is that the American thinker may have felt the need to tread carefully in the face of feminist criticism. In fact, in the meantime, especially in the 1980s, feminist film criticism has intensified; In addition, a restrictive trend had emerged in the name of political correctness. Within the feminist movement there was a line that supported and merged with this trend. The pursuit of happiness has been the goal of enough feminist film criticism. Cavell had given convincing answers to this, but this tightening may have caused Cavell to be more careful in writing the sequel.

It has been asserted that Hollywood comedy and melodramas were based on stereotypes that women, particularly in melodramas, were mute and silenced just as they were in real life, in society and in the family, and Cavell condoned this silence. The American philosopher countered that in the films mentioned, women spoke, they also spoke philosophy, and he himself listened to them. In TS Eliot’s poem, women came and went around the room talking about Michelangelo. According to Cavell, women in Hollywood melodramas spoke philosophy.

If Stanley Cavell is right, if films really talk about philosophy, we should definitely mention Douglas Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas of high aesthetic value. His films are the strongest evidence for Cavell’s theses.

As one of the most intellectual directors to have worked in Hollywood studios, Sirk theorized his own film practice. It is no exaggeration to say that he was too well-endowed to need a theorist: before emigrating to the United States he was a theater director in Germany; Shakespeare had staged plays by Strindberg and Brecht and had translated Shakespeare’s sonnets into German.

As early as the 1950s, Cahiers du Cinéma won the admiration of his critics. They did not hesitate to give him the title of “author” director. He really deserves it. Not only did he bring the despised genre of film, in which women wet a handkerchief, to the level of high aesthetic form, but he also explored the politics of emotional life and the metaphysics of melodrama in these films.

“You have to write with a camera,” he said in a 1977 interview with Jon Halliday. He compared his melodramas to the act of writing. “Camera angles are the director’s thoughts, lighting is his philosophy” belongs to him. This time he went one step further and went beyond the metaphor of the pen he used for the camera, stating that the melodramas he shot were linked to philosophy. His melodramas were also connected with painting. He was particularly influenced by the art of Vasili Kandinsky and his thoughts on art.
He criticizes the intolerance and hypocrisy of the social environment in Everything Heaven Allows about the emotional relationship between a middle-aged widow and a younger gardener in a town populated almost exclusively by middle-class white people. When lovers are with these people the atmosphere is dull, when away from them they are always alone in an arcade-like rural setting. The circus leaves them alone in a rural paradise reminiscent of Walden. In doing so, he brings Thoreau’s understanding of nature closer to the melodrama.

In the melodramas of the 1950s, the female characters were powerless due to the social conditions of the time; They were limited in their decisions and actions. They were left desperate and helpless. In the melodramas of the circus, however, it is not so. His films are marked by uncertainty, but the female characters in these films are not helpless. The audience always thinks they can make a fresh start.


Andrew, J. Dudley, The Great Theories of Cinema, trans. Z.Atam, Doruk Publishing, 2010,
Cavell, Stanley, In Search of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, trans. B. Bas, D. Koç Pala, Metis Publications, 2010
Evans, Victoria, Douglas Sirk, Aesthetic Modernism and the Culture of Modernity, Edinburgh University Press, 2017
Morkoç, Hope, A Philosophical Investigation on Film, Stanley Cavells Filmontologie, Journal of CineFilosofi, Special Issue 2021

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