Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 23, July 2001



Thomas E. Wartenberg

Film, Philosophy, and the Ordinary

A Response to Butler




Brian Butler

Transgression: Ordinary and Otherwise

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 22, July 2001


Reading Brian Butler's review of my book, _Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism_, was an extraordinary experience, for the context within which he placed my book was one of which I had not been fully conscious. While I am aware that my own work on film had been inspired, in part, by Stanley Cavell, I had not connected his concern with the 'ordinary' to my discussion of the 'unlikely couple film'. Butler, however, sees that my question of whether popular narrative film can be a site of social criticism has clear links with questions of the ordinary, so I'd like to spend some time thinking through the connection he sees in my book.


As I begin to reflect on the issue of the ordinary in relation to my book, I find myself returning to the 1990 film _White Palace_ (directed by Luis Mondoki), the film that initiated my study of the unlikely couple film, and that I still find to be worthy of further reflection, despite my sense that the film's ending undercuts its message. One thing that the film proposes is that many of the hierarchical dichotomies that structure our thought -- upper class/working class; high art/mass art; depth/surface -- will not bear the weight we put upon them. The film uses the story of its highly unlikely couple in order to cast a critical glance at how such dichotomies structure our thinking, our lives, and our society, making the case for integrating both poles of these dichotomies into all aspects of our world.


In so far as the film makes this case, it makes contact with another film I discuss, _The Crying Game_ (Neil Jordan, 1992). In my comments on that film, I argue that it employs a strategy of critique that destabilizes the central dichotomies that the film initially proposes. As Butler points out, I argue that this strategy is a more adequate means of critiquing dichotomies than the simpler ones, such as inverting the valuation of a dichotomy, that I see present in other films.


It is worth distinguishing this type of film interpretation from one favored by adherents of cultural studies, with which it might be confused. My interpretations do not assert that a viewer has the ability to resist the conformist agenda of a film like, say, _Pretty Woman_ (Garry Marshall, 1990), by developing a reading 'against the grain', one that tendentiously highlights only those aspects of the film that contribute to an interpretation that fits in with the ideas of the viewer. (In the book, I point to Hilary Radner's interesting interpretation of _Pretty Woman_ as an example of just such a cultural studies approach.) Rather, my interpretations attempt to lay bare, in what may appear to be a most ordinary object, a depth that might escape one's notice. In so doing, it highlights aspects of the films that other readings might leave out, and demands that they be taken account of. Such a strategy of reading claims to be more true to the film than those produced within certain branches of cultural studies.


Here I see myself as following in Kierkegaard's footsteps. How often have we heard the story of Abraham and Isaac without really stopping to think about it? Wasn't this just another one of those stories that those of us in the Judeo-Christian tradition had learned to hear but not be bothered by? And yet how extraordinary this story is, as Kierkegaard and others have made us see.


Now this juxtaposition of a Bible story with popular film may seem outrageous to many readers. But, as Butler points out, one of the goals of my book is to bring an awareness of the illegitimacy of hierarchical dichotomies into the study of film itself. And here there is no doubt that my work follows in the footsteps of Cavell's. In much of his work on film Cavell has argued that films that we take to be quite ordinary, and think that we understand, have depths that have still not fully been plumbed. His gestures of juxtaposing _It Happened One Night_ and _The Critique of Pure Reason_, or _North by Northwest_ and _Hamlet_, are meant to undermine our conviction that there is an intellectual gap between high and popular culture.


There is another aspect to Butler's exegesis of my book that I would like to discuss: that it demonstrates how cultures provide the materials for their own critiques through their own contradictions. To make this case would require going beyond what I argued for in _Unlikely Couples_, where I was concerned to show the presence of a democratic spirit within this genre. I am, in fact, in sympathy with the idea that cultures like our own are not unities ruled by a single idea, but rather complexes with elements that do not fit together into a unified whole. As a result, critique can make use of elements within the cultural melange to undermine others. As Butler points out, this accounts for the ability of popular films to be socially critical: they need not resort to esoteric ideas in order to criticize dominant values, but have recourse to equally fundamental aspects of the culture that stand in conflict with those values. Throughout my readings I emphasize how our belief in the underlying equality of all human beings is used by these films to undermine different forms of social hierarchy that threaten to destroy the possibility of romance. In so doing the films take up an idea fundamental to our culture: that all people are created equal. This idea may now seem rather ordinary to us, part of our stock of cultural ideals; but the fact that it still has significant and under-appreciated critical purchase is a central burden of my study of the unlikely couple film.


Mount Holyoke College

South Hadley, Massachusetts, USA



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Thomas E. Wartenberg, 'Film, Philosophy, and the Ordinary: A Response to Butler', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 23, July 2001 <>.



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