a letter from Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value at Harvard University, Stanley Cavell, regarding The Insignificant Other, a feature-length film written and directed by Nail Chiodo.
25 July 2000
Dear Nail Chiodo,
I’m sorry it has taken so long to respond, I won’t go into explanations. I did indeed receive the rough cut, but not the final cut you mention in today’s message (July 25). To what address did you send it – I’ve forgotten whether I received the rough cut at the university or at my home. Only last night did I view (the rough cut of) your fascinating film, and I congratulate you and wish the film a healthy and appreciative future.
You ask for my impressions, and even on one viewing I have some impressions, but I don’t trust them very far. I would love to have been able to speak with you in person about your work, to be able to work into the mood of the film, by way of your mood, in order to speak pertinently about what I find to be there. New work should be nourished, not brushed against or stepped over with foolish misunderstandings. And first of all, I should want to know what it is about my work that prompts you to value my thoughts. There is, of course, the image of Wittgenstein on the t-shirt of the young man (Bob?). But then your film perpetually raises questions about the status of images, of the visual, or the imaginary, with intense specificity, when for example your camera explores the Chinese screen (?), and with full generality, in the over-all contrast between the alternating black-and white sequences with the color sequences. So I don’t know whether the Wittgenstein image declares the young man’s aspirations to intellectual mastery and curiosity, or whether it rebukes what the narrator/owner calls his bullshit (I believe that is what I heard, the sound of the print was not perfect).
Reluctant as I am to mar a moment of what should be celebration for you in finishing this project, I will, since you ask insistently, go on to raise a few questions – questions is all I have that could be useful to you. And take a primitive one: I don’t know how I read the contrast between the black/white and the color. I remember the color as made in single takes, in contrast to the more conventional and artful cutting of the black/white. I can see the black/white as the European owner’s view of the raw Americans; and contrariwise, the color as the American’s view of European refinement and intellectuality and inheritance. This would amount to trying a version of a late, impossibly late, Henry James confrontation (but then James also feels that he is already impossibly late, compared for example, so close to Venice, with Ruskin). But then the Americans would have to have a quality that draws us to them, to treasure their innocence, or to believe that they have not left their scene of adventure in Italy wrapped in the complete defeat that the owner describes (supposing he is to be trusted).
Bob’s idea of “The Cherry Orchard with no characters” – no one left whose loss of a civilization matters to us – is a promise of intellectual scope which is hard to attribute to the rest of what he says and does. His powers of mimicry are convincing, as evidence, let’s say, of his power to interest and hence to tame a shrew. But Lisa is not a shrew, she can hardly speak (her execrable Italian is a figure for her having no words of her own; Bob is surprised, as we are, by her having a genuine idea about women and villas); and we have no reason to believe that Bob is interested in her, in taking her away with him. And when he succeeds in putting words in her mouth (modelled on telling her whether to say whether it is day or night), he wants credit for it (when she adopts his phrase in her writing). And what is our interest in her, what is the owner’s? Why do we interest ourselves in moving pictures of people? A fine question for your film to raise: how is it that we can become interested in uninteresting people, people doing uninteresting things? Meaning what? Things requiring no virtuosity or learning or imagination? Or people doing banal things, like becoming infatuated with “Italy”.
Are we to ask for some fantasy of the origin of this film (or of the two films of which it is the interaction)? The black/white is conceivable as arranged by the owner, in his fascination with bringing unknown people together in his house, as it were for his amusement, an amusement which requires his commentary, his presentation, his owning. And the color commentary is even easier to imagine as his doing (the glass raised to the cinematographer by one of the owner’s two companions marks explicitly their knowledge of the staging). So how do you, as filmmaker, dissociate yourself from this figure? Here is where perhaps the wonderfully mysterious late moment comes in of the housekeeper and her friend taken smiling in color, the only crossover figure between the worlds. Here, so one may read it, is your entry into both worlds, the artist as the servant who masters.
But I haven’t touched the issues of art and of horror raised in the narration, questions of what houses continue to be haunted by, what houses demand, the comparative weights of past and present. I won’t continue with this now. I hadn’t meant to begin a response with the kind of detail that requires slow going, and I have to leave for an appointment. Perhaps its just as well, since I’m not sure I am responding at any level which has the least interest for you. I don’t want to close without saying that I find I am particularly haunted by the mysterious and moving performance, or enacted memory, by one of the owner’s companions, of the Italian actress of silent Italian cinema, who could move audiences at will in reciting the alphabet. The sheer beauty and promise of that enactment seems to me a key experience of the whole film. How I long to see a glimpse of that actress! How film longs to!
You can see that I am impressed by what you have done. Have I said enough for you to prompt me further?
With every good wish for the success of the film.