Astaire: “Something Out of the Ordinary”


For your viewing pleasure, below is the brief scene from The Band Wagon that Cavell spoke about in his 1996 Presidential Address to the American Philosophical Association (later published in Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow as chapter one, “Something Out of the Ordinary”). Cavell introduces the scene like this:

Let me set the scene. The occasion of the number is that the character played by Astaire–a song-and-dance man whose star has faded in Hollywood and who is returning apprehensively to New York to try a comeback on Broadyway–exits from the train that has returned him, mistakenly takes the awaiting reporters and photographers to have come to interview him, and is rudely awakened to reality as a still-vivid star steps out of the adjacent car and the newshounds flock to her (Ava Gardner in a cameo appearance). As our hero walks away ruefully, a porter offers a remark to him on the rigors of publicity to which stardom subjects a person, and upon answering “Yes, I don’t know how they stand it,” Astaire arrives at his song, entitled “By Myself.” (pp. 21-2, Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow)

Here, now, is the film clip:

And here is just one of the many interesting things that Cavell has to say, in his address, about this short number:

I turn to the pair of facts concerning the presentation of the person of Astaire, and first of his walking. Recall to begin with its jauntiness, the slight but distinct exaggeration of his body swinging from side to side as he paces along the platform. Narratively, he is hoping to cheer himself, letting his body, as Williams James once suggested, tell him what his emotion is. But ontologically, we could say, it is the walk of a man who is known to move in dance exactly like no other man. It is a walk from which, at any step, this man may break into dance–he is known from other contexts to have found dancing called for in the course of driving golf balls, or roller-skating, or while swabbing the deck of a ship. Now if his walking does turn into dancing, then isn’t what we see of his delivery revealed to have been already dancing, a sort of limiting case, or proto-state, of dancing? We should readily agree that it isn’t just walking he is exhibiting. Then what is the relation of dancing to walking? (p. 23)

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