But on the other end, is it really possible to analyze a film outside of the context of being viewed by somebody?
At the risk of raising the ire of some people here I think Benning’s Ten Skies is bogus. Again though I would be hesitant to discuss why at any great length here in the forum because ‘dissing’ a film someone loves never ends well.
I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t comment, but I’d like to find one we’ve both seen. (On another note, I’d like to think that we could discuss a film like Ten Skies—although the idea of proving a film is bogus is highly contentious and maybe not the best way to start a discussion.)
No, it is not. When I said “judging and understanding a film on it’s own terms takes priority over personal preference, etc.” I meant to imply that personal preferences will still play a role and can never be eliminated completely.
James Benning is a perfect example for this thread and I’m sorry I didn’t think of him sooner. To me some of his films are interesting. I recognized many now dated Chicago landmarks in One Way Boogie Woogie and appreciated the informative aspects of Desert, but felt 13 Lakes was agonizing. Mainly because of his choice of subject.
In other words, since I’m from Chicago, I was inclined to appreciate OWBW as sort of an artifact, in a similar way that other films shot in Chicago are of interest to me based on that fact alone (Medium Cool, Cooley High, Candy Man, etc). I’m not sure I would have liked it as much if it had featured a bunch of shots of say Cincinnati, but the urban landscapes to me are just more interesting, there’s more to pay attention to in the frame, giving the viewer more to take in.
Desert was “worth a damn” based on the largely educational nature of the film.
13 Lakes was boring as hell because it was static shots of 13 Lakes all at approximately 10 minutes a piece, and really, staring at still waters for 130 minutes will put any man to sleep. Maybe I don’t appreciate scenic beauty the way I do Chicago in the 70s but good god I dare anyone to stay awake through that film.
So perhaps to answer my question as to what makes a film worth a damn is a little bit style a little bit subject, take into account pacing, performance, composition and if it all adds up to something worthwhile you got a film worth your time. I’m inclined to find a more friendly equation for this, but quantifying art is something the human race will probably never figure out how to do.
I’m not really clear why you think Benning is perfect example. Do you mean he’s a perfect example because the meaning of his films depend too much on the viewer? Based on your post, we can say that is true in one sense: you liked some of his films because the subject matter interested you or contained positive association. On the the other hand, if you weren’t personally interested in the subject matter (as with the film about the lakes), does that mean the film didn’t have any meaning—or depended too much on you for meaning? I don’t think we can say that. Just because you’re not interested in the subject matter (or just because you are), that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t have any meaning or relies to much on the viewer to fabricate some meaning. Or maybe I’m not understanding you well.
Detached from any of the conversations here and responding mostly to the title of the OP if not the entire OP text itself…
…every now and then you do get someone brave enough at an experimental film festival to say, “Perhaps the issue isn’t that the audience isn’t educated enough, but that we’re not communicating clearly enough.” It’s extremely difficult to define a movie that relies too much on the viewer because viewers have a tendency to either jump to the conclusion that the movie is meaningless (regardless of whether it is or not) or to assume that their reading of it is correct and that they can read any movie. This is going to draw, inevitably, back to that idea of ‘intention’ versus ‘representation’: sometimes the audience, even historically, assumes an understanding of the meaning of work that is in fact lost from the artist’s actual meaning, which means the art piece actually failed but nobody knows it.
An example is Machiavelli’s The Prince, which was intentionally satire. Today, however, ‘Machiavellian’ is the term we apply to someone who follows principles written in The Prince unironically, as if Machiavelli honestly intended that text to represent the proper method of leadership and rule. The irony got completely lost in most mainstream readings of the text, so is that Machiavelli’s fault or the fault of an audience insufficiently trained in recognition of satire?
For a movie example, look at David Lynch. Some people find meaningful and profound cause behind his particular style, some dismiss it as randomness for the sake of randomness, and Lynch himself refuses to position his own opinions on the matter, leaving it entirely up to the audience. The fact (as I see it) is that he is both… between the Inland Empire special feature that shows him literally making shit up as he goes along (with a glass of scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other) and things like his list of ‘clues’ for Mulholland Dr. I feel he sees the setting of visual devices in and of themselves to be a process of meaningful representation that he creates intentionally, even though the ‘meaning’ behind those symbols he could care less about and would rather leave open to the audience for interpretation. So audiences that desire closure in narrative representation, symbolism approaching 1:1 meaning with intended signifiers, will find themselves left short and completely unsatisfied with his work, whereas audiences that prefer a more open-minded interpretational reading of any text, and believe in the idea of audience or even personal relationships supplanting that of the audience, may find Lynch to be an expert in top form.
That latter sentence points to an op-ed I read recently about the difference in political ideologies between people who require closure, and people who require openmindedness. Perhaps one can easily determine which end of the false dichotomy each side lands on, but I won’t waste our time by stating it here. Nevertheless I have found in my life an almost linear spectrum of personal ‘needs’ that informs perspective between the idea of the need for closure and correct path and objectivity, and consideration and mutlifacetness and subjectivity. These are not, as sometimes argued, matters of levels of intelligence but more often emotional and psychological needs for how to react to the confusing and ambiguous world around us. But the thing is that those who need closure and structure and objectivity tend to (not as an absolute and don’t jump on me for this) be the types that most promote the idea of storytelling whereas those who need consideration and ambiguity and subjectivity most promote the idea of representation. Or to generalize further in an atomic matter, some people believe movies are entirely about ‘the story’ which means they are completely unsatisfied if not outright frustrated by movies that require more of the audience than 1:1 symbolic interpretation, whereas some people believe movies are entirely about ‘the theme’ which means they are completely unsatisfied if not outright frustrated by movies that leave little to personal interpretation. The extreme of the former is a movie that talks down to the audience to the point of being entirely expository, whereas the extreme of the latter is a movie that refuses to state anything with vindiction.
Ideally an artist and its audience want to meet halfway — the artist says what he or she means and the audience understands and expands it.
The problem is that the amount of work is almost assuredly unequal. It takes hours to days to weeks to months to years to create a piece of art, which an audience member consumes in seconds to minutes to hours to days. Regardless of whether you believe Lynch is ‘making it up as he goes along,’ there are grips and pre-prod meetings and editing and financial investments that underline at least a liminal level of focus from Lynch himself to be capable of pulling it together to turn it into a ‘feature length film’. Watching Mulholland Dr. for it’s playlength may make it easy to dismiss for some people, but literal months of work went into that feature that people are not accounting for.
Does this absolve it of its criticisms? No. But nevertheless, audiences that demand the artist ‘meet them halfway’ at least need to realize that doing so takes hundreds of times the work.
Or as Bill Amend once said, “I work for hundreds of hours a month for years straight to make a book you can read in 2.5 trips to the bathroom.”
So audiences that desire closure in narrative representation, symbolism approaching 1:1 meaning with intended signifiers, will find themselves left short and completely unsatisfied with his work, whereas audiences that prefer a more open-minded interpretational reading of any text, and believe in the idea of audience or even personal relationships supplanting that of the audience, may find Lynch to be an expert in top form.
But are there limits to the “open-minded approach?” With enough of an open-mind and imagination, we can find meaning in literally anything; yet, not everything is art. This is what I mean by “relying too much on the viewer.” One can find an interpretation to turn any film into a good or at least meaningful one (sort of like your defending a movie thread). How do we know when the meaning is mostly coming from the viewer—i.e., a fabrication—and when it’s legitimately coming from a film?
I guess the most obvious answer (off the top of my head) is to look at the interpretation—specifically the degree to which it uses the film and the way it uses to the film as a basis for that interpretation. Without giving a specific and detailed example, this is a vague statement, but I think with rigorous scrutiny we could probably separate the valid interpretations from the invalid ones. (There might be some interpretations we can’t agree upon, but I feel like those might be valid interpretations.)
“But are there limits to the “open-minded approach?” With enough of an open-mind and imagination, we can find meaning in literally anything; yet, not everything is art.”
Yes, that’s what I mean as well.
Nevertheless I have found in my life an almost linear spectrum of personal ‘needs’ that informs perspective between the idea of the need for closure and correct path and objectivity, and consideration and mutlifacetness and subjectivity. These are not, as sometimes argued, matters of levels of intelligence but more often emotional and psychological needs for how to react to the confusing and ambiguous world around us.
Brilliant contribution, DiB. This points incredibly clearly to both the individual interpretation of a work of art and also where people with similar viewpoints come together to an “agreed upon” interpretation, based on their perception of the world.
When I was a child I was very dismissive of abstract art. I wanted everything defined, realism was IT for me. Children, while in touch with their “looser” side, need and are taught structure before everything else.
As I grew older, the limitations of a “closed” view were stifling to me. Then my mind opened to other ways of perceiving and understanding things, and I was finally able to appreciate things of a non-realistic nature.
(and by non-realistic I’ll say “abstract” — this is purely related to visual art)
“How do we know when the meaning is mostly coming from the viewer—i.e., a fabrication—and when it’s legitimately coming from a film?”
Why, by having the film watched without a viewer present, of course (see what I’m saying?).
I get what you’re trying to do with this sort of distinction, but beyond some common sense generalities, it’s a line that should only be drawn in pencil. If someone told me that Bambi was about the Kennedy assassination, than, yeah, that’s more a hallucination than a reading of the film, but interpretation is work + viewer.
How about if Top Gun is about homosexuality?
This snark reading being simultaneously a jab at Top Gun and the people involved (Tom Cruise, Tony Scott, the 80s kitsch in general….) and also Pop Freudian analysis (and in a sense a very Tarantino-y anti-intellectual statement against academic readings of film that engage in this type of analysis) does illustrate a different point in context to this debate, that if Top Gun was intentionally about homosexuality, it relies too much on the viewer to be so. It can only subversively be about homosexuality (hence the Tarantino clip from that one movie), which means that the way that operates is by the audience reclaiming those values and readings based on a subtext Scott delivered ostensibly under the eye of studio scrutiny cum hegemonic censorship.
In other words, if Tony Scott really just wanted to make a movie about homosexuality, he should just make a movie about homosexuality, meaning that the reading of Top Gun as being ‘about’ homosexuality is just a done gone incorrect reading unless Scott was attempting a subversive subtext, which would be have to be isolated or backed up by outside sourcework in order to ‘prove.’ It doesn’t matter that the reading of Top Gun as being about homosexuality is logical following the method it uses — mise-en-scene, double-entendre, and a willingness for a sense of humor.
Now let’s say a filmmaker intentionally states that there is some subversive meaning in his or her work, but refuses to state what it is because it is up to the audience to deliver that meaning. Is the filmmaker using that relationship of work + viewer to give more value to the coming-into-understanding of the work, or just being deliberately obtuse to make his or her work seem more intelligent than it is? This issue will always be difficult to determine. And many filmmakers willfully resist defining the ‘meaning’ of the work because they simply don’t like to, which means sure, the audience has the freedom to define the work for themselves, but also begs the question of whether there’s value in that when there was no definition intended in the first place? Does it matter to play the clues game of Mulholland Dr when Lynch himself is uninterested in the conversation of what the movie is ‘about’? Why should the audience do all the work for him?
To throw more monkey wrenches in the gears, from the flip side there’s also the work that is clearly intentionally providing a standard meaning, but that meaning itself may be deconstructed either through errors or other logical readings, to indicate that maybe DePalma intended for Tony Montano to be an anti-hero, but nevertheless from the glamor of his production value managed to turn him into a hero, for which DePalma deserves at least a little criticism for the idolatry that movie has inspired. The movie is ‘poor’ as regards its failure to live up to its intentions to present an antihero, but it’s still considered ‘great’ and ‘a classic’ because of what the audience ultimately ended up receiving. In this case the audience has done all the work in regards to cult appreciation, and have no reason to complain that the meaning was obfuscated.
Well, yeah, certainly it’s possible to focus too much on the subtext of a film . . .
or that of a given star’s persona . . .
What if someone saw the whale in Werckmeister Harmonies as the Christ figure…Jazzzzzzzzz?
Oh man… LOL
Odi said, When I was a child I was very dismissive of abstract art. I wanted everything defined, realism was IT for me. Children, while in touch with their “looser” side, need and are taught structure before everything else.
This touches on something slightly different, namely the way the mindset of the viewer can prevent the viewer from really understanding the work. When Odi was a child, abstract art would be “bad” to her or even have no meaning. But her close-mindedness probably prevented her from “getting” the meaning more than the artwork not having any meaning. This is an important factor, but it’s not completely related to the thread.
So, what are the limits? Can we talk about them? (I haven’t read your analysis of Top Gun yet.)
Hahaha. Christian cinephiles tend to see Christ figures in a lot of things, but I’m ready to back that reading up. So anytime you’re ready Robert. :)
Yeah, but I’ve acknowledged the necessity for someone to interpret the art. You seem to agree that there are limits to an interpretation—i.e., there is such a thing as a valid interpretation and an invalid one. The question, how do we know this? Can we talk about this in general terms, or must we always talk about specifics? If we took on the specific examples of invalid and valid interpretations, couldn’t we identify common traits and thereby derive principles?
I think every film needs to say a little something in the beginning to give us a push. If it leaves you hanging right as is starts there isn’t anything to learn. You may think you learned something, but maybe the director had no intention of the film meaning anything.
“If we took on the specific examples of invalid and valid interpretations, couldn’t we identify common traits and thereby derive principles?”
I would think not, actually—various schools of criticism have tried to codify critical “validity” for hundreds of years now and I’m not aware of one that’s satisfactory as an all-purpose tool. The relationship between work and interpretation is more like lock and key—it’s like someone handed you a big ol’ ring of keys and you just have to keep trying ’em in the lock until you find one that fits.
Jazz — my response regarding me as a child and me later was related to the above that DiB said. It is related because it has to do with perception and expectation of meaning. And some people cling to that feeling of security so emphasized in childhood into their later years. Which is why they have trouble with art that may not seem to have a meaning that they can easily grasp. Or that it MUST have a meaning that can be articulated at all.
The other point being that “meaning” can be highly subjective, and there may not be a “true” interpretation of the work at all. That doesn’t mean that the work has no value. But to someone who finds it baffling and impossible to comprehend, they may say that it has “no meaning” because they could not understand it. What that comes down to is what is going on in the viewer’s head, and again, the idea that art is an interactive experience.
“So, what are the limits? Can we talk about them? (I haven’t read your analysis of Top Gun yet.)”
Not my interpretation. A popular interpretation bandied around like a joke or other Internet meme. I am not sure if that one scene with Tarantino that I was alluding to and Matt was kind enough to post is where it originated or if it was written for that scene as an already recurrent joke, but I would recommend you watch the clip to hear how Tarantino breaks it down.
“If we took on the specific examples of invalid and valid interpretations, couldn’t we identify common traits and thereby derive principles?” : I would think not, actually…
Langer wasn’t taken too seriously, but a structured approach based on a totality supported by the internal dynamics might be a starting point.
I’ll have to think about that last analogy to see if I agree or not, but I have a hard time accepting that we can identify common traits or principles that would help us distinguish a valid interpretation from an invalid one. For example, the more examples and aspects of a film that one can use to support an interpretation, the more valid the interpretation—or at least I would think this the case. Of course, the way the person uses evidence from the film has to make sense and others have to find the argument compelling. That’s not precise, but it’s a start.
my response regarding me as a child and me later was related to the above that DiB said. It is related because it has to do with perception and expectation of meaning. And some people cling to that feeling of security so emphasized in childhood into their later years. Which is why they have trouble with art that may not seem to have a meaning that they can easily grasp. Or that it MUST have a meaning that can be articulated at all.
Well, I think DiB’s comments and your response relates to art and meaning—but in this thread, I wanted to know if we could determine if an interpretation is pure fabrication from a valid interpretation. Or is there a connection I’m not seeing?
The other point being that “meaning” can be highly subjective, and there may not be a “true” interpretation of the work at all.
Not “true,” but would you say there is always a “valid” interpretation? For films or art that have ineffable meanings—that is, something that is felt more than something that can be explained—I think that feeling can be considered the film’s meaning.
But to someone who finds it baffling and impossible to comprehend, they may say that it has “no meaning” because they could not understand it. What that comes down to is what is going on in the viewer’s head, and again, the idea that art is an interactive experience.
Well, the person could be at “fault”—i.e., the “blame” is on the viewer for not getting the meaning. But the “blame” could also be on the art. If the latter isn’t true, then I would think there’s no such thing as “bad art.”
but in this thread, I wanted to know if we could determine if an interpretation is pure fabrication from a valid interpretation.
Ok, the title of the thread is whether a viewer is doing too much work to understand a film. This implies that there is no meaning. That the film is like The Emperor’s New Clothes, and the filmmaker a trickster. How on earth can one know that without asking the filmmaker if he was just pulling a fast one? So if you can’t ask, you have to guess. If you think about the world one way, or approach the world of the film in a way that is not open to whatever is a “valid” i.e. plausible interpretation, isn’t it like the child who cannot understand abstract art because they only see validity in realistic art? Still, the child thinks the interpretation is valid, i.e. the artist is pulling a fast one, because she can’t ask the artist what on earth were they thinking. Does that make her interpretation pure fabrication? How can we really know without the input of the artist? And if other people think like her, then what — their view becomes the valid interpretation because why? No reason other than that they agree with her.
Do you see the problem of “validity” in interpretation? Kind of murky, isn’t it?
All films are equally reliant on the viewer for them to work or not work; this is because the viewer is completely reliant on him/herself when viewing ANY given film. There’s no “more” or “less” beyond that which we individually create. Too much reliance on the viewer, or too little reliance on the viewer? This isn’t a factor I consider. Difficult and simplistic films exist, but the matter of films relying on me to varying degrees is a false issue. This isn’t a question of simplicity or complexity, easy narratives or labyrinthine ones. It doesn’t matter if it’s Animal House or Inland Empire.“Making the film work”, is a matter of the viewer relying on him or herself, not the the film or filmmaker relying on the viewer to “make it work”; the film is simply there, and the filmmaker has done all his work once he has finished making the film. We are not “doing the work for the film/filmmaker” who is somehow “relying on us”; we’re doing the work for ourselves, if we wish to do so, out of completely personal feelings that make us engage or not engage with a given work. The questions then become “Is this film, to me, worth watching? Is this film worth delving into deeper? Is this film worth rewatching 15 times? How much do I choose to analyze and ponder this film. Or not analyze, and simply forget it”. The whole idea of blaming or critisizing a work of art because it is “too reliant” on me, the viewer, is juuuuust silly. There are many reasons I can dislike a film; “the film was too reliant on me to make it work”, is not going to be one of those reasons, because it is not a reason. We rely on ourselves when viewing any film, we don’t rely on the film we are viewing. The ONLY thing a film viewer “relies” on are the filmmakers out there making films for them to view. I may hate a very simplistic film that was very easy to understand. I may love a very complex film that I have to grapple with multiple times to increase my comprehension of it. There’s not too much or too little, in terms of reliance. There are just too many people, too many unique film experiences, for such divisions to have any real important meaning.
.“Making the film work”, is a matter of the viewer relying on him or herself, not the the film or filmmaker relying on the viewer to “make it work”; the film is simply there, and the filmmaker has done all his work once he has finished making the film.
And TheArshman, I agree with you completely.
That the film is like The Emperor’s New Clothes, and the filmmaker a trickster. How on earth can one know that without asking the filmmaker if he was just pulling a fast one? So if you can’t ask, you have to guess.
We may never know the true intentions of the filmmaker, but we can determine if the film is good or not—or at least we can make a case for this judgment, right? If we determine the film isn’t any good, there may be instances when we can infer if the Emperor had any clothes or not—at least that’s what I think.
If you think about the world one way, or approach the world of the film in a way that is not open to whatever is a “valid” i.e. plausible interpretation, isn’t it like the child who cannot understand abstract art because they only see validity in realistic art?
That is a possibility. But surely you’re not saying that all interpretations are valid? What about Matt’s example of Bambi being about the Kennedy assassination? That may seem like a ridiculous example, but it does make the point that not all interpretations are valid. The question is, how do we know which ones are invalid? And when this occurs?
Still, the child thinks the interpretation is valid, i.e. the artist is pulling a fast one, because she can’t ask the artist what on earth were they thinking. Does that make her interpretation pure fabrication? How can we really know without the input of the artist?
Can’t we scrutinize the basis for her interpretation and see if it passes muster or not? What does “passing muster” mean? To me, a strong interpretation would be based on many examples from the film. These examples include specific scenes or moments; the way these scenes and moments fit together; various aspects of filmmaking like, cinematography, sound, etc. and the way these elements support the interpretation or not. We could also examine if the interpretation does a good job of explaining specific scenes or aspects of the film that might be confusing. If the person cannot provide reasons for his interpretation, we could try to construct one. We could also offer an alternative that might better explain the film. If we can do these things—and I no see no reason we can’t, if we’re willing—then we can see if the interpretation is a fabrication or not. What do you think about that?
how do we know which ones are invalid?
Much like films, interpretations of them have to themselves be interpreted. So there’s no telling if an interpretation of an interpretation is valid or not. You say Bambi being about the Kennedy assassination is ridiculous, but I say it’s insightful. I think that interpretations are completely subjective.
People tend to agree with interpretations that are plausible given the scope of the film, and that use specific examples in a convincing way. (“convincing” here being another subjective term)
It’s all subjective, and that’s what’s so fun about it!
^ This is what I’m trying to say — thanks DFFOO! :)
I suspect we might be thinking of “reliance” (and possibility some other terms) in a slightly different way. It sounds like you’re referring mainly to whether a viewer responds favorably to a film or not—whether a film is interesting or boring. If so, I would agree that this depends a lot on the viewer. (I do think the film and filmmaker have some level of impact on this—at least if we speak in generalities. For example, I think we could say that films with good stories will be (more) interesting, in a way that films that eschew narratives will not.)
However, what I’m speaking about is meaning of the film—specifically the diffculty or ease of understanding the movie. In this way, I think “getting” Animal House is a lot easier than “getting” Inland Empire." The latter depends on more active participation from the viewer—specifically in terms of constructing and understanding the film. My feeling is that *Animal House doesn’t depend on a “constructed meaning” in the same way that Inland Empire does. Now, in the case of the latter, the film could be a fraud or great art—or something in between. See what I mean? I’m sure we’ve all experienced films that depend on an interpretation for it to be good or meaningful. How do we know when this interpretation is valid or not? That’s what I was trying to discuss.