This issue came to a head for me in the thread on Another Year. I was pretty shocked by Mike Leigh’s comments about his film, which, imo, seemed really different from my understanding of the film. Anyway, In my (limited) experience, I’m surprised by the interpretations and understanding a director has of his/her film. I don’t necessarily think the director is “wrong” about his/her films, but I often feel like what they say diminishes my initial impression of the film.
I’m wondering who are some of the directors that seem to understand their films the most or the least? And how well do you think directors understand their own work? Is there a correlation between the director’s understanding of the film and the film’s quality?
i quite liked gaspar noe’s assessment of Enter the Void.
someone apparently put it to him that he’d crafted this adaptation of the core of the tibetan book of the dead and was making this grand philosophical exploration of blah blah blah and his response was to clarify that he’d made a movie about what a dumb stoner who’s been reading the book of the dead thinks he sees when he gets shot for being dumb.
Lol! Like that too!
The best thing a director can do it tell you what they were trying to do – intent.
Buñuel is one of the most misinterpreted directors by critics, but I’m pretty sure he, and all the other directors know the meaning of their stories before they direct it.
I met Richard Kelly at an early screening of Donnie Darko back in summer of 2001. I remember asking him questions about the representation of temporal space and its relation to the female characters in particular, for these were the most fascinating aspects of the film for me. He seemed to be somewhat flattered by my assessments, but ultimately shrugged them off, stating, “But don’t you think it’s REALLY cool that it’s like the start of a super-hero story!!!,” like some gape-mouthed fanboy. It was at this moment that I started to think that the movie might have turned out better than it should have. Upon seeing the director’s cut and his subsequent work, I think THAT assessment was pretty dead on.
“…I’m pretty sure he, and all the other directors know the meaning of their stories before they direct it.”
Well, it depends on what you mean by “meaning of their stories.” I think directors have some level of understanding of their films, but I don’t think they have a complete understanding of their film; at least I don’t think directors are fully conscious of the meaning of the film or they’re not able to articulate the meaning of the film. Then again, I’m not an artist, so I don’t know.
@Johnny — that’s hilarious.
@Jazz — I think that some people are good at articulating what they were trying to do with their work, and others aren’t. Ultimately, once a work of art is “out there,” unless it’s propaganda and the intent and message are VERY clear, the viewers become participants in the intepretation of the work and therefore add something to it by the varieties of those interpretations. Ultimately to me, the most interesting work of art is one that can be intepreted on many levels, and not all those levels can be really anticipated by the creator.
So yes, there are, can, and should be legitimate intepretations of a film that are made by people other than the person who created it. And that person may not have an idea at the time of creation how many or varied these can be. Those new interpretations may not ultimately be important to the creator of a work, what matters at the time of creation is getting HIS/HER message out, and that can’t possibly encompass others’ views of it after it is created. But it doesn’t mean he/she has no good idea of what their work is about, it’s just that they only know what THEY were after.
I hope that all made sense… I feel rambly today…
The answer to this question depends largely on the director in question.
That said, I do believe that when artists create, they use their conscience and their sub-conscience. This means that they will put things into their films that they didn’t intend in a conscious way. In turn, this means that all a director can do is tell you about his/her intent (conscious). Some directors may be more aware than others.
Of course, you always have someone who plays coy and states they aren’t aware of ANY underlying themes in their films (Godard is probably the most famous in doing this). I always love when John Waters swears that there was never any intended political content in his movies. Of course, for him to comment on it would play against the image he has so expertly cultivated. It would also take the piss out of it all.
Johnny brings up a good point. Many directors play with the press. Godard is a classic example, and so is Ford. Depending on the director, we might want to take what they have to say with a grain of salt.
An artist may play games with the press/interviewers because they don’t really want to talk about their work in depth (privacy figures in). And because they are by nature mischievous…! :)
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Harmony Korine’s persona is a total sham!
they don’t really want to talk about their work in depth
Reminds me of Wenders interviewing Herzog in Tokyo Ga.
I can’t remember exactly what Herzog said – something about “there are no more transparent images except maybe on the moon” – Wenders just silently held the camera on him, which made Werner look like a nutter.
Imagine that, Werner looking like a nutter….
Lol! They were playing games with each other.
Odi said, “Ultimately to me, the most interesting work of art is one that can be intepreted on many levels, and not all those levels can be really anticipated by the creator.”
Right. And think about a work of art which is limited to the interpretation and understanding of the artist. That kind of art doesn’t sound appealing to me, only because it probably will be limited and interesting. Certainly, it won’t have an element of mystery and the ineffable that many great works of art possess. There is more that an artist (or anyone) doesn’t know, than knows. So if the work encompasses that which the artist doesn’t know or understand, it has a better chance of being more interesting (given that the artist has talent and skill). If I made a film and I understood every aspect of it, I don’t think I’d be very happy.
I really don’t think about people comprehending my work when I make it. I’m just intent on expression. I make it, and then that’s it. I rest. I leave it to others to see what they see. Sometimes, I don’t even remember what it was that I was feeling when I made it, other than something rather vague. That wouldn’t be helpful to an interviewer. You experience something while you’re making it that is not really able to be captured by anything material, but you do your best. Nothing anyone makes can literally breathe, unfortunately. But if you leave it open-ended enough in terms of interpretation, it can give the illusion that it lives. It’s an echo, a memory, of what was going on at the time of creation. If that echo is heard far and is distorted depending on whose head it’s in, then it has a life of its own.
Odi said, “But if you leave it open-ended enough in terms of interpretation,…”
I’m wondering if you do this intentionally/consciously or just something that happens automatically.
Also, do you think your attitude (what you expressed in the above post) would change if you made a more conventional feature length film (versus short films)?
You must be sure people will understand your work when you are spending millions in it!
Well I can only speak for myself, Jazz. When I paint (or enamel), I do so in an abstract style. My style of working is consistent across the media that I use. That is to say, it reveals some things, and obscures other things.
I think that if I made narrative style films, as opposed to the kind of “film poetry” (for lack of a better term) that I do now, I would still use a similar technique and intent. I like mystery.
@Santropez — certainly if you spend money, you must make it back! :) Poets generally don’t make money, and I think my attitude toward my work is that I’m in it for spiritual and personal reasons, and few ever find compensation for appreciation of that in terms of cold, hard cash. And I’m ok with that. And it’s freeing to do your art exactly the way you feel you were meant to do it. I’d hate to do it any other way, one has to submit to the rules of life in this society enough, at least enough for me.
“You must be sure people will understand your work when you are spending millions in it!”
Right, but even in these situations I don’t think a filmmaker has to be entirely conscious of the film’s meaning (certainly not all of it). What I’m suggesting is that a filmmaker can intuit or sense what will work, more than be fully aware and able to articulate a film’s meaning. This ability to intuit what is true and what will work is really important for an artist or filmmaker, imo, but having this ability does not mean an artist can fully articulate the meaning of the film.
I thought your work might have been more on the abstract side, so I just wondered if it became more concrete (as in a conventional narrative), if you would have more specific and concrete feelings and opinions about the film.
@Jazz — I guess I could stretch myself to do something like that. But I wouldn’t like it much. And therefore, I’m not sure how good I’d be at that style of film, because I’d be such a reluctant participant. :) Honestly it’s really hard for me to imagine that well enough to form a credible opinion, because I’m just not that kind of filmmaker.
Anyone out there polar opposite of my style who can address that question for Jazz?
I watched an interview with Akira Kurosawa where he was asked why he shot a scene a partiuclar way and what his intention was. His reply went something like, “If I understood why I shot this, I wouldn’t of done it in the first place.”
I think there are very few directors that can speak well enough about their work without reducing it. It’s all up there on the screen. Sure, they make decisions on a conscious and sub-conscious level. It’s not uncommon for critics to highlight ideas the director is unaware of. I hear this constantly on Elvis Mitchell’s show In Treatment. However, when a director reduces his work to a concrete explanation, they run the risk of ruining the illusion of cinema. It suddenly becomes less interesting, and people move on. Isn’t that part of the reason why David Lynch hates audio commentary on DVD releases?
@Ben — I think that’s what I was talking about when I said that some artists just don’t like to talk about their work. When someone prefers to work in a visual medium (and I’m not reducing film to just that but it IS a big element of it), part of the reason they may do it is because they don’t WANT to spell it all out. This is one of the things I have difficulty with in terms of relating to visual art that is more idea than something you’re seeing. To me, something like that is no longer visual art, it’s some other kind of art. To do something visual that is convincing, I think you have to have faith in that way of communicating — i.e. USE it.
But this has little to do with film, I suppose. Maybe filmmakers are the only group left that has faith in the visual as a powerful tool of communication, and are able to utilize it in a way that continues to be fresh (or has the potential to be) — or at least continues to capture the imagination of the public.
I think there are very few directors that can speak well enough about their work without reducing it
indeed, that’s why I rarely listen to them
Ha! Love it. :)
pretty absurd things said here. artists create meaning and imprint it in their work, not more nor less. if you see more meaning than the artist did, then you are not going in the same direction as the artist wanted you to, and you’re creating more meaning that’s not a part of the work. it’s stupid to think that an artist could say “oh, i made this, but i don’t really get it”.
But here’s a question: when should one pay attention to what a director says?
For me, I think listening to a director speak about their overall approach to filmmaking and the ideas and issues they care about the most are two things that are worth paying attention to imo.
@The Stunner — of course an artist understands something about what they make. What Jazz is getting at is that people may see something about what they made that they did not see. Is that true? Perhaps, perhaps not. I doubt that someone could go in exactly the same direction as I am going in when I make something, why should I put that burden on them? Why do I really care if they interpret my work in a very different way than I do? I’d only object if they said that their interpretation trumps my intent. It’s really not that big a deal, at least not to me. If you want to see monsters in my abstract paintings, enjoy yourself. Everyone’s welcome to use their own imagination and interpretation — that’s all it is, after all. It ain’t the Holy Truth.
@Jazz — I like listening to process most. One of the most interesting things I saw was a little documentary about Agnes Varda and how she made Cleo from 5 to 7. She spoke about this little book she carried around with her thoughts about the film, almost like a diary, and a particular painting of death stealing up on a maiden (it looked medieval, if I recall correctly) that inspired her so much she taped it to a column on the set (Cleo’s bedroom) to look at now and then while filming (or not). This told me a lot not only about how Varda felt about the film, but also how she puts together her ideas and makes them come alive. Love listening to any artist talk about process. And I think most of them are willing to give that much when an interviewer comes knocking.
The Stunner said, “It’s stupid to think that an artist could say, ‘Oh, I made this, but I really don’t get it.’”
I don’t know. When I’ve listened to filmmakers speak about specific films, they’re not always the most articulate; they occasionally fumble around as if they “really don’t get it.” But that doesn’t speak badly of them—in fact, just the opposite, imo. I think filmmaking—and the creation of art in general—is not a strictly rational endeavor. Maybe this is over-romanticizing the creative process, but I think great art often taps into something beyond the understanding of the creator. (In fact, I’m pretty sure this is the case.)
Overall approach=process, I think—i.e. we’re on the same page. :)