Not to repeat the refrain from an earlier argument, but I too bristle at the idea that it is even possible to “read to much into a film.” Implicit in that argument is that there is, at best, only a finite number of meanings contained in a film, or any cultural product, and that some of those meanings are somehow “better” than others. I think these kinds of ideas are attributable to pervasive, often unconscious (in a cognitive, not psychoanalytic, sense), cultural beliefs that arise from our bodily interaction with our environment and are expressed via image schemata, which in turn, are expressed metaphorically. I am specifically thinking of the various uses of the container schemata and the conduit schemata.
The container schemata has several important components: the container schemata, is in effect a bounded space (whether this space is physical, mental, or imaginary, the container schemata can be extended metaphorically to many of these cases), containing an inside, an outside, and a boundary; further, this kind of basic structure, gives rise to the in-out orientations (as well as spatial approximations relative to the boundary). Image schemata like the container schema arise naturally through our bodily experience and with our interaction with the world, extending from a rudimentary grounding in the experiences of our own body, to physically bounded spaces, to even more abstract mental spaces (which are elaborated by metaphorically extending the idea of bounded physical spaces to the mental spaces, which aren’t literally bounded, or even have to exist). The very phrase “reading to much into
the film,” makes no literal sense, though it’s meaning is perfectly clear, X
idea arises from outside the film, not from inside the film. Even if we do not consciously think of the container schemata when we make this statement, and most of us do not, the idea still holds, as the in-out orientation only makes sense when we think in terms of a bounded space. Just think about how pervasive container schemata are, not only in terms of our everyday life, but in our experience of watching film:
The bad acting drew me out
of the story.
I got lost in
The colors seemed to burst out
of the screen.
Not only do we think of the diegetic world as a container, thus giving rise to the perfectly rational belief in the separation of the story world from the real world, but we also use it to differentiate between the physical screen and the rest of the theater, for example.
The conduit metaphor, which is actually a more complex structure that we often use to characterize communication, even if it is somewhat misleading. In the conduit metaphor structure, the ideas are objects, the sentences are containers, and the communication is sending. We “gather” our ideas to “put” them “into” words, and if our verbiage is not “empty” or “hollow,” we might “convey” of “get” these ideas “across” “to” a listener, who can “unpack” our words to “extract” their “content.” By substituting the metaphor film is a container, for sentences are containers, we can see how this conduit metaphor can be extended to our ideas concerning the interpretation of film. An unfortunately entailment of this metaphor is that it preserves the stereotypically version of communication as essentially a one-way process with the sender encoding a message and sending it to a listener/viewer to be decoded, instead of what it is more likely to be, a two-way, multichannel interaction.
In the model of spectatorship that I propose, we must purge ourselves of the conduit metaphor, because what I am proposing is a multifaceted interaction with the art object. We as spectators perform multiple operations upon the art object, some of which are conscious, many of which are unconscious. We don’t even a true “sender,” all we have is a constructed, often historically contingent (though many of these historical contingencies are based upon the shared biology and physical environment), hypothetical sender (truly, we don’t even need a “sender,” “communicator,” or “narrator” in the proper sense, as I think David Bordwell as demonstrated on many occasions, however, humans have another pervasive reasoning structure, we create ontological metaphors to personify abstract concepts, such as “ideas are object” or, in a technical sense, “the process of narration is comprehended as a person,” something that is made quite explicit in literary works that can not escape tense) which may bear little or no resemblance to the actual creator(s) of a work; their intentions, while interesting in their own right, do not have to factor in on our hypothetical set of intentions that we attribute to our constructed narrator. Though I know the complexities of film-making, etc., etc. I still utilize an auteurist model (as most critics do when talking about films, even if they don’t necessarily attribute the auteur to the director, it can be collectivized, etc.) because the auteur is a useful organizing principle. I don’t think the auteur literally exists as I characterize him/her, though their may be intersections, as VF Perkins noted, the auteur is a critical construct. When I talk of Spielberg in my review of Minority Report
, I don’t mean that the man Steven Spielberg literally put everything I write about into his movie; “Spielberg” is a critical construct, a metaphorical structure that I use to reason and argue about the movie.
So what is an interpretation from my view? It is the interaction of a physical, art object, with definite, tangible characteristics (most studies that I have read have shown a remarkable agreement among spectators/viewers/readers in terms of such things as information parsing and emotional effects, even cross-culturally), in a common, physical environment, with my embodied mind, which in turn was shaped by that same physical environment, a common biology (developed via evolution, and giving rise to human universals, especially at the macro-level; also this common biology also, somewhat paradoxically, gives rise to subjective qualia), a common cultural repository, and a more specific, personal, experiential history. There literally is no meaning in the art object without the interaction of the spectator in it’s environment. I also think there are multiple acts of interpretation occurring parallel with one another. Comprehension at both a local and global level requires interpretation, both of the events as they unfold, and as they are constructed and reconstructed in the memory. Perhaps this should be called first-order interpretation. The kind of interpretation that we often engage upon here is in effect a refinement, a creative reworking of our first-order interpretations, it is in fact an act almost separate from the viewing of the actual art object (for a more jaundiced view of this kind of creative reworking in the context of post-war, American vanguard film culture, see Greg Taylor’s book Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism
). Then of course, these second-order interpretations build back into our embodied minds, and affect subsequent viewings of the film, very much like a feed back loop.
Just one final note. When we speak of ideas like movies that are “integrated,” “unified,” “implicit” or “understated,” we speaking of culturally specific values, set and maintained by a community, and are not objective criteria.