By Popcorn Philosophy
I’m currently in my second semester of my sophomore year at film school, and I haven’t really taken any film studies classes until now. My freshmen year I took an Italian film class and the professor focused on discussing films with a broad lens, mainly concerned with the cultural, social, and artistic causes and effects of a film. He analyzed film as a conversation, with every Italian film in some way responding to and building on the country’s artistic output. While I found this approach maybe a little idealistic, I really enjoyed looking at films that way, and personally it really helped me contextualize and understand the impact of a lot of classic films. This semester however I’ve had some different film studies professors, who I’ve quickly realized approach film analysis and discourse in a much different light.
My new professors seem more focused on “close reading” of films. Every pan, angle, door frame, cut, and lens flare are, according to their interpretations, intentional decisions made by auteur geniuses. Now before I continue I need to get a few things out of the way first: I am by no means at their level in terms of academic prowess, knowledge, or experience with film studies, so I don’t want this section of the post to come off as me pretending to know more than them or to criticize them for matters I’m not well versed in myself. This is all my personal opinion, however when I have a professor say that a shot looks “violent” because a ceiling beam in the background appears to be “cutting the head off” of the main character, I start to question a few things. Isn’t it entirely possible that the director just filmed that scene and there happened to be a beam in the background? It’s an Italian neorealist film, it was filmed on location, so it’s not like the director had the beam built for that purpose. This train of thought however brought me to a crucial question: does it matter? If the director didn’t intend for that beam to “cut off his head” in the background, does it matter that this is the way my professor is analyzing it? What if he did? Does it matter that I’m not interpreting it that way?
The Pararasite Dilemma
I’ve devised a hypothetical scenario that I think perfectly explains this question I’m talking about. So, what would happen if Bong Joon-ho came out today and said he intended Parasite to be an allegory for STDs? Obviously this isn’t the case, and it’s quite obvious what Bong Joon-ho’s intentions were, but let’s just say he writes an essay explaining why he meant for Parasite to be received as a harrowing cautionary and allegorical tale about the dangers of unprotected sex. What would happen to all the scholarly research and analysis discussing Parasite’s anti-capitalistic messages? Surely they wouldn’t be rendered useless but I’m sure a lot of people would dismiss them. What about all the people that watched and loved Parasite for it’s bold denouncement of western economics? Would their admiration cease with this revelation? Maybe this is a bit extreme but do you think some Oscar voters would regret picking Parasite? While this is an outlandish proposition admittedly, it does help frame my central question: how much does artistic intent matter in relation to analysis, whether it be scholarly or not? In other words, would Bong Joon-ho’s revelatory essay even matter?
When writers/directors are working on a script, a large majority of them have a specific message in mind. In fact, it’s even taught that young filmmakers need to have their film’s central message in mind when starting their script. Very few filmmakers genuinely start filming without knowing what their film is about, those that do are avant garde directors or pseudo intellectual phonies, but that’s besides the point. Either way, the majority of filmmakers have a specific vision for their narrative and for the story they are telling. So, it makes sense that when we analyze their films, we should do so while keeping in mind what they intended right? Well, there’s the problem, some directors don’t reveal their intentions (i.e David Lynch). I found a really interesting quote from Kubrick that describes this situation perfectly. Kubrick said “how could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: ‘The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.’ This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don’t want this to happen to 2001.”
It’s interesting that Kubrick says “reality”, because to me he’s implying that the “reality” of the artwork is only known by the artist. This theory would support the notion that the intent of the filmmaker is more important than the analysis of the viewer, however in the context of this quote Kubrick warns that this “reality” shouldn’t be readily available to the audience, which seemingly suggests the audience is responsible for forming their own reality behind the piece. This quote fascinated me primarily because Kubrick was known as a perfectionist, yet he seems so open to the idea of ambiguity and interpretations. Obviously he can’t control what the viewer thinks, but Kubrick could’ve just released a lengthy breakdown and analysis of his own films after releasing them, that way other interpretations would be held with less regard, but of course he didn’t, because has he said, he didn’t want to “shackle the viewer to [his own] reality.”
Now, I think the argument can be made that Kubrick’s films aren’t quite as abstract as other directors. While 2001: A Space Odyssey is notoriously confusing at the end, the vast majority of his films (at least narratively) seem straight forward. I was curious what experimental or “poetic” directors would have to say on the subject, seeing as though their films often live and die on analysis alone. Federico Fellini has quite a few interesting quotes that pertain to this discussion, but I think the most pertinent one is when he said: “I don’t like the idea of “understanding” a film. I don’t believe that rational understanding is an essential element in the reception of any work of art. Either a film has something to say to you or it hasn’t. If you are moved by it, you don’t need it explained to you. If not, no explanation can make you moved by it.” This quotation to me sounds like a resounding endorsement for the idea that individual analysis is the only thing that matters when discussing films. Similarly, Andrei Tarkovsky once wrote “a book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books.” And most recently Quentin Tarantino agreed with Tarkovsky and Fellini’s perspectives, saying “if a million people see my movie, I hope they see a million different movies.” So, clearly these directors believe that art exists and thrives with the viewers personal interpretation.
Now, I think I’ve discussed subjectivity in probably every PPDD to some extent, I’m sure for those that read these, anytime you see me say “subjectivity” you want to slam your head into a wall. So instead, I’m going to skip that section, I’m sure we all understand art is subjective and usually relies on the viewer for meaning.
So instead, I want the question of intent vs. analysis to focus on “extent.” To what extent should director intent influence critical analysis? I’m sure a lot of you believe that the second art is finalized and subsequently published, it’s released into the wild and therefore subject to any and all forms of analysis, without regard for director intent. That makes sense to me, however the form of analysis I want to examine is that of film academia. Anyone can go onto Letterboxd and claim The Little Mermaid is an allegory for the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, but I’m much more intrested in how paid “professionals” approach this conundrum. If director intent doesn’t matter, what’s the difference between a Kubrick and a Breen? Between a Nolan and a Snyder? I know anything can be interpreted any way, but I think there needs to be some type of parameters when approaching this topic.
In order to potentially discover these “rules” to intent vs. analysis, I conducted a cinematic case study examining reviews from these 5 critics: Andrew Sarris, Roger Ebert, Mark Kermode, Pauline Kael, and Dennis Overbye. More specifically, I read reviews written by these five well acclaimed film critics over the same film I mentioned previously: Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the goal of finding similar ways these reviewers considered Kubrick’s “reality.”
Perhaps it’s naive to believe classical and popular film reviewers are the bar we should all strive for, in film studies and in this case study, but I think film academia has a trickle down effect; the styles and opinions of those at the top often influence (and in some cases are replicated) by those lower. So I think it’s fair to examine these few specialized critics in order to understand everything as a whole. Here’s what I found:
While every single one of the reviews concerned itself first with telling a story, whether it be Kael’s commentary on stoners, Sarris’ disaffected bashing turning into a mold appreciation, or Overbye’s long account of the making of the film, every single one of these reviewers abided by one notable truth: something I’d like to call practical intent.
These critics took the film Kubrick made, and interpreted it their own ways, but all took into account the creative decisions Kubrick made. None of them, absolutely none of them, mention Kubrick’s singular vision for what the film should signify, instead they focused on small intentional devices he used to form their own analysis around. Ebert focused on a lot, however most prominently he pointed to Kubrick’s use of classical music and slow paced editing to form his own opinion. Kermode seemed more interested by Kubrick’s depiction of HAL, more specifically the empathy Kubrick is able to cultivate for artificial intelligence. Sarris dissects Kubrick’s brand placement, psychedelic visuals, and like Kermode, the characterization of HAL, in order to pan the film. Pauline Kael focused on the film’s vast emptiness, slow pace, and character writing as indicators of the film’s pretension and mediocrity. Finally, Overbye, certainly using some hindsight bias considering his review is the most recent, discusses the history and context surrounding the films pre production and reception to formulate his analysis.
Ok, so what does this all mean. Should intent be considered when analyzing a film, and if so, how? After reading those articles and doing some thinking, I’ve come up with four basic takeaways that I think (or hope) will clear things up and make this post somewhat worthwhile.
1. Intent isn’t Fact
The first thing to understand is that the intent of the director or filmmakers is a) usually never revealed in any way, and b) if it existed and was considered as “fact,” art would lose any and all meaning. There’s a key difference however between intent in terms of artistic vision, and what I conceived as practical intent. Practical intent consists of the creative choices made by a director, free of analysis, however often used to form a deeper understanding of a film. Practical intent in 2001: A Space Odyssey exists as the use of classical music, slow pacing, deliberate usage of wide shots. These are all clear undeniable creative decisions executed by Kubrick, and are used by others to structure their analysis.
2.Fact isn’t Analysis
Regardless of what you write, the sources you cite, or the opinions you fight, analysis is, and forever will be, opinion. While you are using observable truths from the film in order to concoct some form of formal criticism, at the end of the day film is an artform, and therefore it’s all up to individual interpretation.
3.Analysis needs Evidence
Although analysis is heavily opinionated and shouldn’t rely on director intent, there should still be enough substantial evidence to support your claims, critiques, analysis, and/or review. All of the critics used a multitude of evidence to support their interpretations, and that’s why their opinions are widely respected and considered.
4.Evidence isn’t Intent
Finally, I think it’s important to understand the evidence they used, which was a mixture of undeniable truths (historical context, stories about pre production and reception, director quotes, etc.) and what they perceived to be the director’s intent and therefore their own unique analysis. These are the two elements that seem to structure most critical readings for films.
Now that I’ve concluded my very lengthy and arguably somewhat common sense exploration into intent vs. analysis, I want to circle back around to the Parasite Dilemma. The original question I asked was: what would happen? The answer: probably nothing. The practical intentions made by Bong Joon-ho are tools for analysis, they help everyone frame their own deeper understanding for the film. Announcing that his greater thematic intent was different doesn’t change the creative choices he made, therefore it can’t and shouldn’t change the way the film is perceived.
I think this is the original problem I ran into with my film professor, they relied on what they assumed to be the director’s intent, rather than their own analysis. It seems there’s a certain group in film academia that is terrified to use first person, to say “I think it’s this…” or “I interpret this as…”, perhaps out of fear of seeming unprofessional or that their points are insubstantial. The common misconception among younger people studying film is that if someone says “the director did this” or “the director did that” then it’s inherently correct and not up for debate. I don’t think that should be the case, and to be frank I think that severely hinders a lot of people from drawing their own conclusions. I’ll end with this, I think this superficiality in some areas of film studies is perfectly summed up by no other than Werner Herzog, who famously said “academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion. Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates.”