Thursday, August 25, 2011

Experience, Interpretation and Film

Please watch this video:

Most of what Paul Bloom says here is familiar to me, having read it or having been portrayed in films I have watched.  Check out F is for Fake and My Kid Could Paint That for lengthier versions of a couple of the stories.

What was striking to me was his point that what is significant in the aesthetic is what we consider to be the "essence" of the art.  Origin narratives, vision of the artist, "cooties", what have you.   And I think a number of the arguments we have between film critics as to the excellence of a film has to do with what we consider their "essence", or the significance of the film itself.

But what I note is that, in the end, the reality of "essence" does not, in fact, exist.  Sure, we can see whether a film is using certain cameras, that it has certain themes, that some actors starred in it, or had a particular director.  But these facts are simply details that we use to support our idea of it's essence.  But the essence of the idea does not exist in the film itself, nor in the director's notes of the film, but in our imagination, in our beliefs.   A film is only good to us because we believe it is good, because we see something in the film that may be there, but only we would give it that value, or something that isn't there at all, but it is significant to us, nevertheless.

Thus, to write a review is not to declare a film "good" or "bad", but is, in the end, a reflection of our belief system.  I have a friend who attempts to distill our personalities from the list of our top 100 movies.  It's a party trick, but maybe it isn't so far off from reality.  But he might also need to have our bottom 20 to get a more rounded idea of what we believe about aesthetics.  But we should also see our reviews as personal statements, like NPR's "What I Believe" rather than journalistic statements of fact.

And what does that say about ALL of our experience? A movie is a certain kind of experience, but we interpret and give value to experiences every day.  We could say that our appendicitis is "bad" because we experienced pain, but perhaps that pain also helped us see and understand a strength or a weakness in ourselves and changed our outlook, thus it could be "good".  The person cutting us could be "bad" in a street fight, but "good" in an operating room, depending on what we see the motivation of the person is.  But we don't actually know their motivation. Perhaps the one in the street fight is trying to get us out and the surgeon is a masochist.   I'm not saying that such interpretations should be normative, but that it is our belief system that determines such interpretations, not necessarily the context.

Today I watched a film called "Kill the Poor" pretty much exclusively based on its name.  It was a better film than the name would indicate (and the title had nothing to do with the film, actually).  It is the story of a number of tenants in an apartment who had excessive judgments on one tenant based on inadequate evidence.  I kept thinking, "why are you assuming that?  You don't really know that it happened that way."  But characters in movies never listen to me.  And this is what happens with many of our experiences.  We allow interpretation to color the experience rather than experience determine the interpretation.

We do that with film as well.  I expect a certain kind of film when I watch a Eric Rohmer or a Stallone pic.  Lots of people expected something when they went to see this year's Brad Pitt/Sean Penn film.   And what we expect, or what little evidence we have colors our interpretation.  And that isn't bad.  It is what it is.  But that also means that we can't give solid value judgments on film.  I don't think I'd care for The Room, but many people gain a lot of enjoyment out of it.  We could put a value judgment of "bad" or "good" on it, but that doesn't really tell the whole story does it?  Rather, a description of our experience is the only adequate description of the film.


  1. Thank you for pointing me to that TED talk. The video, together with your further thoughts about it, really gives a lot of food for thought. For instance the issue of how we're influenced by other people's opinions. Would our reviews - or rather reflections on movies, which I prefer to think of them as - become better if we "blind tested them", like someone tastes a wine without having any idea about its origins? Probably not better, but perhaps more fair? On the other hand, the movies many times can't be seen as stand-along-pieces, there can be a meta-story, a line in the works of a director, and taking a movie out of context may make it worse than it would have been otherwise, and what's the point of that?

    Hmm... A lot to think about. I'll probably get back to it in blogpost at some point one way or another.

  2. Glad you got something out of it, Jessica.

    I think that "reviews" such as you provide can be helpful before watching a film. You speak of your own experience and how the film interacts with that. I do that sometimes as well, but I am much more involved with analysis of the film, which, again, is reflective of my own gifts and experience. But my reviews are clearly directive, and perhaps helpful after the fact, but I'd hate to have people's personal experience of a film warped because of expectations I placed in them.

    I think the meta-story of the film (director's ideas, original script, the historical story, etc), can be helpful or not, depending on the person. But it is similar to my analysis-- something that may be helpful to interpret the experience of the film, but not necessary. Some may find that their experience is inadequate without the meta story and some (like Adam and Matty) insist that the film must stand on its own. Each person must decide what the experience really is for themselves and then interpret the experience.