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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Over-interpretation?

J.P. Telotte is, for my money, a pretty good film critic (of the scholarly, academic kind). His work contains a lot of what seems like insight - e.g., I've long appreciated much of what he has to say about Forbidden Planet - but he also writes a lot of stuff that rings false for me, and seems like strained interpretation. Then again, how do we know when an interpretation is fresh and insightful as opposed to when it is strained and implausible?

Here's an example that I tend to put in the latter category. Writing about Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Telotte discusses the scene where Arnie and the T-800 choose their weaponry from Enrique's underground arms cache out in the desert. Telotte has had a fair bit to say about ideas of literal and emotional hardness, surfaces, depths (of various kinds), and so on. Then we get this passage in an endnote to the relevant chapter of his book, Replications:

We might read in this context of opening and penetration the scene in which Sarah uncovers the arsenal she has been hoarding in anticipation of the coming war with the machines. As John and the Terminator descend into the underground bunker and inspect the variety of weapons there, they discuss Sarah and the boy tries to explain - to the Terminator but more for himself - why she has all these things and why she is the way she is. It is a very literal depth analysis, a penetration beneath the hard desert surface, accompanied by an effort to penetrate the cold hard surface Sarah has cultivated.

Okaaaay. Maaaaybe... But this seems off to me: I don't think the movie is inviting us to view the descent into the bunker, or whatever it is properly called, as somehow analogous to a descent into the depths of Sarah's mind even though some discussion of her motives takes place (I must check the script to see exactly what is said, because the main thing I recall is the famous exchange, complete with Arnie's memorable grin, when the T-800 chooses a Vietnam-era mini-gun as its weapon). This seems to me like a strained reading; I want to say that Telotte is reading in something that's not there, in whatever sense "not there" has in the context of literary or cinematic interpretation. Yet, it's possible that other viewers find it plausible. It's even conceivable that the creators (James Cameron, etc.) thought of something like this. I doubt it, but I'm often surprised at the bizarre, tangential things creators say about their work, so I don't rule anything out. But even if, unlikely as it seems, Cameron had such an idea when he wrote the script, I just can't see that the scene works as Telotte describes.

Part of the trouble is the way Telotte's endnote builds interpretation on interpretation - seeing Sarah as maintaining a hard, cold surface, which is certainly one way to describe her, and then comparing her emotional and physical "hardness" with the hardness of the desert surface (something that has not been emphasised at all in the narrative or the images). So he sees Sarah's/Linda Hamilton's toned, ripped body together with her emotionally harsh treatment of John, interprets these in terms of "hardness and coldness", then sees the desert which he imagines in terms of "hardness" (somewhat oddly, I think) and then compares these two things with each other. The two characters in the scene do penetrate beneath the surface of the desert, but the film doesn't mention penetrating beneath the surface of Sarah's mind (though again, it is not far-fetched to describe some of the arc that way, as she is driven by events to show her true emotions for John). I see some of Telotte's point but the actual comparison is just too tenuous, too many steps removed from what the film presents, from its images and soundtrack.

By contrast, I totally agree with the claim that has often been made, including by Telotte - and even appears in the script as a guide to the dramatic intentions - that Sarah turns into something like a Terminator herself during this part of the movie ... and to some extent even earlier. This is never stated in an explicit way on-screen (e.g., I don't recall John ever saying something like, "Please, Mom - you're starting to act like one of them!"). But the narrative and images compel that comparison, or at least justify it if someone else points it out to us.

What do you think? Not just about the particular example but about how we can discuss such an issue rationally.

19 comments:

Kirth Gersen said...

I can sympathize with the reviewer -- as a geologist, I'm trained to look for patterns in a sea of discrete data points, and that carries over into how I look at movies, and life in general. But is the particular comparison referenced a bit of a stretch? Well, yes, even I'd agree with you there.

The thing is, it doesn't matter if it's a stretch for us, as long as it is deep and meaningful for someone else. Great art is open enough to allow each viewer to find his or her own meaning in it -- Hemingway famously replied, "Well, to me, the old man is just an old man, and the sea is just the sea, but I'm glad you got something else out of it."

Russell Blackford said...

Fair enough, KG, but what worries me a bit about this is that we could adopt an attitude that makes the interpretation of films, novels, etc., kind of open slather. And it would make clarification or debate about such interpretations pretty much impossible. The whole field of literary and cinematic criticism would be kinda playing with the net down - and my instinct, well-founded or not, is that it doesn't have to be like that.

So, you think, with me, the passage from Telotte that I've said is a bit of a stretch ... is a bit of a stretch. I'd be interested in why you think it's a bit of a stretch. Is it just intuitive, are you persuaded by my analysis, or what?

At least with, say, mineral prospecting there's a test from reality, or there can be. If a prospecting geologist says: "Based on the patterns I see here and my previous experience, etc., I reckon that this is a likely spot to drill for oil/dig for gold/whatever" - well, we can test it by drilling or digging. With literary or cultural interpretation, there's no real check like that. Yet, the claims that get made are not much use if any claim is considered equally legitimate. If someone wants to make a point based on how she understands Hamlet or Middlemarch or 2001: A Space Odyssey or Watchmen or whatever it might be, someone else can simply reply by saying that that interpretation is no more plausible than others. These texts may be polysemic, but we usually assume that they are not endlessly so.

Hence, I know that great art is notoriously open to many interpretations, but we usually assume that some of these interpretations are, in some sense, better or more justified than others.

This all intrigues me. When I was in my late teens and twenties, I did a whole honours program and a PhD in English literature. I'd like to think that I know something of what I'm talking about when I'm offering interpretations of things like novels and films, that all the training I had in talking about literary texts in particular counted for something. But it's not clear to me that the discipline has ever developed a plausible and well-supported account of what counts as plausible interpretation. I see a lot of literary theorising, but not a lot of discussion similar to that in my post, simply discussing what makes an interpretation cogent and plausible as opposed to too much of a stretch. In my experience, few courses in literary or cinematic studies raise this seemingly obvious issue (but I'd be interested to hear otherwise from anyone out there who's encountered it).

Hmm, not a lot of interest out there in the topic so far? Or is it just too hard to say something useful on this? I know that it's pretty elusive. I'm very interested in this topic, though, partly because I have such a big life investment in the idea of interpretation of narrative and other such cultural products. I'd really like to know what y'all think.

Piero said...

I remember reading an exchange between Umberto Eco and Richard Rorty on these issues, and coming to the conclusion that nothing definite can be said concerning the limits (i.e. the reasonableness) of interpretation. Often the author himself or herself is unaware of the psychological determinants of his/her imagery, so there is no "privileged" voice to discriminate between silliness and genius. Whatever is there to be interpreted, anyone is free to interpret.

That, of course, is a logical conclusion, and as such emotionally unsatisfying: I too find some interpretations strained and silly. Unfortunately, I have no rational arguments to dismiss them.

Alex Topfer said...

I think Telotte's view is unfounded: they are having some character exposition at the weapons cache in the desert; the only spot to conceal something in a desert is underground, therefore they go underground.

Now as Kirth said, maybe this scene means something more to you, maybe you see a deeper meaning, but i don't.

"Fair enough, KG, but what worries me a bit about this is that we could adopt an attitude that makes the interpretation of films, novels, etc., kind of open slather. And it would make clarification or debate about such interpretations pretty much impossible. The whole field of literary and cinematic criticism would be kinda playing with the net down - and my instinct, well-founded or not, is that it doesn't have to be like that."

my instinct, probably less well founded than your instinct, is that literary and cinematic criticism is playing with the net down.
It reminds me of a role playing game i have played, called "A penny for your thoughts", where what happens is determined by a couple of players each proposing a situation, and a third player choosing the one they like. Literary criticism seems to work the same way; different people propose interpretations of a scene/text, and one is chosen based on which one seems coolest.

Of course I am known to be overly literal, and I may just be metaphorically challenged.

Robert N Stephenson said...

The review of literary content or film or even games will have a tendency to work along old psychological lines and even form set patterns -- memes and tropes are natural first stops.

What happens is that psychological profiling then takes place - this isn't the same as open slather as there can only be at most a handful of tangible interpretations, and no matter how hard a reviewer tries they will not be able to make an obviously square and large peg fit into a small round hole.

Though I understand the issues you raise Russell even the most exuberant of reviewers has limitations. Teltte applied a literary technique to an average action film, no to dismilar to how some literary commentators looks at Longfellow or Shakespear. The old hidden meaning really isn't delving into the film itself but this, is viewed honestly would be more a deep examination of the writer, as the film is just a pictorial representation of the written expression of his/her mind.

This is of course delving too deeply into something that may not really deserve such observations. Is it far fethched? No, as it can only go in a direction that is actually there - whether it was deliberately put there or not doesn't much come into it.

I read Joe Hill's 'Horn' and it recieved much raving reviews and naturally it was my job to review this title. My few disppointed the publisher as I decided to look a bit deeper and even without trying too hard I found much to dislike about deep suggestion and the over nature of the author's personal soap box over story. The review didn't get published, let others discover for themselves.

So, it boils down to personal vision and examination. The depth of that examination is not without limit and if you do seriously push those limits it isn't implausability you question, it would be the sensibility of the author.

Robert N Stephenson said...

If I wrote in English things might be better as well...

Blake Stacey said...

I just had this weird mental image of Bertrand Russell inventing a type theory for cinema criticism. "John Connor" and "the T-800" are individuals in the diegetic universe of discourse, sentences like "John and the T-800 descend into the bunker" are first-order propositions, comparisons and contrasts among first-order propositions used to build interpretations are second-order propositions, and questions like "Is X plausible?" are way up the hierarchy of types . . .

I see a lot of literary theorising, but not a lot of discussion similar to that in my post, simply discussing what makes an interpretation cogent and plausible as opposed to too much of a stretch.

Would this essay by Brian Boyd, on revisionist readings of Lolita, be something like what you're looking for? (And while we're talking about Nabokov, it seems to me like a great deal of the sound-and-fury over Pale Fire comes down to duelling visions of what is and is not "plausible".)

Russell Blackford said...

It's kind of reassuring that even Nabokov has continuity errors.

Kirth Gersen said...

"... but what worries me a bit about this is that we could adopt an attitude that makes the interpretation of films, novels, etc., kind of open slather. And it would make clarification or debate about such interpretations pretty much impossible."

While I understand your concern, Russell, I'm unable to share it. I like the fact that, to me, Ridley Scott's "The Duelists" is a beautiful still life painting of a film, like the ones that form the basis of the scene transitions. To others, it's a boring series of poorly-staged fencing scenes. I'm comfortable with ambiguity in this regard, and I enjoy the fact that no interpretation is "right."

You mentioned mining assays. To reply to that, I have enough stress, professionally, making sure that my predictions are correct. I like it when a movie or book defies my predictions and works out differently than I think it will, but is still internally-consistent. I like it just as well when my prediction is plausable, and someone else's totally different prediction is also plausable, and then the movie or book eneds without a clear resolution of which one was "correct." It's a nice break from having my career at stake based on the veracity of my interpretation. In that regard, I have something of a personal interest in the field of interpretation being muddy.

Blake Stacey said...

Indeed, indeed! I particularly liked this bit: "Very often Nabokov, like many of us, would date a letter in January to the previous year, but he could do this as late as October." Makes me feel organized by comparison. (-:

There's one situation in which I'm particularly likely to feel that an interpretation is stretched too far: if the story being studied draws on scientific knowledge in a reasonable and well-thought-out way, but the interpretation is innocent of or contradictory with the science. This can happen when, e.g., people write about Gravity's Rainbow or The Crying of Lot 49 without ever having had a calculus lesson — sometimes, it seems like the first appearance of a technical word is a signal to start making $#@%! up.

(I have a lot of sympathy for people in J. Kerry Grant's position, having to sort through all the stuff that's been written about a book like TCoL49, be it insightful or just . . . odd.)

Similarly, if somebody proposed a structure lurking behind the words of Greg Egan's Incandescence without considering the possibility that the event they interpret is just what would happen according to General Relativity, well, I'm not sure I'd find the interpretation very compelling. We should not multiply explanatory entities unnecessarily: sometimes, the fact that we're reading a heist story or we're in a James Bond movie or the arc of the novel is the discovery of General Relativity fixes aspects of the narrative. If an interpretation "explains" anything at all, it shows us why certain alternatives were chosen instead of others (e.g., John Connor and the T-800 could have broken into a gun store instead of getting weapons from a bunker). To have a plausible thesis for why the film took option X at point P, we have to know what alternative options the general framework of the narrative makes available.

Blake Stacey said...

I'm comfortable with ambiguity in this regard, and I enjoy the fact that no interpretation is "right."

The proposition "Interpretations A, B and C are all supported equally well" is itself a sentence whose plausibility we can judge (it's one level up in the type hierarchy). To take an example which is not at all topical, let A = "The 'real' events in the movie are all a dream" and B = "The 'real' events in the movie 'really happened'". Let P be the proposition "A and B are equally plausible". Surely, some movies provide better support for P than others!

The question "Is proposition P true?" is distinct from the question of whether we liked the movie or not. We could think B more plausible than A, having been enthralled by the movie; we could also find B more likely than A if we had found the movie dull, unenjoyable schlock. In the latter case, we might not get why anyone would care about the proper interpretation of the flick, but we could still find the argument for statement A to be specious.

(Didn't like Murnau's The Last Laugh? Don't care about the relationship between the epilogue and the main story? Tough: it'll still be on the test! Moo hoo ha ha.)

Kirth Gersen said...

"Let A = "The 'real' events in the movie are all a dream" and B = The 'real' events in the movie 'really happened'. Let P be the proposition 'A and B are equally plausible'. Surely, some movies provide better support for P than others!"

Here's a question, then: What is the purpose of a book or movie? Arguably, it's usually (a) to entertain, (b) to turn a profit, (c) an excuse for the "artist" to vent his or her "vision" on the public, (d) to make some sort of political or other statement, or (d) some combination of the above.

Those fully in the camp of (d) won't want differing interpretations -- Michael Moore would be crushed if people took "Farenheit 911" to be about space aliens. On the flip side, those more firmly in the (a) and (b) end of things do a lot better of there's some room for differing interpretations.

So, yeah, I'd say some movies provide more support than others. But, while you can interpret "T-2" as a mindless series of explosions, or as a deeply philosphical treatise on the metaphysical ramifications of time travel, in either case you're putting money in James Cameron's pocket, and getting his vision onto the screen. It would be against his better interests to spell things out too clearly, and declare some interpretations as being "wrong."

Kirth Gersen said...

"I'd be interested in why you think it's a bit of a stretch. Is it just intuitive, are you persuaded by my analysis, or what?"

Just realized I hadn't addressed this particular question, Russell, but I'll do my best. To me, it seemed like a case in which most people would not make the same connection (not that the two of us constitute a quorom or anything) -- and, having been made, the connection doesn't spark any "a-ha!" moments of half-recognition that the really well-crafted pieces tend to do. I can read Shaekespeare, for example, and see echoes of people I know in many of the characters. Intentional or not, that makes the material more "meaningful" to me -- even if the author (Shakespeare or Bacon or whomever) didn't really intend them that way, and heard different "voices" in writing them than I do -- which I'll admit is quite possible.

On the flip side, the scene we're talking about in T-2 isn't constructed so as to lend itself to that sort of half-recognition. If the reviewer, personally, made that connection -- good for him! And good for James Cameron as well. But my gut sense is that most viewers don't, because the imagery is very straighforward rather than ambiguous and/or multifaceted.

Blake Stacey said...

To me, it seemed like a case in which most people would not make the same connection (not that the two of us constitute a quorom or anything) -- and, having been made, the connection doesn't spark any "a-ha!" moments of half-recognition that the really well-crafted pieces tend to do. I can read Shaekespeare, for example, and see echoes of people I know in many of the characters.

This suggests a change in perspective: what if we regard literary/film criticism as an art form unto itself? Then, asking whether an interpretation is "plausible" or "stretched too far" might be analogous to asking whether an Impressionist painting really looks like a pond of water lilies. That is, do the features which the painter captured also exist in our mental image of the same objects, formed by our prior experiences in the world? Having seen the painting, do we then look at the plant in a new way, recognize some aspect of it we hadn't noticed or considered before?

Replace "water lily" with Terminator 2, and it's sort of the same thing.

I guess I just find the "every meaning is equally valid" position about as unappealing as naive moral relativism, and for somewhat analogous reasons. No, we can't find the "meaning" of an artwork through empirical interrogation of Nature the way we can measure the mass of a quark; the statement "suffering is to be avoided" is not open to examination in the way the distance to a quasar is. But still . . .

Kirth Gersen said...

"I guess I just find the 'every meaning is equally valid' position about as unappealing as naive moral relativism, and for somewhat analogous reasons."

But the reviewer's interpretation is not mutually contradictory with yours -- you can both have it your own way, without affecting the film or anyone else -- which isn't necessarily true of moral relativism.

Yes, we can most definitely say that one interpretation is "more valid" in the sense that more people are likely to agree with it, but there exists no empirical basis to claim that it's inherently "more valid" and that other interpretations are therefore to be censored, derided, or considered invalid in comparison.

Or is chocolate ice cream inherently "more delicious" than vanilla? Should we declare the latter flavor "incorrect" and unworthy of being sold? Some things are matters of opinion and taste. That's OK. That's good, in fact. Whether or not it's "relative," my moral compass tells me that enforcing matters of artisitic taste is evil, rather than good.

Blake Stacey said...

But the reviewer's interpretation is not mutually contradictory with yours -- you can both have it your own way, without affecting the film or anyone else

That seems a weak definition of "mutually contradictory". If Alice says that everything in Total Recall which happens after Quaid passes out in the implant chair is a hallucination, and Bob says that Quaid really goes to Mars, aren't Alice and Bob contradicting each other? And, for that matter, doesn't the knowledge that people have argued over such things affect how we watch movies? We look for telltale bits which other people have claimed to find; we might even be distracted from the giant explosions.

Yes, we can most definitely say that one interpretation is "more valid" in the sense that more people are likely to agree with it, but there exists no empirical basis to claim that it's inherently "more valid" and that other interpretations are therefore to be censored, derided, or considered invalid in comparison.

Isn't that what I said?

Maybe bringing up morality in this context was a mistake. I don't want to imply that "deviant" readings of a story are evil, or anything like that; what I want to know is if something like the Antipodean error theory of metaethics would be helpful in literary meta-criticism, in building a framework for discussing different critical claims which is pluralistic but not wholly Protean.

(Whew. That was more jargon than I had been planning to throw in there.)

Whether or not it's "relative," my moral compass tells me that enforcing matters of artisitic taste is evil, rather than good.

Which is fine, and I agree. However:

Going from "mandating an interpretation of an artistic work is morally repugnant" to "no such thing as a definitive interpretation of an artistic work exists or can exist" is going from an ought statement to an is statement. We should really deduce the truth (or falsity) of the latter assertion from other grounds.

Going back to the Nabokov/Boyd thing for a bit: what about robustness as a criterion for interpretations? Any work can come to us in variant forms, due to minor alterations (e.g., printer's errors) or larger ones (translations, dubbed versus subtitled copies, Director's Cuts, etc.). A robust interpretation is one which remains just as well supported if such variations occur. Boyd's claim is that the revisionist reading of Lolita is not robust to small continuity glitches. The assertion that "Sarah Conner becomes like a Terminator herself" is robust in that it's just as easily argued from the Director's Cut as from the original video release.

One could always say that one prefers non-robust readings, for emotional or aesthetic reasons (they remind us of the fragility of life, or something like that), but at least it's the sort of thing on which different critics have a chance of agreeing.

Kirth Gersen said...

Leaving aside "is" and "ought to," I'll admit point-blank that what I'm totally missing is the "why." Why would one want a scale of some kind for artistic interpretation? In order to "prove" that one's interpretation is "better"? Is there some useful purpose served thereby, or is it just a need to be "right"?

Jack Vance (an author obviously near to my heart!) often lambasted what he called "hyper-didacticism," and specifically cited criticism of criticisms as a particularly odious example. I'm not sure I share quite his level of contempt, and indeed would change my view entirely, if some useful function could be served thereby. But if it's nothing but an excuse to spin our wheels a bit, I'll leave off at this point.

Shatterface said...

'Meaning' is largely an artifact of the interpretative method you apply to the text. You could take an interpretive tool like psychoanalysis to any text and come up with something 'meaningful' - even though psychoanalysis is a load of twaddle. Same with marxism: apply a bit of Terry Eagleton to the Brontes and you'll find exactly what you were looking at.

David Bordwell's Making Meaning is excellent on the subject. Most people can agree on what a book is about on the level of story, i.e. what events it purports to portray. At a higher level of abstraction most will agree about explicit meaning. Beyond that any 'meaning' you find will depend on the tools you use to analyse it.

'Meaning' isn't infinitely varied even at higher levels of abstraction: interpretations will tend to be clustered around particular sets of meanings, with a few outliers. If you want to know what a text 'means' you have to answer the question 'means to whom?' first. And that takes us into the realm of ethnography rather than close reading.

Blake Stacey said...

Why would one want a scale of some kind for artistic interpretation? In order to "prove" that one's interpretation is "better"? Is there some useful purpose served thereby, or is it just a need to be "right"?

Because criticism — the art of having an answer to the question, "So, what did you think?" — should be fun. Even if it serves no grand purpose, even if we have no intention to uncover the prejudices and expose the injustices Inherent in the System, even if we're just yukking it up in the indifferent face of death, playing a game whose rules are wholly our own invention, we ought to figure out which rules make the game the most fun to play. Any classic pastime is the product of experimentation: "checkmate" dates back to the Persian shah mat, which players called out in the 600s CE, but the Queen didn't become the most powerful piece on the board until the Renaissance. In the game of gauging how this story is like that other in such-and-such a way, some plays are tedious, some gambits overly worn, some paths into stalemate all too familiar. We have more art and more fiction ready to be summoned than ever before in history; it would be a shame if we didn't use the opportunity to make our mental lives interesting.