Consequently, interpretations. Not to interpret a work of

Consequently,
interpreting films is, similarly to interpreting any other work of art, a
difficult and inexact science, and is largely subjective, with no inherent
right or wrong answers. It is most definitely not a science in the sense that
physics or biology is a science, but it is a logical, often illuminating system
that helps to describe how a film does what it does (Monaco, 1981). When
interpreting any form of art, whether it be a film, a painting, or anything
else, we as viewers make meaningful connections between what we are seeing and
experiencing in the work of art, and what we have seen and experienced before
in our lives. James Monaco (1981) has said that to speak a film is partly to
invent it. To interpret, says Terry Barrett (2002), is to make something
meaningful for ourselves, to open words of meaning and experience for ourselves
and for those hearing or reading our interpretations. Not to interpret a work
of art in its presence, on the other hand, is to ignore it, leave it
meaningless, and, for many aestheticians, not to interpret a work of art is,
indeed, not to see it at all. Nonetheless, in terms of cinema, it is very easy
to claim that film scenes do not demand interpretation. What is more, at first
glance, cinema seems to be an art that is all too evident, being often
criticised for leaving nothing to the imagination and dismissed for simple
entertainment. Susan Sontag (1966) has even written that ‘In good films, there
is always a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret.’ However,
that is not necessarily the case. If one does examine and relate a film and
what happens in it to one’s own knowledge, experiences, and beliefs, the
significance of it is enhanced (Perkins, 1972). What is more, Victor Francis
Perkins, in his work Film as Film (1972),
adds that the camera itself neither lies nor tells the truth, because the
camera does not make statements. It is therefore we, the viewers, who convert
the images we see in a film into assertions. If the work of art is not
understood at first glance, it ought to be viewed again and yet again, for
constant re-exposure and complete absorption in it is a sure way to maximum
understanding of it (Hospers, 2016). Interpretations are also arguments. An
intelligent critic’s interpretation is an argument that is convincing and
persuasive, making coherent connections to reach conclusions based on and
supported by evidence and reason (Barrett, 1994). Victor Francis Perkins (1972)
also states that film criticism becomes rational, if not objective, when it
displays and inspects the nature of its evidence and the bases of its arguments.

III

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Cinema
is a medium of extensions and indexes. As James Monaco has said in his book How to Read a Film (1981), much of its
meaning comes not from what we see but from what we don’t see or, more
accurately, from an ongoing process of comparison of what we see with what we
don’t see. What we see on the screen is experienced both as an optical and
mental phenomenon. The optical pattern is read saccadically (Monaco, 1981). The
mental experience, on the other hand, is a result of the sum of cultural
determinants, and is formed by it. Both the optical and the mental intellection
combine in the concept of the sign, where signifier is related to the
signified. This can also be seen in Figure 1, in which James Monaco (1981) has created
a graph to explain this phenomenon. The signifier is more optical than mental,
whereas the signified is more mental than optical. These readings then combine
with each other in various ways to produce meaning.
Films contain so many layers of information that it becomes necessary to
explore not only what is being said, but also how it is being said, and to explore the deeper layers of meaning
to achieve a more complete interpretation. It is not necessary to acquire
intellectual competence in film in order to appreciate it, at least on the most
basic level. However, film is very much like language. Films can be read as
texts, and their images should be unpacked just as we would unpack the imagery
in a written passage (Blackford, ND). Perkins (1972), adds that the technical
conventions can also be treated as a form of language which guides the
connections we as viewers make. People who are highly experienced in film and
visually literate, see and are able to read more into what they’re presented
with than people who seldom go to the movies. What is more, because film can
give us such a close approximation of reality, it can communicate a precise
knowledge that written or spoken language seldom can. In a way, then, film is
too intelligible, which is what makes it difficult to analyse (Monaco, 1981).

IV

The
structure of cinema is defined by the codes in which it operates and the codes
that operate within it. Critics and viewers cannot change or command these codes.
The most viewers and critics can ‘demand’ from a film is coherence: a structure
which points consistently towards the performance of comprehensible functions.
Without that, judgement becomes impossible (Perkins, 1972). An essential
concept here is the classic opposition between function and form. Are we as the
viewers and critics more interested in what a film is (form) or in how it acts
upon us (function)? It was quite a while before film theory moved from a focus
on the form to the more difficult and meaningful of its function (Monaco, 1981).

There are a number of codes that cinema shares with the other arts, and there
are those codes that are unique to cinema. There are codes and conventions in
films that are accepted and recognised in society, and these make it easier for
viewers to decode the meaning of a scene. Some of these codes and film tropes
are so embedded in our society that viewers interpret them unconsciously. However,
cinematic tropes are not the entire inventory of meaning produced by film.
Tropes are much too contingent on cultures, idioms, and history, – tropes cannot
be invented – whereas meaning is universal. That said, meaning in all its
universality relies on the customary figuration of augmented meaning (Ehrat,
2005). If these tropes were shown to someone with no knowledge of the culture in
which the film was made, they would interpret it differently; in a way, utterly
objectively. If we, the viewers, could rid ourselves of knowledge and our
customary patterns of thought, we could not make sense of a film. Without a
body of conventions, developed and learnt as a shared system, the film-maker
could not exploit the flexibility of film to achieve freedom of manoeuvre in
time and space (Perkins, 1972). Therefore, these culturally embedded
conventions, these universally shared systems, are what help the viewers
recognise the patterns and codes in film in order to make sense of it. In
addition to these influences from the general culture, film has its own
specific connotative ability. James Monaco (1981) has described it thus:

We know that a
filmmaker has made specific choices: the rose is filmed from a certain angle,
the camera moves or does not move, the color is bright or dull, the rose is
fresh or fading, the thorns apparent or hidden, the background clear (so that
the rose is seen in context) or vague (so that it is isolated), the shot held
for a long time, or briefly, and so on. These are specific aids to cinematic
connotation.

The
connotative sense we comprehend stems from the shot being compared with its
companions, or with the general model of this type of shot. The specifically
cinematic codes together with a number of shared codes, therefore, make up the
syntax of film (Monaco, 1981).

V

The
most general way of dividing film criticism is into two groups: prescriptive
and descriptive. The prescriptive theorist is concerned with what the film
should be; it is inductive, and more codified than the descriptive. That is,
the theorist decides on a system of values first, and then measures actual
films against this system. NT.
The descriptive theory, on the other hand, is deductive. The descriptive theory
concerns what a film is, rather than what it ought to be, and it is less
specific about rules governing form or structure (Watkins, 2011). The theorist
examines the entire range of film activity and then – and only then – draws tentative
conclusions about the real nature of the film (Monaco, 1981).
The propositions of a descriptive theory have an “if …, then” logical structure.
The propositions of a prescriptive theory, on the other hand, have an “in order
to …, do this” structure (Reigeluth, 1983). NT.
VI

As
briefly touched upon earlier, there are four layers of meaning to films, and
those are the referential, the explicit, the implicit, and the symptomatic. Some
aspects and layers of films are easier to interpret, while others become
clearer upon closer consideration and analysis. Recounting a film and
explaining what happens in it can be called the referential layer, and that is
simply because it refers directly to things that happen in the plot and
possibly to some aspects of the story that are merely implied by the plot
(Jacobs, ND). It can be said, for example, that Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster (2015), is the story of how
the government rounds up single adults and confines them to a seaside hotel, in
which they are given forty-five days to fall in love. Those who do not meet the
deadline are changed into an animal of their own choosing and released into the
wild, or into their families’ care.
Some characters get changed into animals, some do not. Chris Marker’s short
film La Jetée (1962), on the other
hand, is the story of a man forced to explore his memories in the wake of a
post-nuclear war experiment in time-travel, told through still images. Most
films, however, can be analysed more thoroughly than this to discover deeper
layers of meaning.

The explicit layer, on
the other hand, is the ‘moral’ of the story, or perhaps the socio-political
attitude that the filmmaker is expressing directly through the mouths and
actions of the characters (Jacobs, ND). Understanding this layer does not
necessarily need a thorough viewing or analysis. In The Lobster’s case, this would mean the pressure society puts on single
people to find a partner, to be in a successful relationship with another
person, and the common belief that being single is something to be ashamed of
and avoided at all costs. The explicit layer of La Jetée, on the other hand, explores themes of time and
perception, and the paradoxes of memory.
Moving slightly deeper introduces the implicit layer of meaning. This may be
less obvious, but can still be inferred by seeing the changes and growth in the
characters, and their development throughout the course of the film (Jacobs, ND).
The issues and ideas dealing with general human relations may be relatively
easy to recognise but are not explicitly stated by the characters. Implicit
meanings are often less obvious, and different viewers might interpret the same
film in different ways, depending on their own experiences, levels of knowledge,
viewpoints, and expectations. In The
Lobster, the film starts with the main character resigned to his fate and
the system to which he is a prisoner, only for that resignation to change into
rebellion as the film progresses. We see him change from trying to change himself
in order to no longer be alone, to escaping from and shunning the pressures of
society. A similar theme of rebellion against the established system can also
be seen in Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, in
which we see three adult children living in isolation, home-schooled by their father
who says they can only leave home once their ‘dogtooth’ falls out. However,
with the arrival of Christina, a prostitute hired to tend to the son’s needs,
the children learn about life outside their home, and begin to rebel against
the system their father has created. Consequently, just like in The Lobster, we see the characters
evolve and begin to question what they are being told, and finally rebel
against it.
Implicit, explicit, and referential interpretations are based entirely on the
film as a self-contained work, on ‘internal evidence’ (Jacobs, ND). It is
additionally possible to find richer meaning in film, meaning deduced by
knowing something about its creators, and the time, place, or culture in which
it was created – that is, meaning from ‘external evidence’ that is not possible
to infer exclusively from the film itself. This type of meaning might be
intentional on the part of its creators, but may also be unconsciously
incorporated into the story. To read a film on this level is to treat the film
as a symptom of a much greater
influence than simple dramatic concerns for the characters and their actions
(Jacobs, ND). A symptomatic interpretation, then, looks at the film as part of
the broader context of society, perhaps reflecting on or illustrating themes
prevalent in our culture, in the time and place it was made, and perhaps in the
creator’s personal life experience. This layer tries to recognise symbolic
content, and to identify characters and situations as metaphors for something
else, or to see the entire story as an allegory about something else.
The Lobster is a science-fiction
story of modern romance, but at a second glance, it is a social satire of
restrictive social constructs and a dizzying totalitarian world full of bizarre
rules (Buder, 2015). In the words of Yorgos Lanthimos himself (2015):

People follow
completely absurd rules. You get used to it because you’re educated in a
certain way. Many years can go by and people don’t question. That’s how it’s
done. That’s the way it is. But if you distance yourself from it, you can
realize how absurd some of the things that we consider normal are.

A similar theme runs in
Dogtooth, which delves deep into
human nature, and is open to readings of political allegory and human psychology.
La Jetée, however, carries a meaning
and has a memory which relates profoundly to the wider history of the twentieth
century. According to Peter Ffrench (2005), La
Jetée is much closer to documentary than fiction. For the spectator of the
film, the fiction of La Jetée is
ruptured by the affective return of an image which carries a historical memory.
This explores the memory of the image itself, as if our subjective histories
were thus determined by the memory-life of an image, carrying and expressing
history (Ffrench, 2005).

VII

Having
mentioned Yorgos Lanthimos’ words and thoughts on his own works in the previous
paragraph, it is necessary to acknowledge that while the knowledge of the
author’s – let us say, for the sake of this paragraph that in the case of
films, the director’s – personal life and beliefs may be interesting within the
context of the film, the meaning of an artwork should not be limited to what
was intended by the artist. As has been claimed by E.D. Hirsch (1967), sometimes,
not even the artist knows what they really mean. Therefore, the responsibility
of interpreting that piece of art falls mainly on the viewers, the
interpreters, because the author’s meaning cannot constitute a general
principle or norm for determining the meaning of a film. However, the author’s
ideas, thoughts, and inspirations can have the ability to increase the
enjoyment and understanding of a film, as they can reveal details of external
evidence not present or evident in the internal information.
In a way, once the artwork has left the artist, it is no longer theirs. Once
leaving the artist, the piece gains a life of its own, based solely on what the
viewers bring to it (Gaugy, 2014). T.S. Eliot, for example, has refused to
comment on the meanings of his own texts, for, according to him, the author has
no control over the words once they are loosed upon the world, and has no
special privilege as an interpreter of them. One reading, as stated by him, is
equally valid as another. T.S. Eliot is not the only one, as there are several
authors, painters, actors, film directors, who have chosen not to elaborate on
their work, believing it to be the viewer’s ‘job’ to interpret and bring
meaning to what they see. This equality of different readings, then, can be
applied to other forms of art, not just writing, and the author is no longer in
control over the life of the piece. It, now, belongs to the world, to its
viewers, and therefore viewers can read films differently, and interpret them
according to their own views and experiences, and the interpretation will not
be invalid just because it contradicts that of the author’s. Because of the
vast possibilities of interpreting films, there can be as many different
interpretations as there are interpreters.

VIII

What
is more, in addition to numerous layers of meaning in the films themselves,
there are also several different approaches to interpreting them. These are the
ideological, the formalist, the realist, and the contextualist. Identifying the
content of a film, whether explicit, implicit, or symptomatic, with a certain
attitude you perceive the film takes, is an interpretation of its ideological
meaning. It is up to the viewer or critic to determine whether a film is
effective in achieving its intentions, and, at times, what those intentions
might be (Jacobs, ND). An analysis from a variety of approaches can help a
viewer realise just what a film is trying to do, and to appreciate it more,
whether or not one agrees with it.
A formalist approach looks at the film’s structure and its form. Thus, whereas
other approaches commonly use some degree of external evidence to analyse a
film, a formalist approach focuses primarily on internal evidence (Jacobs ND).
This approach therefore looks at how the way the plot presents the story forces
the viewer to see things in certain ways at certain times, and how these might
be seen differently if presented to the viewer in another way. The approach
also examines how the film employs various narrative formal elements – such as
character, repetition, chronological structure, and so on – to convey meaning
to the viewer (Jacobs, ND). Additionally, an analysis of specific formal
techniques would concentrate on the film’s cinematography, music, camera
angles, to note the effect of those techniques on how the viewer perceives the
scenes and interprets what they mean.
A realist approach, on the other hand, explores how the film represents
‘reality’. Some films attempt to make techniques ‘invisible’ to viewers so that
the characters and situations are always the main focus. Some, on the other
hand, attempt to use cinematic techniques to replicate a certain type of
reality the filmmaker wants the audience to experience: for example, to name a
few, love, aging, memory, or insanity (Jacobs, ND).
A contextualist approach considers a film as part of a broader context. This
can mean to be the society in general, a particular culture, time and place the
film was created in (the culturalist approach), the director’s personal life (the
auteurist approach) – which assumes the director is the author or a film – or
various ideological contexts (Monaco, 1981). A psychological approach will
often identify plot elements with theories of psychologists like Freud or Jung,
and look, for example, for the treatment of the subconscious and
representations of the id, ego, and superego, while a generic approach,
however, looks at a film as a representative of a genre and compares it with
other films from the same genre, and finds meaning by identifying shared
symbolic motifs or variations from the expected formula (Jacobs, ND). Viewers
can use one or a combination of these approaches to interpret just what the
filmmaker is trying to say. What is more, as previously mentioned,
interpretations with different approaches and differing views can still both be
correct without invalidating each other.

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