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M. Leary

Sunset for Authorial Intent?

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This is an issue that needs to be hashed out here and hasn't yet, so I will broach it as per a conversation we have been having here in Chicago for a while. Sorry, at the moment I have no snazzy quotes and the like to get things rolling, but I am certain we can dredge some up over time.

I think it has been my contention that in film we have to be critical along the lines of a revised authorial intention schema. BUT, in this revised schema, the very notion of what an "author" is becomes much different than it is in traditional hermeneutic.

Barthes (an apparent favorite of the Chicago faction on this board) chose to look at trends in the arts and literature and point out the fact that the author is dead, giving birth to reader-response criticism in all of its modes as we now know it (Marxist, Feminist, Post-Structuralist, Post-Colonial, etc...) Barthes was reacting to the traditional model of authorial intention in the history of the philosophy of language and media. But, his choice to kill the author was misguided. What we could see in history is that emerging forms of media and technology force us to redefine the other and let our model of authorial intention catch up to that redefinition.

(This is, what I would contend, happens in the short career of Bazin, a thought that will deserve a thread of its own after Doug's lectures.)

Whether Barthes likes it or not, he is stuck talking about an author. In this case a dead author. In the works of Baudrillard and Ballard (and that is just the "b's") we have lit. theorists working after Barthes revolution. But what happens in their writing? Reader-response criticisms that are haunted by this newly dead author. We can try to sidestep the "author" in the same way in our film criticism, but it won't matter. The author and their film has become a matter of public discourse, and it is these two poles of the experience of a film that become the parameters that define our response to any given film. This persistence of the "author" is the persistence of something different than what we call the "author" in the traditional model of authorial intention. But yet the mechanics of the interpretive process are still close enough to the results of that model that it still makes sense to work with a revised version of it.

Just wanted to toss this out. Feel free to tear it all apart, it is little more than provisional as it stands.


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Yikes, "Bazin lecture" sounds really imposing. smile.gif I'm hoping for a "Bazin chat."

Anyway, I think it's incorrect to completely dismiss authorial intention, for the reasons you stated (I once took a class by a psychoanalytic film professor who spent the whole semester identifying phallic mountains in John Ford's movies), but I think it's wise to recognize that intentions are not always definitive, known, or correctly employed, and that one's subjective interpretation does matter and shouldn't be ignored. So maybe there should simply be some sort of middle ground?

Maybe you could amplify this statement:

"What we could see in history is that emerging forms of media and technology force us to redefine the other and let our model of authorial intention catch up to that redefinition."

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And plus...which author's intent? The screenwriter? The director? The actors? Often the actor can have a different idea of what's being said from the director's goal, which may not line up with the screenwriter's role? Is there really just one author to consider in film?


"You know...not EVERY story has to be interesting." -Gibby

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Ah yes, good point, Nez. The auteur theory is so 1951. smile.gif

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Anatomy of an Auteurial Choice:

"I once asked Akira Kurosawa why he had chosen to frame a shot in Ran in a particular way. His answer was that if he he'd panned the camera one inch to the left, the Sony factory would be sitting there exposed, and if he he'd panned an inch to the right, we would see the airport - neither of which belonged in a period movie. Only the person who's made the movie knows what goes into the decisions that result in any piece of work." (Sidney Lumet in Making Movies, 1995)

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That's a great quote; it reminds me of Stef's quotes on the role of chance in a director's toolbox.

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I'm not sure what exactly you're asking, M.

Killing the author, as you say, has led to countless flavors of ideological criticism, some of it quite good and relevant, much of it sloppy, self-defeating, and deathly boring. There seems to be a rising tide of resistance to this brand of criticism, at least in literary studies (Eagleton's new book, for instance). I'm doing my darnedest to design my dissertation such that I always begin with the author's project and work outwards toward culture and politics at large, rather than vice-versa. I'm desperate to retain some focus on each author's particular imagination and style. This, as opposed to that "pick a theory and cram some poor, lifeless 'text' through it" approach (a la Doug's film professor).

Whether or not I would -- or could -- take the same approach if I were writing about filmmakers instead of novelists and playwrights, I'm not sure. Hal Ashby is an interesting example. He's often been described as a hired gun, but when I rewatched all of his films before writing my piece, it became obvious that there is an authorial voice there. Others obviously made a tremendous impact on the films as well -- Haskell Wexler, Robert Towne, Warren Beatty, Jon Voigt, etc. -- but they are Hal's films.

(Come to think of it, the processes behind Tony Kushner's and Arthur Miller's plays aren't too unlike filmmaking, so maybe I can say that I would definitely take an auteur approach to film studies.)

To my mind, the biggest fault of "dead author" critics -- at least in the post-New Critics era -- is their lack of interest (at times) in the creative imagination and in craft. Novels and paintings and plays and films are reduced to ideological tracts. It drives me nuts. And it makes for bad criticism, if you ask me.

Am I in the right ballpark, M? If not, ask a more specific question, and I'll give it another go.

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To my mind, the biggest fault of "dead author" critics -- at least in the post-New Critics era -- is their lack of interest (at times) in the creative imagination and in craft. Novels and paintings and plays and films are reduced to ideological tracts. It drives me nuts. And it makes for bad criticism, if you ask me.

luxhello.gif


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Am I in the right ballpark, M? If not, ask a more specific question, and I'll give it another go.

You are in the ballpark and have hit a home run. Not down the center, but it is out of the park to the left a bit. I wish I did have a specific question for you, I guess I could ask us just to exegete the Kurosawa quote Mike H. tossed out. I think I could read that quote in favor of a "modified authorial intention" approach. It would look like the following:

Here we have Kurosawa defining the parameters of a given shot as it contributes to the meaning of his film. The shot is framed in such a way to preserve the period nature of his narrative, to see an airport in the shot would cause an irreperable rupture. His visual choices then are mediated by a desire to evoke the historic atmosphere of his piece. Some would see his decision to be purely arbitrary. There just happens to be stuff on each side of the shot that he doesn't want the viewer to see, so he shoots in between it. But regardless, it is not arbitrary that he (being notorious for having tyrannical control over the camera) would choose to maintain the historical integrity of this scene.

If anything, from this quote we can see Kurosawa as an author being careful to invoke the purest vision of his script in film.

Maybe you could amplify this statement:

"What we could see in history is that emerging forms of media and technology force us to redefine the author and let our model of authorial intention catch up to that redefinition."

Sorry, I had mistyped there and said "other" instead of "author" in the original quote. That may help a bit. The one thing that Bazin did do in film studies was to elucidate exactly how the role of images is different in film than it is in photography, painting, or theater. His work is pretty important in this sense, he established the unique mechanics that go into the process of watching a film. But he got bogged down in auteur theory as an explanation for this. As Doug pointed out, auteur theory is old hat and smacks of the traditional model of authorial intention (one that is just as reductive as radical reader response theories).

Bazin worked through the technology of this new medium and expressed the unique aesthetics that are part and parcel of its mechanics. What we can do as an extension of his work is look at how these new forms of media redefine the roles of the people that are creating/controlling them. Such a discussion would round out Bazin pretty well.

I use Bazin, because whether people on this board know it or not, many of us broadly espouse his approach in the way we talk and write about film. He just seems to be the easiest point of departure.


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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While the collaborative nature of film does complicate the attempt to talk about the author's (or rather, perhaps, the artist's) intent, I wonder whether it still isn't the case that we can still look at a film, or a shot, or a monologue, and make meaningful observations about authorial intent even without necessarily knowing which collaborator is responsible. In other words, I think there's a sense in which authorial intent is authorial intent, regardless whose intent it may happen to be.

Let's say we're watching a film based on a novel, and one of the characters says something that seems to us to have some very clear meaning or purpose, to express something about the characters, the drama, the real world, life, the universe, whatever. An example I gave on another thread awhile back was in The Last Temptation of Christ, in which St. Paul, meeting the temporarily de-crucified Christ, essentially says that if the resurrection were not historical it would be necessary to invent it.

Now, in principle, a line in a film like this could come from [a] the novelist (or his/her editor, etc.), the adapting screenwriter(s), [c] the director, or [d] the actor, either ad-libbing on the spot or having come up with the line at an earlier point. There may also be cases in which creative influence may be exercised by [e] someone involved in post-production editing (if the line could have been dubbed in, or edited to change its effect), or [f] the subtitler, if it's a subtitled film.

I'm far from saying it doesn't matter which. Especially if we happen to know something about the general outlook, interests, or intent of one or more of the collaborators, we may very much want to know who was responsible, or to what extent. Having such information may be most material, and may greatly enhance our understanding of the film.

And certainly there will be even more complicated cases in which the intent of one collaborator is colored, compromised, discarded, or reversed entirely by someone else in the course of the collaborative process -- in which a line may be written with one intent, but edited, rewritten, or inflected with another intent entirely. There will be times when we may be able to detect more than one conflicting authorial intent; other times we may have a misleading impression of a single unified intent where none exists. Undoubtedly, our ability to make statements about authorial intent will be fragmentary and fallible.

But fragmentary and fallible doesn't mean entirely illusory and futile. My lack of information about the identity of the person(s) responsible for St. Paul's resurrection speech in Last Temptation doesn't in the slightest affect my impression about the import of the line, or whatever authorial intent is substantially responsible for it in its present form. The collaborative nature of film complicates things, but we're still going to say things like "This aspect of how the film has been shaped thus reflects a perspective or intent of this sort," even when we can't always say whose perspective or to what extent.


“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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One of the listservs I follow is Fred Camper's a_film_by, which is ostensibly devoted to discussing films from an auteurist perspective. One of the list members is Jonathan Rosenbaum, who offered these comments recently when someone questioned his calling Charlie Kaufman an "auteur":

"When I used the term about Charlie Kaufman, I was thinking of the

original meaning of the word: author. And the irony that so few

people who are actually known for their writing are credited as

authors--auteurs--when it comes to films.

I also emphasized that auteurism is more a reading strategy than a

scientific account of how films are made--a point made long before

me by Peter Wollen. And this is the basic thrust of what I was

saying. Kaufman is widely read as if he were an auteur--perhaps even

more than Gondry is. By which I mean a creator of style and meaning.

And by this criterion, it's completely reasonable to say that Garbo

was and is an auteur, even if some of her directors were also

aueturs. And the same applies to Marilyn Monroe.

Let me illustrate with a favorite anecdote of mine, recounted by

gossip columnist James Bacon about the shooting of CLASH BY NIGHT.

Marilyn Monroe has a simple line at the end of a very complicated

take involving other actors, camera movement, etc., and every time

she blows it--maybe as many as a dozen times, until, she finally

gets it right and Fritz Lang calls it a wrap. Then afterwards, in

her dressing room, she confesses to Bacon, "I was just waiting until

I liked the way the rest of the shot was going."

Test question: Who was the auteur of that particular shot, Marilyn

Monroe or Fritz Lang? Maybe both were, but at the very least, you

have to admit she had final cut."

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Doug C:

Test question: Who was the auteur of that particular shot, Marilyn

Monroe or Fritz Lang? Maybe both were, but at the very least, you

have to admit she had final cut."

I don't know. I here (from the many DVD commentaries I've seen wink.gif ) a lot goes on in editing rooms.


"It's a dangerous business going out your front door." -- J.R.R. Tolkien
"I want to believe in art-induced epiphanies." -- Josie
"I would never be dismissive of pop entertainment; it's much too serious a matter for that." -- NBooth

"If apologetics could prove God, I would lose all faith in Him." -- Josie

"What if--just what if--the very act of storytelling is itself redemptive? What if gathering up the scraps and fragments of a disordered life and binding them between the pages of a book in all of their fragmentary disorder is itself a gambit against that disorder?" -- NBooth

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Hi, Darren.

I didn't realize you had made it back to these parts. I might've hurried back more quickly if I had known.

Mad props to Leary for raising such an important and fascinating issue. I appreciate both Darren's qualms as well as SDG and Doug's counter-examples of how multi-valent a film's authorship is. As Rosenbaum points out, I think we've become far too lazy in focusing merely on the director's voice and not acknowledging how many cooks there are stirring the broth.

I'd like to address this issue in a couple different ways. Let's start with Darren's assertion:

Hal Ashby is an interesting example.  He's often been described as a hired gun, but when I rewatched all of his films before writing my piece, it became obvious that there is an authorial voice there.  Others obviously made a tremendous impact on the films as well -- Haskell Wexler, Robert Towne, Warren Beatty, Jon Voigt, etc. -- but they are Hal's films.

I'm not going to disagree with this completely, but I do want to trouble the waters. It is a fact that the human brain is programmed to look for connections. We see similarities and intuit a relationship. We find common themes and deduce a common vision. That is particularly true for critics. We're conditioned to look for how a film is similar to and different from other films. We're supposed to acknowledge how a movie is like the sequel, other movies in the genre, and other movies the director has done. That's part of our craft. But I think sometimes in looking for similarities and common themes, we assume intentionality (or authorship) when in fact it's just a coincidence.

I'm confident that if I randomly chose four movies from a particular time period or a particular genre, we could all find common ideas, themes, and motifs. In fact, we could write 25-page grad papers pointing out various elements that occur in all four movies, and we'd posit "an authorial voice." But of course it wouldn't be that at all. It's just that movies, like all works of art, have things in common, and if we assume there has to be a reason for the similarity, then we find it. Conditioned to see the director's role, we assume it's his voice that's responsible. I don't doubt, Darren, that you found Hal Ashby's hand in all those films, but I wonder if you would've if you didn't know they were all his films.

Again, I'm not saying that we can't try to divine a director's thematic arc or that we can't try to tease out what a movie (or a line of dialogue) is attempting to "say," but I would argue that such attempts should be done with deep humility and with the understanding that there are a lot of different ways to approach the task of criticism.

Now, I don't think anyone on the board would disagree with much of this. But in my next post (designed to break up an otherwise interminable post), I want to argue why I think "authorial intent" and auteur theory are indeed over-rated.

J Robert

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embarassed.gif

APOLOGY FROM SDG: Crap. J. Robert, I accidentally deleted the contents of your post attempting to reply to it, and then botched my attempt to restore it from my cache. What makes it worse is that your post was much better than my reply, which can still be found below. I'm really really really sorry.

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I don't claim to understand all the implications of the "authorial intent" controversy, and am hesitant to weigh in too conclusively. I understand that some people say the author is dead, and ultimately so is stable meaning. And at the other end are folks who say, essentially, that the author is God, and that every choice he makes is part of a meaningful, unified plan. As in most situations where I find myself confronted with a choice between totalitarianism and anarchy, I tend to think that A. there are more positions that those two extremes, B. nevertheless, human beings tend to prefer black and white alternatives to messier shades of gray. Meanwhile, the authorship of a film introduces complicating factors that aren't present in discussion of a book, which is probably one reason I've been skeptical of sweeping statements about authorship by literary critics that fall apart as soon as you try to apply them to film. I also need to have somebody explain to me how myth fits into the authorial intention debate: who authors a myth? If we believe (a minority position today of course) that there really are archetypal ideas or universals, and that these keep showing up in stories we tell, then we seem forced to admit the existence of extratextual forces that in some way help create the text -- sometimes in spite of the author's stated intention. George MacDonald says that the materials any artist uses are already laden with meaning (since we inhabit a meaninful universe) as soon as he picks them up. (Following J. Robert's two-post precedent, I'll add a large MacDonald quote in a second post on meaning that I've found helpful in this discussion.)

I understand the impulse to recognize the authority of the author, especially when I read of the dire consquences some promise if that authority is undone. It reminds me of arguments for biblical inerrancy and papal infallibility. Again, I'm sure there's more to this than I am getting, but my initial response is that the hardcore intention position is a Newtonian strategy in a rather quantum universe.

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Here's George MacDonald conducting an imaginary debate over meaning in fairy stories.

"You write as if a fairytale were a thing of importance: must it have meaning?"

It cannot help having some meaning; if it have proportion and harmony it has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than the truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the fairytale would give no delight. Everyone, however, who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another.

"If so, how am I to assure myself that I am not reading my own meaning into it, but yours out of it?"

Why should you be so assured? It may be better that you should read your meaning into it. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of it: your meaning may be superior to mine.

"Suppose my child ask me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?"

If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it do not even wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you. If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name written under it will not serve you much. At all events, the business of the painter is not to teach zoology.

But indeed your children are not likely to trouble you about the meaning. They find what they are capable of finding, and more would be too much. For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.

A fairytale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it not an allegory. He must be an artist indeed who can, in any mode, produce a strict allegory that is not a weariness to the spirit. An allegory must be Mastery or Moorditch.

A fairytale, like a butterfly or a bee, helps itself on all sides, sips every wholesome flower, and spoils not one. The true fairytale is, to my mind, very like the sonata. We all know that a sonata means something; and where there is the faculty of talking with suitable vagueness, and choosing metaphor sufficiently loose, mind may approach mind, in the interpretation of a sonata, with the result of a more or less contenting consciousness of sympathy. But if two or three men sat down to write each what the sonata meant to him, what approximation to definite idea would be the result? Little enough--and that little more than needful. We should find it had roused related, if not identical, feelings, but probably not one common thought. Has the sonata therefore failed? Had it undertaken to convey, or ought it to be expected to impart anything defined, anything notionally recognisable?

"But words are not music; words at least are meant and fitted to carry a precise meaning!"

It is very seldom indeed that they carry the exact meaning of any user of them! And if they can be so used as to convey definite meaning, it does not follow that they ought never to carry anything else. Words are live things that may be variously employed to various ends. They can convey a scientific fact, or throw a shadow of her child's dream on the heart of a mother. They are things to put together like the pieces of dissected map, or to arrange like the notes on a stave. Is the music in them to go for nothing? It can hardly help the definiteness of a meaning: is it therefore to be disregarded? They have length, and breadth, and outline: have they nothing to do with depth? Have they only to describe, never to impress? Has nothing any claim to their use but definite? The cause of a child's tears may be altogether undefinable: has the mother therefore no antidote for his vague misery? That may be strong in colour which has no evident outline. A fairtytale, a sonata, a gathering storm, a limitless night, seizes you and sweeps you away: do you begin at once to wrestle with it and ask whence its power over you, whither it is carrying you? The law of each is in the mind of its composer; that law makes one man feel this way, another man feel that way. To one the sonata is a world of odour and beauty, to another of soothing only and sweetness. To one, the cloudy rendezvous is a wild dance, with a terror at its heart; to another, a majestic march of heavenly hosts, with Truth in their centre pointing their course, but as yet restraining her voice. The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended.

I will go farther.--The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is--not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself. The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise. Does any aspect of Nature wake but one thought? Does she ever suggest only one definite thing? Does she make any two men in the same place at the same moment think the same thing? Is she therefore a failure, because she is not definite? Is it nothing that she rouses the something deeper than the understanding--the power that underlies thoughts? Does she not set feeling, and so thinking at work? Would it be better that she did this after one fashion and not after many fashions? Nature is mood-engendering, thought-provoking: such ought the sonata, such ought the fairytale to be.

"But a man may then imagine in your work what he pleases, what you never meant!"

Not what he pleases, but what he can. If he be not a true man, he will draw evil out of the best; we need not mind how he treats any work of art! If he be a true man, he will imagine true things; what matter whether I meant them or not? They are there none the less that I cannot claim putting them there! One difference between God's work and man's is, that, while God's work cannot mean more than he meant, man's must mean more than he meant. For in everything that God has made, there is a layer upon layer of ascending significance; also he expresses the same thought in higher and higher kinds of that thought: it is God's things, his embodied thoughts, which alone a man has to use, modified and adapted to his own purposes, for the expression of his thoughts; therefore he cannot help his words and figures falling into such combinations in the mind of another as he had himself not foreseen, so many are the thoughts allied to every other thought, so many are the relations involved in every figure, so many the facts hinted in every symbol. A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; for he was dealing all the time things that came from thoughts beyond his own.

- George MacDonald, "The Fantastic Imagination"

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A few random responses to some of J. Robert's fine comments (sadly no longer available in full, as I stupidly deleted them by accident; see above):

Some folk on this board find Saved! to be a thoughtful satire on evangelical Christianity and a film that treats its characters with affection even as it pokes fun at their weaknesses. In that sense, they take the filmmakers at their stated word. I don't. I think Saved! is mean and spiteful, one that denigrates evangelicals by implying the only good evangelicals are the ones who give up any pretense of being evangelical. Now, did we see the same film? Of course. So, how can we come to such different conclusions? Because our contexts are different. We saw the same images but took away different messages, different connotations. We probably focused on different aspects of the film, and our experiences colored what we saw.

At the same time, I think it's good to keep in view that both interpretations of Saved, whether as "thoughtful" and "affectionate" or as "mean and spiteful," would seem to make no sense unless we keep some concept of authorial intent in view.

Celluloid, per se, can't be thoughtful or spiteful, nor can sheer facts such as events in a film or characterizations. Only personal acts, intentional acts, can be affectionate or spiteful.

If we limit ourselves to examining reader (or rather audience) response in ourselves (and perhaps others), the most we would be able to say about a film would be something like "This film made me feel exactly as if someone were being spiteful to me."

Less inanely, we might say "This film made me feel angry/ashamed/indignant etc.," or "I think that other people watching this film will be harmed in their perception of Evangelicalism, etc." But words like "thoughtful" or "spiteful" would seem to be nonsense in a purely reader-response framework.

One of the great things about boards like this is that we can try to hash out those differences, grasp how people look at the world differently, and, in the end, come to a greater understanding. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that just talking about something will lead to agreement.

True, although in the course of hashing things out I think it will become clear to many participants that some interpretations are more comprehensive and plausible than others.

For example, I haven't seen Saved! so I have no critical opinion of my own, but reading other people's comments it seems pretty clear to me that I can make sense of what the fans like about the film from the perspective of your critical take on the film more easily than I can make sense of what you don't like about the film from the perspective of those who do.

IOW, your view seems more comprehensive, better suited to viewing the film as a whole in terms of all it does and doesn't do. That doesn't mean everyone will be persuaded, but I think that all things being equal your view will out.

So, when SDG makes the statement that he knows what The Last Temptation of Christ means by the dialogue of Paul, well he doesn't have to go far (mike h, please stand up) to find someone who completely disagrees.

Are we sure of that? Mike H, what do you think was the point of Paul's comments about the resurrection?

And here's why? Sometimes (often) authors don't have a clue about their own work. The best example I know of is Apocalypse Now. If you listen to the dvd commentary, Coppola actually claims that the conclusion of the movie is optimistic--the natives lay down their weapons and peace is achieved. I know very few people who would take away that message. It certainly doesn't fit with the source material (Heart of Darkness), and it doesn't fit at all with the movie's tone or the way it's filmed. In this case, I'm confident in saying that Coppola is misguided about his own film.

True, but even that doesn't remove authorial intent from the discussion. First, because Coppola's intent is not the only one to be considered, and in this case may not be the definitive one. Secondly, because what an artist intended on a creative level and what happens when he attempts to intellectualize and articulate his vision aren't always the same thing. Thirdly, because people don't always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

So if we can't ever know conclusively what an author means to say and if we recognize that context plays a huge role in how we read a work of art, what is the "solution"? I think that a great dose of humility is foundational as well as a wide circle of fellow critics. We need to understand how important the conversation is--not that we have to agree, but we can't come close to understanding the world we live in unless we broaden our own perspectives, unless we try to grasp how other people see their reality.

Sounds good to me!


“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Sorry for being long-winded, but I love this topic.

Ditto. (In my linguistic context that is shorthand for mutual affirmation.) Sorry for the terrible length of this post.

Even a simple word of language cannot be reduced to a one-to-one relationship.

Yeah, I think it is necessary for the Church to take the linguistic turn when it comes to encountering artifacts of cultural in the public arena. Reponses to Jeffrey's article on the F-bomb are indicative that much of the church is stuck in a 19th century philosophy of language. Much of that is because most contemporary conservative theology still perpetuates this atomistic ("onet-to-one") philosophy of language as if it were inherently Biblical itself. This is the sole reason why there are so many people in the church that will react to an article like that so fervently and irrationally. So, to make a long story short, we are on the same page in the history of language philosophy. I think it is safe to say that most of us here are.

All that to say, language is slippery, and there is often a rupture between the sign and signified, to use the language of semiotics.

The previous being said, I hope I can clarify the idea that we can speak of this "rupture" from two different perspectives. One would be from the experience of the viewer encountering a breakdown in his system, and another would be from the experience of the viewer encountering a breakdown in a system shared by himself and an author. I am in the camp that says film exists to identify and embody ruptures in culture's broader sign systems, and in the cases of extremely thoughtful films, very personal ones. And some films do both.

In Time of the Wolf we have a very broad experience of having fundamental signs in a European setting (a ethnic boundary, a package of cigarettes, an economic system, a train track, a few snippets of mythical language) flopped on their heads. Through this we gain access to this terrible world in which everything has gone wrong and we see the underbellies of a few of these foundational signified realities. But in the film we also have that brilliant scene in which the Mother goes to look for her child in pitch blackness outside of the farm-house they are staying in for the night. There are several moments in which all we see is pitch blackness (the undulating grain darkness unique to film) and hear her voice. Here we have already been in the film for a while, adopting its "signing rhythms" and picking up on some of the stories inner mechanics. And Haneke drops this darkness over the whole system. It is just for a moment, but right there is a visual rupture than functions on a very privatized level. He is rubbing our faces in the pessimistic absurdity of his narrative as we have been experiencing it. This scene is a great example of ruptured signification in a visual language system.

But, and here is where I would want to stick in a modified authorial intent, both of these occur because of networks that exist outside of the film itself and work their way into the viewing process. The broader rupture occurs because both us and Haneke are familiar with the social politics of the European Union and the signs it elicits. The more privatized one occurs because Haneke is such an incredible artist. Though his films do take on a life of their own, often beyond the bounds of whatever meaning he would have intended to be evoking, Haneke is a master at setting us up for these very personal ruptured experiences through his films. (Need we even talk about Funny Games?)

Sure, there is a group of people enacting this process. But I don't think it really matters to get hung up on multiple takes, characterizations, and the editing room. Functionally, purely from the perspective of language, a film like Time of the Wolf has things that act like gateways through which meanings exterior to the film itself come to bear on the viewing process. These portals of meaning can be considered authorial.

So when we see a film from the '60s and try to imagine what the author was trying to "say," our contexts are so different that authorial intention is deeply problematic.

We could think of this issue in the same that Ricoeur thinks about metaphor. For him, metaphors are the seedbed of meaning, not a one-to-one correspondence between words and objects. It is in metaphor that we come in contact with the fact that communication occurs in a linguistic relationship between two entities that come together on the basis of shared symbolic experiences. Doesn't this sound an awful lot like the mechanics of watching film? For Ricoeur, authorial intention is simply trying to find meaning behind the text in the context of its writing to the neglect of the world of the text. His solution then is to spend our time as interpreters in the world in front of the text. Here, through a hermeneutic of self-suspicion and openness we encounter the text, its creation, and our experience of it all at once.

The only problem with this is its radical subjectivism. It is a coherent circle, but ultimately one of the interpreter's own design. All we need to do is toss in one control, an understanding that concerns exterior to the text vector into both the writing and reading of that text (or film). The good interpreter is the one that is able to spend his time in and in front of the text with full knowledge of what controls over these exterior intrusions are inherent to the text itself in the production of meaning. So we have to think in terms of author, but not in the way that we imagine this personality, psychology, and biography penning every word in such a mechanical way that every word can be explained away in terms of history. Rather, we can think of the author as a sort of valve of meaning that articulates a storyline based on a coherent system of signs whether broadly cultural, privatized, or sometimes both. "Context" is little more than a matter of enough homework to know what "portals of meaning" to enter into a film. Otherwise our only other option is a radical subjectivity (Ricoeur though is not a bad option if that is the case).

The old way of thinking of the "author" is not the only way. We can think of director more of a "begetter of symbols" or even of an architect of systems that are sometimes designed to crumble. To me, this seems to mediate the poles of subjectivity and authorial intention well.

Edited by (M)Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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"So if we can't ever know conclusively what an author means to say and if we recognize that context plays a huge role in how we read a work of art' date=' what is the "solution"? I think that a great dose of humility is foundational as well as a wide circle of fellow critics. We need to understand how important the conversation is--not that we have to agree, but we can't come close to understanding the world we live in unless we broaden our own perspectives, unless we try to grasp how other people see their reality."[/quote']

Absolutely. And Ricoeur is all about the humility factor, about becoming a listener rather than an orator. This may be the one thing that can make Christian film criticism unique, an unparalleled humility in the face of visions and versions of the human experience as we encounter them in film. An interpretive bent that listens more closely than a radical subjectivism.

Edited by (M)Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Meanwhile, the authorship of a film introduces complicating factors that aren't present in discussion of a book, which is probably one reason I've been skeptical of sweeping statements about authorship by literary critics that fall apart as soon as you try to apply them to film.

Well put. This seems to be very germane to a Christian setting as well, which still tends to be so logocentric. Do any of us have some film theorists on the shelf that deal with this? I have a few, but they tend to stumble into the subjective mode so quickly and adopt a "perspective" (Marxist, feminist, etc...)

I also need to have somebody explain to me how myth fits into the authorial intention debate: who authors a myth?

(This is quickly getting over my head). Is this because in your experience myths and films tend to function the same way?


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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(This is quickly getting over my head).
Me, too. Let's swim out as far as we can and hope that the lifeguards will come rescue us if we start to sink.

Is this because in your experience myths and films tend to function the same way?
Certain films, for sure -- though structuralists like Northrop Frye would tell us that even realistic stories/films involve setting the archetypes in play at the Deep Structure level -- then again, I'm not sure I want to sign up for that whole ideological package. Nevertheless, generic evolution seems to operate by some of the same collaborative (including the audience as collaborator) mechanisms that folklore-building occurs. And it is intriguing to me that artists claim to be operating soley by their unique individual gut often seem to replicate the gut instincts of artists throughout the ages in a way that makes me skeptical of those who are entirely skeptical of universals. But, like you say, deep waters, and I'm dogpaddling as fast as I can.

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The Deep Structure approach though gets too squirrely for me. You end up with Noam Chomsky at an almost mystical response to the language process. There is some kind of "black box" in the creative process (read: our minds) that contains the explanation for what is going on with story acquisition and collaboration, but we don't have access to that. So we just sit back and enjoy it or something.

You yourself have written a fantastic (some would say "epic") survey of Jesus films that is replete with good historical and cultural detail above and beyond commentary on the "universal story" that the films hover around. The Lewis approach to myth is perceptive, but how do we hold on to it without looking at our artists as puppets with all their strings pulled by the past? And what about films that have little to do with mythical data? Like Bowling for Columbine?

Edited by (M)Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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Yeah, Deep Structure is a little creepy for me, too. But at the risk of setting off the Planet Chomsky alarms, I don't think you're being fair to Noam on the "black box." I thought his point there was a sort of admirable humility: he can't account for human language acquisition via conventional biological processes, therefore refuses to account for it, just takes it as a given. I find that pretty interesting, actually. But, then again, I have no idea what the guy is talking about most of the time. As regards the puppet string idea, am I wrong in noting some similarities in this debate with the likewise unresolved one over Free Will and Determinism (or Sovereignty)? Not to hit the "Mystery" button too soon, but there seems to me to be some kind of trade-off between the two extremes that we may never be able to unravvel and explicate precisely. In any case, maybe we should table the myth part of the Authorial Intent discussion if it complicates things too much at the start. I'm just flying by the seat of the pants on that one.

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I am willing to table the myth thing and tackle it at a different time. I think it may sidetrack us. Chomsky though is just as reductive as the hardcore authorial intent people. For him language must be rooted in socio-biology. There has to be a materialist explanation. When he can't find the purely materialist explanation, he steps back and strokes his pointy Marxist beard and says: hmmm...then there must be some sort of mystery here.

Just seems like a poor line of logic. And this is off track of the discussion.

It seems like you would relegate authorial intention to the fact that authors are often working in a continuum that is much larger than themselves. When we read, we submit not to the author, but to the continuum. Am I reading you correctly?

Edited by (M)Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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Boy, "a conversation you've been having in Chicago for a while" is the understatement of the year--I can hardly follow your posts.

One thing I'll note, however: Chomsky is not a Marxist at all. Technically speaking, he's a libertarian socialist, or left-anarchist.

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