What do films mean really?

Discussion in 'Movies' started by Daniel J.S., Nov 22, 2003.

  1. Daniel J.S.

    Daniel J.S. Stunt Coordinator

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    This may get moved, possibly to After Hours, since it isn't just about films but anyway...

    The latest tangent over in the Star Wars OT on DVD thread about whether the layers of meaning are really there or manufactured in hindsight brought something I've been mulling over to the surface. Do works of art, be it films, paintings, music, whatever, actually have intrinsic meanings? Studying Critical Musicology for my M.A. has lead me to the belief that a work of art has no stable meaning; rather, meaning is culturally mediated. What the artist and what the consumer perceives in the work is determined by the way we have experienced culture and society. Similarly, the creation of the work is affected by cultural, social and political context. For example, a common interpretation of LOTR is that of an increasingly industrialized society destroying the beauty of nature. That interpretation wouldn't exist without the military and industrial buildup that resulted form the onset of the Second World War. How about the accusations of racial stereotypes in the Star Wars prequels? Rather than trying to prove that George Lucas is a racist, perhaps the real issue is the cultural tropes about race that have seeped into our consciousness that Lucas may have embodied, innocently or not (of course, it's always possible that the critics were completely wrong, but I'm not totally convinced of that).

    I think we all agree that interpretations shouldn't end with the creator's intentions, but I wonder if it should even begin there. Instead of looking for semiotic codes, placed by the creator for certain meanings, perhaps we should focus on the context the work was created in, how the artist may have felt about it and how it may have been manifested in the work (similarly we would look at the context of consumption and how meaning is contructed there). Basically, what the artist thinks the work means may not be what it means because it has no set meaning. I think that's a more satisfying interpretive approach than looking for symbols that say, unequivocally represent the pillaging of the country into a vast military machine.

    Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm destined to be the nerdy academic isolated in the ivory tower, reading journals and watching "Star Trek" re-runs in between spinnings of the "Ring" cycle. At least I won't be living in my parents' basement. [​IMG]
     
  2. Alex Spindler

    Alex Spindler Producer

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    Well, there may well have been a 'meaning' in mind when the artist creates the original work, however, the evaluation of any work of art is based on what both the artist and the viewer bring to the table. In that way, you're right that the interpretation of a work will change as the culture and society viewing it changes.
     
  3. Steve Felix

    Steve Felix Supporting Actor

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    Agreed -- though the artist may have a meaning in mind, the best art won't push a meaning but will allow itself to be a mirror for the viewer.

    I'm generalizing, of course.
     
  4. Dan Rudolph

    Dan Rudolph Producer

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    Film is much more concrete than music so the same concerns don't really apply.
     
  5. JustinCleveland

    JustinCleveland Cinematographer

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    There is a post-modern concept that ultimately states that the creator of a piece of art (film, music, movie, building, sculpture, whatever) can have their intentions, but ultimately they become silent when the art is presented, since they cannot speak for it. The result is that any perception of layers lies in the hands of the interpreter.

    I only moderately agree with this sentiment. I think, and have seen, a skilled artisan guide the thoughts and emotions of the viewer of their craft. I think the truth lies somewhere in between. But really, what is a film if no one sees it? It is nothing. Only when it is presented for public consumption does it fill its intended purpose.

    But on a subpoint, it's important to note that a lot of the meaning that's assigned to a film comes from the cultural background, the societal pinnings, of the viewer. I may interpret Kurosawa differently than a man from Japan, and he may interpret Kubrick different than I. Ultimately, the interpretations we assign are based on what we know, since a film rarely is created as a learning tool (though we could also argue that any new experience through a narrative is a learning experience).

    If you go back and read my review for Open Range, you'll see that I saw it flagrantly being filmed as a commentary on US Foreign policy post September 11th. Most everyone scoffed at me, called me a looney. However they didn't watch the movie while sitting next to Kevin Costner, and didn't hear him vent on the how actors were intellegent and political people who were very apt to action because they understood the issues. Had I not heard him make these statements, I may have just interpreted the film as a harmless, ordinary western.

    Ultimately there is a symbiosis in the creation of meaning in a film. A filmmaker can guide you to a conclusion, but unless you have the societal understandings of what he/she is guiding you toward, it will not work because you don't understand it. On the contrary, we can also assign meaning simply because we need to do so, look for a hidden message or deeper meaning than then text because we need to find purpose, substance, in an otherwise vapid film because to watch purely to watch would seem like an effort of mental masturbation; fun, but really useless in our growth as intellectual humans.
     
  6. Daniel J.S.

    Daniel J.S. Stunt Coordinator

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    The question is who has agency over interpretation? Modernist thought would have it that the artist is everything and there is a definite meaning. The post-modernists would argue that meaning is not set in stone, but socially constructed: the artist may have had a certain meaning in mind, but it was affected by the culture that it was produced in. Similarly, the culture that the work is consumed in will affect the meaning of the work there. No points for guessing that I ally myself with the post-modernists. [​IMG]

    The problem, as I see it, is that film criticism is still very much ensconsed in modernist thought; ideas like "greatness" and "genius" are thrown around. There is a separation of "high" and "low." When we get into the auteur theory, we are getting into the notion of the autonomous work of art, created by an individual genius. Hey, I fall into that when I watch films myself. But I think we may want to move away from those distinctions, breaking down the high/low opposition, acknowledging that ideas like genius and greatness are determined not by a film's inherent qualities, but by cultural context. As I see it, films aren't as concrete as Mr. Rudolph said. They are different films to each culture and each generation. In other words, modernism is dead. [​IMG]
     
  7. Max Leung

    Max Leung Producer

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    Some anthropologists believe there is a common underpinning behind art...that, at some basic level, people respond the same way to certain forms of art, and that there may be universal attributes that make art beautiful versus junk. Luckily for the post-modernists, no one has really determined what those attributes are. [​IMG]

    I suppose this view is along the lines of Campbell's mythos theory...that if you follow the basic elements of myth, you'll have a higer chance of producing something that can be called "art" - assuming that art is something that the majority of the population will admire at some level. Of course, this is contrary to those who believe that anything that is popular is garbage - a strange view because then they would believe that nature is garbage too since so many people love the outdoors (well at least in my neck of the woods [​IMG] ).

    Then there is the elitist view of art...that only a few people are qualified to declare something as art, and everything the "unwashed masses" likes are just consumerist drones. I'm not sure if this qualifies as "post-modernist" though.

    Does anyone think that art, as practiced during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment periods, was more mathematical in nature? It seems, from looking at Michaelangelo's and Bach's work, that in those times people considered something "art" if it followed a strict set of rules - ie. a painting should have this type of lighting and the subject must be posed a certain way (uncannily familiar with moderm film and photographic composition techniques - such as the "rule of thirds").

    Go to your local bookstore, and see if you can find the National Geographic Photography Field Guide: Secrets to Making Great Pictures and you'll see a list of guidelines still used by filmmakers today...
     
  8. Max Leung

    Max Leung Producer

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    Oh, if anybody can recommend a good film composition/technique guide, that would be great!
     
  9. Daniel J.S.

    Daniel J.S. Stunt Coordinator

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    I can't comment on paintings, but in Bach's time, there was this little thing called the "Doctrine of Affections" which defined the different affects, or emotional states that certain keys carried. The idea was that a single piece (be it a movement of a concerto or a mass) should convey a single affect. In addition to fairly rigid rules about counterpoint and voice-leading, I'd say that yes, Baroque music was more mathematical. But don't forget, it was the cultural biases of the time that led to art being created in a certain way. And I still love it. [​IMG]
     
  10. George See

    George See Second Unit

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  11. Max Leung

    Max Leung Producer

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    Ah, didn't know that about the "Doctrine of Affections" movement...interesting! I'm sure something similar happened in filmmaking...I'd guess sometime during or after the 2nd world war, where the roots for "arthouse" movies were laid down. At least, it seems to me that a lot of European films follow a formula of some sort, different from the Hollywood formula laid down in the 40's. Any film historians that can tell me I am wrong? [​IMG]

    Bach is pretty cool...but it took me a while to "get it". Say, wasn't Mozart considered pop music in its time, loved by the masses but hated by the elite? Ack, my music history just isn't up to snuff.

    I'm still trying to wrap my hand around the modernist versus post-modernist movements. They both seem so out of touch with reality to me.
     
  12. JamesDrake

    JamesDrake Agent

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    I have always been turned off by the notion of symbolism. It started in the twelvth grade, I believe when the teacher spoke about symbolism in books and what this or that meant. She literally crammed it down our throats. It all sounded like rubbish to me then and for the most part, it still does. I understand if the author or creator of the art made it known to the audience why he/she input this paragraph or brush stroke. I just never understood how she could say without a doubt why the creator/artist settled on his decision to do so. Maybe I was the only one?

    I agree, however, about how people interpret things and how we rely on past experiences or our own knowledge to derive some meaning. For how can we derive anything at all if it wasn't something already learned or clearly stated? Does that make sense?

    For example, I watched Legends of the Fall with my wife tonight and to me, it was a movie of reflection of the times I spent with my father and brother while camping and hunting..etc. I assure you that the movie meant something totally different to my wife than what it meant for me even though we felt many of the same emotions while watching it.

    However, sometimes the message is blatantly apparent such as the anti-gun slogans in Lethal Weapon 4. Instances like that really turn me off to some films including the ones developed solely for commercialism, and profit from sales of toys at fast food restaurants.

    Sometimes, films become money making vessels in the end regardless of the creator's intent. LOTR is one that falls into that category. I enjoy the film and even some of the collectible items available. But it becomes a little too much for me when they make LOTR Risk, Monopoly and collectible glasses at McDonalds, etc.

    In the end, I would rather the artistleave the meaning vague for my own interpretation. I feel that I get more enjoyment out of the film, music, painting when it is left to my own imagination.

    Good discussion, keep it up.
     
  13. Daniel J.S.

    Daniel J.S. Stunt Coordinator

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    Well, Amadeus leads you to believe that, but of course that movie in 98% bullshit. Mozart was popular in some places, not so popular in others. The movie is right that Mozart struggled in Vienna; with The Marriage of Figaro being only performed nine times. It was a big hit in Prague however, which led to the city commisioning Don Giovanni. However, it flopped in Vienna (five performances). Mozart was particularly pig-headed, turning down a plum position in France, for example, because he didn't like French music. In short, Mozart was well regarded in much of Europe, but a dearth of teaching assignments and court positions made it hard for him to stay afloat. It wasn't a matter of being liked by the masses and hated by the elite; it was more a matter of being liked or disliked, period.
     
  14. Ashley Seymour

    Ashley Seymour Supporting Actor

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    It's about sex. Everything flows from there.
     
  15. Max Leung

    Max Leung Producer

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    I think you're right Daniel...you just jogged my memory of the music appreciation course I took while I was in University. Yep, his popularity didn't really have much to do with the different social classes. And his personality was totally different from the movie! Talk about taking creative license! [​IMG]

    Symbolism...maybe that is the reason for the split in opinion on the Matrix sequels - people who did not like how symbolism was taught ("shoved in throats") in school may have gotten a similar feeling (negative flashbacks?) after watching the sequels. Some think the Matrix trilogy is art, others, well, don't. James, I agree that what a person interprets is tied to their previous experience. Although, I find that people who have similar experiences can still hold a vastly different opinion on a piece of work...innate differences I guess.

    Sex - well, Ashley may be technically right - look at all the babes you see in music videos, Hollywood blockbusters, covers of printed fiction... [​IMG]
     
  16. Dan Rudolph

    Dan Rudolph Producer

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    I didn't says film was concrete. I said it was more concrete than music. I don't see how this is even debatable. It's much more specific.

    To use relatively modern examples that are both about as abstract as things get Compare Mulholland Drive and Around the World. There's a pretty big difference.

    Or, just looks what happens when music videos are made.
     
  17. JamesDrake

    JamesDrake Agent

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    I enjoyed the Matrix. I just got lost when they decide to infuse the psychobabble BS in part II into the story line. It just seemed like they were reaching or on acid. I was still entertained although confused.

    Speaking of sex, I refuse to be suckered into watching something for the mere chance that Britney will kiss Halle or some other similar circumstance. I had to turn it off after that intro...SNL from 11-22-03

    I'll wait until it becomes a rerun.
     
  18. JohnRice

    JohnRice Lead Actor

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    Great discussion. I wonder how long it will take me to write my post.

     
  19. Daniel J.S.

    Daniel J.S. Stunt Coordinator

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    This reminds me of the old saw about the African prince who attended a Western classical concert and wondered why the same piece was being played over and over. Since the Western tonal system priveleges harmony and melody, "verticality", the African heard nothing interesting rhyhmically, as much non-Western music stresses complex rhythmic patterns. No wonder he couldn't tell the pieces apart. Your experience in that University course sounds very distressing as it reinforces an ideal of Western hegemony. Indeed, discussion about "canons" of great works (in all art forms) seem to be a method of excluding certain undesirable elements and creating a set-in-stone definition of "greatness." I believe it is our duty to fight these kinds of attitudes.
     
  20. JohnRice

    JohnRice Lead Actor

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    Wow.

    Daniel. I am stunned by the volume of information you gleaned from only a couple simple sentences. One statement from a professor about the subconscious effects of certain passages of music suddenly becomes a subversive effort to stifle creativity and homogonize art to a Western standard? I've read your statement several times and I keep getting the same reaction. Is that what you wanted to hear me saying? Because it sure as hell isn't what I meant. I actually was just wondering if even these subconscious reactions were somehow conditioned by our culture, as though people with no formal knowledge of more rhythm based forms of music would also have fairly universal subconscious reactions to pieces of that type, if they grew up in societies where that form of music was the norm.
     

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