You Oughta Know: Nothing is Necessary and Everything is Intended

Several years ago a friend and I were discussing a movie with one of those endings where–depending on how you interpret the final scene(s)–the film has either blown your mind or wasted ninety minutes of your life.  The film might have been The Illusionist, Donnie Darko, The Box, Inception, or any number of other films I can’t recall.  But the important thing is that this friend and I were in disagreement about the movie’s denouement.  I was prepared to lay out a long list of evidences composed of scraps of dialogue, linguistic/ visual/ aural themes and symbols, foreshadowed elements, and other tools of the cinematographer, but only a few examples in my friend exploded “Stop, stop all of those things are just details.  They don’t mean anything.  They just happened to be like that!”

Welcome to the second edition of my ongoing reflection on the skills that undergrads should learn to prepare them for graduate level academia.  This outing could just as easily have come before Disciples of Reading, but I saved it till after because this skill applies more broadly.  To put it another way, today’s skill could be called listening for argument, watching for argument, tasting for argument, or simply experiencing for intention.  If reading for argument is reading with an eye toward why an author constructed a text the way they did, then experiencing for intention is attempting to parse the intentions behind any choice made in the creation of a human artifact.

Reading a film text for argument is even harder than reading a written text because–as my friend’s response indicates–movies are sensationally good at making audiences believe that they are real.  No, not in the sense that Captain Jack Sparrow is an actual personage, but in the sense that the worlds films create just had to be as they were experienced.  Movie’s real magic is convincing audiences that characters just had to dress, speak, and behave the way they did, and the window we had into that world–their world–just had to be as it was–not because the script said so, the designers envisioned it that way, or even because the budget dictated it–but because they always, already existed.

However, films are actually the carefully crafted artifacts of many “authors” and because of this, little,–if anything–is the result of chance–let alone a fictional necessity.  Examples? Okay!

Visual metaphors are easier to spot than some of the other pieces of subtle film grammar.  In The Sixth Sense, the color red is used to symbolize any object or person that acts as a point of interchange between the world of the dead and the world of the living.  Thus, the child Cole appears in a red sweater when he is attacked in the attic, the child psychologist Malcolm’s wife wears a red dress when she is seen waiting for him to appear at the restuarant where they were engaged, and doorknob that Malcom is unable to turn throughout the film–because there is now a table in front of it–has a red glass knob.

A film’s aural grammar can be a bit harder to spot, but careful study rewards a good listener.  Take for example Groundhog Day, a film in which Bill Murray’s character is forced to repeat one day over and over until he cleans up his act and becomes a decent human being.  However, many have wondered what exactly gets Phil out of his predicament?  Well, clearly it has something to do with getting together with the film’s love interest, Rita, but what is the exact action that finally lifts the curse?  Good listeners will hear a magic bell sound effect when Phil kisses Rita on his last day in purgatory.

Just as in books, character’s names are often chosen for their symbolism.  Quickly then, Neo is an anagram for One, Minerva is the name of the Roman goddess of wisdom and war whose pet is an owl, and American Beauty‘s Lester Burnham is an anagram for Humbert learns, the older man seduced by a young girl in Lolita.

This is the barest sampling of the grammar that film’s authors can write and canny audiences can read, but it should serve to suggest the manifold ways that people consciously choose all the little details of any cultural construct to help support, explain, and add depth to their creations.  By learning to recognize that nothing about these artifacts is necessary and everything–or nearly everything–is the result of some intentionality, a savvy scholar can better understand and enjoy all the arts.  Tune in next time to discuss Generous Readings and Hermeneutics of Suspicion.

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4 comments on “You Oughta Know: Nothing is Necessary and Everything is Intended

  1. Robert Minto says:

    Hmm… you remind me in this piece — specifically, in your emphasis on the total constructedness of cultural artifacts — of the Strauss / Klein / Kojeve line on the interpretation of ancient esoteric texts (say, a platonic dialogue) where the general perspective is that nothing, not the smallest action on the part of a character or the smallest differential of usage, should go unnoticed in constructing the most comprehensive possible interpretation. How do you square this with the (albeit limited) autonomy of the text? In the case of a film, just speaking from my gut, the potential for a creator’s omnipotence to fail, for elements of the chaos of the unintended to enter the apparently semantic content of the artifact, seems even greater than that potential in a written text. (Though perhaps, as a writer, I’m simply over-committed to the comparative meticulousness of my guild.) Although, true, none of the details of a film are the result of the actual existence of the lives into which we seem to be peering, there’s still a world of difference between a detail that resulted just because the on-site location happened to have such and such a wallpaper or because the budget required the blue doo-hickey rather than the green one and, on the other hand, a detail intentionally woven into the purposefully semantic fabric of the artifact.

    I guess I want to press you on your interpretive approach to the ambiguously semantic content of artifacts. One solution — the one I tend to embrace — involves deployment of additional hermeneutic tools like historical-materialist or psycho-analytic analysis, which are specifically oriented to the unintentional but nonetheless semantic content of artifacts. (On which see, for example, Frederic Jameson.) Or one could follow the Straussian hermeneutic of virtual omnipotent authorship (which requires performatively omnipotent interpretation — though the interpreters may say they’re allowing for the questionableness of their analysis). Or, I’m sure, there are a host of alternatives. How do you deal with the problem? (Or have I failed to make it clear? — Wouldn’t be surprised at that, as I’m writing this just before bed, after having read Husserl all evening, and immediately following the quaffing of a glass of fine red wine.)

    • maphman says:

      Lots to consider here. 1) As you know, I’m not much on a text’s autonomy. There is a necessary autonomy of interpretation and a necessary limit on the creator’s ability to dictate the nature of her creation, but I prefer to keep the autonomy of the reader’s interpretation and the author’s attempted subordination as distinct elements. That is to say, I hold to a nearly complete constructedness of the artifact in as much as the artifact can be a construct–and not merely a repurposing. So I prefer to interpret as though the creator is omnipotent as it seems the more generous position to take–at least in most situation. 2) Yes, I admit to overstating my case for effect. Not EVERYTHING in the mise en scène has the levels of intentionality that my–intentionally–loaded examples do. It is an interpretive decision on the part of a text’s reader to attribute intentionality to a creator–but as I have already suggested–I think that it is preferable to err on this side rather than chalking it up to chance. Clearly, an on-location shoot has a greater chance of including non-intentional elements than does a closed sound-stage–but this only moves the act of intentioning from the realm of the set designer or the camera operator to level of the editor or the director who oversees the final edit. Generally, symbolism in a text is fairly heavy-handed. One could argue that the presence of a particular color wallpaper is merely the result of happenstance, but at the third, fourth, fifth appearance of a particular color in close relationship to other patterns of representation the scales begin to tip toward the side of intentionality. So, the hermeneutic tactic is a sensitivity to repetition of motif, symbol, metaphor, etc. within both the conventions of the genre and the pragmatic circumstances of the artifact’s creation. On a side note–I can almost get behind a psychoanalytic perspective–even if the creator is not aware of his intentioning–there is still an psychical preference which intentions without conscious direction.

      So, the grad school skill here is the decision to attend to the possibility that the mise en scène bristles with intentionality where a reading for entertainment–or for distance–merely sees characters trudging about in an always, already established world. Hope this scratches where you itch, if not let me take another crack at it with a follow up comment.

  2. Robert Minto says:

    Just for the benefit of anyone reading these comments who is an undergraduate and may think I’m contesting whether the subject of this post is in fact a good skill to acquire for grad school: On the contrary, I absolutely endorse [maphman’s] point about the value of recognizing and theorizing about patterns of apparent meaning.

    I hadn’t thought of the connection between reading as if the author were omnipotent and reading generously. That’s interesting. But may I quibble? It’s my default way of treating interesting new ideas.

    I prefer to interpret as though the creator is omnipotent as it seems the more generous position to take–at least in most situations

    Sometimes an author displays ticks of (perhaps, and one hopes) unintended symbols in the depiction of, for example, the members of a certain class, race, or gender. It can be charitable, in this case, to inquire after what unexamined aspects of their background understanding and context are leaking out in this excess of meaning. Sometimes I think that texts are like vampiric sponges that suck so much out of their authors and surroundings and language and influences, that the poor host to their activities must have been rendered unsuspectingly anemic in the aftermath of composition.

    I wonder if it is always generous to treat an author as omnipotent? If so, then all the ragged edges and detritus of their age are cast back on their shoulders; we have, it seems, almost no choice but to stand in moral judgment on every failure of sympathy, smallness of view, and vulgarity or un-fineness of perception that they exhibit. If we are to be able to stand the culpable omnipotence of almost any author, then, we have to engage in all sorts of weird pseudo-theodicy on their behalf. Even theologians, who are prepared to make more than performative assumptions of omnipotence in the creation of (at least one collection of) texts, often feel the need to come up with ideas like “organic inspiration” and / or social context to evade the problem I’ve just noted.

    Consequently — out of generosity as much as anything — I am attracted to utilizing the various hermeneutic methods that treat an artifact as constituted (in its meaning) by many mutually unaware systems, in addition to the author’s intentions. It seems to me that a generous reading is, ultimately, the reading that an interpreter finds most systematically valuable and which, at the same time, casts the fewest possible number of aspersions on the character of the author. Consequently, sometimes it is necessary to disavow her intentionality for the sake of generosity.

    So, I guess, in light of the above, do you really want to support the reading-as-if-the-author-were-omnipotent line on the basis of its being more generous?

    • maphman says:

      Since generosity and the unintended symbols (depicting persons of certain classes, races, and genders) are significant portions of what I have addressed in the next post, lets continue our conversation there.

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