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.