Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Role of Intent Part One: What He Was Really Saying Was…

So I've been short on time to work on the blog lately. Unfortunate (and a little frustrating, and so I'm thinking about ways to expand what I write so that it's not weeks between entries), but it happens. One of the things I hadn't had time to do was address a recent comment on my reconsideration of Srpski Film. Someone by the name Anonymous was nice enough to write…

"Not to be too critical, but you guys are all pretty much way off the mark. You are all trying to see this movie through what you have heard on CNN and you should understand that the director and people in Serbia didn't watch CNN and their view of their country is way different than yours. The closest you got to what the movie is about is your statement '...that this is the sort of film Serbia produces'. It is a film within a film critiquing the Serbian film industry, its tight connection to the Serbian government and the modern propaganda that it serves. The painting on the wall is the last supper before the battle of kosovo [sic] (14th century). The scene is intended to show how cinema is used for propaganda purposes to stain Serbia's reputation and loosen its grip on Kosovo. The guys that made the film are tired of what they call 'Red Cross' movies and that is the meaning behind the speech Vukmir makes about the victim being the priciest sell."

…which was nice of them, I thought. Who knows how long I would have gone completely misunderstanding the film? It's a good thing Anonymous came along to set me straight.

However, since this blog is one guy, and not "guys", and this guy gets busy sometimes, it took me awhile to read the comment. And while I was in the process of formulating a response (which I wanted to do before I published the comment, so the exchange could go up at once), Anonymous was nice enough to clarify…

"So I see that you censor posts that are not agreeable to your (misinformed) viewpoint. Doesn't matter because the true interpretation of this movie is out more and more on the net and your little piece here looks laughable next to it."

Well, damn. It turns out that I was misinformed, and my "little piece" was laughable. I was wrong about a movie.  Which is funny, because to the best of my knowledge, I've never claimed to be any sort of authority, let alone  "right" about movies.

And so I've been thinking about authorial intent. Specifically, how thoroughly unimportant it is.

Trying to pin down what a movie is "about" is a tricky thing. Sure, there's the plot - in that sense, Srpski Film is about a former porn star who takes one last job to make enough money to support his family and ends up getting tangled up in something very bad. But at the end of the day, a plot is just a sequence of events. When was the last time a synopsis scared the hell out of you? With a few tweaks, I also just described part of one of the storylines in Boogie Nights and the general plot of Wonderland, neither one of which are generally considered horror movies. Shift the role of the porn star from the foreground to a background role as the protagonist's girlfriend and you've got Sexy Beast, which although an awesome movie, is by no means horror.

So there's got to be something else there that gives the movie some emotional freight, something to which we can respond both rationally (we understand what is happening) and then emotionally (it makes us feel a certain way, given a particular context). Much of the experience of a movie isn't the events themselves as much as how the events are expressed, and that's a slipperier thing than just a straight synopsis. There are specific choices in visual, aural, and verbal content that can make the most horrible thing feel mundane, and the most mundane thing feel absolutely horrible. The plot engages us rationally, imagery engages us emotionally. If you want to get people to feel something, you need to use imagery to speak past their capacity for rational comprehension and get in their head, speak to their gut, get reaction instead of response.

(Alternatively, you can use imagery that's really, really specific to you and nobody else, and then you're Matthew Barney or, to a lesser extent, David Lynch.)

So if you're trying to freak an audience the fuck out, you're going use the sort of imagery that's most likely to elicit that, and that varies from culture to culture. You're going to need imagery that speaks directly to the hopes and fears and values of an audience for whom these things are at least in part a product of their time and place. Culture's like the water in which a fish swims, (or like the Force) - it's all around us, in us and outside of us. We are products of our culture.

Think about some of the landmark films in U.S. horror - the giant insects and lizards of the post-WWII era, products of this newfangled "radiation" thing, the mindless body-snatching alien stand-ins for Communists during the Cold War, the crazed hippies of The Last House on the Left, a product of the Sixties and post-Vietnam rage. Would Them! have been so scary to countries for whom radiation wasn't an issue? It would have been scary, yes, because giant ants are fucking terrifying, but it wouldn't have that it-could-happen-here frisson that it had here. Would Invasion of the Body Snatchers have been as scary in the Soviet Union? Probably not. The Last House on the Left remake might have freaked some people out, but the original was off in uncharted territory, in part because it fed on anxieties about youth culture and its perceived threat to respectable suburban types. If you want to communicate something to an audience, speak to them in a language they'll understand.

Which brings me back to Srpski Film (yet again) and what films are "about."

So in my extended piece on this particular movie, I contended that it worked as a story about the victimization of people living under a totalitarian regime, the role of surveillance in their lives, how this victimization affects subsequent generations, and how these pressures and legacies can reduce people to beasts or break them outright. I thought I made a decent case for this perspective, but Anonymous disagreed. His/her contention was that the movie was really and truly about the frustration Serbian filmmakers experience in trying to make art in a country where the state still exerts strict control over film production and distribution. And that's definitely something I've read in interviews with director Srdjan Spasojevic. So I can believe that's where he was coming from. But saying that the movie has one true interpretation ignores all of the history from which its imagery was drawn. It privileges what's being said over how it's being said, when you can't really extricate one from the other. It's as much about totalitarianism as it is about trying to make art as it is about a former porn star getting back in the game one last time.

"But how can a movie be about anything apart from what the director makes it?" asks the complete and total strawman I've made up for this bit. Well, how we say something imparts as much meaning as what we say or why we say it. We communicate in the languages with which we're most familiar, and I think that's as true of culture and the imagery we derive from it as anything else. It's called A Serbian Film because it's in Serbian - not just the spoken dialogue, but the imagery as well. There's a legacy of totalitarianism, of people trying to get by under surveillance and omnipresent control that is evident in the imagery of the film, the metaphorical language of the film.

Even if Spasojevic made Srpski Film about the plight of the Serbian filmmaker (and I have no doubt that's what inspired him, but was that really the central thesis?), how he chose to tell that story adds an entirely separate layer of meaning to the film, and that's a good thing. Personally, I think that when directors set out to make a movie with a really specific message, they usually product something shitty and didactic. Srpski Film doesn't do that. It doesn't beat you over the head with "this is terrible and you should feel terrible and wonder how this could possibly happen in a just world," it just says "yeah, this is happening and you're watching it. What are you going to do?"

At the end of the day, what the viewer gets from the film probably matters most. Not what the director was trying to say, not what someone else thinks the director was trying to say. A good film is "about" many things, and I think it's a mistake to constrain our interpretations.

Next time: What happens when intent is inferred from content, and the upcoming sequel to The Human Centipede.

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