When we interpret a text, are we uncovering a hidden meaning? Or are we imposing a meaning from the outside? Film scholar David Bordwell’s book Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema confronts this question head on in a rigorous and analytical way. His chief question is: how are interpretations made? Although on the granular level the book deals with issues specific to cinema, its broader arguments (the ones I’ll be focusing on here) are more or less equally applicable to literary interpretation.
Bordwell is first and foremost a historian of film, and so his book takes a historical approach. Looking at both intellectual and social factors, he charts how and why various interpretative methods fell in and out of fashion at the times they did. But he is also a cognitivist, and he organizes his study not chronologically, but rather as a sort of taxonomy of the mental tools that critics use to find patterns, draw analogies, and build interpretations.
He starts by challenging the language we employ when talking about interpretation. We may talk of “uncovering” or “pulling out” meaning. Or we may even make analogy with archaeology, treating a text “as having strata, with layers or deposits of meaning that must be excavated.” Bordwell thinks this way of talking obscures what interpretation actually does. Interpretation is a process of building up, not digging in. “Meanings are not found but made.”
In interpreting a film, the critic essentially reconstructs it, creating what Bordwell calls a “model film” – a mental version which downplays or ignores certain elements while highlighting others, all “unified under a description which organizes those aspects of the film she has picked out and weighted with semantic values.” This may sound dishonest, but it’s really just a more elaborate and self-conscious version of what every audience member does. The difference between a critic and an ordinary spectator is that while the average moviegoer may have a jumble of free floating thoughts and associations, a critic must work to create a thorough interpretation that is convincing according to the tacit standards of the interpretative institution of which they are a part.
The process goes something like this: First the critic picks out “cues.” A cue could be an image, a location, a line of dialogue, a gesture, an entire scene, or an aesthetic element like a camera movement or choice of color – any element of the film, large or small, can serve as a potential carrier of meaning. These will then be “mapped” onto by “semantic fields.” A semantic field is “a set of relations of meaning between conceptual or linguistic units.” These are drawn from whatever fields of knowledge the critic is familiar with as well as from their common sense understanding of the world. They’re typically organized according to one of four basic types: doublets (i.e. nature/culture), clusters (loosely related concepts like race/class/nationhood), hierarchies (i.e. self/family/community/nation), and proportional series (one critic assigns different characters from Alien the labels human/anti-human/not-human/not-anti-human).
My use of temporal language in the last paragraph isn’t completely accurate, however. In reality, there’s no set order to how these processes are used. A critic will probably initially have cues trigger associations with semantic fields almost automatically while they’re viewing. Once they’ve decided that a particular semantic field may be fruitful, they will likely go back through the film (mentally or actually) in search of further cues which they can connect with terms in that field. They may also focus on a cue or set of cues that seem salient without initially knowing how a particular semantic field could be mapped onto them or even what semantic fields would be relevant, trying out mapping different fields in different ways to see what fits and what doesn’t. The entire process is a large-scale act of creative problem solving.
In order to be institutionally acceptable, an interpretation will also want to avoid relationships between cues and fields that appear overly simplistic. To this end, the four structures that organize items within semantic fields can also be used to link the fields themselves, leading to elaborate chains and nesting patterns. By relating semantic fields to one another in complex ways, the critic can create more nuanced interpretations.
We can see how this process works in Lacan’s interpretation of “The Purloined Letter.” His familiar semantic fields are the ones of his own brand of psychoanalysis, and so he is inclined to map “the symbolic order” or “the phallus” onto characters or objects in Poe’s story. Likewise, a Lacanian-feminist film critic might map the binary of “scopophiliac voyeurism” and “narcissism” onto the cues of characters’ “gazes” or the camera’s “gaze.” Simply put, the same concepts we spend time thinking about outside the theater are the ones we are likely to find reflected back at us on the screen.
Although critics who claim allegiance to one interpretative school or another may assert that their method is wholly unique and inherently more sophisticated than prior approaches, Bordwell disagrees. Any given interpretation may be more or less complex or simple, more or less nuanced or clunky, but the underlying processes involved are always drawn from the same relatively small toolbox. He asserts that “when spectators or critics make sense of a film, the meanings they construct are of only four possible types”: Referential meaning refers to the diegesis, the fictional world created by the spectator, including and extending outward from the events we see directly on screen. When we see a character exiting a taxi cab, his action of getting out of the car is a referential meaning, but so is the cab ride itself, which we did not see but can infer and roughly imagine. Explicit meaning is usually what spectators mean when they talk about a film having a “point.” The film is assumed to “speak directly” by, for instance, using stereotyped images such as the scale of justice, or including dialogue that makes clear thesis statements (i.e. “There’s no place like home.”). Implicit meaning, on the other hand, is assumed to be covert or indirect. “Units of implicit meaning are commonly called ‘themes,’ though they may be identified as ‘problems,’ ‘issues,’ or ‘questions.’” The last type is symptomatic meaning, which is said to be divulged “involuntarily,” usually in contradiction to explicit and implicit meaning.
Journalistic or essayistic critics (i.e. non-academic ones) will often focus on creating evocative descriptions of the first two levels. By sticking to the literal, it may seem that these critics aren’t doing interpretation at all. But simply translating an audio-visual experience into words inherently entails the mapping of semantic fields onto cues. As Bordwell reminds us, “perceiving is structural and categorical. Perception is not a mere grasp of abstract shape or a flicker of vivid sensations; it is an ‘effort after meaning’ – though not necessarily implicit or symptomatic meaning.”
Until the late 1960s, “thematic-explicatory” criticism dealing with implicit meaning was the dominant form for essayists and academics of film. This is the type of interpretation we are likely all familiar with from high school and introductory college courses. The analysis done on episode 63 of the podcast is a perfect example: the semantic fields of existentialist philosophy are mapped onto cues from No Country for Old Men. No claim is made that Cormac McCarthy is trying to impart a clear moral or make a didactic statement, only that he “puts philosophies in the mouths of his characters to try them out as world views, to see how they hang psychologically and what fate they lead to, in the author’s best estimation.” It is not even necessary to show that McCarthy has read Nietzsche, or to find an interview where he explicitly discusses the issues at hand (although these might help to make the interpretation convincing). In the mid-20th century the New Criticism school of literary interpretation established that a work could be analyzed as a standalone aesthetic object, independent of authorial intent.
As film criticism increasingly fell under the purview of the academy during the ’60s and ’70s, the explicatory approach began to get edged out by symptomatic criticism. The symptomatic approach has two primary sources: psychoanalysis and Marxism. For years, psychoanalytic film critics drew on Carl Jung’s ideas, seeking out universal cultural archetypes within works of popular entertainment. Jung was eventually replaced by Lacan. In Mark’s words, Derrida’s criticism of Lacan had included an admonition to look beyond mere themes to examine “the technical aspects of the work and how they betray the author to serve up a different message.” Ironically, it was followers of Lacan that most ardently took up this directive and carried it into film interpretation.
The Marxist approach viewed all cultural production as bearing the imprint of its creator’s class interests. As filtered through the Frankfurt school, Marxist theory was used to show that the narrative structures and conventions of representation used in mainstream films reinforced capitalist ideologies by suppressing or distorting social realities. Both traditions relied on a conception of invisible cultural forces that shaped the work without the creator’s knowledge, and during the 1970s, critics began to combine them. Leo Baudry likened watching a film to dreaming, a regression to an infantile state, and used this analogy to claim that film spectators were highly susceptible to ideological indoctrination. Laura Mulvey combined Lacanian categories with feminist theory to claim that the pleasures associated with looking are always politicized. The proponents of “apparatus theory” saw every aspect of a film’s construction, from camera placement to sound recording to editing as shot through with ideology. All of these approaches presumed to unveil a layer of meaning beneath and in contradiction to the filmmaker’s intent. As evidenced by the popularity of figures like Slavoj Zizek, these strains of politicized Lacanianism are alive and well in the interpretation of film.
Bordwell discusses Lacan’s “Seminar on the Purloined Letter” as an “exemplar” – “an essay or book which influentially crystallizes an approach or argumentative strategy.” Lacan was not the first to apply the ideas of psychoanalysis to the interpretation of literature, his interpretation was simply the one that wound up founding an interpretive school. But most critics, academic or otherwise, don’t produce exemplars, nor do they aim to. Rather, they practice what Bordwell calls “ordinary criticism,” a primarily pragmatic enterprise aimed simply at producing novel interpretations of specific films. Early on in the development of a school, critics who claim allegiance to that school may aim to be systematic in how they “apply” their chosen theory. But what those critics call “application” is a far more creative act than the term itself indicates, and the categories being employed are almost always stretched or revised in the process. Novelty and plausibility always trump theoretical rigor. And as new critical schools lose their avant-garde status and become further incorporated into the institution, “there is a slackening of constraints on what will count as acceptable argument within the paradigm. […] Theoretical claims are renegotiated for the sake of practical criticism, even if the revisions in the claims are never acknowledged.” Today it is perfectly acceptable for a critic to toss Lacanian terminology into an interpretation without worrying about whether she’s being faithful to Lacan.
A critic may also claim that in applying a theory to a film, they are testing that theory. But Bordwell rejects this claim as well. He points out that these critics have a built in confirmation bias: “As with any inductive system, the perceiver is ‘set’ for data that confirm rather than falsify the initial hypothesis.” No critic has ever disproved a theory they set out to “test” via interpretation. The mark of a good interpretation has little to do with whatever theories the interpretation draws upon, and everything to do with whether what’s being said is A) interesting, and B) convincing.
“If science aims to explain the processes underlying external phenomena, Bordwell writes, “interpretation does not on the whole produce scientific knowledge. Neither causual nor functional explanation is the goal of film interpretation.” Rather, interpreting a film yields “understanding.” And not simply understanding of the film itself. He describes the value of interpretation this way:
It may be that interpretation’s greatest achievement is its ability to encourage, albeit somewhat indirectly, reflections upon our conceptual schemes. […] The critic who interprets Psycho does not prove that psychic normality and abnormality lie on a continuum, or that the male gaze is a symptom of psychotic repression; no more does the film. The critic and her reader agree to entertain such notions as imaginative possibilities, as intriguing juxtapositions of semantic fields suggested by the film at hand and the critical practices in force. Such juxtapositions can command the reader’s attention because, for a great variety of reasons, people often wish to explore the potential meanings which they encounter in their lives.
If we are convinced by what an interpretation has to say, it doesn’t just allow us see the film in a new light, it provides new connections between familiar ideas and ultimately, a new lens through which to make sense of the world.
However, Bordwell also recognizes the limitations of interpretation and bemoans the fact that the study of film has become synonymous with its interpretation. There are other things to be said about movies besides what they mean. He ends the book with a call for a “historical poetics of cinema.” When looking at particular films, he says, scholars should be asking “what processes brought it into being (for example, to what problems does its composition represent an attempted solution?) and what forces have mobilized it for various purposes.” His approach doesn’t need to run counter to interpretation as an endeavor. More attention paid to how and why films are constructed and what effects they produce can help lay the groundwork for a more informed criticism and act as a corrective to critics’ more outrageous claims.