University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire



Interpreting Film Meaning

        When we say a film means something, we are saying it has some kind of point to it.   In other words, the film has something to say about some kind of issue: it comments upon this issue; it offers an explicit or implicit interpretation of the issue.  

        Meaning may also usefully be thought of as the expression, and communication, of an impression, an observation, a reflection, or a judgement about something; it may, furthermore, take the form of an argument about or a critique of this same phenomenon.   In sum, to describe a film as meaningful suggests that we perceive this film as offering a way of making sense of something that it represents.

Representation and Reality Reconsidered

        We have already extensively discussed representation and reality this semester.  I want, however, to return to this discussion to reconsider some of what we initially concluded.  In short, I want to suggest the following: 1.)  We depend upon representations to understand the world in which we live, and to act in accord with how we understand it;  2.)  Different representations of the same phenomenon can be judged according to whether they are more versus less adequate and accurate; and 3.)  Representations are themselves real, even if what a representation (say a film) represents is not identical with the real thing it represents (say a famous murder, as we see in Stranger with a Camera ).

    Let’s briefly examine some of the implications of these points.  First, films are materially real phenomena: they do maintain a real existence as objects in the world.  What’s more, an extensive array of real resources are invested in producing, distributing, and exhibiting films:  all of this requires considerable time, energy, talent, vision, and money.  In addition, films exert considerable real impact upon a vast number of real people: film representations, therefore, concerning historical and social realities that exist outside of (and prior to) their appearance in film, take on lives of their own in  shaping how people make sense of and engage with these other and prior historical and social realities.  

    For example, Stranger with a Camera not only reflects how various people in Eastern Kentucky remember and understand Hobart Ison’s murder of Hugh O’Connor, but also the film in turn itself influences how people who have seen it will subsequently recall and make sense of this same event.  In addition, the film affects how people watching the film will subsequently make sense of what counts as ethically sensitive and responsible photojournalism – as well as what does not.  

    Although the film represents itself as attempting to offer a scrupulously fair, even-handed, and virtually “objective” account of the murder, the film takes a position that seems to suggest ‘both sides were partially (even equally) at fault,’ downplaying the extent to which those who most vehemently opposed the ‘intrusion’ of ‘outsiders’ into the community came from relatively wealthier class positions.   These latter people in fact have good reasons for not wanting to face up to their responsibility for the deprivation suffered by  their poorer neighbors, especially insofar as this follows from their direct exploitation of these – poor – people (as their landlords and as their employers).   This film might in fact lean in support of the quite conservative political position that proposes no one should bother to help out people from communities other than the ones in which they themselves live, while only those who live in a community should care about what goes on within it.  Since Stranger with a Camera has been widely critically acclaimed as an exceptional documentary that budding photojournalists should carefully study, it may indeed exert this kind of influence.

    Turning to my next point in reconsidering the relationship between representation and reality, we can quite reasonably argue that Elizabeth Barret’s film likely represents a more adequate and accurate account of Hugh O’Connor’s murder, of the reasons for it, and of the consequences following from it, than one might readily expect to find in a purely descriptive, relatively short newspaper article, or, even more questionable than this, from a scandal-mongering account in a tabloid gossip magazine.   Not only this, but Barret’s serious concern to inquire into why the murder happened, and what its historical significance might well be, certainly brings her closer to “the truth” than someone who simply “threw up his hands” and declared it was just a case of a crazy hillbilly going nuts for no fathomable reason, with O’Connor ending up simply as an entirely random target.   In short, some representations of reality are certainly truer than others.

    Likewise, while the plot of
The Truman Show likely appears, for many viewers, to construct an exaggerated, realistically implausible fantasy world, we might very well at the same time argue that the film shows us the increasingly dangerous power of corporate mass media domination over and manipulation of our own lives.  We might well contend that what the film represents to us concerning this issue is much “truer” than what spokespersons for conglomerates like AOL-Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, the News Corporation, etc.  often themselves claim their corporations do (i.e., simply, selflessly serve the public good by giving us only and entirely what we ourselves freely choose and demand).  We might well, moreover, agree that The Truman Show ’s representation of Christof’s motives for creating the show seem truer to what many powerful media moguls actually seek to achieve than what we hear at Academy Award ceremony speeches where these rich and powerful men are frequently praised as wonderfully benevolent humanitarians.

    At the least, we might tend to agree that
The Truman Show represents a “darker side” to this kind of philanthropy than many Hollywood capitalists are inclined themselves to admit.   We might usefully recall here, in this connection, that to this day many Americans praise Andrew Carnegie as a great philanthropist for all of his extensive charitable donations, especially to libraries and schools, while conveniently neglecting to mention that he accumulated this vast amount of wealth by engaging in ruthlessly exploitative business practices that for a time made him by far the most notorious “robber baron” in the United States.   

    In any event, we can and should ask challenging questions about what films represent to us, about how adequately and accurately they represent what they do, because films, like other kinds of texts, provide us means of making sense of the world in which we live, and, depending upon whether or not we agree with the positions they support, we may tend to act in one way versus another as a result of their influence.  For instance, if we accept that The Truman Show makes a useful point, we will more likely question the authority and legitimacy of what the corporate news and entertainment mass media encourage us to think, feel, and believe than if we were to disagree with this argument.  In the latter case, we would more likely tend uncritically to accept what is advertised and marketed to us as not only what we should buy but also how we should look, act, and behave.

    In order to understand “the truth” of what fictional films represent we therefore need to press beyond the superficial level of merely describing what happens, when, where, and to whom.  We need to consider what the stories these films tell us have to say about real-world issues that they do represent, albeit in fictional form.  For example, The Truman Show addresses a number of other issues besides the dangers of ever-increasing corporate mass media domination and control over our consciousness.   The film comments upon the ubiquity of commercial advertising and marketing throughout our culture: it suggests we have reached the point in our cultural (d)evolution where many Americans treat each other as virtual commodities, as (relatively disposable) means to ends rather than as ends in themselves.  Likewise, The Truman Show comments on the tendency among many relatively race- and class- privileged Americans to retreat into safe, semi-private worlds of their own rather than to confront honestly the disparities between their privilege and others’ disprivilege, or to work forthrightly to assist those whose living conditions are much worse than their own.   In short, The Truman Show is about much more than simply what happens to Truman Burbank.

Film and Culture

        In order to make sense of a film’s meaning, we ultimately therefore need to be able to situate the film in contexts larger than what simply happens at the level of plot.   We need, in short, to be able to make sense of film in relation to culture.

    In order to examine how this works, let’s begin with a few basic definitions.   First, what is a "Society"?   A society is the totality of relations among all people living at a particular place and time as well as the sum total of all the institutions they have designed to facilitate and govern their relations with each other.  Our American society equals all of us living in the United States here and now plus all the social structures that organize our interactions with each other, such as family, school, church, government and the law, ownership and property, labor and leisure, etc.

    What then is a "Culture," and how is this different from a “Society”?  In general, “Human Culture” refers to everything that human beings to date have created other than what nature itself has provided in order to give meaning, purpose, and value to our lives in society, in relations with other human beings  This human culture includes two fundamental dimensions: 1.) material culture, all of the material things we as human beings have created and make use of in the course of our lives, all that we can tangibly perceive, as well as 2.) spiritual culture, all of the intangible things we have created and make use of in the course of our lives, such as customs, habits, rituals, beliefs, ideals, and values.  Every society has its own “Culture,” its own precise organization of material and spiritual phenomena that distinguishes it from the cultures of other societies.   For instance, we have what is called American culture and other societies have what are called, for instance, French culture, Russian culture, Algerian culture, British culture, etc.  Also, American culture today is different than what was American culture in the 1890s or 1950s or 1710s.

    Moving onto another point within the larger society smaller social groups also tend to have their own distinct “Subcultures.”  These subcultures reflect the particular social position, historical experience, interests, needs, desires, and ways of looking at and dealing with life common to a group of people sharing a common social group identity. Examples include African-American culture, Southwestern culture, Hmong culture, gay culture, working class culture, punk culture, hip hop culture, etc.   And of course, there exist subcultures within subcultures, and all of these overlap with and influence each other quite extensively.

    The same, moreover,  is true of relations between subcultures and the dominant, or mainstream, culture: these tend to overlap with and influence each other quite extensively as well.  Just think of, for instance, how the dominant culture tends to coopt expressions of rebellion originating in various subcultures and turn these into acceptable manifestations of the mainstream, especially by turning these into commodities.   For instance, white t-shirts, leather jackets, and tie-dye clothing all at one point not that long ago represented manifestations of distinct (and rebellious) subcultural identities, while today all of these are mainstream commodities.   To take another example, when I was your age attending college, a male wearing an earring, even just one, was usually indicating either that he was gay, or a gypsy, or a sailor; obviously, a lot has changed since that point in time.

    In any event, it is worth noting that subcultures tend to arise from people sharing any one or more of the following social positions in common (among many others): class, job, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality, regionality, age, generationality, religious conviction, political affiliation, educational attainment, leisure interest or hobby, etc.  Mainstream commercial films may in fact represent subcultures, but rarely do they stand as the direct expression of the people themselves who live within these subcultures; independent films, however, often do this.  Turning back to
Stranger with a Camera for the minute, one might, moreover, interpret this film as addressing the contrast between representation of a subculture from the outside, and, especially, for a mainstream audience, versus representation of the subculture from the inside, and, especially, for the subcultural audience itself.

    Considering this film, however, and others we have screened this semester, such as
The Battle of Algiers and Land and Freedom , we can see that sometimes subcultures do not represent themselves in the most adequate and accurate ways, contrary to commonsense: sometimes “outside assistance” proves useful and indeed necessary to enable subcultures to represent themselves adequately and accurately.  Algerians and numerous others throughout “The Third World” continue to praise The Battle of Algiers, although the film was produced and directed by Europeans, as providing the most adequate and accurate cinematic representation of the Algerian Revolution, and certainly at least one of, if not the most, cinematically adequate and accurate representations ever put together concerning a Third World struggle for national liberation from direct colonial rule.   Likewise, many critics suggest that Land and Freedom represents a more adequate and accurate representation of the place of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War than any film the Spanish have themselves yet made.

    On the other hand, although the 1960s documentaries on the poverty of Appalachia may well be indicted for ignoring the richness of the local culture that persisted beyond, or despite, this poverty, we might also quite reasonably contend that these films much more adequately and accurately represented the terrible state of the poor in this area of the United States than a number of much more defensive, self-protective films produced by Appalachian “insiders” have done.

    Film is always a part of a larger society, and, as such, the ways films are produced, distributed, and exhibited, as well as what they represent, how, and why are always in part products, or symptomatic reflections, of this larger culture, and, most likely, of particular subcultures within the larger culture as well.  As we have seen, both
The Truman Show and Stranger with a Camera
quite obviously reflect and respond to pressing issues in the places and at the times in which these films were made. 

    The critique The Truman Show offers quite obviously represents a position that many others have recently advanced and tend to share, including the idea many critics of the film find fault with, and that is the film’s suggestion that the majority of those who attend to the products of the corporate mass media accept everything it represents passively, without question, without challenge, and without resistance.  Certainly, it is common enough, and has been for a long time now, for many Americans to denounce many of their fellow citizens as lazy, apathetic, disinterested, disengaged, trivial-minded, and self-centered dupes. 

    In the case of
Stranger with a Camera we frequently see, even on mainstream news media productions, extended discussions and self-critical reflections on how, as well as how far, the media violates rights of privacy and, worse than this, tends to show us a singularly distorted perspective of “the news” that serves to represent the interest of the rich and powerful as if this instead represented a universal, even a natural interest, one shared in common by the vast majority of the nation’s, and even the world’s, population.   In recent times, many have critiqued the mainstream news media for the way it has covered the Bush Administration’s War in Afghanistan and against international terrorism, to take just one quite obvious example.  What’s more, even the mainstream TV networks themselves have recently set aside considerable time to reflect self-critically on why they have become so infatuated with scandals like Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, and Gary Condit’s with Chaundra Levy (to name just a couple obvious examples), to the virtual exclusion of all other stories, including many of far greater significance to the world.

    Certainly this is a time in which the arguments of many long-standing intellectual critics of the corporate mass media, such as Noam Chomsky, Edward Hermann, and Robert McChesney, exert considerable appeal to many skeptical audiences.  Likewise, a continuous and long-standing trend throughout independent film-making, in the U.S. and otherwise, vehemently rejects Hollywood-style focus on flash and glitter, as well as the tendency of “blockbuster films” to endorse an escape into the world of “the dumb and dumber.”  Many film makers consider it a mark not only of personal pride but also of artistic integrity to make films that address real issues in direct, forthright, yet also technically and artistically imaginative ways that run diametrically contrary to Hollywood norms.  A film like
Stranger with a Camera certainly reflects and responds to these currents in our contemporary culture.

    Film does exert its own impact and influence; the ways in which people relate to films and to what films represent in turn effects what, and how, people think, feel, believe, act, and interact in the rest of their lives.   Films therefore are productive as well as products of culture; in other words, they respond to as well as reflect cultural influences.  Films take ideas and images from the world in which we live and then turn these into stories that aren't simply identical with the world outside of film so as to then comment upon the world outside of film.  Again,
The Truman Show provides an excellent example:  the film creates an elaborate fantasy that seems, at the least, exaggerated, artificial, and contrived, yet the world of “The Truman Show” in Seahaven and on the fictional global television network bears enough resemblance with real tendencies in our world to encourage us to stop and think about how far our world is from what The Truman Show depicts and how many of us live lives (or perhaps aspire to live lives) that are, in significant respects, at least figuratively quite like Truman’s.

    One of the further important issues this film raises for our consideration is what today counts as ‘Popular Culture’?  Strictly speaking, popular culture should refer not just to culture which is popular with large numbers of people, but rather to culture which these same people themselves create.  Yet, in American society, over the course of the past fifty to sixty years, popular culture has increasingly become mass culture, in other words culture that is mass produced for mass consumption; for the most part, this is culture that is not created by we the people ourselves, or at least not according to our design and direction.   Hollywood, for instance, manufactures films for us; we only indirectly influence what kinds of films we get to see in commercial exhibition by choosing to "buy" some of these rather than others – we choose among what is made available to and for us.   We can in fact only choose among a relatively limited array of possibilities, and most of these choices conform to stock patterns and rote formulas.

    According to some of its harshest critics, such as the members of the Frankfurt School whom you have read about in Robert Kolker's
Film, Form, and Culture , the culture industry dominates and subjugates us, encouraging us, for the most part, to consent and conform, not to question, challenge, or rebel.  In fact, these theorists argue the culture industry does this most insidiously by taking over our thinking for us, by promoting the stupidification of the American general public. 

    I think all of us know how easy it is to support this kind of argument, even if we don't fully agree with it, when we consider the highly lame ways that many popular films and television shows encourage us to make sense of what they show us.   To take just one example, consider how television stations such as MTV represent what most, if not all, traditional-age undergraduate college students apparently spend most of your time thinking and doing.  It seems almost superfluous for MTV to run its "spring break" marathon shows as it seems like people your age are already spending the vast majority of your time and energy doing the same thing MTV suggests you will be doing on spring break: college life as  Undressed.   By and large, therefore, it seems that
The Truman Show supports a reading of the culture industry close to that of the Frankfurt School.

    In contrast with the Frankfurt School and their followers, however, other culture critics propose that the culture industry is itself contradictory, and that it doesn't act like a monolithically oppressive, entirely stupidifying, force; not all productions from the culture industry, so this argument goes, are equally trivial or share the same conservative outlook.  According to this kind of position, what's more, many if not most people don't simply accept everything the culture industry creates for us at face value.  In other words, we “negotiate” meaning with movies, tv shows, musical recordings, and so on; we interpret and evaluate these texts in ways that are often quite different than what was intended, and we make them mean things in our lives that their producers could not have imagined.

    Sometimes even big budget, commercial films, tv shows, and musical recordings encourage us to think about what they represent, and at times, to do so critically.  From our discussions, it seems that many of you agree
The Truman Show and Memento, for instance, represent this kind of commercial film.

    In addition to those culture critics who approach mass culture as contradictory, rather than entirely negative, there are those such as Walter Benjamin, who you have also read about in Robert Kolker's
Film, Form, and Culture , that see quite positive possibilities in the growth of mass culture.   According to Benjamin, mass culture allows large numbers of people to gain access to cultural products, and therefore enhances the potential expansion of democracy versus the confinement of cultural products, and cultural production, to a relatively elite few.  Once products of culture became mass produced, so this argument goes -- as in the case of film, recorded music, radio, television, the internet, etc. -- the cult of the original suffers a severe blow: “the original” loses its “aura” as something absolutely unique and sacred.   We no longer experience the need, therefore, to have to bow down and worship what only a handful of truly great men of genius are able to create; we are in fact encouraged to believe that we all could – at least if we had the time, energy, and, money –  work to become artists ourselves.

    Today, for instance, unlike before the age of mass production, we can listen to music or watch a dramatic play without needing always to attend a live performance; we can listen to cds, radio, and music on-line or which we have downloaded, and we can watch videos, dvds, and films on cable and network television.   Also, we can hang posters of famous works of art or look at these in books which we can buy quite easily at bookstores, or on-line.   As Benjamin sees it, this greater access to reproductions of works of art enables a much wider number of people to learn about art and to think about and pursue the practice of making their own art.   To explore the consequences of this argument somewhat further, consider, for example, how many young people in the United States (and elsewhere) have been encouraged to form their own rock bands, ever since the 1950s, as a result of their access to recordings of rock music on the radio, on television, and in the form of cds, tapes, and vinyl records and albums.

Seeing Film Politically

        In sum, I think one of the most important things to take away from this brief introduction to cultural theory and criticism is to think about how we relate to the larger (mainstream) culture, and the smaller subcultures, within which we all participate, as well as how the films we watch encourage us to relate to this culture and to these subcultures.   We can in fact use this as a criterion to judge a film's politics: Does the film encourage us to relate to culture passively, as a dazzling, mysterious spectacle, something that takes place by and large outside of our influence and control? Or does the film encourage us to relate to culture actively, by providing us an opportunity for critical reflection about this culture, and, perhaps even by providing us a means for collective action, and a spark, or a stimulus to do so, to act together, in the interest of social transformation?

    I want to follow these last two questions up by taking a little additional time now to talk further about how specifically to “see films politically.”

    To begin, I don't think it makes much sense to say that any film, including any Hollywood film, simply is, or means, only one thing. This is reductive and cannot do justice to the complexity of factors that contribute toward making up what a film represents, how, and why.  In short, I want to discourage you from making either sweepingly positive or sweepingly negative statements of this kind in seeing films politically.  

    Don't simply evaluate these films by judging them as good or bad, likeable or unlikeable without providing reasons and evidence for your judgements; evaluate these on the basis of careful, thorough, and, as far as possible, rigorous analyses of how they are constructed, composed, and deployed, as well as how they work to influence, and even determine, the ways they are received by their ideal audiences -- that is, the sympathetic audiences they invite, encourage, elicit, and help fashion: the audiences that respond to what the film represents the way that the film wants them to respond.

    To be even more precise, while it is certainly true that many Hollywood films end up expressing and communicating largely politically conservative positions, to simply describe this as what they do really tells us very little of any substance or use, and is not actually an example of critical thinking; instead it is merely an example of cynical thinking, and cynical thinking is anti-critical thinking.  At the least, we always need to account for the specific ways in which specific films construct and convey conservative messages.  Beyond this, we need to be precise about exactly what specific conservative messages are we talking about, in what ways are these messages the product of a particular complex of factors, and in what particular ways are they likely to intersect with, to enforce, and to reinforce conservative values, attitudes, convictions, and commitments already maintained by their audiences.

    However, even much more important than what I have just said, we need to grasp Hollywood films, like all films, as sites of contradiction.  In fact, these films are almost always sites of multiple contradictions.  What this means is we need to look for the ways that films reflect and respond to issues in society about which there exist a range of different, and especially opposing, positions.  The films register the tensions and the conflicts among these positions in what they express and communicate to us.  So a film is not, for instance, likely simply to be for or against racism, but rather to be about the tension, conflict, and struggle among multiple different racist, and anti_racist, ways of thinking, acting, and interacting.   To take another example, The Truman Show is about conflicting ways of struggling to make sense of the extent of corporate mass media power and, beyond this, about conflicting ideas concerning what can or should be done about it.

    Of course, a film will lean in one direction versus another (or versus a variety of other directions) in relation to virtually every contradiction it represents.  However, the way that it leans, and the process by which it attempts to explain and justify this leaning is what is really of interest for the critical student of film.

    In addition, the critical student is also very much interested in the ways that a film, of necessity, represents -- even by attempting to marginalize and suppress -- positions in opposition to that which it leans to support.  Therefore, even the seemingly simplest of Hollywood films can be read, in other words, as texts engaged in struggle with an array of subtexts (i.e., subordinated, buried, marginalized, or repressed ways of looking at the same social issue).   Many of these subtexts may function, moreover, as countertexts (offering opposing ways of looking at the same issue).  The critical student will attempt to identify the array of opposing positions represented in a film, analyze how they are represented, and evaluate how the conflict among these positions is represented -- as well as unearth the array of opposing positions the film ignores, elides, denies, or mystifies. 

    What remains "unseen" and "unheard," because the film does not (and at times, cannot or will not) "show" or "speak" it, often contributes substantially to the impact and influence of the film as a social (and political) text.   For instance, while
The Truman Show criticizes the influence of the corporate mass media over mainstream American life, the film does not address alternative media, nor does it recognize prior and other popular movements long engaged in extensive, vigorous battles with the mass media.  At the same time, the film further neglects to consider the ways in which spectators often “negotiate” with mainstream productions, not always by any means simply accepting these uncritically and not always, by any means, subordinating the entirety of their own lives to live vicariously through the lives of “stars” they see onscreen.

The Truman Show can certainly encourage a kind of cynicism about the possibility of social change, suggesting “the masses” are already too hopelessly, thoroughly lost, such that nothing can be done accept by exceptional “individuals,”  like Truman himself, who eventually comes to see through the illusion, and then simply “leaves” it, exiting and refusing to play along any further.  This reminds us of those people who respond to discussions of the pernicious influence of corporate monopoly control of the news and entertainment mass media by declaring “I myself don’t pay any attention to any of that.”  Instead of working for change, these kinds of individuals simply pretend to distance themselves, or to “opt out,” from dealing with the problem.

    In addition to studying what contradictions films often work to suppress, it is important as well to pay careful attention to the way in which films often do seek to resolve social contradictions.  In doing so, films don't simply hold a mirror up to a world which exists outside of or prior to its representation; films take material from this world and work on it.   Perhaps even better put, they work it over: they rework, and they transform the material they take from the "real life" which exists outside of, prior to, and beyond the movies.   To take the example of racism, once again, a film that deals with this issue will usually represent a particular way of attempting to deal with the problem: it will attempt to present some kind of resolution of at least a particular instance of racism. 

    Resolution may mean "solving" or "overcoming" the problem, but this is not necessary, by any means.   More often, resolution involves clarifying or illuminating what is most crucially at stake in a conflict.   In the case of racism, this means the film will work to show us what explains the existence and persistence of racism, and what does not, as well as what is likely to prove useful, and what not, in working to address this problem.

    Some films might, for instance, suggest the problem of racism simply follows from ignorance and backwardness on the part of a small minority of overtly bigoted people, whereas others might suggest the problem assumes far larger proportions, reflecting the extent to which vast numbers of people continue to maintain different degrees of access to resources and opportunities according to differences in race, regardless of whether or not this is a result of overtly prejudicial attitudes or not.   In short, from the latter vantage point, racism refers to systematic, institutional inequality, not merely to overt hatred and violence.   From the latter vantage point, even well-meaning whites (at least in a white-dominant, racist society) help maintain and reproduce racist social relations when they simply unthinkingly accept the relative advantage their skin color, on average, provides them without doing anything actively to challenge or change this situation.

    To return to the question of contradiction, however, and to follow up on what I said earlier, a film is likely to represent to us an array of multiple possible directions for resolving a contradiction, even as it also, simultaneously, suggests that one of these is superior to that of the others.  So a film might well suggest that both change in personal behavior and in social institutions will be necessary to overcome racism, while perhaps suggesting the one is the more important than the other or the more likely to succeed than the other.

    Films represent contradictions in a variety of different ways. It is important to look for contradictions within and between the various elements that are involved in making up a film. The eight major elements involved in narrative, fictional, feature films include the following:

1.    The Narrative (the plot, the fabula, and the narration)

2.    The Characters – and their Characterizations

3.    The Settings

4.    The Themes

5.      The Mise-en-Scène (the staging and performing of the film before the camera)

6.      The Cinematography (the manipulation of the camera in recording what is staged and performed in front of it)

7.      The Editing (the preparation, selection, and arrangement of which pieces of recorded film to use, in what combinations, and what not, after the film has been shot)


8.     The Sound (the recording and arrangement of speech, sound effects, and music tracks, especially in relation to the image track).

    What we need to begin to do, as critical students of film, is to look for contradictions within each of these areas (for instance, contradictions within a character), and for contradictions between each of these areas (for instance, contradictions between what we see and hear, between what the camera shows us and what the music track suggests).  If we start to do this, we will begin to develop a much more complex, sophisticated, and, in fact, just and accurate way of interpreting and evaluating films.  To take an example, here, The Truman Show often displays contradictions between, on the one hand, the “heroic” soundtrack of the fictional tv show, that is supposed to testify to what an inspirational story the show depicts and to how uplifting and moving its “star’s” life should be seen, with, on the other hand, the frequent banality of what takes place in Truman’s everyday life and throughout Seahaven, as well as with what Truman suffers as a result of how cruelly he is controlled, becoming Christof’s virtual toy.

    If thinking of films in terms of contradictions seems strange at first, this is probably because we are so often taught to look upon contradictions as simply bad things.  We are taught to think in ways which are inadequate to do justice to the complexity and dynamism of life.  In fact, contradictions are everywhere, and they are, moreover, the driving force of change.  To illustrate, let's take the example of an individual human being.  If we consider that individuals are always involved in multiple and complicated kinds of relationships at the one time, and are growing, developing, and changing over time, then we see it makes little sense to say that any individual simply is -- and is not -- one fixed thing.

    Let's call our hypothetical individual Tom.  I am proposing, in short, that it makes perfect sense to say that Tom "is" the following:

1.    A good student and a bad student.

2.    Happy and sad.
3.    Responsible and irresponsible.
4.    Hard-working and lazy.

5.    Concerned about his future and focused on the here and now.
6.    A good friend and a bad friend.
7.     In love and not in love.
8.     Idealistic and cynical.

9.     Respectful of women's equality and not respectful of women's equality.
10.   Gentle and harsh.
11.    Intelligent and ignorant.

    And, of course, we could go on and on with this list.  The point is that Tom is in some ways the one side and in other ways the opposite side of each of these pairs; he is closer to one side in some situations, circumstances, or contexts, while he is closer to the opposite side in others; he is at one point in time in his life closer to the one side and at other points in his life closer to the other side (i.e., he changes); and he experiences each of these oppositions as internal tensions, as forces impelling him in opposing directions, as conflicting tendencies for who he will be and what he will do, as contradictions which he will have to work on, and through -- i.e., resolve -- as he proceeds forward.  Yet even as Tom resolves these contradictions, he will then encounter new ones.  This is inevitable as long as Tom lives in a world with other people, interacts with them, and is affected by the influence and impact of these others upon who he is and what he does.  Tom, for instance, may find going to college leads him to resolve a number of contradictions he experienced as a high school student while also creating new sets of contradictions, such as contradictions between pre-collegiate interests and outlooks and post-collegiate ones.

    In conclusion, therefore, I urge you, as you analyze the politics of films critically, to be sensitive to contradictions: to aim to grasp what films represent to us as just as complicated, as dynamic, and especially contradictory, as are the questions of who Tom is, what is he like, and what is he about.

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Professor Bob Nowlan

Last Updated June 22, 2002