Monday, August 24, 2009

On the Interview in Film Criticism

While it won’t do to condemn wholesale an entire mode of film journalism, the undue emphasis on the director interview in contemporary criticism represents something of a troubling phenomenon. Of course the practice of a critic (or fellow lenser) sitting down for a tête-à-tête with a filmmaker is hardly unique to modern-day critical practice. But while classic and instructive examples of director interviews abound, and although the approach even at its most watered-down may yield some limited useful insights, when it becomes a substitute for actual criticism then this misplaced emphasis becomes more than a little worrying. (Even Cinema Scope, otherwise the most valuable print film journal of the day, loads its pages with so many interviews that I often leave half the magazine unread.)

Actually the real problem with the director interview – and particularly its most common form, the short-discussion-of-a-single-film – is that it presumes to place the filmmaker’s reading of his own work as the standard by which the final product ought to be judged. Joseph “Jon” Lanthier got at something like this quandary in a recent piece at the Bright Lights After Dark blog, although his discussion centered on the potentially damaging effects of the director’s statement provided in the film’s promotional packet rather than the interview. Lanthier based his argument on the horde of unfavorable critical comparisons of Carlos Sorin’s recent film The Window to Bergman’s classic Wild Strawberries, a comparison he found dubious but which was encouraged by Sorin’s own statement in the press notes. By taking up Sorin’s example, the critics judged The Window as an (unsuccessful) attempt to re-create something of the achievement of the Swedish classic, instead of judging the more recent film on its own merits. But as Lanthier correctly notes, “The role of the critic… should not be to didactically engage artists with respect to their "goals" -- after all, the best and most erudite of intentions does not make a great film.”

But such mistaken attitudes run deep, a throwback, as Lanthier suggests, to 19th-century romantic notions of the artist as godlike creative force. Bluntly stated by critics such as Barry Salt – who proudly offers “the degree to which the film-maker has fulfilled his intentions in the finished film” as one of his three criteria for the “objective” evaluation of movies and which renders his classic 1983 text Film Style and Technology as useless as criticism as it is valuable as history – this adherence to the myth of authorial intent finds its most widespread contemporary application in the prevalence of the director interview. Even a quick glance at a recent Q-and-A in the first rate online film journal Reverse Shot (no mere puff piece, this) reveals the ease with which the interviewer tends to seek out the filmmaker’s direct help in reading his work. Discussing the recent film Lorna’s Silence with the directors, the Dardenne brothers, Damon Smith asks the duo, “would you say that Lorna engages in an act of faith, then, when she decides to help Claudy- when she gradually comes to recognize his humanity?” a question that not only attempts to use directorial intent as the basis for interpreting one of the film’s key moments, but which plays neatly into the filmmakers’ well-known predilection for viewing their work in religious/spiritual terms. Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s thoughtful response to Smith’s question may offer new ways of looking at the film, but because of the false authority that tends to adhere to an artist’s direct word, such a line of inquiry ends by being far more damaging than it is useful.

None of which is to say that a film – or any work of art – should be viewed as a thing apart, untouched by a myriad of circumstances – economic, social, personal – that need to be taken into account in its evaluation. Nor is it desirable that the film be judged strictly on what flickers across the screen with no regard for any extra-textual criteria. Which is why the director interview may have some limited valuable application – so long as the interviewer scrupulously avoids any questions of interpretation. For example, it may be useful to obtain information about the material conditions of the production as well as the director’s working methods – a store of knowledge that can aid the critic in more accurately discussing how the director’s technical decision-making helps create meaning. It may also be useful to know if the filmmaker has drawn specifically on an outside text, familiarity with which may enhance the viewer’s understanding of the work. (This is not to be confused with Sorin’s statements about Wild Strawberries serving as a vague point of reference for his own film – I’m talking here about direct sources of allusion or adaptation.) Finally, the director might be able to fill us in on the historical circumstances surrounding the film’s narrative (provided it draws on a historical setting), although the curious viewer could just as easily look this information up. But even were the interviewer to stick strictly to this small list of allowable questions, it would still be extremely difficult to avoid moving from a useful probing into background information to direct interpretation, so thin is the line between the two modes of inquiry. And since the large majority of interviews start from the point of view that authorial intent is a valid basis for critical interpretation, there’s too often no effort to avoid crossing that line to begin with.


Catherine Grant said...

A wonderful post - thank you. And timely, too! (Just added to a long links list on film criticism:

andrew schenker said...

Thanks, Catherine!

Dan Sallitt said...

Andrew - isn't the problem less about our getting the interpretation from the artist, and more about what we do with it? I'd hate for interviewers to "scrupulouly avoid" issues of intention: artists are often well-positioned to give us interesting leads: and in any case their angles are no less valid than ours. If critics are inclined to capitulate to authorial interpretation too readily, that's a problem with critics: they'll just find something else to capitulate to if we take their interview material away.

Jason Bellamy said...

"it presumes to place the filmmaker’s reading of his own work as the standard by which the final product ought to be judged"

Indeed! However, while your criticism of lazy journalism is apt, not to be overlooked is lazy (journalism and cinema) consumption. Yes, these interviews further the idea that the director's intentions are the thing by which the final project should be judged. Then again, even without that, many movie fans quickly fall back on source material -- what was in the original novel, or the history book, or the screenplay.

Determining intent is a worthwhile endeavor in many ways. But intent doesn't supersede what's actually on the screen.

Thoughtful post. Thanks!

andrew schenker said...

I suppose you're right that critics who uncritically incline to authorial interpretation would find other material to capitulate to if they didn't have the interviews to draw on. But what bothers me is that these directorial interviews seem by their nature designed to suss out the artist's personal take on his film and then because of his authority to present this interpretation as a standard of judgment, whether the interviewer intends this or not. Ideally, one would not take the director's statement as the final word in interpretation, and the fault is probably more with the critic who does so than with the interviewer himself. But still, from a philosophical point of view, such direct fishing for the director's own interpretation seems to me, at least potentially, to be very dangerous. The problem isn't that the director's point-of-view is less valid than ours, it's that it unavoidably carries so much more weight.


"Determining intent is a worthwhile endeavor in many ways. But intent doesn't supersede what's actually on the screen."

I think it's important to distinguish between what the filmmaker says his intent is and what the film may actually seem to be trying to accomplish. So if a film, for example, makes an obvious allusion to a previous movie, it's fair to say the film's intent is to recall that earlier work. But as in the case of Carlos Sorin, just because he says he's invoking Wild Strawberries doesn't mean the result is there on-screen. So in the sense that the intent is discernible in the actual product I agree that "determining intent" can be "a worthwhile endeavor."

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

A great post, and I'm not simply saying that because I was quoted and engaged with (thanks much for that, btw...glad to see someone actually that piece, considering that it's one of the few I've written this year that I don't completely regret, but I digress).

Dan and Jason both make excellent points, and in the case of the Sorin issue, I think that what was done with the artist's interpretation was, indeed, the problem. Don't get me wrong: the influence of "Wild Strawberries" on "The Window" is certainly there on the screen, but it's so superficial (a senescent academic, contemplation, pastoral landscapes) that I assumed no critic worth his/her salt would dare use that as the germ for a thesis. Boy, was I mistaken. The more observant folks got that Sorin was channeling Borges before Bergman, but the rest--including Sarris--seemed to be lashing out at him for not simply delivering an Argentine "Wild Strawberries" (which makes little sense). In this case not only were critics holding an artist's interpretation of his own work as definitive -- they were holding him to his interpretive word as well. This frustrated me for the simple fact that "The Window" is still the best film I've seen all year--the only example of unadulterated cinematic mastery--and it seemed as though if Sorin had never made the foolhardy connection to "Wild Strawberries" in the first place his project would have received better write-ups. Let's hope the Dardenne's quotes aren't thrown back in their faces, either.

Finally, I certainly do feel an artist has the right to interpret his own work, but no more so than anyone else--perhaps less so, in fact, because having inside knowledge of an artwork's genesis can "color" your perspective in ways that hinder more usefully concrete commentary on the finished product. And while treating an artist's intention/self-analysis as sacrosanct isn't exclusively 19th century, it does seem to have been rampant during that time; Coleridge and Wordsworth put out annotated versions of their own poems after tiring of what they considered misinterpretations (can you imagine TS Eliot or Ginsberg doing the same?). But the relationship between art and spectator was far more didactic in the romantic era.

This didacticism is returning today, however, not only in the form of what you're referring to above and the issue of interviewing artists but also in the stereotype that critics are "out-of-touch" with both the general public and artists, existing only as nocuous filters (or even obstacles) between a work of art and its audience. This would be a laughable notion if we weren't essentially playing into it by assuming that a perfunctory quote by a director in a film's press packet is to be adopted as a measure of aesthetic merit.

To put the shoe on the other foot, can you imagine if folks starting assessing film criticism this way? "Well, what I was TRYING to do with this piece is write my own version of Manny Farber's 'Underground Films'." More evidence that criticism is rarely treated or approached as a true art form, even by its most hallowed practitioners.

(sorry for the lengthy comment...)

andrew schenker said...

Thanks, Joseph.

Obviously I liked your piece quite a bit and had been thinking a great deal about it since you posted it in May, so I was glad to be able to use it as a springboard for some of my thoughts on authorial intent.

I think you make one more very good point about the possible harmful effects of the director interview when you note that, if anything, an artist may be a less valuable interpreter of his own work than an outsider since direct engagement with the process of creation can color his perspective in ways potentially harmful to analysis. Which is not to say, I suppose, that this perspective has no value, but that we should be very wary of applying it wholesale to our own interpretations.

Tony Comstock said...

I wrote this just the other day:

"[I]’ve always preferred to think of myself as an entertainer first and artist second, primarily because entertainers can’t get away with resumes, credentials and clever artist’s statements. Entertainers have to make people laugh or cry, and would be horrified to find a theater half -empty at the end of one of their films.

Of course being of this disposition, I then made the fatal mistake of pursuing subject matter wherein my intentions count for more than what I put on the screen; and having the wrong intentions can get my films banned or land me or my distributors in jail.

C'est la vie?