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.