The cinema has always been fucked by everybody ... it's lying there in the ring of the circus, being fucked over by the clowns, by the acrobats, by the performing seals.
That makes sense. Not to me, but it makes sense.
(Corporal Agarn in F Troop)
We live in an era of ordinary criticism.
Making Meaning offers an impressive mini-history and typology of various forms of film criticism and does so in a way that Bordwell hopes might 'help characterise interpretive practices in other domains' (254). The book is written out of a belief that 'the great days of interpretation-centred criticism are over' since all the 'basic strategies and tactics' have been tried. And the very fact that the book lays out 'a logic of interpretive practice' suggests 'what a routine activity criticism has become' (xiii).
Another American film theorist, Robert B Ray, recently declared a similar weariness with available forms of academic film critical discourse, likening it to 'a machine running on automatic pilot'. Ray felt that 'after nearly twenty years of exhilarating work, film studies ha[d] stagnated' and he was disillusioned by the fact that 'we know in advance where ... analyses will lead'. Ray wanted his students to produce critical writing of a kind which would acknowledge 'the formal experimentation' of 'contemporary theory' and which might help criticism regain its alleged social function of asking 'improper questions'. For Ray, the work of Barthes and Derrida was very strange at a formal level and he wanted his students to 'imitate the forms' rather than pretend that this work had appeared in a conventional format. Ray wanted contemporary criticism to acknowledge the bizarreness of a mode of writing which activated 'surrealist techniques of collage, fragments, typographical play, puns, neologisms, development by motif rather than by logic' (231-36).
But although Bordwell and Ray might agree that current film criticism is both repetitive and arid, Bordwell's position still differs from Ray's. Rather than encourage the taking up of a mimetic, performative relation to the formal inventiveness of a Barthes or a Derrida, Bordwell would be more likely to itemise the various topoi and rhetorical strategies enabling that kind of writing in the first place. Equally, one of the things Ray finds arid about contemporary film criticism, as he has indicated in his other writing, is what he would term Bordwellian 'empiricism.'
Bordwell begins his book by referring to the classical hermeneutic division between ars intelligendi (the art of understanding) and ars explicandi (the art of explaining) and notes that most critics make a distinction 'between comprehending a film and interpreting it, though they would often disagree about where the boundary line is to be drawn'. But for the most part Bordwell's book deals with a somewhat different hermeneutic paradigm: 'To speak of hidden meanings, levels of meaning, and revealing meaning evokes the dominant framework within which critics understand interpretation'. Frank Kermode's reference to the modern critical tradition's 'search for occulted sense in texts of whatever period' is mentioned (2) as one of the more succinct descriptions of the interpretative paradigm Bordwell's book will investigate. Other writers have provided equally succinct descriptions of this particular critical paradigm. In his Marxism and Literary History, for instance, John Frow refers to 'the hermeneutic release of meaning concealed beneath the textual surface' (18). And later, in glossing aspects of Jameson's The Political Unconscious, Frow notes that, for this critical practice, the object of scrutiny becomes 'less the text itself than the interpretations through which we attempt to confront and to appropriate it. Interpretation is here construed as an essentially allegorical act, which consists in rewriting a given text in terms of a particular interpretative master code' (9-10).
But it is probably Foucault who has cast the most withering glance at this understanding of critical commentary. The paradigm to which Bordwell is alluding receives the following gloss in The Archaeology of Knowledge, when Foucault refers to the belief that:
all manifest discourse is secretly based on an 'already-said'; and that this 'already-said' is not merely a phrase that has already been spoken, or a text that has already been written, but a 'never-said', an incorporeal discourse, a voice as silent as a breath, a writing that is merely the hollow of its own mark. It is supposed therefore that everything that is formulated in discourse was already articulated in that semi-silence that precedes it, which continues to run obstinately beneath it, but which it covers and silences. The manifest discourse, therefore, is really no more than the repressive presence of what it does not say; and this 'not-said' is a hollow that undermines from within all that is said. (25)
Foucault is equally withering on that conception of the history of thought in which 'the analysis of thought is always allegorical in relation to the discourse that it employs. Its question is unfailingly: "what was being said in what was said?"' (28-29). Foucault's counter-claim is that: 'Discourse must be treated as and when it occurs' (25). And later: 'We do not seek below what is manifest the half-silent murmur of another discourse.... The question proper to such an analysis might be formulated in this way: what is this specific existence that emerges from what is said and nowhere else?' (28).
In its insistence on the localised, contingent nature of interpretation, Bordwell's account of the practices of film criticism often recalls Wittgenstein and also bears interesting comparison with Ian Hunter's description of some characteristic practices of post-Romantic literary criticism in his "The Occasion of Criticism", an article which in turn draws on some of the formulations of Wittgenstein and Foucault. For both Hunter and Bordwell, criticism is an 'occasional' activity in the sense of being a site-specific activation or application of various heuristic devices, schemata and semantic fields (for Bordwell) or in being a particular aesthetic-ethical practice of self-stylisation and self-problematisation, a specific public staging of the self (for Hunter). As Bordwell asks at one point: 'How does this film provide an occasion for us to entertain, as an imaginative possibility, the juxtaposition and development of certain semantic fields?' (263, emphasis added). Furthermore, interpretation is said to occur by way of 'a more or less disciplined speculation on the possibilities of meaning ... the film becomes an occasion for the critic to explore a theory's semantic implications and affinities' (257-58, emphasis added).
Hunter's account of the 'occasional' nature of criticism describes a context in which the occluded dimension of the text results from the reader's investigation of self and text, self via text, in an ongoing practice of self-scrutiny. Quoting Schlegel's reference to a potential reader of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister as 'one who only half-understands the work' and as one for whom 'out of disturbance and doubt, knowledge might emerge, or the reader might at least become aware of his incompleteness,' Hunter's point is that from this moment on, 'criticism acquired the task of problematising the reading of literature in order to achieve the ethical problematising of the reader' (164). This moment inaugurates the long period in which the reader becomes acutely aware of his or her incompleteness and inadequacy: 'the systematic misunderstanding of texts required by theoretical criticism is an 'occasional' phenomenon: something that can only be achieved under a definite regimen of problematisation' (174).
Thus both Bordwell and Hunter work with the notion of 'critical occasions.' But there is a particular difference between their two understandings of this notion. Hunter distances himself from any idea of a critical apparatus being brought to a text, standing in some sort of relation of exteriority to it. Bordwell seems closer to the belief that a certain distance or difference does exist between the act of writing criticism and the object which has provoked or 'occasioned' it. This view of the 'occasional' nature of criticism implies that one could specify a relation existing between a text and a particular critical apparatus. For Hunter, criticism is 'occasional' in a slightly different sense; one in which the act of writing criticism and the object (film, novel, play) together form part of a single device or dispositif. Criticism, thus conceived, loses its status as a cognitive, 'scientific' operation and instead is taken to be 'ethical.' So although there is an important difference between the positions of Bordwell and Hunter, for the moment it is enough to note their similarities and to note the parallel appropriations of Wittgenstein.
The influence of Wittgenstein is apparent in the slogan Bordwell uses to characterise his project: 'we must look beneath what critics say and examine what they - concretely, practically - do' (144) as well as in some other descriptions offered throughout the book. For instance criticism is said to be 'a practical art, somewhat like quilting or furniture-making' (xii) and the production of an interpretation is 'a skill, like throwing a pot' (251).
Another use of Wittgenstein appears in one of Bordwell's most elaborated descriptions of the critical persona, depicted as someone who is not necessarily 'a master of theory' nor 'an expert on cinema, or art, or life' (203). Rather the critic simply displays a certain 'dexterity in projecting semantic fields on to the minutiae of the film' (233). For Bordwell:
A critic is a person who can perform particular tasks: conceive the possibility of ascribing implicit or repressed meanings to films, invoke acceptable semantic fields, map them onto texts by using conventional schemata and procedures, and produce a 'model film' that embodies the interpretation. Though acquired by each individual, these skills and knowledge structures are institutionally defined and transmitted. And though it is possible to abstract a critical 'theory' or 'method' from individual 'readings', and thus to reify that theory or method as a self-sufficient procedure of discovery or validation, employing such an apparatus will not carry any critic all the way through an interpretation. Decisions about cues, patterns, and mapping must still be made by 'just going on' as Wittgenstein puts it, and following the tacit logic of craft tradition. (203-04)
Apart from displaying the legacy of Wittgenstein, Bordwell's account of the institution of and academic institutionalisation of film criticism connects him loosely with such things as Stanley Fish's notion of 'interpretive communities' (presented in Is There a Text in This Class? and cited by Bordwell) and with Fish's subsequent work on 'professionalism' and 'the literary community' (now gathered in Doing What Comes Naturally). At the same time Bordwell's book has similarities with Jonathan Culler's Framing the Sign and some other writing from John Frow and Samuel Weber. In each of these cases interpretation is shown to have specific institutional limits. The following comment from Stanley Fish, for instance, seems close to the kind of argument Bordwell is making: 'One does not perform acts of criticism by breaking free of the profession's norms and constraints ... and whenever the claim to have broken free is made you can be sure that it is underwritten, authorised and rendered intelligible by the very disciplinary boundaries it purports to have left behind' ("Bias" 747). As Bordwell characterises it:
Does the interpretation 'apply' a theory in a fresh way? Does it activate overlooked portions of films? Does it contribute to recent developments? These are constraints of habitual practice and reigning rhetoric. To use Todorov's term, film interpretation has become almost wholly 'finalistic', based upon an a priori codification of what a film must ultimately mean. 'It is foreknowledge of the meaning to be discovered that guides the interpretation.' Many of the film's nuances now go unremarked because the interpretive optic in force has virtually no way to register them. (260)
Earlier in the book Bordwell had given a range of examples of the workings of such 'optics' or 'gazes' (to use a more Foucaultian term). One example involved the critical manoeuvre of deciding that the 'overall style' and 'the driven male protagonist' of Raw Deal would 'put it into the class of film noir.' I'm not sure how much of the strength of Bordwell's point is lost by using the example of a film category (film noir) invented by (French) film criticism, as opposed to using the examples, say, of the western or the musical, categories which possess both an industrial-economic and a critical-taxonomic force. Bordwell's point is that the making of such an interpretative move 'will recast the film along certain lines, throwing particular cues into relief and downplaying others' (142).
But another example, this time an instance of 'heuristics in conflict', occurred at the 1991 Dissonance conference in Sydney. Lesley Stern delivered a paper, part of which was devoted to a discussion of aspects of Raging Bull. In question time, Patricia Mellencamp said that Stem had 'missed' the central point of La Motta's speech about having 'small hands ... little girl's hands.' Mellencamp insisted that this meant La Motta, or the film, was saying he had a little dick. Here it's interesting that the Freud invoked by Mellencamp is not the one who said 'sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.' Alternatively, what if the interpretative "optic" applied at this point came from someone who knew a bit about the history of boxing, someone who knew the boxing truism that even the greatest of lightheavyweights (say, Jose Torres) could be knocked out by the most pedestrian of heavyweights (say, Jerry Quarry) let alone the prospect alluded to at this moment of Raging Bull, of a great middle-weight (La Motta) going up against a legendary heavyweight (Joe Louis). A more contemporary analogy would be to imagine Marvin Hagler fighting Mike Tyson.
The point of this anecdote is to indicate how fervently some heuristics are held. The force of Mellencamp's remarks meant that she wasn't simply saying 'an interesting interpretation will result if you take La Motta's hands to be his penis' but rather was insisting 'what is signified here is the penis, how could you not see that etc.' Bordwell would say that this indicates the presence of a different heuristic, resulting in a clash of 'optics', and Stem probably would say that she was aware of the interpretative move mentioned by Mellencamp but was not interested in making it. Hunter would side-step the possibility of this being seen to be a clash of epistemological viewpoints by saying that one doesn't miss something that is in the text so much as one does something else with it, although this 'doing of something else' would also constitute a 'knowing', would constitute a production of knowledge for good or ill. As Bordwell says: 'Any interpretive practice seeks to show that texts mean more than they seem to say. But one might ask, why does a text not say what it means?' (64-65). Sometimes what might seem a rather banal interpretative frame (the person who knows about boxing) can produce as plausible and persuasive an interpretation as a daringly 'symptomatic' interpretative frame (the person who knows about Freud).
This call for a degree of self-evidence in film interpretation recalls a comment made some time ago by John Ellis: 'Meaning in cinema is obvious: the average cinema film appears straightforward and can be understood immediately (with subtitles) by virtually everyone on the planet.' Ellis introduces this generalisation only in order to present the critical paradox that 'this obviousness of meaning has meant that film has resisted textual analysis: there is always something that seems to evade the analysis' (14). Ellis then goes on to contrast traditional literary critical with semiotic approaches to cinema before privileging, as the object of study, a notion of the institution of cinema. This is conceived as a composite of the site of cinematic consumption, the institutions of stars and genres, publicity material, reviews, posters, advertisements; and finally the fact that 'cinema proposes a particular kind of spectator for itself', cinema-spectating being a 'modality of existence' that has 'changed over the short history of cinema' (27):
Originally addressed to a male spectator (in US, respectable working class; in Europe, partly the vaudeville public), cinema quickly (i.e. by 1920) settled to addressing a very specific social unit: the couple. Cinema-spectating in that sense became a very specific and displaced form of heterosexual activity; hence perhaps the guilt that many still feel on entering a cinema alone. Nowadays this unified address has diversified; there is no longer the monolithic address to the couple. (27)
Ellis claims that cinema-spectating has become a more fragmented activity, with the existence of different audiences: cineaste audiences, involved in what Ellis calls the 'perverse activity' (38) of watching old films; youth audiences; art-film audiences etc.
Overall Bordwell regards his book as a study of 'how film critics build up interpretations and try to convince others that these interpretations warrant attention' (xii). For Bordwell, 'making films mean' is a 'convention-bound activity ... an institutional process' (19). Critics 'build up meanings by applying institutional protocols' (3) and the critical institution offers 'a diversified but not unlimited range of interpretive options' (224).
In pointing to the limits of film interpretation, Bordwell's book eventually makes the point that 'academic criticism ... has assembled a battery of all-purpose heuristics that drill into a film at the standard junctures and mine out examples which can be sorted into the standard bins. Semantic fields are not so much explored as invoked to serve as fixed points of reference' (260). Bordwell is careful to avoid potential charges of nominalism by insisting that film criticism is not a place where 'sheer relativism' operates. Critics, he claims, 'typically agree upon what textual cues are 'there', even if they interpret the cues in differing ways' (3). Maybe Bordwell needs to make more here of a distinction between applying a grid of reading or activating a regime of reading and producing an interpretation. For example one could talk about the imagistic significance of tattoos in The Night of The Hunter, The Silence of the Lambs and Scorsese's version of Cape Fear, producing different 'interpretations' by the very process of working within an agreed system of image or theme-based reading. Equally, to ask the significance of, say, the window motif in Wuthering Heights is to invite a series of declarations of interpretative difference, all generated within a shared system constituted by the act of asking the significance of a particular motif. For Bordwell, meaning is constructed out of textual cues (a composition, a camera movement, a line of dialogue) and the play between the individual and the institutional is evident in the fact that 'each individual' acquires those 'skills and knowledge structures' courtesy of the institution. In a self-reflexive moment (itself a topos of recent cultural criticism) Bordwell characterises the role of the film critic: 'I have been trained to look for significance - that is, I assume that any film worth interpreting has something consequential to say. I further assume that what the film says is not 'literally' on the surface but is instead meaning of an implicit or symptomatic kind; that is, I look for interpretability' (31-32).
Bordwell is particularly interesting on the way the institution of film criticism encourages a drive to produce innovative acts of critical exegesis while also operating certain limits and constraints in order to determine what will be counted as 'innovative.' The academic institution regulates the production of novelty in interpretation and a broad rule for the interpreter is said to be: 'quit when the interpretation starts to sound like those that we supplant' (247). The film scholar's principal authority derives from 'knowing how to make movies mean', and this is done by applying a series of rhetorical strategies. Bordwell mentions one such interpretative strategy, that of domestication; 'the taming of the new' which 'subsumes the unfamiliar to the familiar'. This is said to be an 'institutionally necessary function' since 'the unschematised film is the uninterpretable film' (256).
Bordwell offers the following characterisation of the workings of the film critical institution or interpretative community. The critic:
relies on already-accepted semantic fields, cues, schemata, and heuristics. These provide arguments and examples on which to build a case. No dissenter in this community can persuade his opponents without relying largely, if tacitly, upon basic concepts and routines. But the critical institution is so made that nobody can be a legitimate dissenter without having come to share them anyhow. The dissenter is not, finally, all that lonely and his objection often triggers only a family quarrel. (244)
Bordwell's point here is that different critical protocols produce different 'model films':
This process is, I suggest, one source of the plurality that criticism traditionally ascribes to the text itself. What permits the endless variety of meanings to be generated from a film are, in large part, the critical practices themselves, particularly the indefinitely large variety of semantic fields and salient cues that can be 'processed' by a set of schemata and heuristics in force.
The ambiguity sought by the New Critic, the polysemy praised by the structuralist, and the indeterminacy posited by the post-structuralist are largely the product of the institutions interpretive habits. Our ability to recognise, however tacitly, these habits in action, emerges in our praise for the text's 'richness'; it must be polysemous if we can imagine using different but equally permissible, procedures to make sense of it, and to make cases for its discrete meanings (245).
While Bordwell's comments are persuasive it doesn't mean (as it seems to imply) that we can return to a singular interpretative regime or 'regime of reading' or 'reading formation', nor does it mean that institutional structures are 'wrong'. They are neither wrong nor right, but simply present. Bordwell's comments here are similar to Tony Bennett's description (drawing on Ian Hunter's work) of 'that artefact of literary criticism the unfathomable text - which, while allowing that some statements may be disqualified as false, partial, inadequate or incomplete, allows none to be validated as finally true' (271). Bennett alludes to 'the conception of the literary text as unfathomable - as the site for an endless practice of reading which can never be wrong yet never be right' (280). And Foucault, characterising 'the exegetic attitude', spoke of its conception of discourse as 'an inexhaustible treasure from which one can always draw new, and always unpredictable, riches; a providence that has always spoken in advance, and which enables one to hear, when one knows how to listen, retrospective oracles' (Archaeology 120).
Given the drive to produce new interpretations, and given the potential endlessness of interpretation, the question arises of when and how to stop the pursuit of interpretative novelty. Initially, says Bordwell, one finds the threshold of interpretative termination only 'by positing a meaning that is more subtle, pervasive, remote or elusive than other meanings, particularly those already constructed by other critics' . This production of interpretative novelty 'demands topoi of improvement, revisions, breaks and subversion; a display of indignatio aimed at previous critics; the savoring of the evanescent moment (perhaps only twenty minutes on a conference panel) when the critic's interpretation incarnates innovation, trumping its predecessors simply by being the most recent'. Bordwell dryly notes that it is in the critic's best interest 'to postpone determinacy for as long as possible before locking in her candidate meanings' (246).
(As an aside, this male feminist use of 'her' to replace the historical grammatical convention of 'his' has unfortunate consequences in a book of this kind. Given that so much of the book consists in having the 'she' or 'her' figure articulate positions which are being shown by Bordwell to be not so mysterious or complicated as they imagine themselves to be, then the new-mannish grammatical moment looks both misguided and condescending. Steven Connor does the same thing in a recent article in Textual Practice when, in making a Wittgensteinian point, he gives himself an imaginary tennis coach who is a woman who doesn't know quite as much as she could (329). In each case it might have been more strategic either to have pluralised throughout or else to have retained the convention of "he" and "his" and to have cast this figure as a version of the 'male bimbo' sometimes alluded to in feminist cultural studies writing. The male feminist hairshirt could then truly be worn with pride).
As the art cinema became more influential, other humanistic fields emerged and have remained in force. Works by Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, and others encouraged critics trained in modern literature to propose interpretations that highlighted themes of reality and illusion, the artist's vocation, the alienation of modern life, the difficulties of loving. One persistent semantic mode is the problem of personal communication. (108)
At a number of times in his career as a film theorist Bordwell has said delightfully deflating things about art cinema (principally by outlining its conventions, as typified in this comment: 'art cinema conventions invite the viewer to take an object symbolically': 272) and he has another such moment in this book when he responds to Teresa de Lauretis' much published (Discourse, Revisions, Alice Doesn't) interpretation of Bad Timing. In an account which recalls some of the formulations of late '70s Stephen Heath, de Lauretis presents Bad Timing as a film which 'undercuts the spectator's pleasure by preventing both visual and narrative identification, by making it literally as difficult to see as to understand events and their succession, their timing: and our sense of time becomes uncertain in the film, as its vision for us is blurry' (quoted in Bordwell 268).
Bordwell's comment on this is: 'On the contrary: such problems of identification and such temporal uncertainties constitute fundamental art-cinema conventions, and they have shaped viewing skills ever since Hiroshima Mon Amour, Red Desert, Persona and similar films became models for ambitious directors' (268). This risks seeming a little monolithic or unilateral; the situation would be more complicated in that one's reading wouldn't necessarily inhabit only one set of conventions but might well display conflict among two or more interpretative regimes. However, given Roeg's strategy of cutting on the gaze or look of a character throughout Bad Timing, the film does become a candidate for one of the more recent heuristics described by Bordwell: 'Looking for the look is currently one of the critic's most productive heuristics, and whatever semantic quality gets assigned to it ... it remains inextricably part of the character's embodiment, traits, goals, and relations with other characters. It is a pure, if sometimes abstruse, personification' (155). Alternatively one could cite John Ellis' comment that 'the cut is perhaps the most radical moment of risk in the cinema' and say that Roeg's film explores this moment to the full. If it is the case that, across a cut, 'total difference of image and sound can occur, everything is at stake, the following image (and/or sounds) need have no relation with those which precede', if it is true that the risk is of 'disorientation and panic, or their obverse, disinterest, boredom' (15), then this would constitute another heuristic to apply to a film such as Bad Timing, showing that one could attend to the productivity and textual frisson of the cut without at the same time 'looking for the look' in the way that Bordwell is denigrating.
I want to stay with the example of Bad Timing for a while and try to indicate the way Bordwell's point can be linked to Hunter's argument. First, if we contrast the editing technique used to introduce a flashback in Bad Timing with techniques used in classical Hollywood cinema, we can notice the way an interpretation is produced by the viewer's knowledge of or familiarity with a particular textual technique (here a mode of editing) in tandem with that viewer's performing of some ethical work on the self.
To recall some signallings of flash-backs in classical hollywood cinema: wind blows through an open window as the camera moves in close on a tabletop calendar whose leaves are 'blown' backwards until we reach the date it is necessary to reach for that point in the fiction (Written on the Wind). A character has to tell another character what really happened in a gunfight that occurred some time earlier. He drags on a cigarette, says 'Think back, Pilgrim,' exhales the smoke which momentarily defocusses the screen to enable us to make the transition back to that time (John Wayne to Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, although this is a flash-back within a flash-back structure). An intense light fixes around the eyes of a character as the camera moves into close-up (film noir flash-back). A character looks into water, a point-of-view shot sees the water ripple, shimmer, fill the image and we flashback.
Bad Timing, on the other hand, cuts directly, taking its viewer abruptly across different times and locations. And the notorious scenes depicting Alex's (Art Garfunkel) rape or 'ravishment' of the comatose Milena (Theresa Russell) - scenes which have provoked much writing on this film - are given to the viewer by way of a cut on the look of the investigator, Netusil (Harvey Keitel). This is one of the film's modernist gestures (or, as Bordwell would put it, 'art cinema conventions') - albeit one used to troubling sexual-political effect. Its consequence is to prompt the viewer to ask him or herself, did this event really happen or is it Netusil's fantasy? And this viewer also knows that the film will not provide a definitive answer (no John Wayne here). So we encounter a film which employs some of the techniques of a modernist, art-cinema practice to produce what we might call structured ambiguity. Its viewer can never know for sure, although of course many viewers might decide one way or another and have conversations and arguments accordingly. But one of the textual points of the film is to insist on the ambiguity and undecidability of this moment. There is no equivalent of third-person omniscient narration and no first-person character confession. All we have to go on is our capacity to interpret a textual device calculated to help produce an ambiguity-effect. The 'correct' reading position to take up is one in which we are content not to be able to decide. And these features of textual openness, ambiguity and undecidability are achieved under definite conditions. My alluding to a technique of editing indicates a formal textual convention or condition, but it is one which needs to be accompanied by the ethical-interpretative work the viewer has to do on him or herself. For example the viewer has to activate a rule of reading which says "read for maximum ambiguity, interpret knowing that there will be no definite resolution, and try to take pleasure in this circumstance".
Bordwell also implies that the move from applying a humanist interpretation of art-cinema to employing a structuralist-semiotic interpretative paradigm is not so great as one might think: 'A critic already inclined to see films as centring on problems of communication or the nature of art does not have to take a giant step in order to treat the same film as being about the opacity of representation or the nature of signification' (110). Furthermore, 'with the rise of structuralism, reflexive interpretations were licensed by the assumption that all art could reflect upon signification' (111).
Towards the end of his book, having allowed his jaded (?) mid-western eye to cast a devastating glance at such metropolitan critical-cultural capitals as Boston/New York (his account of October), London (his account of Screen) and the like (saying that 'the arrival of citational footnotes in Cahiers, Screen and Artforum should be seen as a major event, signalling not simply 'academicisation' but a move towards arguments from external expertise': 209), Bordwell assesses the state of current film criticism and finds it 'astonishingly barren' (261). He then observes: 'One of the lessons of this book is that while the particular results of any interpretative act are indefinitely numerous, the textual cues, and the semantic traits which are assigned to them have become quite limited' (260). It is Bordwell's contention that the late '60s, although in many ways quite fruitful for film theory:
ushered in a mode of criticism that has in the last decade or so become astonishingly barren. We need no more diagnoses of the subversive moment in a slasher movie, or the celebrations of a 'theoretical' film for its critique of mainstream cinema, or treatments of the most recent art film as a meditation on cinema and subjectivity. In retrospect the revamped symptomatic readings of the mid-1970s look like originality's last gasp. We have had no examples since then; we live in an era of ordinary criticism. Theory too is waning. Hence perhaps critics' desperate swerve to television, to publicity materials, to cultural artefacts - as if the repetitiveness of Interpretation Inc., could be disguised by a turn to new sorts of texts. (261-62)
Some readers might be surprised to see just which instances of critical writing eventually are valorised in Bordwell's study. What escapes the sometimes scathing synoptic view are such things as Bazin's writing on Renoir and Welles, Parker Tyler's books, Barbara Deming's Running Away from Myself, some of Manny Farber's 'rhapsodic evocations' (264), the early work of the Cahiers and Positif groups, the early Movie analyses of Hitchcock (e.g. Wood and Perkins, though Perkins' status as one of the elect doesn't stop him from producing a quite critical review of the book). These are all said to be 'likely to endure for a long time.' (It would have been interesting to see how Bordwell placed the writing of Lawrence Alloway in his history-typology, but no mention is made of him).
The book then moves towards its end by citing the new 'Historical Turn' (or perhaps 'new historicist' turn) in film studies. This refers to the various attempts by people such as Gunning, Musser and Hansen to reconstruct earlier acts of film comprehension. This work is taken to confirm 'the precept that through time some potential meanings are lost' and these meanings 'can be revivified through an analysis akin to the study of iconography in art history' (266). Bordwell obviously has a great deal of sympathy for this kind of critical work and this prompts me to think that he would be sympathetic towards the empirical side of the history of literary studies. I'm thinking here of the way, say, in the mid 1950s, Louis Martz tied Donne's meditative lyrics to various meditative treatises, manuals and devotional books (translated from French, Spanish and Italian) which were circulating in England at that time, and also the way some work on the development of the novel as a genre ties it to conduct manuals and the practice of keeping diaries.
Bordwell does allude to the philological tradition and we should remember that for this critical practice a text required interpretation when it was very old, had been corrupted by other hands or was of dubious authenticity. For this particular form of criticism the problematic dimension of the text was a quite practical, contingent matter determined by its age or the language in which it was written. It did not constitute a perpetual problem and could be clarified more or less definitively. The post-Romantic critical tradition differs from this tradition to the extent that it produces a situation in which:
we make certain texts inscrutable as a condition of performing a certain work on ourselves. We should not assume therefore that such a use is absolute. Under other circumstances - for example, those of philological description and rhetorical practice - such texts might be perfectly comprehensible and transparent.
When Stephen Orgel describes the court masque, in The Illusion of Power, he is working in this manner to the extent that he is saying that these are old texts whose initial uses are now foreign to us. Insofar as this is the case, they can be said to require a kind of interpretative reconstruction, but once this has been done, we are in a position to forget about them in terms of any project concerned with recovering interminably the dimension of their 'not-said'. Orgel's critical project is to explain a particular ritual that no longer is part of social life - the staging of the monarch's divine pre-eminence in a symbolic spectacle - but which once was implicated directly in the production of dramatic works. He discusses texts and contexts which have become historically, socially, opaque to us and this is quite different from assuming that texts possess a perpetually unknowable dimension.
Orgel's critical practice has some similarities with Ian Hacking's reference, in Representing and Intervening, to 'forgotten styles of reasoning'. After quoting some statements from Paracelsus, who died in 1541, Hacking observes:
He [Paracelsus] exemplifies a Northern Renaissance tradition of a bundle of hermetic interests: medicine, physiology, alchemy, astrology, divination. Like many another 'doctor' of the day, he practised all of these as part of a single art. The historian can find in Paracelsus anticipations of later chemistry and medicine. The herbalist can retrieve some forgotten lore from his remarks. But if you try to read him you will find someone utterly different from us. (69-70)
Hacking says this difference results from an incommensurability of discourses. Paracelsus originally wrote in dog-Latin and proto-German but his work is now available in German and English. As Hacking describes the situation: 'It is not that we cannot understand his words, one by one,' but rather that Paracelsus' ordering of thought 'is based on a whole system of categories that is hardly intelligible to us'. Hacking also alludes to the fact that many Renaissance writers of 'high seriousness and intelligence' make what seem to us now 'extraordinary statements about the origins of duck or geese or swans'. For example: 'Rotting logs floating in the Bay of Naples will generate geese. Ducks are generated from barnacles'. Hacking observes that 'we do not lack sentences to express these thoughts' and mentions the word 'anatiferous' together with its dictionary definition, 'producing ducks or geese, that is producing barnacles, formerly supposed to grow on trees, and, dropping off into the water below, to turn into tree geese'. These references alert us to 'an alien system of thought that we can only barely recall, for example, in homoeopathic medicine'. Paracelsus' 'style of reasoning [is] alien' and Hacking uses the word 'dissociation' to describe this form of historical incommensurability of discourses (70-71).
Ludwig Wittgenstein, in Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, offers an observation which relates to the examples provided in the writing of Orgel and Hacking. Wittgenstein asks us to 'suppose someone were ignorant of the tradition among sculptors of making busts. If he then came upon the finished bust of some man, he might say that obviously this is a fragment and that there must have been other parts belonging to it, making a whole body' (49). Wittgenstein here is exploring two things: the urge to interpret and the question of when an interpretation might stop. On the matter of the urge to interpret he makes the following remark:
There might be no mark which we recognised as a conventional sign in any alphabet we knew, and yet we might have a strong feeling that they must be a language of some sort: that they mean something. There is a cathedral in Moscow with five spires. On each of these there is a different sort of curving configuration. One gets the strong impression that these different shapes and arrangements must mean something. (45)
Elsewhere in his book, in some comments on Freud's work, Wittgenstein poses the question (but does not provide an answer to it) of 'when an interpretation could be regarded as complete - and so about when it still requires completion, when further interpretation is needed' (49). Wittgenstein notes that, for Freud, interpretation ended under different circumstances: perhaps when the patient was satisfied or when the doctor's expertise was allowed to rule the day:
Freud never shows how we know where to stop - where is the right solution. Sometimes he says that the right solution, or the right analysis, is the one which satisfies the patient. Sometimes he says that the doctor knows what the right solution or analysis of the dream is whereas the patient doesn't; the doctor can say that the patient is wrong. The reason why he calls one sort of analysis the right one, does not seem to be a matter of evidence. (42)
Freud is constantly claiming to be scientific. But what he gives is speculation - something prior even to the formation of an hypothesis. (44)
In these comments from Wittgenstein, Hacking and Orgel we glimpse an attitude that might be given a more general force. For all their differences, these examples seem to be saying that texts require the historical reconstruction of specific 'orders of thought' and 'styles of reasoning', things which, for Wittgenstein, are embedded in different Lebensformen or forms of living. To recall the example provided by philology, interpretation would mean such things as deciphering a text from a lost script or the recovery of the meaning of a particular word (such as 'anatiferous'). Recovery here involves not the bringing to consciousness of a fugitive semantic substructure, but the careful reconstruction of a particular positive use of the text.
If these examples point to the way a text can become opaque across history, Umberto Eco's comments on Antonioni's China film show the way a text can become a contradictory and confusing object across culturally different systems of representation. A great deal of controversy surrounded the showing of Antonioni's film in Venice and Eco's comments try to show that the controversy derived from a clash of representational systems. Eco observes that 'words and images acquire different meanings according to the cultures which interpret them' (9) and alludes to the by now famous criticism in Renmin Ribao concerning the film's representation of the Nanking Bridge. The Chinese viewers considered the shot of the bridge 'an attempt to make it appear distorted and unstable, because a culture that prizes frontal representation and symmetrical distance shots cannot accept the language of Western cinema which, to suggest impressiveness, foreshortens and frames from below, prizing asymmetry and tension over balance' (286). Or, another observation from Eco: 'This is revolutionary China, which presents a strong picture of itself. But Antonioni's film presents a tender, docile picture. For us gentleness is opposed to neurotic competition, but for the Chinese, that docility decodes as resignation' (285). Stephen Bann corroborates Eco's observations when he points out:
When Antonioni filmed in China a few years ago, he apparently annoyed his hosts because he constantly used shots that fragmented and, from the Chinese point of view, distorted the human body. What was for him a well-tried Western device - the division of the body by the frame seemed to them an assault on human dignity. (35)
Eco's and Bann's discussions of the reception of Antonioni's China film present an example of the way a text can become opaque across different contemporary cultural regimes of representation, while the Orgel and Hacking examples concern the way a text can become mysterious across historically differing regimes of representation.
The same points apply to the study of more obviously popular cultural texts, as Richard Ohmann recently has indicated. In discussing a story published in an 1895 popular American magazine Ohmann makes the claim that his reading 'does not look behind or through the text to "background" conditions but reconstructs meanings that were "there" in the text for properly schooled contemporaries' (38). Much as was the case with the Orgel and Eco references, the textual mystery can be clarified either by interpretative work of historical reconstruction (Orgel on the court masque, Ohmann on the nineteenth century American popular magazine) or by 'activating all ones own anthropological antennae' (Eco 9) in the case of Antonioni's China film.
Each of these examples, in its different way, might seem like a dream of a positivist utopia when placed against notions of the eternal ineffability and undecidability of texts. But one of the main points of studies such as Bordwell's Making Meaning is precisely to indicate the critical protocols that need to be in place in order for a film to be said to be "ineffable" or "undecidable".
Bordwell had begun his book by referring to Shklovsky's The Knight's Move and he ends it by saying that it is now time 'for critics to make the knight's move' (274). But this option of performing the theoretical-critical equivalent of two steps forward and one across, or two across and one forward, this unique ability to jump characters, might not work if the world we inhabit is one aligned with Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, a world where '[k]nights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights' (146).
Bordwell concludes his study by saying that if film criticism is to progress, then 'the greatest novelty, at this moment, will come not from new semantic fields (postmodernism or whatever will follow) but from a side-stepped dislocation of interpretation itself' (274). Before this somewhat rhetorical and elusive conclusion, Bordwell had spent most of his last few pages outlining the virtues of an 'historical poetics' of cinema. Bordwell is keen to see film criticism display some of the 'positivist scholarship' (262) that has been part of the history of literary criticism and he says that the two main questions film criticism should ask are: 'how are particular films put together? Call this the problem of the film's composition' and 'what effects and f unctions do particular films have?' . The interpretative critic hounded by Bordwell throughout his book has a ready-made answer to these questions by presuming that 'the film's composition and effects are the vehicles of its implicit and/or symptomatic meanings' (263). Bordwell then has an unwitting Foucaultian moment in suggesting that 'what may matter as much as implicit or repressed meanings is the surface of the work' (264, emphasis added). This notion of 'surface' recalls Foucault's remark: 'There is no sub-text. And therefore no plethora. The enunciative domain is identical with its own surface' (119). John Frow's gloss on this is to say: 'The unsaid is not ... a repressed discourse which could be restored. Gaps, absences and limits are merely that - determinate and finite moments of discourse' (80).
In calling for historical study of particular films, a 'study of form and style in given historical circumstances' (267), Bordwell says he doesn't want such work to be conducted in a critical language that would 'flatten out our predecessor's difference' (265). The current state of film scholarship is said to be such that we lack detailed analyses of genres, histories of acting, lighting, editing, music, camera techniques, aesthetic uses of colour, and even descriptions of such basic things as dialogue, scene construction and optical effects. Nor are there sufficiently thorough explanations of the norms governing the output of most national cinemas. Bordwell contends that a 'theoretically rigorous historical scholarship', a 'self-conscious historical poetics of cinema' (266) is best placed to produce studies of particular cinematic forms, genres, and styles in such a way as would demonstrate 'how, in determinate circumstances, films are put together, serve specific functions and achieve specific effects' (266-67). The beginnings of such a critical practice are said to reside in the work of Arnheim, Russian Formalism, the early Soviet filmmakers, Bazin's writing on the evolution of cinematic language and Noel Burch's work on the history of style in Japanese cinema. An 'open-textured historical poetics of film' would display an 'awareness of historically existent options' (268) in cinema. The poetician 'aims to analyse the conceptual and empirical factors - norms, traditions, habits - that govern a practice and its products' (269). Such an historical poetics would study practices of reception as well as those of production, seeking to establish particular viewing conventions, 'the inferential protocols of certain historical modes of viewing' (272) or historically specific 'norms of comprehension' (274). Bordwell points out that the spectator can 'use the film for other purposes than the maker anticipated . There is nothing mysterious or surprising about this' (270). On this issue of what viewers do with films, Raymond Durgnat once observed that 'very few spectators seek to read texts. They want to raid them for some relevance to their own interests. The study of movies undoubtedly has its place, but very few moviegoers want to study movies. They want to loot them' (76-77). Before this, Durgnat had remarked that:
film can count on the spectator's possessing a certain formative (sub)culture. And, reciprocally, the spectator can estimate the sorts of meaning which a text expects him (or her) to construe ... The purpose of debate isn't only to establish a preferred meaning, but first to decide whether there is one, and also to establish the range of interpretations which a film can accommodate. (76)
And Herb Eagle, reviewing Bordwell's book for Wide-Angle, touches on the issues alluded to in Durgnat's comments, by saying:
Bordwell's detailed analysis of interpretation as a specialised craft raises a central question about the general spectator's cognitive response to film art: To what extent are the schemata and heuristics that Bordwell has attributed to the 'professional' film interpreter also employed by the general spectator in constructing meaning? (126)
One viewer might watch Scorsese's Cape Fear and relate it to the earlier J Lee Thompson version, also finding intertextual relations to Hitchcock, Deliverance and The Silence of the Lambs, while another viewer might use the film as an occasion to wonder about how to avoid such a real-life circumstance (eg. surely the judicial and policing arms of the state would intervene before these dreadful events came to pass); another might deplore the misogyny of the film. And so on. As Eagle says, 'the boundary between comprehension and interpretation is a variable one' (121), but what would be evident in these different construals of the film would be precisely their statuses as modes of reading that simultaneously were appropriations or rewritings of particular kinds. The options are that the film is taken to be analogous to 'real life' (how can these sorts of acts/people be stopped); or it is recruited to a film fanzine/theoretical mixture of thinking about re-makes and intertextuality; or it is submitted to the 'political' critique constituted by a feminist attention to the way women are depicted in the film; that is, a criticism of the violence done to women within the diegesis and within more general terms of representation.
But Eagle's very positing of 'the general spectator' invokes a straw figure and goes against his recognition of the limits of Bordwell's study; namely the book's investigation of 'the assumption and protocols of the past half-century of critical and academic film interpretation' (118, emphasis added). Eagle also notes the extent to which Bordwell's cadastral survey of academic-critical discourse on film from 1940 to the late '80s tends to favour 'those critics who employ semantic fields demonstrably present in the fabula (eg. Parker Tyler or Barbara Deeming) over those who approach the text with semantic fields which originate in sociopolitical or psychoanalytic theories and have no clear relation to story elements' (121), and this observation might indicate a (symptomatic) tendency for Bordwell to naturalise some forms of film criticism over others in the very act of prioritising them within the terms of his survey.
Despite the (somewhat fetishistic) invocation of historical specificity at the book's conclusion, it's still not clear what would constitute 'reception' in this account, although Bordwell neatly observes that the search for implicit or symptomatic meaning constitutes one of the 'protocols of reception' operating within twentieth-century western societies.
Bordwell ends his book with a very structuralist gesture (viz. Todorov and Culler) by displaying a topos of self-reflexivity. He says: 'I offer not a hermeneutics ... but a poetics of interpretation', a fact he claims is indicated by the extent to which criticism of his book would still be obliged to operate within its concepts: 'Like every poetics of writing, mine hands over to the reader the tools with which my own discourse can be taken to pieces' (273). This review has sought not so much to dismantle Bordwell's writing as to align it with other related theoretical writing as a means of indicating some potential directions for future critical endeavours. Playing the role of a polite host, it has introduced some bits of writing that previously didn't seem to know one another and (topos of reviewer's modesty) this has seemed enough of a thing to do.
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Bennett, Tony. Outside Literature. London: Routledge, 1990.
Bordwell, David. Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1989.
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