Things that don’t quite fit the film itself

What to do when faced with that awkward academic situation when you read an article in a major journal that seems very relevant to exactly something you are working on; you draft a line from this and then watch the film it’s about afterwards (not one you’ve seen before and that had to be obtained through the post), only to find that the argument isn’t really stood up by the film?

That just happened to me and it is a bit tricky. The point made just fitted nicely into something I was writing. I’m probably going to keep it, and say that, in this particular case, the film used seems to contain no real grounding for the claims made in this case. But, then, I can’t really use up enough words fully to explain this (I’m always over-writing), which maybe seems a bit unfair. I suppose I could just do that here online instead, but I don’t really want to devote a post just to knocking someone else’s work for the sake of it.

This does raise a broader issue, though, to do with the way we interpret films (or other media texts) in relation to issues of their social context, as is the case here. To what extent do we need to have some specific grounds in the text for making such readings, rather than situating them very broadly within such contexts? That’s a long-standing issue, of course. There is a vast amount of work that stretches such things a long way from what can reasonably be said to be grounded in the text. I’m saying nothing new here in that sense.

This is probably inevitable in some more theoretically based approaches, but there are many cases in which the preexisting theoretical concept seems to be prioritised over whether or not it really works for the text. In the case I’m talking about here, the writer seems to have some such concepts, then to take some more directly relevant material from related films, and then find small details in the main film examined on which to base reading across from the others to the one. That seems rather tendentious and trying too hard to fit a film into a frame.

We all probably do this at times, to some extent. But I think a key issue here is to make it clear where such readings remain broad and speculative – where they are very strongly a reading-into rather than based on something that has a reasonably clear presence in some form in the text itself. What exactly ‘reasonably clear’ means is itself less than transparent, of course, and leaves plenty of space for debate. But it is good to be open about this rather than to apply readings in a head-down manner that can require a large act of faith on the part of the reader – or that imposes a ‘take it or leave it’ alternative, rather than trying to open out the question of how far such readings work or for whom.

This is an issue that perhaps has a particular application to the field of art cinema, on which I now mostly work, part of the textual nature of which is sometimes to be elusive rather than to provide unambiguous grounds for interpretation. That can created an open season for theoretically inspired speculation. One way to deal with this is to identify that as a phenomenon in its own right: one of the appeals of certain kinds of art cinema to academics is the license it can provide for certain types of theoretical interpretations. That’s fine, but it’s good to try to distinguish between this and questions of what films are likely to mean to those who view them outside the context of academic interpretation. That can involve actual audience research of some kind or just acknowledging the very particular nature of much academic interpretation.

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