Film Literacy

Welcome to “Film Forum,” a new feature of Clips. Jim Piper and I have been asked to carry on a conversation about movies in these pages – what’s going on around town, what to look for on video, what a director might have had in mind with a particular scene, and so on. Some months Jim and I may carry on this conversation in the same column; other months we’ll take turns. Like Jim, I teach film studies at City College – appreciation, history, and theory. While I’ll try to avoid academic jargon in this column, sometimes a film term that I would use with my students will just be the best way for me to explain something. So my apologies up front if I cross the line into stuffiness. What I want to talk about today may inevitably cross that line because my subject is film literacy itself – that is, how viewers “read,” or interpret, a movie, especially if that movie deviates from mainstream tastes and expectations.

The topic quickly becomes complicated because there are so many ways to read films, each interpretation potentially as meaningful as the next. I believe that the truly great films are those that invite the greatest number of readings. Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Rules of the Game, and The Godfather – -to name just the top four films from Sight and Sound‘s 2002 poll of international critics – reign among the classics at least in part because so many different approaches can be used to tease out new questions and new answers about these inexhaustible cinematic treasures.

Like responses to literary art, film interpretation depends on the value-laden theoretical assumptions held by viewers and filmmakers alike, even if those assumptions are unspoken. As I raise the specter of “theory,” some readers may grimace; others, shudder. But resistance to film theory is akin to the argument that any art, or even human expression itself, can exist without an ideology affecting its creation and reception. As much as we might want to believe that art can be ahistorical or apolitical, or that “invisible” ideology in film is not really ideology, those beliefs are unsupportable.

What should be the highest criterion in judging a film’s merits? Its degree of realism? The expressiveness of its visual design? Its innovation within a genre? Its insight into human psychology? Or some other equally admirable quality? If we decide that one of these criteria is the most important for all viewing experiences, then we lock ourselves into a single theoretical position as well as predispose ourselves to a narrow range of films. Just as no one film style or tradition is intrinsically “better” than another, so too no single critical model – whether realist, formalist, auteur, genre, psychoanalytic, feminist, Marxist, or what have you – is intrinsically more useful than another. And none will illuminate all films equally because each approach alters the questions we ask, the answers we are likely to get, and the judgments we might make about a film.

So when I’m asked what something means in a film or what a filmmaker intends by this shot or that, my answer should depend on the historical, cultural, and theoretical contexts in which the film was created and from that what kinds of questions the film truly invites. Before I assume that a formalist answer is best and therefore start talking about differences in meaning between high- and low-key lighting, or between continuity editing and jump cuts, I should remind myself what expectations and criteria are most appropriate for the film I’m “reading.” For example, questions about composition and color are especially productive when talking about Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, but those same questions will yield much less interesting answers about Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less. For that film, I would do better to consider how the cinematography and performances achieve such a heightened sense of realism. Do these differences mean Mendes’s film is superior to Zhang’s? Or Zhang’s to Mendes’s? Of course not. The differences simply remind us that diversity in aesthetics and filmmaking traditions make it unwise to ask the same questions about the two films or to expect similar kinds of answers.

I’ll have more to say about this topic or some other when I return to “Film Forum” in two months. Look for Jim’s column in the next issue of Clips.