YOUR Interpretation

So there’s this fable about blind mice and an elephant. Each mouse feels one part of the elephant. The elephant seems to be something different to each mouse, and this leads to a big argument. No mouse realizes it’s an elephant. Each mouse is too small to be able to perceive the whole picture. The idea is that we all have different points of view, that nobody is right or wrong, and that our perspectives are all relative. We all claim to know the truth, to see objectivity, but in reality we are too limited. An extension of this moral is that we should value all interpretations equally.

This idea is somewhat valid, although intrinsically flawed. An intellectual named Tim Keller explains the flaw in this way. The author, by placing himself in a position where he observes everything, the mice and the elephants, also claims to have the truth and objectivity. The author pretends that he isn’t committing the same folly as the mice. Moreover, by communicating that we cannot attain truth and objectivity, he undermines his whole fable. No matter what, we are always trying to attain the objective truth, even when we claim that we aren’t or can’t.

I bring this up as a preface, because I feel that there is too much weight given to the audience’s interpretation, and not enough value attributed to the artist’s intent.

In my opinion, we should try as hard as possible to understand the artist. We shouldn’t dogmatically claim to know his theme. However, I don’t think we should use the artist’s work as fodder for our own agendas. That’s parasitic. For example, many people insist on discussing the misogyny of “Antichrist.” Maybe that is a minor theme of the film. But what is the film called? Is it called “Abusing Women?” Is it called “I Hate Women?” Is it called “Women Suck?” No, it’s called “Antichrist.” I don’t think the intended theme could be any more clearly defined.

Here is my issue. When we ignore the intentions of the artist, we galvanize the divides between people. We can only become closer as a human race if we listen to each other. A film is a medium to connect two people. A director has something in his mind. He translates it into a movie. And then the viewer translates it into his mind. The film is like a glue for our minds to become closer. For us to understand each other. To learn new perspectives.

I’m not just saying this because I want to encourage you to understand my film. I actively try to understand every director’s intent. I think approaching movies in this way will help you grow more, and bring you closer to people. Does your personal, oh-so-unique interpretation really have that much value? Truthfully, I feel closer to Lars Von Trier, Craig Brewer, Stanley Kubrick, Eric Roehmer, and Quentin Tarantino than most people I’ve met in real life. Not because I’ve fabricated original interpretations of their works, but because I believe I have discovered their intentions.

A friend of mine once told me that if there is “one interpretation” and we all discover it, then the film won’t matter any more and will be “done.” I do believe that’s kind of true. I think debate about interpretations is what will give a movie like “Inception” a really long life. However, I don’t think it’s necessary for a film to have a long life. If you’ve read my posting about “legacy,” you’d know what I mean.


Explication of Scenes: Part III

How about the scene when Danny goes to see Gideon in his cell? The purpose of this scene was to mislead you. The way he treats the priest, you should think that Gideon has some issue with religion. This was a tricky scene because I needed to make it seem that Gideon was anti religious without having him say anything ridiculous like “I hate God.”

I really regret playing the part of “Older Gideon.” When Hitchcock did this kind of thing, it was always at a mundane moment.  When the shots of me occur, there are really critical pieces of information getting revealed. So instead of saying “Ohhhh that’s why!” people are saying “That’s Nate, that’s the director, yadda yadda.” Really, the casting decision was motivated by not having to think about one more actor. On the flip side, I think some people may find it interesting that the director is playing “The Evangelist” character. Does the title possibly refer to the director? Maybe…but I’ve decided to reserve that speculation for the criterion collection essay that will accompany the DVD.

What I like in this scene is the moment when the Priest walks toward Danny. The Priest is discouraged and Danny tries to provide encouraging words.

But the Priest maintains his path, ignoring Danny. The priest disappears behind Danny. But then Danny mentions “I was his father.”

The priest reappears from behind Danny. He is interested by this. The shot isn’t symbolic or anything, but the design of it was meant to communicate the thought process of the Priest through the blocking.
Then we go back to the execution room. Danny and the Priest discuss Gideon. The camera is positioned behind the backs of the characters. I think this creates a more intimate vibe when characters are discussing something very important. They face away from us, so it’s almost like we are eavesdropping.

Here’s something I learned. Flashback cuts need to be motivated by a line. The line doesn’t have to be “It was a dark and stormy night..” but there needs to be something. The flashback here was initially motivated by a pregnant pause. Some people found this jarring. So I freeze framed the shot and added a line of voice over to prompt the flashback. This was fine because we had voice over anyway. It’s amazing what you can fix in post sometimes!

What it’s about: 8 1/2

This  week I decided to tackle something a bit more challenging: 8 1/2. This Fellini masterpiece is an explosion of meanings and implications. You could say it’s about film, it’s about male chauvinism, it’s about longing for the innocence of childhood, but I think what supersedes everything is a complete metaphor for God and his relationship to the world.

Now I am going to try to explain my interpretation as clearly as possible and I apologize if I fail.

Guido is a film director. He has had some success but he is currently having an artistic crises. His next film is ambitious and he is unsure if it will make any sense. As you watch the film, you begin to realize that Guido’s character refers to Fellini. Fellini is a film director, with an artistic crises, and 8 1/2 is a potentially non nonsensical ambitious film. So Guido is the cinematic manifestation of Fellini.

I want to point out that in this post, 8 1/2 stands as a metaphor for a deterministic God. That is, a God who predestined everything to happen and controls every molecule. I think it’s possible to interpret 8 1/2 as a metaphor for a God who permits free will. But for the sake of focus and clarity, I’m not going to entertain that interpretation.

So, a deterministic God controls all the molecules in the universe right? This is comparable to a film director like Fellini who controls all the creative decisions for the movie. But what is unique about 8 1/2 is how  Fellini extends the metaphor with the Guido character. In the same way that God sent down his manifestation in human form to a human world, Fellini sends down his manifestation in cinematic form to a cinematic world. And Guido interacts with people and suffers…and fill in the blanks. If you have any arguments against this interpretation, think about how Guido shoots himself at the climax and the supporting characters carry him like a martyr. And then he resurrects.

I’m just going to stop here because I vowed to make these short. But I want you to know I’ve written about 10 other pages that I’m not including. I think I’ve exercised a divine amount of restraint, because I have a lot more to say. There is not another movie I’ve seen that is so complex with such fascinating implications. For example, given this metaphor “What is Fellini saying about the creative process?” “Does he see himself as God?” “If Guido has control over everything, why does he suffer so much?” “Isn’t it possible to interpret this as a metaphor for a God with a free will?” “Does Fellini actually believe in God?” “Does God like 8 1/2?” “Is God the true director of 8 1/2?” And on and on. Enjoy this one.

The value of subtlety

Often I will hear someone evaluate a film in terms of it’s degree of subtlety. A person will say “oh it was great, the director approached the theme in a really subtle manner.” or, “it was horrible, he was shoving his idea down my throat, he should be more subtle.”  These comments cause me to wonder who decided that directors should achieve a level of subtlety. This seems to be an assumption without rational basis. What is the value of subtlety?  I suspect that our appreciation for subtlety is the result of our depraved nature and that subtlety may have no real value.

I imagine some readers are saying ” When I appreciate subtlety, I am admiring the prowess of the artist, and his ability to walk a line; communicating his idea softly, but still making the idea possible to understand.” But is it possible for everyone to understand the idea? If so, can you really call that subtle? If not, doesn’t that suck for the people who didn’t get it?

And that is the reason we value subtlety: our human propensity to exclude others.  To be subtle is to communicate a piece of information in a manner that is either hidden, less noticeable or not as clear as possible. The comprehension of the information requires more effort on the part of the receiver. The more subtlety in your communication, the more effort required on the part of the receiver. The greater the effort required, the fewer the people capable of exerting this effort. Thus, as the subtlety of an idea increases, the number of people who will comprehend decreases. So then, when a person says “it is good because it is subtle.” he is actually saying ” I like it because many people don’t.  I have access to something special. My comprehension of this information affirms that God has given me a more advanced brain than most people.”
From here I think the issues are evident. First of all, subtle art encourages a  country club heirarchy, including some and excluding most. Secondly, the proliferation of this value allows hack artists who produce confusing works without any genuine or deliberate choice to pretend that what they’ve done actually is good, but it’s just too subtle for you to understand. Thirdly, the people who experience subtle art don’t even like the art, they like the fact that they understand it. They are prideful. They don’t experience the art, they admire their own brains.

Conversley, this is the same reason why people don’t like bombastic art. If a director screams out his message, the viewer feels that the director is insulting his intelligence. The viewer thinks “hey, God gave me an advanced brain that can connect dots and I like to connect dots but you’re connecting the dots for me and that makes me feel bored and useless.”

But a bombastic director does not necessarily think his audience is stupid. It’s possible that the director could care so much about his idea that tries to communicate it as clearly as possible. He’s not telling the audience they are stupid, he’s making his idea accessible to everyone. Isn’t that admirable?  Why should we applaud an artist who doesn’t communicate his idea clearly? That’s like applauding a cook for preparing something that most stomachs can’t digest.

I’d like to see more “CLEAR FILMMAKING” Enough of this subtlety!

Any retorts?

The importance of legacy

So very often I think about the future, maybe a couple hundred years down the line. I’m dead. I’ve directed many movies. My children have continued copying over the files to new hard drives and renewing a subscription to some archiving company, holding a retrospective screening of the movies. But my grandchildren probably won’t be so concerned with this. They’ll get careless. The movies will start to be lost. The archiving company may go out of business. People may stop watching movies completely in favor of other more advanced types of entertainment. The last server with one of my movies dies. And any record of anything cinematic I’ve done will be gone. No one will remember a single frame. Is this depressing? It kind of sounds like it, right?

Some recent thoughts shine a few rays of hope for me. First of all, it’s nice to know that even if I don’t achieve the same level of success as Alfred Hitchcock, we will meet the same fate. On a long enough timeline, this will be true for every filmmaker/artist/person. Setting a benchmark like “Well, if my movies can last like Alfred Hitchcock’s” seems arbitrary. Why 50 years? Why not 100? What would I be satisfied by any number? Secondly, I shouldn’t be making movies to leave some legacy anyway, that’s a selfish motive. I should be trying to improve and entertain people. I shouldn’t base my self worth on the legacy I leave. Thirdly, even if every person forgets my movies, God won’t. And my fourth reason has to do with the DAMN MESSAGE I COMMUNICATE IN THE FILM.

For those of you who are familiar with the ending, Gideon sacrifices any potential for being remembered as a great religious figure. Instead, he will be remembered as a crazy atheist. The sacrifice of his legacy was a more righteous thing to do.

Now, this discovery doesn’t mean that I need to go burn every copy of my movie to somehow emulate the message. BUT, it does mean that I shouldn’t invest so much thought into the legacy of the film.

Thank God!

Explication of Scenes: Part II

Okay, so continuing where I left off. What was I thinking with the scene where Danny enters the execution chamber? We shot it in a way so that you experience the execution chamber in the same way Danny does. That is, it’s a new environment, with all kinds of expectations. This is to encourage you to sympathize with him. The more experiences you share with a character, the more you feel that you know a character. So if you experience the introduction of the execution chamber with him, it’s like a shared experience with him. Imagine if I had started the film with an empty execution chamber and then I introduced Danny? This actually divorces you from his character, because suddenly you have experiences of this world that he does not have. You won’t feel as close to him as if you had spent every scene with him.

So getting back to this scene. Let’s talk about the way it was shot for a second. You might think that to experience an event like a character would, that the camera has to be some type of jerky POV shot. Not necessarily the case. What if you have a close up of the character’s face? This may seem to be a counter intuitive choice for showing you a character’s experience. The character isn’t seeing his own face, the character is seeing the objects off screen, so we should look at that, no? Well the close up allows you to observe his thoughts/feelings. Although you don’t see the outside world like he sees it, you do see the inside world of his mind with him. A jerky POV shot won’t allow you to do that. Truthfully, the combination of a POV/over the shoulder shot and a close up is the best way to embody a character’s experience, because you get the objects he looks at as well as his thoughts about the objects. If you haven’t noticed 90% of dialogue scenes from the last 100 years are covered this way.

We achieve this by pushing back while staying on him so that we can see parts of the room and his reaction to the parts simultaneously. But we only reveal part of the room, because Danny has only experienced part of the room himself. Maintaining that enigma is in line with his experience of the room. The film itself is enigmatic in the way that it makes you ask what transpired between the characters. The whole purpose of the film is to answer that question. So starting the movie by shooting in a way that left a lot of mystery seemed to be fitting.

And of course the sign near his head that reads “Execution Room Rules” was a low budget way of telling the audience that they are in an execution room. I mean we had chairs set up and an execution chamber, but I don’t want people to be like “Is that a dentist chair?” I’d rather be clear as quickly as possible. At least in this situation. It’s important to communicate that he’s in an execution chamber because it answers the question “Why Is Danny here?” Answer, “To see the execution of his son.” New Question “What did his son do?” THAT’S WHAT TAKES US TO THE NEXT SCENES!!!!

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: The Roaring Twenties

I think the film communicates the message that despite our transgressions we can be redeemed. This idea is mainly presented through the events and actions of James Cagney’s character. After climbing the ladder of success in organized crime, Cagney loses everything during the crash of 1929. But he sees the error of his ways and confronts his former partner in crime. In the process, Cagney loses his own life. This final action stands as a selfless attempt to atone for his sins.

The scenery/art direction helps communicate this theme too. One particular scene depicting the height of his nefarious collaboration with Humphrey Bogart takes place in the exterior of a stark and cold looking warehouse.  But the redemptive theme is most highlighted by the “pieta tableaux” on the church steps in the climax.

There are other themes about greed, the American dream, and Post WWI American Society, but I believe these are all secondary to the aforementioned theme.