Interpretation

A correction is due readers. In characterizing what I found a weakness in Film Art as an textbook for use in courses meaning to introduce film studies as a discipline, I'd mischaracterized David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's work. They are not "refusing" to interpret films. I'll let Bordwell's words about Making Meaning in Film Criticism (27.3/Winter-Spring 93), clarify his position:

Note that this is not a call for an end to intepreting films. It is not asserting that interpretation is always and utterly unenlightening... I do not deny, however, that MM suggests that within the profession, filjm interpretation has become routinized. One can quicken undergraduates' interest with critical moves that are long-practiced, but one's students are not one's professional peers. I find most interpretations offered up right now intellectually unexciting. MM tries to suggest some reasons for holding this view, and some readers have quietly agreed with them, but I have no illusions that I can persuade many. My view is and always will be a minority position in the humanities. But dissatisfaction with one mode of discourse can spur one to explore others, and this is my hope in making a polemical case in MM.


In short, I'd misunderstood and mischaracterized what Bordwell was arguing in Making Meaning. I'll try to articulate more clearly my own take on Bordwell's polemic here - I still can find textual interpretations exciting, even as my own work does not really emphasize the sort of interpretation I think central enough to the discipline that I have a hard time imagining an undergraduate intro-to-film-studies course not engaging with it.

Perhaps a good analogy I can point to is the status of qualitative survey analysis in sociology. I'm hardly up on the contemporary discipline, yet my impression is that much of the professionally and exciting directions in sociology are promised in new(ish) quantitative tools that are being applied to questions previously approached more qualitatively. Yet, analysis of survey and interview material can still provide an exciting and illuminating understanding of the social world, even as the methodology is breaking no new ground - Peter Bearman's Doormen will attest to this. I see textual analysis - the well-practice moves of film interpretation inherited from semiotics and literary study - as one useful tool in understanding film meaning. I'm glad the toolbox has been expanded from the 1970s and 80s, and that it continues to expand. But I'm not (yet?) willing to discard the well-worn tools entirely.

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