Tuesday, September 17, 2013

This is not an apple

Citizen Kane (1941)

Someone once complained to me that Orson Welles wasn't as great as his reputation, citing the shot of the eyeless cockatoo from Citizen Kane — whose transparent eye was apparently an unintended effect of the imposition process — as evidence that Welles received praise for such accidents as if they were intentional and meaningful moments of his own design. The cockatoo shot is ripe for such debate between people who may wonder what the bird's transparent eye signifies and those who would dismiss any such search for "meaning" due to the effect's unintentional origin. Filmmaker and Welles confidant Peter Bogdanovich, on a commentary track on the Citizen Kane DVD, explains that Welles told him the shot was only inserted to reclaim the audience's potentially waning attention at a late point in the film. Accepting anything Welles said about his own work at face value is risky, but refusing to allow that the shot could have any effect beyond Welles' own imagining is more so.

In a 2013 blog post about Room 237, a documentary in which fans of The Shining explain their theories about the Kubrick film, David Bordwell, addressing one theory that The Shining is Kubrick's apology for helping fake the Apollo 11 landing, wrote:

The Apollo 11 argument illustrates the risk of appeals to intention: they tend to substitute causal explanations for functional ones. That is, they tend to look for how something got into the film rather than what it's doing in the film. But that's a risk that professional critics run as well when they appeal to intention. The problem is just more apparent when the causal story that's put forward seems tenuous.

While the technical explanation of the transparent bird eye is perhaps easier to accept than the claim about Kubrick and Apollo 11, the problem of "appeals to attention" is applicable to debate over the Kane shot as well. Regardless of how the transparent eye came to be, it nonetheless ended up in the final film, and can therefore influence the viewer's response. All meaning in a film — or in any work of art — rests with the viewer. Filmmakers can do their best to shape an intended meaning or effect, and they can explain their intentions forever after; still, for better or worse, meaning is in the mind of the beholder.

Ceci n'est pas une pomme
Rene Magritte, 1964
The Magritte painting Ceci n'est pas une pomme ("This is not an apple") demonstrates the disparity possible between an artist's intentions and the end effect on a viewer. At first, the discrepancy between what the painting depicts (an apple) seems to be at odds with the inscription above it ("This is not an apple"). By one interpretation, this can be resolved by realizing that the apple is merely a depiction of an apple; thus, "this is not an apple." But there is something more at work. Magritte has included above a very recognizable image of an apple an equally unambiguous statement, "This is not an apple." In doing so, he has given us conflicting information about what we see and what we are told. Specifically, between what he is showing us and what he is telling us. To resolve this intellectual conflict, we must decide for ourselves what we are looking at. Thus, the painting is also a demonstration of the audience's relationship to the artist -- more precisely, of the relationship between the artist's intentions and the audience's perception.

What if Magritte had inscribed something else, like "This apple is hanging from a tree" or "This apple has been poisoned"? Our decision would then be to decide if we accept this extra information about the apple, to determine if what the artist tells us about his own thoughts and intentions are relevant to our perception or "interpretation" of the apple. There would be nothing requiring us to accept such statements, and there is nothing requiring us to accept, or accept in a specific and predetermined way, the statement "This is not an apple." It is not incorrect for us to reject that statement in favor of what we believe we see, nor is it incorrect to reject a filmmaker's stated intentions in favor of what we interpret from the final film.*

I'll close with a few movie moments that came to mind when writing this.

Opening title card from Fargo

Fargo (1996)

I wouldn't necessarily fault anyone who accepted this statement without question, though claims such as this beg examination. When I first saw Fargo, I assumed this statement was false (it is a movie, after all) and wondered why it was included; what I accepted without question was that the Coen brothers thought it contributed somehow to the film. (For insight on this, see an interview snippet with Joel Coen in Karl Heitmueller's Rewind: What Part Of 'Based On' Don't You Understand?)

Jesus confronts Paul in The Last Temptation of Christ

When Jesus, saved from the cross and living a regular life, tells Paul that Paul's stories of Jesus' death are not true, Paul tells Jesus that the reality of Jesus' life does not matter to him when compared to what the people need to believe. If he, as storyteller, needs to interpret the details of Jesus' life in order to make his point, he will. (Hopefully, he's prepared for his audience to do the same and interpret his stories as they see fit.)

Marshall McLuhan stifles a know-it-all in Annie Hall

McLuhan appears in order to back up Alvy's assertion that a man in line knows nothing about McLuhan's work. Alvy wishes, "Boy, if life were only like this." Maybe to Allen the filmmaker, who could then assert more control over how his films were perceived, this is an appealing fantasy. Still, it would be impossible. Even if he inserted himself into all of his films in order to explain his intentions, or magically appeared in person at every screening of his movies, it wouldn't prevent viewers from thinking what they want. In fact, it would probably prompt more questions about what his explanations really mean.**

*I am using the Magritte painting in my own way for example. While I feel that this particular "reading" could be as valid as any, I admit that it depends upon splitting two equally important elements (the written phrase and the depiction of the apple) of a unified work (the painting "Ceci n'est pas une pomme") in order to demonstrate the relationship between two separate things. A director's intentions, and the discussion thereof, are external to a film, while Magritte's phrase and apple are both integral parts of a single work, one which appears to have been designed to prompt that very discussion.

**Certainly there is a difference between interpreting something and misunderstanding it, and in this scene it appears that the man in line is doing the latter. Academic work like McLuhan's is less open to interpretation than artistic work, and there are elements of filmmaking that are more closed to interpretation than others (we know what shot/reverse-shot signifies, for example, or what is implied by a blurry "coming-to" shot). So while it would be difficult to argue that the temporal discontinuity of Citizen Kane indicates something other than flashbacks, e.g., less codified elements like the cockatoo shot are more open to interpretation.