Intent or Interpretation


Been mulling over this a while.

When it comes to more subjective things like art, who should be the one conducting the studies? Should it be someone who is removed from the process or someone who is involved in it? Can someone who is not “artistic” really be a judge of good art? Is the person who has never made a film or who has no knowledge of the production process be a suitable film critic? And how much should the intent of the creator be taken into account? In other words, is it more important to understand and consider original intent or to prioritise individual interpretation of artistic works? A balance of both, most would say. Yet academic writing or even things like movie reviews require a certain opinionated-ness. It would be really difficult to have a real balance in that case (unless you are agreeing with the original idea).

It was quite a shock to me when I saw that one of my film studies lecturers seemed to be rather apathetic about certain basic film terms. It just seemed odd that someone who has been studying film for years and years could not know or not care about some of the basic technical terms in the field. I don’t know that lecturer’s exact background, and perhaps there was some production experience in there. But it seems odd that someone who possessed such experience would gloss over differences between “wide shot” and “wide angle” (or assign a presentation topic called “Widescreen/Wide angle” – also two vastly different things) or ignore a complete reversal of the terms/meanings of a key light and fill light.

Not understanding the intricacies of the production process can result in some odd inferences. When reading about Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth, I recall coming across a passage somewhere that talked about the sound in the background being a little out of sync and gave some really “deep” explanation about what it represented. It didn’t seem to be an effect done on purpose though. I wondered about that and brought it up in my Chinese film class during our discussion on Yellow Earth – could it not just have been some technical issue with the audio? The lecturer said that yes, that was actually more likely since at that time they did tend to dub film audio in post-production at the studios (Chinese films, at least). A case of reading too much into it.

Thus one has to wonder if it really makes sense for people who are “removed” from the subject to be the ones doing the critiquing and the judging. Is having a very keen interest in subject ABC but no experience with the process of subject ABC qualification enough? Yes, you sit there and study the subject for a long time. But when you have not seriously tried your hand at the actual process, should you really be judging work from people who are actively participating in the line? If you can’t do it yourself, can you really say someone did it poorly or well? Or, more to the point, how qualified are you then to be doing an academic study on it? It’s a sticky sort of dilemma.

Granted, to some extent artistic subjects are inherently open to interpretation – the modern art movements made sure that art would forevermore be judged and interpreted to a large degree by the viewer. (Once surrealism and cubism and other forms of abstract art came along, gone were the days when the great artists emphasised clarity of form and expression to transmit a message. The modern and post-modern art movements preferred to make art a puzzle and open-ended with regards to the message.)

The thing that usually gives me pause is the question of how “accurate” a reviewer’s or academician’s opinion is about a work of art if the creator’s intent is not the same; and why those subjective opinions are taken so so seriously. Let’s say I drew a picture of a room with a black floor. A critic says he thinks I made the floor black because it signifies the darkness of evil, dragging everything into it. But all I was thinking of when I made the picture was that the rest of the furniture would show up better against a black floor. It might not be a wrong explanation according to the “art is subjective” train of thought. But how “accurate” then is the critic’s opinion? Does it mean the complex explanation should be lauded and considered more seriously than the plain fact that it was more aesthetically pleasing?

It does sometimes seem to me as though the original intent of the creator(s) has been disregarded in so-called serious writings and studies. Of course, if the author/artist/director is dead, then you can’t possibly ask for the answer. That isn’t to say that you can’t imagine or choose to interpret it as you like – you can, and that’s the beauty of the artistic realm. But is it valid for the people to just fall all over a certain critic or professor’s ideas just because those ideas appear to be most intellectual?

real meaningSource

On the other hand, in a way having a “neutral observer” would make an academic study fairer. The observer, being apart from the process or the culture, would (ideally) have a more objective view, unimpeded by the technicalities of actually making a work of art or by biased opinions one way or another regarding a particular artist or filmmaker. A “neutral observer” would have the leisure of being interested, but not so invested in it that he would get caught up in the little things.

Another point in favour of the outsider point-of-view would be that – especially regarding the arts – creative, “artsy” people tend to focus on the heart rather than the head. Gut instinct, emotions and sensations are the things that drive artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers whereas logic and rationale come second. Probably not ideal for straight and serious commentary or research where things need to be logical and backed up by other “serious” facts.

That said, I still think that having some knowledge or experience of the technical processes involved in making a work of art makes for a better researcher or critic. It won’t automatically make you the best, but it sure does help. (And I rather think it would boost your credibility with people who do work in the field. I doubt any good filmmaker would have a particularly high opinion of an academic who didn’t know the difference between “widescreen” and “wide angle”. Then again, I don’t know if most filmmakers really care about what the academics think?)

The late Yasmin Ahmad wrote in this blog post, “Mee Sup and Mise en Scène“:

The most beautiful subtexts give you a glimpse into the secret corners of a filmmaker’s conscience. Places so secret that even the filmmakers themselves were not aware of them, until they appear, mysteriously, in the work.


All that obsession with film theories can also get really silly, sometimes. The human intellect is so limited that it can only go so far, and then it runs around in circles, gets dizzy, and suddenly black is white and white is black.

In an American interview, an academician who described a battle scene in “Ran” as perfect in a film aesthetic sense, complimented the late Akira Kurosawa. He asked Kurosawa how he could achieve such a perfect shot. Kurosawa replied that he had no choice; if he had turned the camera a little to the left, you would have seen a supermarket, and if he had shifted it to the right, you would have seen a parking lot.

Perhaps now you may understand what I meant when I said it can get really silly, sometimes.

Maybe my agreement with her opinion has something – okay, “a lot” – to do with my being something of an artist myself (excuse my ego, haha). When you make something, only you know what your intent is, and it seems a bit ridiculous when people start reading a million and one things into it and they act like you really meant it that way.

I like to think that the intention of the original creator should be taken into consideration in critiques and essays. One can add one’s own opinion, but merely being a more “intellectual” opinion does not mean it should be the best. I do understand that when writing a piece – whether research or just critique – one needs to be rather confident in one’s notions otherwise it just comes off vague and wishy-washy. (In the case of expressionist work, at least part of the original intent is for the spectator to create his own meaning, so that type of thing is the exception, I suppose.) But otherwise, no one likes to have their words taken out of context or twisted to mean something that they didn’t mean; why should it be any different when studying or commenting on artistic creations?

(Might have skewed off topic or wandered all over the place, but hopefully that all makes sense. hahah)

Got anything to add or say? :D