Who would bother to determine whether a fictional narrative is historically accurate? Well, I’ll tell you. There’s a site (with the wonderful title “Information is Beautiful”) that, among other things, purports to assess the “accuracy” of Hollywood films. The unexamined assumption is that fictional narratives on screen should be “true.” Naive realism is foundation of such fake film criticism.
Random thought on the film “Sicario”: the Emily Blunt character is supposed to be the moral center of the film. The audience is expected to cathect to her “outrage” over breaches of the rule of law. Hence, the character should prevent the film from falling into the revenge-fantasy genre (e.g., Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, etc.). Except for the fact that it does so in the final 25 minutes. Sicario is an utter mess.
It is worth recalling that foreign leaders attended Reagan’s funeral.
Re “American Sniper” and “Selma”:
Asking whether a fictional film is historically accurate has to be one of the silliest questions ever. And yet it is posed repeatedly by today’s popular film critics.
All bio-pics are fictional! Do people who read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando find it lacking because it has “fictional elements”?
One has to beware of naive realism (and even the more erudite mimetic theory of art) vis-a-vis the visual arts.
What a film sells itself as is bunk. It doesn’t dictate how one theorizes the film, which is narrative fiction.
However, one should acknowledge a distinct danger (which Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma,” too hastily elides): because many Americans are not historically educated, they take films that are “based on a true story” to be the historical truth. But the antidote to this would be to make it very plain that Hollywood films are not documentaries (which are also narrative constructions), no matter what the filmmaker proclaims about his/her film. One can learn valuable things from narrative fiction, but it should neither be expected to be, nor taken as, the mirror image of reality.
(image: Jill Krementz)
Apropos Susan Sontag (b. January 16, 1933), a few remarks on interpretation.
(1) One should be concerned with the implications of various points of entry into the interpretation of texts. This means that it is necessary to break down the terms and relations of text, interpretation – and text and interpretation – into their subatomic units to see what is involved when one says “I’m interpreting a text.” So the most basic questions are the most important questions: What is a text or what are texts? Is it a Constituted Text, defined by the relation of author to text; a Text in Context, viz., conditioned text, shaped by extra-textual, non-authorial forces? Is the text a matter of structure (Structure as Text), comprised of the latent and the manifest, of relations in a sign system? Or is the text itself a context (Text as Context), which constitutes itself as unstable, fragmented, and contradictory because the signs that produce it are not fixed?
(2) What is it about a text that interests us? What is interpretation? What are the conditions of interpretation when we define a text this way or that, or when we define such and such a phenomenon as a text? For philosophical hermeneutics, this epistemological foundation involves overcoming the limits of the epistemological relationship between the author and the text. For social scientific approaches, this foundation involves the relationship between the text and its social context. For psychoanalytic and structuralist approaches, this foundation involves the primacy of a hidden or latent text. Finally, for literary and poststructuralist approaches, this foundation involves a conceptualization of the text that constructs and deconstructs itself.
(3) And, finally, what kind of knowledge is gleaned by interpreting a text and how do we come to know whether this knowledge is true, correct, valid, or authoritative?
Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” (which might rather have been entitled “Against Content”) traces the problems of interpretation to the mimetic theory of art and its emphasis on the figurative dimension.
… All Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have remained within the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation. It is through this theory that art as such — above and beyond given works of art — becomes problematic, in need of defense. And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from something we have learned to call “content,” and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory.
Even in modern times, when most artists and critics have discarded the theory of art as representation of an outer reality in favor of the theory of art as subjective expression, the main feature of the mimetic theory persists. Whether we conceive of the work of art on the model of a picture (art as a picture of reality) or on the model of a statement (art as the statement of the artist), content still comes first. The content may have changed. It may now be less figurative, less lucidly realistic. But it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. (p. 4)
Sontag argues that “the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism” (p. 5) Such philistinism, the piling up of interpretations of content, the thicket weaving around works by the date of the original publication of the essay (1964) that largely owed to the academic hegemony of the New Critics, distracts from the works themselves. Along the way, the form, style, and enjoyment of the work were rendered secondary at best and irrelevant at worst. (See W. K. Wimsatt, “The Affective Fallacy,” The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry , pp. 21-39)
The opposition between the philistine and the aesthete is longstanding, although Sontag does not primarily work with it. What she detects in philistine interpretation is reaction. “Interpretation,” she argues,
must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling. Today is such a time, when the interpretation is reactionary, stifling. . . . Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret the world is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (p. 7)
In addition to impoverishing the world (of its art), the philistine’s interpretive contributions undermine the agonistic experience of art.
In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistines refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable. (p. 8)
Sontag points out that such interpretation “runs rampant” in America in relation to “those arts with a feeble and negligible avant-garde” (i.e., fiction and drama) and conspicuously neglects what she calls “programmatic avant-gardism,” those paintings, poetry, and music which are “experiments with form at the expense of content” (pp. 10, 11). In place of interpretive criticism which fixates on content, Sontag proposes that a more adequate interpretive practice should focus on form.
What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today?. . . What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place? What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary — a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary — for forms. The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form. (p.12)
This emphasis on form would, in my view, restore to the work of art what makes it a work of art and not merely a substitute version of a reality existing outside the work: imagination, creativity, play, madness, joy, hubris, nonsense, pleasure.
The essay is a constrained form. Fiction is freedom. Freedom to tell stories and freedom to be discursive, too. But essayistic discursiveness, in the context of fiction, has an entirely different meaning. It is always voiced.
Susan Sontag, The Art of Fiction No. 143
It can be argued, as Theodor Adorno does, that the essay form “evokes intellectual freedom.” In his view,
The essay, however, does not let its domain be prescribed for it. Instead of accomplishing something scientifically or creating something artistically, its efforts reflect the leisure of a childlike person who has no qualms about taking his inspiration from what others have done before him. The essay reflects what is loved and hated instead of presenting the mind as creation ex nihilo on the model of an unrestrained work ethic. Luck and play are essential to it. It starts not with Adam and Eve but with what it wants to talk about; it says what occurs to it in the context and stops when it feels finished rather than when there is nothing to say. (T. W. Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” Notes on Literature, v. 1 , p. 4)
Nonetheless, one can agree with Sontag regarding freedom. Fiction is the freedom to tell stories, not because of the content of the stories, but because of the form which communicates the stories. The form is the real artifice, the real art in fiction, which involves the same luck and play Adorno attributes to the essay form. Yet, as Adorno would no doubt acknowledge, it is a serious form of play, not the equivalent of infantile finger painting.
Sontag’s call for an erotics of art is not an anti-intellectual move, although it may be anti-academic; rather it brings back a Kantian sensibility for the sublime and the beautiful, while not dismissing the more visceral element of feeling-interpretation that Kant downgraded to the level of the gustable. The problem of interpretation, on Sontag’s account, is that it “takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there.” Hence, the “aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art — and, by analogy, our own experience — more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.” (p. 14).
What may have been the main problem of academic interpretation in the early 1960s has become, in recent decades, a problem of the overly abrupt political readings of works, which focus on content in a different way. Now interpretations build up around a thicket of categories of identity, which are either judged to be erased, elided, rendered non-legible and invisible, no longer distorted by bourgeois ideology but rather by the identity of the author and her characters. This new version of the will to knowledge/truth extends to works of art at the expense of any recognition of the fact that works are not totalitarian with respect to form.
What is the historical state of interpretation today? Naive realism appears to rule popular criticism. Works are judged deficient to the extent that they stray from a mimetic theory of art derived, ironically, from Greek antiquity. In more contemporary philosophical terms, such realist interpretive practices comport well with the correspondence theory of truth. This tendency is especially noticeable in popular film criticism. Here, Susan Sontag’s insistence on the significance of form for the interpretation of works of art remains permanently timely.
Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1990 ), 3-14
Re “American Sniper”: We’ve reached peak war film. It’s a tired genre. Time to retire it.
A film critic has conscientiously pointed out that a fictional narrative of the life of Stephen Hawking is not a carbon copy of reality: “It would be a big mistake to take The Theory of Everything as a user’s guide to living with motor neurone disease.” Really? I note this not simply because it is my current pet peeve, but only because this sort of nonsense is ubiquitous, universal. I’m only surprised I didn’t notice this tendency earlier in life.
Jodi Ernst is the Marine Le Pen of the Republican Party.
The most noticeable tall buildings in NYC now are the middle-fingers sprouting up in Brooklyn and Queens, which tower over everything around them. But at least downtown Brooklyn was spared the embarrassment of a Frank Gehry toadstool patch when the original Atlantic Yards project crumbled.
Hopefully, Mr Dehlin won’t face banishment to the planet Kolob for uttering twenty-first century views on women and same-sex marriage.
Naive realism is a negative wish-fulfillment.
The latest episode of “The Newsroom” has come under criticism. In the main, the critics reflect (and their criticism exhibits) the assumption that the fictional program is a direct expression of Aaron Sorkin’s opinion on whatever topic/issue is addressed in the narrative. To those critics, I would ask:
When characters express opposed opinions in scenes, how do you know which one is Mr Sorkin’s? If they are all Mr Sorkin’s, then he would rightly be diagnosed with DID (as would all writers).
From a literary-critical perspective, this variety of cultural criticism — the predominant form that popular cultural criticism takes today — is intellectually deficient. It is wrongheaded to reduce the “narrative” to the “author’s opinion.” This typically occurs when the “narrator” is assumed to be the author’s voice or when all stories are assumed to be autobiographical. However, the insistence on this lazy reduction does serve journalistic purposes (as clickbait) and political purposes (as a shaming device).
In Re the film “Exodus”: there’s no need for any artist to respond to the mewling of the critics and their Stakhanovite insistence on “realism.”
In Re the film “Unbroken”: Japanese nationalists charging someone else with racism is a case of pot calling the kettle, dancing with the kettle, making love with the kettle.
In Re Janet Suzman: No one ever mistook an actor for an intellectual.
Nobility and heroism are inappropriate to describe wars (the actions of individuals are another matter; e.g., the Scholls were heroic and noble). Rather, wars should be judged according to the criterion of moral necessity. WWI — the war to save Empires — was morally unnecessary. WII — the global response to global fascism — was morally necessary.
Pole sloths are the worst part of living in NYC.
JLaw is our Edie Sedgwick.
The family of Alastair Denniston has criticized the fictional narrative in the film “The Imitation Game” for being fictional.
This ruling will have a chilling effect on all future special relationships.
Give credit where it is due: hipsters saved vinyl records from certain extinction.
The Star Wars franchise went downhill after episode V (the only entry worth screening), highlighted by the fatal embarrassment of Jar Jar Binks from which there was no recovery.