On the Erotics of Interpretation

by Suspended Reason w/ James Wood

In Antonioni’s film L’eclisse, the luminous Monica Vitti visits the Rome stock exchange, where her fiance, played by Alain Delon, works. Delon points out a fat man who has just lost 50 million lire. Intrigued, she follows the man. He orders a drink at a bar, barely touches it, then goes to a cafe, where he orders an acqua minerale, which he again barely touches. He is writing something on a piece of paper, and leaves it on the table. We imagine that it must be a set of furious, melancholy figures. Vitti approaches the table, and sees that it is a drawing of a flower.

Who would not love this little scene? It is so delicate, so tender, so sidelong and lightly humorous, and the joke is so nicely on us. We had a stock idea of how the financial victim responds to catastrophe—collapse, despair, self-defenestration—and Antonioni confounded our expectations. The character slips through our changing perceptions, like a boat moving through canal locks. We begin in misplaced certainty and end in placeless mystery. Our cartoonish model—of a businessman, of a fat man, of a failed gambler, of a man at all—is replaced, through reversal, by an actual human being, animated out of the text.

I’m reminded, here, of the very first shot of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1:15 in the clip below). We enter the theater expecting to see a film about extraterrestrials, then see otherworldly beams of light cutting through a dust storm, bright lights appearing to float over a dusty horizon. As the lights grow larger, we make out the dark outline of a Jeep come into view, and recognize that we have been looking at the beams of its headlights. Later in the film, UFO believers confuse a helicopter for an extraterrestrial craft. There is a parallel between their experience and ours.

II.

I’ve realized that many of the works I hold closest to heart all share something in common. It’s hard to write about this. It’s hard to write about the things one loves.

It’s harder to write about why one loves them. Break down their common components, reduce and secularize them.

I don’t remember the first time I watched Mulholland Drive. I have only vague memories of the second viewing. But the third and fourth watches are embedded clearly: I can imagine who I was with, where I watched it, the scenes that stuck out to me. I think Mulholland Drive is the most impressive film Lynch produced, as well as the best film of the new century (hence why I’ve written about it before).

One of the problems, I’ve realized, with getting people to love Mulholland Drive is that they view it (understandably) as a whole which ought to add up. The film’s lack of coherence throws first-time viewers. Scenes don’t immediately sum; loops refuse to close cleanly; Mulholland Drive appears, above all else, to be messy.

One way out is to view Mulholland Drive as an assortment of striking, expertly directed and visceral scenes. Betty Elms’s casting audition, where she plays a young woman romantically involved with her father’s older friend, is astounding. Club Silencio, a nightclub Betty and Rita visit one night in the hour of the wolf, is presented so ergonomically and beautifully I’m still moved by it on my fifth viewing.

But what makes these scenes stand out in the film is exactly what makes Mulholland Drive, as a whole, stand out from other films. They are condensed, hyperreal, synecdochic versions of the movie in its entirety. The best way to view Mulholland Drive is as a work which deliberately disorients, which constantly writes over itself.

For those who have not watched Mulholland Drive, a touch of context: Betty Elms is a young, aspiring actress who has moved from Canada to Los Angeles, housesitting her aunt’s vacant condo while auditioning for roles. Below is her first audition:

Is her co-actor out of line? Is he a predator? Is it purely acting? How much of the scene’s sexual and personal tension is real? The audience is asking itself the same question, over and over, as the scene plays out. What is real? What is fake? Its reading of the “reality” of the scene is constantly shifting, second by second, movement by movement, gesture by gesture. Which interpretive model fits best? Perhaps by the end of the scene, we may have realized our initial assessment was ungrounded, that Betty’s older male co-actor was merely exceptional at his job. We’ve tumbled to a new truth, able to reverse-engineer the physics of the fall.

And here is the famous Club Silencio scene, which once against constantly subverts your understanding of what it is, of what it’s doing:

So too with Mulholland Drive as a whole. Any understanding, any interpretation of the film, is unnervingly unstable. Every new development marks a reversal, a shift, a transformation, in our understanding of its identity, character, plot, or genre. I don’t mean this in the banal, trite sense that we might say every scene of every movie updates, in some way, its overall identity, plot, genre. No reading stays perfectly stable over any length of time. (Samuel R. Delany: A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times.) But most mediocre and middling narrative works set out by defining an archetype, a personality print or persona, and then legibly playing out that type. Characters and conditions lean into themselves, so to speak, rather than twisting away. Perhaps, at most, there will be a single, overhauling transformation which defines the film, the kind of cheap-trick grand surprise employed in Memento or The Sixth Sense. [1]

We can call the mechanism described above as forced hermeneutic revision, where an artist deliberately sets a viewer up to expect, understand, or believe one thing, then shows the viewer how, in fact, the textual evidence actually points somewhere else. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, 2004, Samuel Beckett’s post-apocalyptic Endgame, and Andy Kaufman’s comedy are the three other works I know which, alongside Mulholland Drive, do it best. They work on their own internal logics, rather than the logic of other existing, familiar models.

There are a number of reasons why the act of forced interpretive updating might prove engrossing to a viewer. From an information-theoretic perspective, the narrative flows of such works are “interesting,” have high novelty; feel fresh, are non-redundant. We can speculate that the mechanism is reminiscent of the kind of prediction “sandbox” touched on in “Background Techniques in Cinema and Literature,” that it therefore aligns easily with a predictive processing model of aesthetics.

From a more humanist perspective, we can note that, in the case of  L’eclisse, the artist has caught us in our prejudices and assumptions, and in doing so bared them. (Likewise, works which subvert our formal expectations, e.g. our understanding of horror film logic, bare the formal structures of art.) Our usually invisible ideologies are flashed suddenly in our faces with recognition.

III.

A few premises which should have been established at the start of this essay. One is that, as we consume an artwork (as when we exist in the outside world) we are undergoing an ongoing process of interpretive updating, of revision and refinement. And, secondly, that what separates art from life is, in part, art’s deliberate illegibility, its lack of immediate answers, its resistance to easy interpretation. (Consider the way that “design,” art’s antithesis, seeks ultimate legibility/navigability.)

Often, art’s illegibility is merely a product of a work’s complexity or novelty. The more familiar a thing is, the quicker we are to understand it; oftentimes, stimuli are pre-understood, that is, the viewer comes in equipped with an interpretation which is copy-paste applied (instead of situationally formed) upon contact with the work. But sometimes, as in the case of Mulholland Drive, a kind of epistemic or interpretive evasiveness is in play. This evasiveness can, depending on artist execution and audience taste, be either thrilling or off-putting. Descriptively, the upper echelons of taste — experimental film, art fiction, conceptual art — tend to veer towards deliberate ambiguity, disorientation, and evasiveness.

I dislike the description of films or texts as puzzles for a few reasons. It carries the connotation that a text has a “correct answer.” It lends intentionality to a text’s puzzle-like quality, as if an author’s primary artistic concern was the insertion of tricky clues for readers to decode. And it gives the sense that “puzzling out” is a prominent conscious part of all narrative consumption. These connotations are all basically false, as far as I understand it, in regards to how the standard hermeneutic process operates.

But texts are, crucially, puzzles insofar as the opposite of the above is true: the reader or viewer is consistently but unconsciously interpreting most parts of the work, and how these parts might fit together in a (not “the”) coherent whole. Great works often act reflexively, baring the assumptions and ideologies which inform this process of puzzling out; this is done by “breaking” the unconscious predictive process and thus forcing the audience to consider it consciously instead.

“On Awkwardness,” Guernica Mag:

The French philosopher Henri Bergson had a theory about why we laugh about tripping and other such forms of awkwardness. He argued that when people are too trapped in the automaticity of their mechanical movements and when these are insufficient in dealing with the environment at hand, a comical situation presents itself. Bound by the habits of movement, people sometimes forget to adjust for new terrain or unexpected obstacles, or they get so accustomed to their standard environment, they expect the body to do all the work intuitively.

When a viewer’s predictions fail, it is the epistemic equivalent of Bergson’s jolt, up and out of the automaticity of interpretation, baring the failed mismatch between the interpretive toolbox he brings with him (his “map” or “model”) and the territory of the work itself.

Great works, rather than simply leaning into stereotype and expectation, work to actively subvert them. What the active subversion of Mulholland Drive or Andy Kaufman requires then, on the part of the artist, is a deep understanding of an audience’s mental models. (We can call this set of mental models the “horizon of expectation,” to use Hans Robert Jauss’s term for the set of assumptions a reader from a specific cultural moment carries with him when encountering a text.) This is, in a sense, why fashionability is so important to the art object: it is the awareness of cultural associations which the viewer brings into his interaction with a work. And since our assumptions are highly culturally and temporally specific, a masterpiece can, a century later, fall flat, seem uninteresting or unengaging because the “assumption ground” of our pre-packaged predictions has shifted: it seems implausible that we admire works of [the old masters] because of the way they subvert or undercut or abrogate the authority of what is normally taken for granted. After all, that’s just not what these works do for us, at least most of the time. They have expired. Or stopped being artworks (Alva Nöe, Strange Tools).

[1] Do not be fooled: Christopher Nolan is not high art because of his Sherlock Holmes style of filmmaking. Entries into the “mindfuck” genre of cinema present elaborate ruses which are more show than substance, which operate in such small scales of real-world probability that there can only be admiration at its intricate, craftsman-like construction — but never actual subliminity or epistemic urgency.

3 Comments

  1. Design is the antithesis of art to you? (!) That actually made my jaw drop because of how alien it was, while seeming a mundane assumption to you. That’s pretty anti-Alexandrian aesthetically (and the antipathy towards puzzles seems equally anti-Schmidhuberian) wouldn’t you say?

    In any case I guess you should consider it a compliment that I find it fascinating to read you while disagreeing with almost everything…

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