“Against Interpretation” Revisited: A Crisis in Contemporary Film Criticism


“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all,” Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” (1966).

Earlier in the year I saw Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (2012) in a New York City movie theater. The film, like most of Malick’s work, is more concerned with visual and aural poetry than storytelling, and contains breathtaking images that struggle to add up to a coherent narrative. As I was watching, I wasn’t quite sure what any of it meant, but I was enraptured and enthralled by the beauty projected onto the screen. This film, I thought to myself, is art.

When the film was over, I overheard other moviegoers debating the film’s content, which is to say that they were offering different theories on what the film meant, or what it was trying to say. One woman suggested that Malick was representing the limitations of love and its inevitable decay, while her husband argued that the film was more hopeful in its presentation of romance. They probably continued this conversation over dinner or a cup of coffee, and I’m willing to bet that they didn’t come to a consensus. The wife had her opinion and the husband had his, and that, as they say, is that.

And while I certainly don’t want to undermine the importance of an individual’s opinion, a part of me wanted to join in the conversation and ask: Who cares? Why does To the Wonder have to mean anything? Why does Malick have to be saying something with the film? Can’t we just appreciate it on a surface level, noting the beauty of its images and the sensuality of its sounds? What’s with all of this interest in interpretation?

In 1966, Susan Sontag posed a similar question in her seminal essay “Against Interpretation,” where she challenged art criticism at the time for applying “aggressive and impious theories of interpretation” from the likes of Marx and Freud. According to Sontag, interpretation “violates” art and “makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.” The alternative for Sontag was to engage with art’s formal qualities, and to “supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art…which reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.” Sontag’s famous conclusion to her essay is simple yet profound: “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. In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

In cinema studies, theories of interpretation dominated the field throughout the 1970s and 1980s as scholars approached cinema from either psychodynamic or semiotic perspectives to, as Sontag put it so eloquently, “find a subtext which is the true one.” Theorists like David Bordwell and Noël Carroll attempted to correct this, but their recent interest in cognitive theory suggests that watching a film is a mental experience as opposed to an emotional one, which moves us away from cinema’s ability to stimulate the senses. Moreover, if the IMDB message boards or recently published scholarly articles in Cinema Journal are any indication, individuals still find the need to interpret films in an attempt to discover what the director is trying to say. As I hope to show, this is a problematic approach, and film critics and scholars would be wise to return to Sontag’s plea for “an erotics of art.”

This is not to suggest that films are meaningless or that they don’t deserve to be discussed and debated. However, when people spend so much time trying to understand what Mulholland Dr. (2001) means they forget to notice the film’s aesthetic beauty. If all they do is interpret the film’s content, which is to say that they try to construct a narrative, thematic, and ideological meaning out of its visual images, then they overlook the various ways the filmmakers construct the images in order to elicit an emotional and sensory reaction from the viewer.

In certain ways, this discussion engages with endless historical debates about what cinema is supposed to do and how audiences are supposed to approach it. That is, does cinema makes us think or make us feel, and should we approach it from an intellectual perspective or from an emotional or sensory one? Should we look at films, as Sontag suggests, or should we interpret them?

Perhaps we can make room for both approaches, but it is not unreasonable to claim that most people spend more time interpreting films and less time simply looking at them, which renders a problematic implication that content and meaning is more significant than form and aesthetics.

However, to put it bluntly, some films don’t mean anything, but exist to be pleasurable objects of beauty for us to look at. Consider, for instance, Persona (1966). Any attempt to interpret Persona (1966) is futile. The film deliberately strives to be cryptic, and it avoids narrative clarity for artistic experimentation. So how, then, can one discuss a film as elusive as this? Is there anything that can be said about Persona that can’t be reduced to arbitrary speculation? I don’t think so.

If we are to understand cinephilia as an obsessive love for the cinema, then we must remember that there are cinephiles who love the cinema obsessively. One of the many activities cinephiles often engage in are intellectual debates about a given film. Persona is a fitting example because it is such an ambiguous film to which viewers often return for more understanding. If we study the message boards on IMDB, for instance, we can see that many fans offer their so-called definitive interpretations of the film. That is, they believe after watching the film a certain number of times that they have somehow discovered the secret to what the film is all about. Picasso2, for example, created a thread entitled “My view of the plot **SPOILERS**” which tries, once and for all, to explain the film (the explanation has to do with Elisabeth’s persona, but it is explained poorly and thus becomes as ambiguous as the film itself). Casio_balboa argues against this interpretation, responding with a tone of authoritative condescension: “Where’s the evidence for all this within the film?” Then there is eikosaedron, whose thread “Why can’t people admit when a film is stupidly ambiguous + meaningless” caused outrage amongst the group, even if the user raises a pertinent point by suggesting that “the film is just confusing and vague for the sake of it.” As a result, eikosaedron deems Bergman a “lazy” director. This discourse illuminates the viewer’s constant need to interpret a film. As I was reading these discussions, I was reminded of Sontag and her opposition to interpretation.

If any film demands to be seen in the way that Sontag suggests, it is Persona. On the surface, the film is beautifully constructed, with gorgeous close-ups of the actresses’ faces, captivating monologues with meticulous framing and camera movement, and a wonderfully weird opening montage that serves no purpose other than to stimulate the senses. I’m not sure what any of it means, but who cares?

The film’s aural and visual components give rise to the kind of sensory, erotic viewing experience that Sontag calls for. Persona is an aesthetically pleasing work of art, and to try to interpret its content is to take what should be an emotional viewing experience and turn it into an intellectual exercise. The problem with viewers (and I am sometimes guilty of this), ultimately, is that they spend too much time trying to intellectually comprehend films that they overlook the aesthetic potential of the image and its ability to stimulate emotional and sensory reactions. Persona is the best kind of film because it does not need to be understood to be loved. It only needs to be looked at.

Persona is not the only film to which this applies. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) also defies interpretation, and the more viewers try to discuss the film’s meaning, the more they ruin its artistic ambiguity. Similarly, Rashomon (1950) is a challenging film about memory and subjectivity–precisely the limitations of interpretation–and there is one particular scene in which a character simply walks from one area of the woods to another:

This scene doesn’t serve any narrative, thematic, or ideological purpose, but it is beautifully filmed, so why not let the viewer look at it?

It goes without saying that this article won’t convince everyone to abandon interpretation. For many viewers, it is fun to figure out what a film means. I am also aware that some may find it more stimulating to approach a film intellectually as opposed to emotionally, and my bias certainty lies in my belief that conversations about a film’s meaning are less interesting than ones about the look of a film, the way a film is constructed as a work of art, and the way a film makes us feel.

Still, as we approach the release of films like Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, and All is Lost that expand the cinematic form, it might be wise to watch these new works of cinema from an emotional, sensory perspective and see how they make us feel, and how beautiful and mystifying the moving image can be when we simply look at it.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here: http://jonlisi.pressfolios.com/.

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  1. Jernigan

    The quality of posts are very good here and keeps getting better. Against Interpretation is certainly a book which needs to be read by all who debates or analyzes.

  2. I do not find myself often disagreeing with Susan Sontag in matters of taste (although I admit that her dislike of big swathes of Bunuel’s and Resnais’s oeuvre was quite a surprise; Maybe Bunuel less so, however she is obviously conflicted as to the aims and effects of the Nouveau Roman, and finds these same effects at work in Resnai), but her appraisals quite often seem dated.

  3. Aliya Gulamani
    Aliya Gulamani

    I find this really interesting and feel that your points are relevant to all kinds of art forms, not just films. I sometimes find when reading literature that the critical explanation of the literature I’m reading is sometimes too analytical – everything is deemed to have some kind of significance and is linked to a definite meaning. Whilst theoretical thinking is sometimes necessary to “three-dimensionalise” our perception of the artistic product, there are certainly times when it is too much.

    • Jon Lisi
      Jon Lisi

      Thanks for your comment…and yes, I do think it applies to MUCH of the literary canon.

  4. I just spend about 30 minutes writing a comment only to accidental delete it. I’m so pissed off. Going to bed.

  5. Interesting read. Her opinions and perspectives on literature, film, and art are addictive. Admittedly, I did disliked a few of her essays, but some of the later film reviews were very enjoyable.

  6. Lisa Lee

    Really interesting, thought-provoking article. It reminds me a lot of Bordwell’s ideas in the chapter ‘Parametric Narration’ in Narration in the Fiction Film, which I studied in a film module as part of my English Lit MA this year. I do struggle with this sort of film theory because personally I do think that the vast majority of films’ visual and stylistic techniques do lend themselves to an interpretation of meaning, even if this meaning is different for every individual viewer and/or not intended by the film-maker. For me, if a film is just made of stunning sensory images which are lacking in any meaning behind them, no matter how beautiful and awe-inspiring these images are, the film’s status as Art becomes diminished. Sort of the same way that it is the meaning – and the pursuit of finding meaning – behind postmodern art that distinguishes it from childrens’ finger painting.

    • Jon Lisi
      Jon Lisi

      Bordwell would certainly agree that more attention should be paid to formal qualities, but I think he takes it to the extreme by not making room for the subjective movie-going experience.

      I guess what I’m saying is that it’s okay if we want to understand the “meaning” of a film, but when so many great films are ambiguous, maybe we need to consider that they can’t be bogged down in a simple “I have the answers!” explanation.

      Thanks for your response!

  7. Jessica Koroll

    I haven’t read Sontag so, while working my way through your article, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I completely agreed with your points or not. It wasn’t until you mentioned 2001: A Space Odyssey that I understood the feeling you were describing. I have very distinct memories of my first year film class watching this film for the first time and many people hating it while I nearly wanted to talk about nothing else. I think the issue is that, from such an early age, we’re introduced to narrative films that have very clear structures and a strong sense of purpose throughout. Even as we get older, if we’re faced with an ambiguous ending or plot points that aren’t immediately clear, people often get angry and feel an ingrained need to try to fill in the gaps. I often find myself on the fence about it. I think interpreting and reading others’ reactions to a film can be loads of fun, it can even act as an important method of uncovering less than pleasant details about a work, but I don’t feel any need to find a definitive answer. The base feelings evoked by a film, and the ways in which the film produces those feelings through sound and imagery, can be just as meaningful and informative to the cinematic canon as a work of deep, purposeful meaning.

    This is a really well thought out article. It’s given me a lot to consider and I’m going to make a point to try to read Sontag in the future.

    • Jon Lisi
      Jon Lisi

      You should definitely read Sontag! Her work on photography is even better.

      I agree that SO many people want that definitive explanation and, as you say, it’s unattainable.

  8. Michael Hedges

    With Sontag, I always feel inclined to distinguish between rigorous and replicable literary-linguistic criticism, such as stylistics and formalism, and more creative criticism based on interpreting (and arguably constructing) meaning. She talks of replacing hermeneutics, but also advocates that ‘the function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is’. In my understanding, appreciation/study of the mechanisms at work would fall under hermeneutics, such as Barthes’ structuralist text, ‘S/Z’. Here, the form of ‘Sarrasine’ by Honeré de Balzac is undoubtedly Barthes’ subject, but it is only through interpretation of the data he finds in the language of the short story that brings him back to the relationship between form and aesthetics, rather than a passive approach of simply ‘looking’, or in this case, reading. This kind of criticism, although far removed from abstract speculation on what ‘Persona’ means, is interpretive, but perhaps since it makes form its subject of interpretation, rather than content or meaning, it is still more concerned with aesthetics; the role of form in creating the emotional or sensory experience is what is being interpreted, rather than meaning taking precedent over form.

    • Jon Lisi
      Jon Lisi

      That’s a valid point–especially if we’re going the “everything is subjective” route, which I’m all for.

      Sontag also notes that we can’t really escape interpretation, which is what you allude to here, but she does suggest that we don’t need to be so intellectually rigorous in our interpretations. She’s against the Marxist/Psychoanalytic readings of films that undermine the artistic qualities to locate a problematic ideological agenda.

      More than anything, I think her points are useful because she wants us to be less skeptical and more appreciative of art.

  9. If there’s a narrative — any narrative at all — there’s no escaping examining that narrative. We can call it “interpretation” or “understanding” or whatever we like, it doesn’t matter. Even if the film is more thematic or expositive, there’s still usually going to be meaningful content that tries to make observational or causal or spiritual claims about how the world works, doesn’t work or ought to work. Emotions do not exist in an intellectual or cognitive vacuum, even if they can be evoked through contentless form. Emotions and moods combine with and encourage ideas, values, and judgments. They work in tandem because that’s what makes up human perception. Philosophers have long understood this and many of them (Plato) hold that form is a necessary subordinate to content, or vice-versa.

    That is not to say there aren’t examples of film that more closely resemble other art-forms than narrative. That anyone would TRY to explain Malick’s To The Wonder is surprising to me. Kubrick’s 2001 is probably the best example of film-art that may or may not be about the narrative’s relationship to the form. Take away the story and dialogue, however sparse, and you don’t have a film or movie as we all understand it — you have some not so “moving” pictures.

  10. Peek 824545301

    I completely agree with this article, and for these reasons David Lynch is my favorite living director. I saw once, I think in the “Lynch” documentary, that much of “Inland Empire” was merely a collection of stuff that he thought would be “cool” to film. I think people forget far too often that, more than anything, film is an art form. People like Georges Méliès and Luis Buñuel did away with the novel and cheap appeal of cinema as mere entertainment at the turn of the 20th century, and over a hundred years later, it seems like people once again need to be reminded.

    I do think, however, that approaching the film in an non-interpretive sense is also an intellectual pursuit as much as attempting to discern meaning, just harder for general audiences to appreciate. I wonder though, do you consider the writer/director/cinematographer/etc. to be an authority(authorities) on their own works? If a director said point-blank, “this film was all about x, and thinking about y or z is totally wrong,” would that really make y or z any less correct than x?

    Great read, solid writing!

  11. Personally I prefer an approach much more geared toward logos but ultimately under a model where all psychological functions have their place. I think that what you’re noticing is not thinking; it’s an overabundance of intuition, because the people that you have cited are looking at so many possibilities without questioning if the possibility has a basis in reality. This produces an unfortunate effect which looks like head-in-the-sand syndrome.

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