We would like to believe that our critical faculties are impartial and that our impressions of the media we consume are a direct result of its inherent quality. We would like to believe that we can sense aesthetic excellence in the same way as we smell burning or taste strawberries but the truth is a good deal more complex. While our culture and neurological make-up certainly train us to expect certain aesthetic benchmarks, much of our reaction comes not from the text but the stuff around it.
At a very basic physiological level, it is quite hard to enjoy a 3D film when you arrive at the cinema with a head-ache only to discover that the cinema’s sound-system is malfunctioning along with its air-conditioning. As we progress past childhood, we learn to make allowances for things likely to affect our moods but it is still incredibly easy to sit through a bad screening of a film and conclude that the film itself is to blame. Conversely, go to see a stupid movie with a bunch of friends who respond to every beat with gales of laughter and you are just as likely to praise the film for that evening’s entertainment as you are your friends.
At a more psychological level, we seldom enter a cinema without baggage. We carry with us a lifetime’s worth of ideas and learned emotional responses that cannot help but influence how we respond to depictions of fictional events. Indeed, the very concept of a Trigger Warning assumes that exposure to images and situations will produce similar emotional responses regardless of whether those situations are real or fictional. We often talk about children becoming ‘desensitised’ to media portrayals of violence and a normal suite of emotional reactions does include the capacity to distinguish between real and fictional contexts but lines are often blurry, slopes are often slippery and the emotions we choose to police are largely a question of cultural norms and individual tastes. For example, while we may learn to endure the unpleasant imagery of horror films in the same way as we learn to endure the sting of spicy food, we are not generally in the habit of distancing ourselves from the emotional payload of comedies or conventional dramas. In fact, some of our most enjoyable artistic experiences happen when an author whose experiences resemble our own manages to connect to the emotional baggage we carry around with us by virtue of being human. Some art is well made, and some just happens to speak directly to us.
It is hardly controversial to suggest that our emotional reaction to a work of art is likely to be coloured by factors external to the text but the same could also be said of more complex critical judgements and the formation of our own interpretations. An excellent (fictional) example of this process can be found in an early episode of The Sopranos when Tony visits his therapist only to accuse her of deliberately planting a picture of a rotting tree. Of course, there is nothing in the painting that would lead us to conclude that the tree is rotten and so we are invited to conclude that it is Tony’s emotional baggage that is encouraging him to ‘see’ a generic painting as somehow inherently bleak. The bleed between our own personal experiences and our interpretation of texts is one of the reasons why I see criticism as a creative rather than a reactive form but the process of interpretation can be ‘gamed’ or deliberately influenced.
The great French director Claude Chabrol began his career as a film critic and so stepped behind the camera with an excellent idea of how critics formed judgements about the films they reviewed. This insight encouraged Chabrol to ‘embellish’ the text of his film by including references to other books and works of art. As Chabrol would later admit, these references were rarely thought-through but Chabrol realised that if he allowed the camera to linger on the cover of a book then some bright critic would invariably take the bait, assume a link between the two texts, and produce a more involved (and flattering) interpretation of his film. This anecdote may paint Chabrol as something of a rogue, but priming audiences for particular interpretations is now absolutely central to the PR process and Hollywood blockbusters will often contain under-developed references to important events (such as 9/11 in the case of J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield, the Occupy movement in the case of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and Afghanistan in the case of Favreau’s Iron Man) in an effort to create the illusion of thematic depth.
Where you stand on these types of interpretative games will, in part, be a function on where you stand on issues such as a the Death of the Author and whether you see works as the sole responsibility of an auteur or something that artist and audience create together as part of a symbiotic relationship. Personally, I tend to shuffle back and forth between the two extremes but I generally think that if a director and a film are to be credited with a particular set of ideas then considerable effort needs to go into developing those ideas within the text of the film. This brings us to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, a Golden Globe-winning Russian film whose title contains almost the entirety of its thematic substance.