Making Meaning Notes

In further explorations of criticism (with an eye towards specifically comics criticism), I’ve been reading (and now rereading) David Bordwell’s Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Harvard, 1989). Bordwell’s primary focus is the process of interpretation in academic film criticism with an eye towards conventional and institutional norms. It is a book of metacriticism on an area of criticism I have very little experience with, so I cannot speak to the validity of Bordwell’s statements beyond what he presents, but I think there this much to be gained from his analysis.

Bordwell looks as criticism as a practical art and an act of problem solving in building up an interpretation from a film. He differentiates multiple types of meaning that are made from a work (film):

1. Referential: This the meaning created by constructing the diegetic world, that is the basic putting together of images/words/sounds/etc to understand the work literally. This can be pulling together the connections between characters in a realistic work of fiction or figuring out the rules of a fantasy or science fiction world. Generally this is an easy process though in some cases this could be very complicated (like Last Year at Marienbad, or perhaps Mulholland Drive).

2. Explicit: This is the direct “message” of a work, the “point.”

Bordwell considers the referential and explicit meanings the “literal” meanings and part of “comprehension.”

3. Implicit: These meanings are more in line with the traditional idea of “theme.” These are indirect, symbolic, hidden, etc.

4 .Symptomatic: These are “repressed”, involuntary meanings, often showing the opposite than the explicit or implicit meaning. Often economic, political, or ideologically based. This is the kind of thing you’ll see where the critic makes the film say something that seems the opposite of what is shown. Heavy Freudian influence.

Bordwell considers the latter types of meaning as part of “interpretation,” which is his primary focus in this book.

He covers a history of interpretation in regards to literature and then film. About half of the book is taken up by a step-by-step examination of interpretation though the lens of academic film criticism.

Semantic Fields: “conceptual structure” for organizing “potential meanings in relation to one another.”

As opposed to theme which is a unifying concept.

Bordwell relates his implicit and symptomatic meanings to two types of criticism, explicatory and symptomatic. Explicatory is the traditional type of thematic discovery. He generalizes this with using semantic fields that are humanistic and based on individual experience, such as suffering, identity, freedom, perception, creativity, good/evil, love/hate, truth/falsity, etc. Symptomatic criticism on the other hand is more social, systematic, and generalizing: power/subjection, desire, law, subject/object, class struggle, nature/culture. This sways more towards the arena of cultural theory.

A popular arena is reflexivity where a film is interpreted to to be about some aspect of film in general.

Types of semantic fields:

Clusters: “semantic overlap” “low degree of implicit contrastiveness” synonyms, family resemblance. theme often fits here

Doublets: binary, antonyms, contrast

Proportional Series: combinations of doublets, often moving from referential opposites to implicit to symptomatic (ie nature/exteriors, life/death, freedom/confinement)

Hierarchies: branching or nonbranching. inclusion/exclusion. graded series: continuous variation on an axis (good girl, good bad girl (appears bad), bad good girl (prostitute redeemed), bad girl) chains: linear sequence on spatial or temporal axis (spring/summer/autumn/winter). could also be the following of a previous narrative (paratext? allegory?)

Mapping schematic fields to cues:

“In practice, critics mix both one-to-many and many-to-one mapping, seeking a balance between explanatory breadth and economy on the one hand and local density on the other. In this mixture criticism attains its particular thickness of conceptual texture. Even gross or banal semantic units become linked or opposed, discriminated, incarnated in various guises, qualified by expressive attributes of image or sound, and come out looking comparatively nuanced.” (130)

On cues:

“It is risky to be innovative in picking out cues. If we want to prove that reel-change marks are worthy vehicles for semantic fields, then we will need at least to show that they have an effect on spectators’ comprehension of the film. (133)

Socially implanted hypotheses on how texts mean: coherence and some relation to the external world. (133)

“There are certain general heuristics that most problem-solvers apply in all domains. There are, for instance, what researchers have called the representativeness heuristic, whereby problem-solvers tend to reduce all inferential tasks to judgments of similarity, and the availability heuristic, whereby solutions are sought among what is most readily accessed in memory. Both are affected by a tacit criterion of vividness, whereby the most sensorily concrete data are given saliency.” (138)

And that’s where my rereading got stalled by other books… so I’m just gonna post this.