Sunday 24 April 2011

Subtext creep

In my tutorials I sometimes experiment a bit. I will show a film clip for a set of students, "explaining" it for them before showing it, and then afterwards ask for their take on it. Then I will show the same clip for another set of students, not telling them anything about it in advance, maybe just explain the plot, and then afterwards ask these students for their take on it. The results are almost always strikingly different. In short, if I tell them to look for certain things, they will talk about those things afterwards, and sometimes quoting my own introduction almost word for word, without seeming to realise it. If I do not tell them anything they will either say nothing, or analyse it freely. In this way, I can also make the same scene become, for example, either demeaning to women or a feminist statement, depending upon my introduction to it. This is in itself interesting but it is no reflection upon the students, because they are very good. It says little about them, but rather it says something about us humans in general, and also about films and how they work. It shows how we are influenced by the task at hand, a sort of groupthink, and how films invariably are so complex that you could, with more or less vivid imagination, make any film out to mean anything.

In Field of Dreams (1989), the voice Ray Kinsella hears famously says "If you build it, he will come." When interpreting films (or any art work) the voice seems to say "If you look for it, you will find it." If you are looking for something in particular, chances are that you will find it, regardless of whether it is there or not. You see this all the time, in authorship studies, in feminist studies, in genre studies, in race studies, in queer studies and so on and so forth. This is what I would like to call subtext creep, inspired by the concept of mission creep. Mission creep is the idea that once you have begun a project (particularly military operations) it inevitably escalates in different ways, becoming more costly, time-consuming and elaborate. In cinema studies, what I mean with subtext creep is that the subtext, or meaning or message, you are looking for becomes more or less ubiquitous and can obliterate all other potential, and potentially contradictory, subtexts, and that whatever subtexts is the focus of the study will inevitably be "discovered". You might develop selective blindness, becoming unable, or unwilling, to see other possibilities or other interpretations. This can (and does) happen in most fields of cinema studies. Possibly most scholars have at some point made the same mistakes, myself included.

There are several problems involved with this. It is easy to make generalised statements about things that are not really there, or making it out that all films are the same. There are a lot of problematic representations (conscious or unconscious) of Hispanics in American cinema, with films being condescending and even racist. Should I go looking for anti-Hispanic sentiments in American cinema I could, if I wanted to, find it in any film, even those that made no reference to Hispanics whatsoever, because I could argue that it would be a case of ignoring them, making them invisible. But by making all American films out to be anti-Hispanic (because clearly they cannot be) I would belittle the real problems, the really problematic films, and make the analysis less nuanced, or perhaps without any kind of nuance. Subtext creep is problematic enough when it happens in the study of genres, authors and movements but it is when talking about politics, such as representations of minorities, that it becomes a really serious problem.

So these two things go hand in hand, the ease by which you can sway people that a certain scene means a certain thing, and the dangers of finding the thing that you are looking for, only because you are looking for it, not because it is necessarily there. I once read an essay that said that all war films have a gay subtext. Yes, that all war films have a gay subtext. One might wonder why stop at war films, why not just say that all films have a gay subtext.

The point is not to stop looking for subtexts. Some go in the opposite direction and denies or ridicules any possible subtext. When Brokeback Mountain (2005) came out many critics said that this was the first western with a gay theme. That is obviously not true, many a western do have a gay subtext. So, we should explore and interpret subtexts, but stay clear of subtext creep. To step back, to calm down, not fall victims to groupthink (it is possible even as a lone person to succumb to a solitary equivalent of groupthink), but instead question what you watch, what you read and what the lecturer tells you. Even if, for example, a particular scene seems to suggest a certain meaning, how does it compare with the rest of the film? And if you always find what you are looking for, do not nod your head and think "Just what I thought!" but shake your head and think "Is this really plausible?"

I sometimes wonder about this obsession with subtexts. For one thing, it seems to me that sometimes what is called subtext might actually be just the text. Some studies of Douglas Sirk's films are examples of this confusion. I think that the hunt for subtexts sometimes stems from a conspiratorial state of mind, and sometimes because of a mistaken belief that it is subtext that makes for artistic and intellectual legitimacy.

2014-10-22 Some grammatical changes have been made.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Derek Jarman + Pet Shop Boys

Music videos, despite having been a vibrant art form for several decades, have been almost completely absent from my blog and I feel embarrassed. But time to remedy this. Since these are busy days at work I don't have time to write much now, but I will just share the videos that Derek Jarman did with Pet Shop Boys. Pet Shop Boys's music and projects have been more important to me than most artists or writers so they need to be acknowledged, and Derek Jarman is of course one of the key filmmakers in Britain, and in queer cinema. There are three videos, with songs from the album Actually (1987), It's a sin, Rent and King's Cross (a particular favourite).

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Niklasons - Hasse Ekman goes sitcom

One of the most long-lived and prominent of TV-genres is the sitcom. The history of sitcoms go back almost to the beginning of mass media, and was popular on radio before it came to TV. BBC's Pinwright's Progress that came out right after the second world war, the first episode was shown November 29, 1946, is sometimes called the first sitcom for TV. After that there was no stopping it, especially not after the phenomenal success of the American I Love Lucy (1951-1957, which then continued under different names until 1960.) To Sweden, native sitcoms came rather late, but it should come as no surprise that when it finally arrive Hasse Ekman directed the first one, Niklasons (1965). It is remarkable how close to the formula it sticks, while at the same time, already in the first episode, it is full of key Ekman themes.

The sitcom (situation comedy) is often defined as a TV-series based on 25 minutes long sequences and where each episode stands on its own. It is meant to be funny, the humour arising from ordinary day-to-day events. At the centre of the set is often a sofa, and a staircase is lurking in the back. So it is in Niklasons. It is about a middle class family of four; father, mother, daughter and son. The father is a newspaper columnist, the mother a house wife, the daughter a grown-up teenager and the son around 10, with a very mature and self-righteous disposition. It is amiable enough, and probably captures rather well a Swedish middle class outlook in the mid-60s. It was an ambitious undertaking, with two of the greatest stars in Swedish cinema for most of the post-war era, Sickan Carlsson and Karl-Arne Holmsten, playing the parents. It was also a unique co-production between the large, and usually competitive, film production companies SF and Sandrews, working together with SVT, Swedish Television.

What is interesting for me with regard to my thesis is that in the first episode mother Niklason is taking Spanish lessons, because it is a global language and when she can speak it "the whole of South America is open to us, a whole continent." (this of course forgets that they speak Portuguese in Brazil...). She also explains to her children that when they grow old, she and her husband would like to move somewhere warm and pleasant. What is funny about this is that in almost every single film Ekman has done, this is always what the main characters feels. South America is called the promised land over and over again, as they either talk about it, or go there. (Or at least Spain.) That Ekman felt strongly about this himself is obvious, considering he moved to Spain in 1964 and never moved back. That means that he had technically retired from filmmaking when he was asked to do Niklasons, but he came up from Spain, shot it, and then went back again.

Another typical thing about Niklasons from an Ekman perspective is the meta elements. The family is obsessed by a TV-series called Forsman blir överläkare (Forsman becomes ward doctor or something like that), which seems to be awful and pretentious. The star of that series, doctor Forsman, is played by Ekman as the most conceited, pompous and self-righteous man on TV, who gets to kiss every nurse in sight, and performs miraculous deeds, saving Sweden and Swedes from illness and death. It is very funny, and very appealing.

Genre definitions are often problematic, since they generalise and simplify things, sometimes to the extent of making them pointless. This is true for TV as well as for film of course. The definition I gave above of sitcoms is not really relevant, since plenty of sitcoms are not like that. Another more broad definition is that sitcoms are comedies based around the family and the work-place, and by that definition it covers a large variety of shows and series. It might not be particularly interesting to analyse as a general subject, since it covers hundreds of series over several decades. So while Niklasons is unquestionably a sitcom, that is just a starting point. It can be discussed from the perspective of gender, ideology, authorship, finance, industry, sociology, all aspects potentially enlightening and revealing. I will not do that now of course, but an essay on Niklasons is warranted.
This post was upgraded and corrected on 2015-02-18