Apropos of some recent discussion on the blogosphere about whether a certain comedy film is a not-so-veiled endorsement of a kind of social conservatism, I think that this quote, taken from an essay written by the late great Serge Daney, entitled “The Critical Function”, really seems to hit the spot. I’m not ‘against’ interpretation (like my girl Susie Sontag claimed to be), because frankly it’s an inevitable aspect of artistic discourse; but as Daney points out in this quote, a critical ‘reading’ of a film is never the correct reading of the film: it’s merely a reading. Digging in a film for latent significations is all well and good, but what a film does is just as fertile a ground for inquiry as is what a film says.
Daney’s criticism is really exciting stuff to read because he never restricts his approach to treating films as texts, as designed assemblages of signifiers that congeal in order to produce meaning, whether that meaning be political, psychological, philosophical, etc. Daney was more interested in asking questions about subjects (films, television, tennis, politics) than in claiming to have discovered the answers to those questions before they’d even been asked (in other words, for the critic, as well as for the artist, questioning is often more important, or at least primary, than answering); he understood that cinema is but one thing of millions upon millions of things that interact in order to produce the world as we think we know it, and so an investigation of cinema could just as easily begin with the question “what function does this film serve?” as it could with the question “what does this film mean?” I think that this attitude at least partly accounts for why, despite the intellectual milieu he was working both with and against, Daney was so concerned with the implications of cinematic spectatorship and the then-emerging national cinemas in the Third World. Anyway, enough of me:
“The fact is that the question of signification, taken by itself, is a meaningless one, of no concern to anyone. In Cahiers itself, the battle cry has been: ‘You don’t see a film. You read it.’ Fine. But this reading, this search for ‘discrete elements’ here, for bits of information there, wouldn’t serve much purpose (except as fodder for academic rumination, as sustenance for semiologists) if one didn’t know what it is that happens on the side of the receiver. The critic must be able to read a film: he or she must also know how the others, the non-readers, read. And there is just one way to find out: by inquiry. For it is a question not only of reintroducing the receiver into communication theory, not in the abstract sense (the general public) nor even in the concrete sense (a given social group or individual); but of remembering that the receiver is also something other than a receiver. Just like the film he is seeing, he is involved in the class struggle, he plays a part in it. And it is on the basis of this struggle, and the turns it takes, that the problem of positivity, as it affects all films, can be posed (for whom? against whom?); on the basis of this struggle too that one can begin to reply.” (Serge Daney, “The Critical Function”)