In 1964, Susan Sontag’s seminal essay “Against Interpretation” was published in Evergreen Review. Not long before, the Cold War reached its peak with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“What the overemphasis on the idea of content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation,” Sontag wrote. “And, conversely, it is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art.”
Later on in the essay, after attacking the emphasis on the creation of content in a work of art via interpretation, Sontag named a few artists who have had content wrestled from their works:
“Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Rilke, Lawrence, Gide . . . one could go on citing author after author; the list is endless of those around whom thick encrustations of interpretation have taken hold. But it should be noted that interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality. Thus, in the notes that Elia Kazan published on his production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it becomes clear that, in order to direct the play, Kazan had to discover that Stanley Kowalski represented culture, while Blanche Du Bois was Western civilization, poetry, delicate apparel, dim lighting, refined feelings, and all, though a little the worse for wear to be sure. Tennessee Williams’ forceful psychological melodrama now became intelligible: it was about something, about the decline of western civilization. Apparently, were it to go on being a play about a handsome brute named Stanley Kowalski and a faded mangy belle named Blanche Du Bois, it would not be manageable.”
Sontag responded to this desire for content with her own desire—a greater respect for each artform’s formal qualities. The interpretation of a film that you constructed with your friends at a coffee shop after the movie was not an uncovering of the film’s content—it was a creation entirely your own, your own product. The “work of art” is merely itself; the thoughts and feelings watching the film produces, inside the movie theater, are what the work consists of.
Describing Last Year At Marienbad, Sontag wrote (in the same essay), “What matters in Marienbad is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form.” The interpretations of Marienbad may have been wildly divergent, and, in some cases, more complex than the film itself, but the immediate experience of watching the film could not be discredited or invalidated (and was the only thing that couldn’t be). What is important to remember is not that Sontag was prizing the film’s formal, stylistic techniques above all else, but that it was in the process of watching the film, when those formal techniques are working their hardest upon the viewer, that the film’s essential “content” could be revealed.
In the beginning of his review for No Country For Old Men (published November 9th, 2007), A.O. Scott wrote: “the most lasting impression left by this film is likely to be the deep satisfaction that comes from witnessing the nearly perfect execution of a difficult task.” This “difficult task” is not anything that is executed in the film itself; rather, it is the stylistic mastery exerted by the filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen. He continued:
“No Country for Old Men is purgatory for the squeamish and the easily spooked. For formalists—those moviegoers sent into raptures by tight editing, nimble camera work and faultless sound design—it’s pure heaven. So before I go any further, allow me my moment of bliss at the sheer brilliance of the Coens’ technique. And it is mostly theirs. The editor, Roderick Jaynes, is their longstanding pseudonym. The cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and the composer, Carter Burwell, are collaborators of such long standing that they surely count as part of the nonbiological Coen fraternity. At their best, and for that matter at their less than best, Joel and Ethan Coen, who share writing and directing credit here, combine virtuosic dexterity with mischievous high spirits, as if they were playing Franz Liszt’s most treacherous compositions on dueling banjos.”
Scott was not the only critic significantly impressed by the Coens’ technique. “While brandishing the brothers’ customary wit and impeccable craftsmanship, pic possesses the vitality and invention of top-drawer 1970s American filmmaking, quite an accomplishment these days,” wrote Variety’s Todd McCarthy. “In addition to the pared down dialogue, pic is marked by silences, wind-inflected ones to be found naturally in the empty expanses of the West, as well as breathlessly suspenseful interior interludes.”
Scott Foundas, writing for The Village Voice, noted that “The mechanics of No Country for Old Men recall those of a vintage film noir—as gripping and mordantly funny a treatise on the corrosive power of greed as The Killing and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre were before it. In terms of filmmaking and storytelling craft, it is a work destined to be studied in film schools for generations to come, from the threatening beauty of cinematographer Roger Deakins’s O’Keefe-like images to what is surely the most pulse-raising scene of motel-room suspense since Marion Crane took her fateful shower. There isn’t a moment here that feels false, less than fully considered, or outside of the Coens’ control.”
Even Roger Ebert, not a critic known for his analyses of the formal aspects of the medium, wrote that, “This movie is a masterful evocation of time, place, character, moral choices, immoral certainties, human nature and fate. It is also, in the photography by Roger Deakins, the editing by the Coens and the music by Carter Burwell, startlingly beautiful, stark and lonely.”
Note that, in the vast majority of these reviews, the amount of content discussed is sparse, and when discussed, the comments are repetitive and reeking of platitude: the film is about “the corrosive power of greed.” It’s about “both hunter and hunted, members of some endangered species trying to forestall their extinction.” “A literate meditation on America’s bloodlust for the easy fix.” The more reviews one reads, the more one sees the same half-baked “interpretations” recycled over and over, nothing more than pseudo-intellectual musings that could’ve been found as pull-quotes on the back of Cormac McCarthy’s source-material novel. Maybe A.O. Scott had it right after all: “the minutes fly by,” he wrote at the end of his review, “leaving behind some unsettling notions about the bloody, absurd intransigence of fate and the noble futility of human efforts to master it.” Sounds pretty heavy! But? “Mostly, though, No Country for Old Men leaves behind the jangled, stunned sensation of having witnessed a ruthless application of craft.” Fair enough. Just to recap: Scott is basically saying that there are some unsettling notions that get raised during the course of the film, but at the end of the day, this is a movie about being afraid of, and breathlessly anticipating, who is going to shoot whom next.
It was somewhat shocking for me to see the film after having read one glowing review after another. “No Country for Old Men,” I thought to myself, “is basically a highly stylized, masterfully crafted B-movie.” Dread mounted as the National Board of Review named it the Best Picture of the Year. That was just the beginning of the flood of awards the film has so far received.
At first, I wondered if all this was a reaction to a dearth of stylistically gifted filmmakers. Were we really so starved for formal expertise? Is the lack of such filmmakers so great that we would surrender all Top Ten lists and Best Picture awards to No Country? This doesn’t seem like a realistic hypothesis. As New York-based film critic Vadim Rizov pointed out in a recent op-ed for the Tisch Film Review, what we’re seeing more and more of today are directors whose formal skills greatly outweigh what they plan to say with their films.
There’s no question that it’s easier to appreciate formal excellence than ideological insightfulness. Formal skill is something sensed immediately, whereas a film that displays an equal impressiveness in terms of its content can be more difficult to appreciate (see: Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, practically every other masterpiece that was initially panned). Yes, as a matter of fact, is there not something a bit suspicious about a film that is so instantly loved by a seemingly unanimous critical body? What is going on here?
There is a certain pleasure a critic takes in extolling a film with total self-assurance; watching No Country, there couldn’t have been a doubt in any critic’s mind about the “ruthless application of craft,” as Scott put it. While a stunning display of craft is certainly noteworthy, it is something that must be measured amongst the other aspects of the film. No Country is well-made, but what is it about, really? It represents mythic themes—Good, Evil, Violence, Greed, et cetera—but represents them in such a broad manner as to preclude itself from making any genuinely original or startling insights. On a visceral level, it’s a great thrill ride, but is it the best film of the year? The fifth best? The tenth, even?
In his essay “Hot Air Gods,” published in the December 2007 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Curtis White argued that the American concept of belief, once a founding column of American values, has reached such a level of plurality as to negate itself. The essay begins with the idea that in America, “belief doesn’t have to make sense in order to carry legitimacy…What we require of a belief is not that it make sense, but that it be sincere.” This begins in relation to religion, but quickly branches out in American society to cover any/all areas where one can find ideology. White mentions the program “This I Believe,” broadcast on NPR, where “we can learn that belief is about the little things in life, like Jell-O.” Belief has reached a level of utter triviality.
Slavoj Žižek has tackled the same issue throughout his extensive body of work. He’s noted that the defining conflict of the 20th century was an ideological conflict—the Cold War. As such, “content” was given a primacy in all realms of culture—we were fighting a war of ideology, of capitalism versus communism. These are the conditions that enable the conditions of criticism Sontag is railing against (emphasis on a work’s content/ideology above all else). In what may become one of his defining works, the short essay “Passion In The Era Of Decaffeinated Belief,” Zizek explains what has replaced the ideological conflict that dominated the 20th century.
Zizek depicts the key paradigm of contemporary conflict to be between the “civilized” West and “barbaric” Middle East. For some militant Islamic Fundamentalists, beliefs are so important that they are worth sacrificing one’s life for. As Westerners, we view the sacrificing of one’s life for something as petty as a belief to be “barbaric.” In our civilized Western world, we are “above” belief. We have culture instead. In this culture, Zizek writes:
“Religion is permitted—not as a substantial way of life, but as a particular “culture” or, rather, life-style phenomenon: what legitimizes it is not its immanent truth-claim but the way it allows us to express our innermost feelings and attitudes. We no longer “really believe,” we just follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores as part of the respect for the “life-style” of the community to which we belong (recall the proverbial non-believing Jew who obeys kosher rules “out of respect for tradition”). “I do not really believe in it, it is just part of my culture” effectively seems to be the predominant mode of the disavowed/displaced belief characteristic of our times: what is a “cultural life-style” if not the fact that, although we do not believe in Santa Claus, there is a Christmas tree in every house and even in public places every December? Perhaps, then, “culture” is the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without “taking them seriously.”“
And later on—perhaps the key paragraph:
“On today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol… And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare, the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics, up to today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of Other deprived of its Otherness (the idealized Other who dances fascinating dances and has an ecologically sound holistic approach to reality, while features like wife beating remain out of sight…)? Along the same lines, what the Politically Correct tolerance is giving us is a decaffeinated belief: a belief which does not hurt anyone and does not fully commit even ourselves.”
Coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol; how about form without content? Is this not the direction that we are headed in? “Ultimately,” White writes in his Harper’s salvo, “our beliefs become just another form of what the media call ’content.’ A book is a sales unit. What’s in the book is content, which is a matter of utter indifference to the people who are responsible for moving product. Our religious content soon becomes indistinguishable from our financial content and our entertainment content and our sports content, just as the sections of your local newspaper attest. In short, belief becomes a culture-commodity.”
Reading White’s essay, I first thought of Zizek’s work, then recalled the effusive critical praise of No Country. The critical reaction to the Coen Brothers’ film was symptomatic of the same kind of post-ideological shifting that Zizek referred to in his numerous examples—it was symptomatic of criticism shifting its emphasis from content to form, from dominance over the work of art through interpretation to submissiveness beneath the work’s formal powers. To submit to a film’s aesthetic workings without thinking about what those workings imply, as Scott so happily did, is to turn off the critical faculties of one’s mind. It is the same kind of turning-off that allows propaganda films, which can contain reprehensible content but gorgeous stylization, to work so powerfully.
Whether critical reception’s shift of interest from content to form has happened already, or is currently beginning, I can’t surmise here. Certainly some critics have always had such an interest, but that all critics seemed to hold these views in relation to No Country is notable; is this not symptomatic of something larger, a significant shift? Would this same film have had the same reception twenty or thirty years ago, when the critical emphasis on formalism was not nearly as strong?
Sitting in a bar a few weeks ago, Vadim and I got to talking about Richard Linklater. He said that Dazed and Confused was his favorite Linklater film. “Why that one?” I asked. “Because,” Vadim replied, “there isn’t a single bad decision made in it.” Vadim’s comment did not refer to the film’s characters, who all smoke, drink, and drive their way through the last day of school in a small Texas town. He was referring to Linklater’s decision-making, the formal and aesthetic choices relating to mise en scene, camera movement, edits, et cetera. There’s nothing wrong with emphasizing these decisions—as a matter of fact, they make up the core of what we call “filmmaking”—but there is something wrong with privileging them over the content of a film. Formal prowess is only significant when it is viewed in conjunction with a film’s content; as Jean-Luc Godard once said, form and content are “like the inside and outside of the body, separate but together.” What Vadim seemed to be saying was that he’d take a “perfectly made” film with a conventional storyline and thematic content (say, a film about two people who meet, seem to be awful for one another, but bond over a common goal and become a couple in the end) over a formally flawed film about something more significant—say, the contemporary relationship between the media, the government and the populace.
Now, there’s no reason to think that the film about the government should be automatically privileged (for God’s sake, it could be Lions For Lambs), but it is probable that the film about the government might be more important than the love story. It’s not as well made, and so it will probably not display as much interesting formal technique, but it certainly might come off as far more important in terms of What It Is Saying About America Right Now. Even if its own socio-political analysis is not very good, the fact that it is making socio-political analysis at all can be interesting, and the analysis, even though it might not be insightful, can be read as symptomatic of how issues/conflicts x, y, and z are represented in contemporary times.
There is also a darker way to look at the difference. What if the more stylistic filmmaker chooses to make a film that is not a love story, but a work of praise for a fierce dictator? (Of course, no one is going to be swayed over to sympathy for a dictator they’ve already learned to hate, but perhaps this particular dictator is largely unknown to the American public.) In the movie, he’s played by a big star! So here the Leni Riefenstahl argument comes in.
The reasoning above is an oversimplification, but the point remains: content matters. It’s not something that only becomes notable when it is fiercely polemical. To privilege formal decisions over what the film is “about” (like what Vadim did with Dazed and Confused) is to refer to a film’s content with the same disregard as the book publishers who White criticizes in his Harper’s essay. It is to discount the important critical question of whether or not what a film is saying is correct (in the estimation of that critic), and instead give all content a free pass, like those Americans White criticizes who care not what you believe in, as long as your belief is sincere.
Susan Sontag was correct when she argued against excessive interpretation of artistic work, a smothering practice that often “killed” the mystery, the essence of those works. However, the critical practice of ignoring content entirely would be just as problematic. Sontag was polemical for form, but she would have been just as upset if she had seen critics go so far in the opposite direction.
Zachary Wigon studies Film Production and Comparative Literature at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he is the editor of the film studies publication, the Tisch Film Review. In addition to writing and directing short films, he also writes film criticism for FilmCatcher and maintains a cultural theory blog, Between Fear & Commitment.