Monday, September 18, 2017

Interpretive levels

This is a prequel to a post on "A Reforming Catholic Confession". As I was thinking about it, it raised a number of preliminary questions.

i) Because Christianity is a bookish religion, centered on biblical revelation, hermeneutics is a central feature of Christianity. The interpretation of a text. That, in turn, gives rise to creeds. And, of course, that continues the interpretive process inasmuch as creeds must be interpreted. However, interpretation is a broad concept:

i) A. L. Rowse was an interpreter of Shakespeare. Likewise, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud were interpreters of Shakespeare. Yet actors are interpreters in a different sense than commentators. The task of a commentator is to ascertain the original meaning of the text. 

By contrast, the task of an actor is to project the psychology of the character. To some degree an actor tries to get inside the role, to understand the part, but acting isn't exegesis in the usual sense.

ii) It can be interesting to watch different actors play the same role, in Shakespeare, or Sherlock Holmes, or James Bond, or whatever, precisely because different actors interpret the same role differently. That can be a virtue in acting, but that's not necessarily a virtue in exegesis, since the object of exegesis is not variety, but the correct interpretation. 

iii) And, of course, there are different kinds of acting. Some actors are more external. Some actors disappear into the part. They are very different from one role to the next. Other actors have a consistent persona which they bring to every part. People like to see the image they project. For some performers, the role is a vehicle for the actor while for other performers, the actor is a vehicle for the role.

iv) When playing a fictional character, the text or script may be the only standard of comparison. But when playing a historical figure, the real person is another standard of comparison. Some actors read biographies or autobiographies about a historical character to approximate what he was really like. But some actors don't. George C. Scott was the same in every role. He didn't imitate Patton. Rather, he played the role as if Patton was George C. Scott! Another actor might do it in reverse.

iv) Sometimes a role is written with a particular performer in mind. Peter Grimes was written for Peter Pears. Later, Jon Vickers reprised the role. Vickers had a much greater dynamic and emotional range than Pears. Even though it wasn't what Benjamin Britten intended, it's a memorable performance that tends to eclipse the singer for whom the role was tailor-made.

v) By the same token, acting is sometimes subversive. When Alec Guinness played George Smiley, he took the role in a different direction than the author envisioned. Guinness is a sympathetic actor who made Smiley a more sympathetic character than the literary exemplar. And it's been said that his performance influenced le Carré to rewrite Smiley to be more like Guinness!  

vi) Many movies are cinematic adaptations of novels. Translating a novel into the cinematic medium is, in itself, an interpretive act. In addition to the actor's interpretation there's the director's interpretation and/or the screenwriter's. And we allow for a degree of artistic license when adapting a novel to the screen. 

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is his personal interpretation of the Passion accounts in the Gospels. And James Caviezel adds his own interpretive layer. 

vii) When actors and directors are interviewed, they are often asked what the movie means or how they prepared for the role. A director is treated as an authoritative interpreter of his own films. 

On the other hand, if you ask David Lynch what Mulholland Dr. means, he might be unable to explain it. Lynch draws heavily on the subconscious. His work isn't analytical in the way many directors are. Mulholland Dr. is like a dream. It has the obscure symbolism of dreams. 

viii) A painter is an interpreter, but what a painting means is different from what a text means. Monet was more of a landscape painter while Renoir was more of a portrait painter, but they sometimes painted the same scene, which makes it interesting to compare and contrast their respective approaches.

ix) There's a distinction between what a text or movie (or painting) means, and what it means to the reader or viewer. It may have a personal significance that's independent of what it objectively means. It may trigger personal associations. 

When I come back to a movie or TV drama, watching it again may remind me of when I first saw it. It takes me back to a particular time and place. Not just the time and place of the movie, but the time and place of the viewer. What was happening in my own life. 

Or a particular scene may have an allegorical significance for me, because I compare it to something in my own experience. That idiosyncratic interpretation isn't what the director intended. He knows nothing about any particular member of the audience. 

Take the opening scene of Mulholland Dr. Floating in darkness, to the haunting, ominous, tragic tune of Badalamenti, with its descending, minor-key scales, the limo cruises down a long lonely road, with glowing taillights, intercut with the city lights of Los Angeles, in vast anonymity. For me that evokes a host of associations that are a code language for particular incidents in my own life. 

x) One function of creeds is to establish a doctrinal standard. A seminary or denomination may require an ordinand or job applicant to subscribe to a particular creed. 

In some denominations, corporate recitation of a creed is part of the liturgy. In my opinion, it's permissible for a parishioner to exercise mental reservations when reciting a creed, if he disagrees with an article of the creed, whereas it would be deceptive for an ordinand or church officer or seminary professor to do so. As a parishioner, I'm at liberty to impute a private meaning to an article of the creed. If I disagree with what "communion of the saints" probably meant, I can mentally substitute my own meaning. 

For exegetical purposes, original intent is generally normative, but how we appropriate a text is different. I'm not bound by what the director had in mind. I can find it significant for my own reasons.

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