Interpreting the Moving Image
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1998.
ISBN 0 521 58039 0 (cloth) ISBN 0 521 58970 3 (paper),
Uploaded 18 December 1998
This collection of Noël Carroll’s critical writings stands as a companion to his 1996 collection of theoretical essays, Theorizing the Moving Image. It contains 24 essays published between 1973 and 1990 in anthologies and journals such as Millenium Film Journal, Artforum, and Persistence of Vision. Carroll is well known as one of the most prolific writers on film to come from a background of Anglo-American aesthetic philosophy (a field which includes writers such as Arthur Danto and Kendall Walton, and which is increasingly making itself felt in cinema studies through websites such as the Film-Philosophy Electronic Salon.) Carroll is most closely associated with the cognitivist theories of David Bordwell (with whom he co-edited the 1996 anthology Post-theory.) He is perhaps best known for a strong hostility towards psychoanalytic film theory, although he has also written a very fine book critiquing the theories of Arnheim, Bazin and Perkins.
One of the strengths of Carroll’s theoretical work has always been his insistence on explaining ideas clearly and importing a healthy degree of scepticism into the field so that theoretical claims must be examined for the internal logic of their premisses and held up against competing explanations and counter-examples. We might expect that this volume will provide us with an opportunity to assess the critical uses to which Carroll’s theoretical positions can be put. The news on this front is rather mixed as the anthology contains a number of very old pieces which bear only slight relation to his most interesting work. (Indeed, Carroll’s reliance up until the mid-1980s on Freudian psychoanalysis as a preferred explanatory model gives sections of this book the fascination of catching a televangelist steeping himself in sin before his conversion.) Another problem with some of these early essays is the use of an interpretive model of film as reflection of broad social trends – for example Chaplin representing “a heightened degree of social alienation,” or King Kong as a reflection of “social anxieties.” This is not so much to dispute these interpretations, as to point out that we might expect them to be argued with a greater degree of historical specificity in contemporary critical studies.
If, however, we are to value the book for its positive achievements, there are a number of quite rich and interesting essays which ground individual films and filmmakers within what one might call a historical poetics (this is particularly important for the essays on American avant-garde film where the connections of films to movements within a New York-dominated artworld are often opaque) and which then relate these larger historical contexts to fine-grained stylistic and narrational detail in films. A good example of the latter is to be found in the two essays on Buster Keaton, the first of which looks at the logic of his humour and supplies a cognitive explanation of this, rather than one drawn from Freud or Bergson (though there are clear areas of overlap). The following essay extends this by considering the ways in which the stylistic choices employed by Keaton are suited to the structure of his humour and can be related to its effective communication to an audience. Thus, Keaton’s preference for long shots is well suited to situations in which the audience needs to form a different view of the state of events from that of the character. The payoff to this form of criticism is in the way it produces a kind of craft knowledge which demystifies filmmaking, by pointing to tangible processes and ideas which generate the complex surfaces of films. A key essay here is one dealing with Citizen Kane, which examines contending interpretations and ends by adding its own based on the idea that interpretations do not necessarily have to do with what a film means, but that they can also usefully point to how a film means.
This critical interest in how films mean is clearly at the heart of Carroll’s interest in avant-garde film (which poses the question more or less explicitly), but he also brings it to bear on mainstream narrative and the art cinema. A case in point is the essay on Werner Herzog, which begins by likening him to Terence Malick in the commercial cinema and Stan Brakhage in the avant-garde. Herzog is a filmmaker whose works are often celebrated in terms of a transcendent spirituality. Carroll sets out to suggest specific thematic, narrational and stylistic motifs which recur throughout Herzog’s films and suggest this interpretive outcome. Carroll is liable to two forms of attack here. The first would be that he goes too far and reduces the ineffable and the spiritual to a set of formal techniques. The second (and more academic) criticism would be that he does not go far enough in the way that he suggests the films are formally and thematically unified rather than ideologically fissured and contradictory in the way they relate to a wider social world where questions of race and gender are held to be paramount. My defence of Carroll would be in terms of the question which motivates his criticism here, which is something along the lines of: how do filmmakers produce the effects and meanings we attribute to their films? No doubt this question has its limitations – films may produce effects which neither audiences nor producers attribute to them – but for those of us who work with filmmakers, aspiring filmmakers and audiences keen to make sense of their experiences, it is still an extremely valuable question to ask.