Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Evolution of Stories and The Importance of Reading into Things

If you are one of the few people who read this blog on a regular basis (assuming there are people who do), you'll notice I've been posting less frequently as of late. That is because I'm back at school starting what I suppose is my junior (3rd) year (there is some dispute over this) and it's pretty darn intense. Regardless, I have designated this as my "Japan year" in that a great many of the courses I am taking this academic year are centred around Japan. This has been quite interesting so far, because I'm beginning to realize just how little about Japan I actually know. I mean, I feel it is not presumptuous to assume that I know more about Japan than the average joe who isn't an East Asian Studies specialist, but since I am one of those, I'm a bit disappointed at my lack of knowledge.

The original poster for Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon.
Anyway, one such course I'm taking that is very interesting indeed is my Japanese cinema studies course, in which we analyze and dissect such monumental Japanese films as . . . well, only Rashomon so far -- it's only the third week. I imagine some of you reading this may have seen Akira Kurosawa's breakthrough hit Rashomon at some point or another. For those of you who haven't, it's a staple of Japanese cinema; if you like Japanese stuff you probably should have seen it by now. After watching the film and doing some readings, we were asked in our tutorial to dissect the film and explore its various meanings on different levels. These levels were based on a text we read by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson called Film Art.

The cover of Film Art: An Introduction
If you're a film student, cinema studies major, or just someone who knows a lot about film, you may be quite familiar with these folks. For the rest of us, Film Art is an in-depth breakdown of the art of film, discussing the various shots and rules and ways of deciphering the meaning of any given film, among other things. Long story short, there are several ways of reading a film's plot and form that uncover a lot of interesting subtext. I'll go more into detail about this when I post my breakdown of Rashomon based on this template, likely this weekend because I'll probably have time to do it then.

Popular screen capture from Neon Genesis: Evangelion (I think I have a wall scroll of this somewhere). 
Regardless, after watching the film and doing all this reading, we were assigned a one-page report explaining what we thought of all this stuff -- it was pretty flexible. Originally I didn't know what to write about, but after talking to a fellow classmate who casually suggested that our professor (Eric Cazdyn) might have been reading a bit too much into things, the gears began turning. I thought to myself, Is there really such a thing as reading too much into something? In short, I suppose there is, but are all these film scholars and analysts really just "digging for fool's gold," as it were? Is there actually an underlying message to any film or book, aside from what was originally written or presented?

After thinking long and hard and watching a certain video from PBS's Idea Channel on YouTube, I reached my conclusion, which was, in short -- It doesn't matter! I now present my one-page response here for your reading pleasure . . .

It had never occurred to me that the perceptions of a film’s audience could actually transcend the filmmaker’s original intent. Naturally a film requires an audience in order to be viewed and experienced, but I had scarcely considered the importance and effects of that audience’s projections on the film itself. Throughout my time in academia, public school included, many of my peers voiced (and still voice) annoyance or disdain towards "overanalyzing" such things as films, plays, or various printed media with clear narratives.

At a younger age I simply assumed that "reading into" things was natural for "smart people" -- the sort of person I’d inevitably become with enough schooling. For example, after reading Hamlet in high school, we students were asked to analyze the work through a class-wide discussion.  I remember thinking, “All right, I know Hamlet. It’s a story about a guy who is angry at his uncle and mother because his uncle killed his father to become the king and his mother just seemed really complacent about the whole thing.” (I suppose this would be a "referential" analysis, according to Bordwell and Thompson.) Later I remember being overwhelmed by all the themes and subtext that my teacher was able to pull out of the work. Surely my English teacher could not have pulled all that stuff out of thin air, but I simply had no idea where all those ideas came from. How was one to know?

My initial and unfortunate reaction to all this was cynicism – was Shakespeare really thinking about all that stuff when he wrote Hamlet? I doubted it and I was frustrated that I too could not see beyond the narrative. In all honesty, though, I suppose I still doubt that Shakespeare was so meticulous, but I feel now after reading the readings that maybe that was never really the point. It’s not so much about what is inherently there or what isn't there, but in fact what can be inferred, what can be seen by those who dare to pry.  

I recently watched an online video on PBS’s Idea Channel (a Youtube channel) about the popular Japanese animation series Neon Genesis: Evangelion, titled "Does it Matter What Evangelion’s Creator Says?" The segment discusses the various themes and meanings that have been inferred by watchers and fans of the series and contrasts it with the creator of the series Anno Hideaki’s claim that there is no deeper meaning to the series and that all it was intended to be was a story about young people fighting monsters with mechanical suits. The video asks this question: if so many people are analyzing this series beyond its "referential" (i.e., its most straightforward) meaning and writing entire dissertations on the series’ "implicit" and "symptomatic" meanings (underlying themes and subtext, in other words), then does it really matter what Anno says? After all, the series was meant to be watched and reflected on.

The conclusion I have come to (at least for now) after reading the text is that it doesn't really matter what the creator thinks, since a film requires audience interaction in order to achieve its complete experience. The film is made; the audience sees it and discusses it, writes about it, and makes certain claims regarding its "deeper meanings." This discourse then becomes a part of the film’s greater experience. For example, say you want to watch a film that many people have already seen and studied. Chances are you've heard about it from a friend, and since you were interested in it, you've probably done some research on it. As a result of your research you will have become aware of popular notions concerning the film’s themes as perceived by viewers who have already seen it. When you finally watch the film for yourself, you can’t help but notice certain themes or subtexts that may not have been initially apparent to many viewers when the work was new. In a sense you’re seeing an evolution of the original film brought on by audiences such as yourself. Thus the work becomes something new, virtually independent of those who initially conceived it!              

So there you have it. You don't have to agree with me, but I certainly thought it was an interesting topic of discussion, which is why I stuck it up here. For anyone who is interested in checking out the video I referenced, here it is!   

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